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Poetry Justice

Mark Doty
Mark Doty is the 2008 winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for his poetry collection Fire to Fire: New and Selected PoemsPhotography by Nick Romanenko

Poet Mark Doty, who joined the faculty of the Department of English in the School of Arts and Sciences last fall, won the National Book Award for poetry in 2008 for his collection Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems. “Elegant, plainspoken, and unflinching, Mark Doty’s poems … gently invite us to share their ferocious compassion,” the National Book Foundation said at the time. “In this generous retrospective volume, a gifted young poet has become a master.” He is the author of eight books of poems. Dog Years: A Memoir was a New York Times best seller in 2007. His work has garnered the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the Whiting Writers Award, among others.

Doty is perfectly aware, however, that many readers who take pleasure in literature are afraid of reading poetry. Why so? After all, poetry has been a repository of human feeling and experience for as long as we’ve had language, he points out. “It seems almost hardwired into the human nervous system that we turn to heightened language at times of heightened feeling,” he says. “When we fall in love, when we want to mark an important passage in a life, we turn to poetry.”

Poetry has been poorly served for much of the last century, Doty believes, by approaches to teaching that suggest that a poem is a puzzle to be solved, a mysterious utterance to be decoded. Some poems are mysterious, but we make a mistake when we think the most important thing you have to do with a poem is get what it “means.” Archibald MacLeish, an American poet of the first half of the 20th century, wrote: “A poem should not mean / But be.” But how can readers who find themselves flummoxed by poetry find a way to enjoy that “being”?

“One of the pleasures of reading poetry,” says Doty, “is the way the art keeps opening itself to us: the more you look into it, the more you discover what the great New Jersey poet William Carlos Williams called ‘the news … what is found there.’ ” Mark Doty explains how to find it.

• “Our culture values speed and information. Poetry’s full of information about human feeling and what it’s like to be alive, but speed-reading isn’t the way to get there. Slow down. Savor. Read the poem slowly to yourself, lingering; stop and daydream for a while over an image or idea. This is what the poet wants you to do.”

• “Read it out loud. Poetry is meant to be a physical experience. You will begin to enter the poet’s voice.” “What is the sensory world of the poem, its physical landscape? What does it make you see?”

• “Is there a moment in your own experience, a memory, that the poem triggers?”

• “How do you imagine the person who’s speaking to you in the poem? All poems represent a human voice speaking to human listeners. When you read, you enter into a conversation with a poet. What would you like to say back?” 

• “How does the poem make you feel? There is no right answer. A poem is not a symbol hunt or a system of ciphers to unscramble.”