Mark Doty specialises in ekphrasis. The word once meant the description of a work of visual art within a poem, but has come to mean poetic description more generally. Sometimes Doty describes a work of art (Murano glass, a watercolour by Elizabeth Bishop), sometimes an ordinary object (a second-hand kimono, a crab shell), sometimes a part of the natural world (beaches, horses, dogs), sometimes a man-made scene (gardens, harbours, Times Square). He recognises how fond of description he is, and implicitly defends the practice in his essay Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, which takes as its point of departure an austere yet sumptuous 17th-century Dutch painting, a 'sombre poem of materiality'. Doty praises the painting for inspiring 'love' in him, 'by which I mean a sense of tenderness towards experience, of being held within an intimacy with the things of the world'. He acknowledges that description does not capture reality. It is 'an inexact . . . art', though essential, and is frankly subjective: 'What is documented, at last, is not the thing itself but the " way of seeing - the object infused with the subject. The eye moving over the world like a lover.' Description is a labour, a testimony and a source of love. It vivifies poetry, which might otherwise be reduced to a mere 'language of ideas' - 'a phantom language, lacking in the substance of worldly things'.
LRB 3 October 2002 | PDF Download