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The Art of Description by Mark Doty

I have had a rough time with Graywolf Press’s The Art of series, which is a shame, because I am a fan of Graywolf Press generally. (I gave Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext and Christopher Bram’s The Art of History 6 widgets apiece, and DNF’d [did not finish] Donald Revell’s The Art of Attention.) But I gave this one a try because it’s Doty, and I am getting to be excited about Doty. (Stick around for a reread of Still Life With Oysters and Lemons.)

Okay, enough parentheticals. The Art of Description is both an enjoyable read and a useful craft book. I appreciate its balance of quotable moments, profound concepts, and nuts-and-bolts writing advice. I also appreciate its illumination of Doty’s working style, because I plan on focusing partly on his work for my critical essay this semester. He includes as well plenty of examples from other writers’ (mostly poets’) work, with close readings, and one large section of this slim book is an alphabetical list of elements of description, which I think must have been fun to put together.

I know many writers/fellow students who love Graywolf’s The Art of books, and I know that my past failure with some of them is merely personal. But here is one that is working for me, in the way that I believe these books are meant to work: it is small, short, pocket-sized, and packed with memorable lines and nuggets. I want to just leave a few of them here, for my use as much as for yours. (All bold emphases are mine. Italics are Doty’s.)

The parts of a narrative are contiguous, each connecting to the previous instant and the next, but the lyric moment is isolate.

People who have studied drawing know that you have little idea what’s in front of you in the visual landscape until you try to represent it. To some degree, the art of description is the art of perception; what is required, in order to say what you see, is enhanced attention to that looking, and the more you look, the more information you get.

I am reminded here of his detailed study of the color of the white asparagus in a (different) still life, in Still Life With Oysters and Lemon. (Switching books on you for this next quotation.) It is blanched asparagus,

grown, that is, shallow trenches of sand, by which the body of the stalk is gradually covered, as it sprouts, so that the flesh will remain white. Though that term is far too simple for the actual color of these stalks: a pale lemony shade, tinged with a little green, shadowed on the underside, particularly where the curve of the bundle falls away, in its lower reaches, into darkness. The shade of these stalks–exactly right, as a look at a bundle of asparagus grown in this European style today confirms–is achieved through a mixture of ash, lead white, and a color called schiet geel, or shit yellow…

I think he’s practicing what he preaches in these lines: only by looking very closely with great attention at this painting could he see these colors, pick them apart; and then he takes what he’s seen back to real asparagus for comparison; and follows with research into the painting techniques of an earlier time (the shit yellow paint was made from buckthorn berries, “a laxative, thus lending the hue its tone”).

Okay, back to The Art of Description.

…the yoking of disparate elements makes more than a vivid account of perception; the best description is never merely decorative, but makes meaning in itself, building an argument about the nature of the real.

Polarity, the pull of forces in opposition to one another, makes writing feel alive, because it feels more like life to us than any singular focus does; reality, we understand, is a field in which more than one attraction, more than one strong tug, is always at work.

If I were asked to say what distinguishes an artistic temperament from any other, I’d say that it’s a fundamental sense that the project of being alive is something peculiar, little understood. I’ve always felt amazed by–a bit envious of–people who take their lives for granted, who feel that of course this (this body, this community, this set of human laws and social expectations) is the way things should be, how could it be otherwise?

And on and on, but I fear copyright infringement.

As I deepen into Doty’s work, I’m observing and understanding better this writer’s appeal to me personally, so this craft book comes at the right time.


Rating: 8 breathless sonnets.

One Response

  1. […] that engage his curiosity: intimacy versus independence, home versus travel. (He writes in The Art of Description about the usefulness of polarity: “the pull of forces in opposition to one another makes […]

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