The Art of Description: World into Word by Mark Doty


Wow, this is a cool book. For those uninitiated in the language of poetry (like me) Mark Doty’s The Art of Description is a great book to get you started on a love of the art form. I felt a little lost through the first half, but the second half taught me so much, by the end I wanted to go back and read the first section again with my gained knowledge.

The first half is analysis of several poems that particularly exemplify the use of description and asks, why describe at all? To that Doty answers: ‘The Poet seems to proceed from a faith that the refinement of observation is an inherently satisfying activity.’ (17)

And in this activity, in its highest form, Doty finds, ‘such imagery comes closer to being commensurate with reality than ordinary speech’ (44)

He is often toggling between writer and reader and what each is trying to do and/or understand.  In this vein, he quotes Elizabeth Bishop in a letter to Anne Stevenson: “what one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.” (23)

Doty includes another angle on this idea, with Emily Dickinson’s words that describe the labor of writing or reading as being, “without the date, like Conciousness or Immortality”(23)

The second half of the book focuses on an alphabet of descriptive devices and is where the book really takes off. Listing the ‘Descriptions Alphabet’ gives no hint of the richness or skill that Doty uses to weave these ideas together into a fascinating and affirming read. A few of these words are key words in influential poems and others lead to discussions so unforeseen, that they are seriously wondrous:

  • Art
  • Beauty
  • Color
  • Desire
  • Economy
  • Figures
  • Gesture Drawings
  • Hunger
  • Incomplete
  • Juxtaposition
  • Knowing
  • Language
  • Morality
  • Names
  • Opposition
  • Projection
  • Qualifiers
  • Real
  • Sonic
  • Synesthesia
  • Tone
  • Uncertainty
  • Verb
  • West wind
  • X-ray
  • Yield
  • Z to make the world real

A couple of highlights: On color, Doty wonders: ‘How does color get onto the page, into the reader’s internal eye?’ and struggles with such a fundamental truth about color (!) ‘since we can never experience written color so–well, wordlessly.’ (68)

On desire: ‘the urge to merge shouldn’t just be the icing on the cake . It should be the icing, the cake, the plate it’s on, your eating of the cake, your feeding of the cake to others, and all the stories you tell yourself about your encounter with the cake.’ (73)

On uncertainty in a description and an writer looking for the right word in plain sight: ‘ the power of this strategy is partly a function of the humility of the speaker, who does not presume knowledge, but involves us in his active quest for it…'(89)

We read this book for different reasons, one was that it might help us with our own writing about our work, another was a desire to read something completely different. It ended up leaving me with a greater insight which is that poetry, and the art of description, is what is left in visual art when you strip away all references to the literary history of art–that desire to reflect or describe the seeing of a human experience that has affected the artist.

A great, great book.

-Gina Beavers

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