When I met with the writers group in Phoenix last month, we decided to read and discuss a craft book and some short stories. For stories, we chose Art of the Story by Daniel Halpern. None of us loved any of the four stories we chose from the book, or the physicality of the book (which was heavy and contained tiny margins). But the more we discussed the stories, the more we found redeeming about them.
Of those of us who read The Art of Description by Mark Doty, this book didn't fare much better. I think this was mainly an issue of expectation on our part. The book is part of a Graywolf series on craft called The Art of.... I have another installment ready to read, The Art of Subtext.
I think our group hoping for a book that would break down the how-to craft in creating description in our work (some of us were poets, some were fiction writers, one did non-fiction), instead of a book of explications on poems that utilized description effectively for image making. And even if that was the rubric, I'm not sure such a lofty goal could be achieved in these small pocket books.
Although I do love Mark Doty in general (his poems, his live readings and the breathtaking book Dog Years) and he is brilliant at mulling over a topic, we wanted more button-down organization here . I felt like the book was mostly comprised of five essays created for other purposes and a clever glossary of ruminations on description at the end. I did appreciate how Doty pulled in criticisms of lyrical description from certain language poets and his respectful, yet fair minded, response to them, "It's what I do, the nature of my attention..." meaning for some poets, constructing literal descriptions is their way of thinking and that's no more or less valid than someone who deconstructs as a tendency.
And when doubting the stability of naming things, Doty says, "But we have nothing else, and when words are tuned to their highest ability, deployed with the strengths the most accomplished poets bring to bear on the project of saying what's here before us--well, it's possible to feel at least for a moment, language clicking into place, into a relations with the world that feels seamless and inevitable. It that is a dream, so be it." Which is a solid defence allowing lyric poetry to proceed.
My friend Christopher and I read and added marginalia to the same copy of the book...mine. We both marked off the line, "The pleasure of recognizing a described world is no small thing." We also both marked this line in a discussion of Elizabeth Bishop, "...her aim is to track the pathways of scrutiny....the poet seems to proceed from a faith that the refinement of observation is an inherently satisfying activity." We also met up at, "Perhaps the dream of lyric poetry is not just to represent states of mind, but to actually provoke them in the reader."
But defenses of lyric poetry may have been beyond the scope of the book and in the process, some dissection of descripting was lost. We also had problems connecting with some of his samples.
There were some hints on effective metaphor-making that my friend and I both agreed on, "The more yoked things do not have in common, the greater the level of tension, the greater the sense of cognitive dissonance for the reader." The book is only 137 pages. We would have liked more of these condensed and practical lessons.
I felt the book gained more traction in this way in the second half, in the glossary of descriptive ideas called "Description's Alphabet" which broke down ideas about beauty, color, contouring, economy, juxtaposition, etc.