Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Art of Description

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I  completely enjoyed Mark Doty's The Art of Description: World into Words. It's lucid, has great in-depth but comprehensible essays, and offers outstanding examples throughout. Many pearls of wisdom scattered throughout. Bring a pen as you'll want to underline and mark up this book.

I am not sure that beginning poets will find the book immediately helpful, but they should get it anyhow and hold onto it for when they're ready for it. It's a wonderful book for any poet who has ever been told to spruce up her diction or any poet who has been told, "Make me see it. Put me there." Or worse, for any poet who has written that poem that fell flat on its face, that crumbled under its own boredom, its lusterless diction. And who among us hasn't written that poem? Doty helps us make it new and make it interesting and make it come alive.

If you thought there was nothing left to be said about Elizabeth Bishop's poem, "The Fish," think again. Doty offers this wonderful insight into the lyric elements of the poem: "Such a state of mind is 'lyric' not because it is musical (though the representation of these states of mind usually is) but because we are seized by a moment that suddenly seems edgeless, unbounded." And this insight into the artistic process: "Self-forgetful concentration is precisely what happens in the artistic process—an absorption in the moment, a pouring of the self into the now. We are, as Dickinson says, 'without the date, like Consciousness or Immortality.' That is what artistic work and child's play have in common; both, at their fullest, are experiences of being lost in the present, entirely occupied."

There's also an outstanding discussion of four different sunflower poems—one by Blake, one by Alan Shapiro, one by Allen Ginsberg, and one by Tracy Jo Barnwell.  My favorite chapter is the last one, "Description's Alphabet," which offers good advice on the use of colors in poetry. This chapter alone is worth the cost of the book! But there's so much more. So get your hands on this book. You will feel yourself enrolled in a seminar with just you and Doty. Your understanding of poetry will be enriched—and, hopefully, your poems will be too.


  1. Thank you for this review, Diane. I've put this on my book list.

  2. very peculiar way of speaking. Excellent post!


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