Original Criticism

Tim Dean: "Strange Paradise: An Essay on Mark Doty"

It was Mark Doty’s third volume of poems, My Alexandria (1993), that gained him widespread acclaim and critical recognition. His first two volumes, Turtle, Swan (1987) and Bethlehem in Broad Daylight (1991), have recently been brought back into print by University of Illinois Press in a single volume. This earlier work allows us to see Doty establishing his characteristic themes—beauty, mutability, aesthetic invention—and exploring his admiration for other poets and artists, such as turn-of-the-century Alexandrian homosexual poet C. P.

Copyright  © 2000 by Tim Dean

Tim Dean: On "Esta Noches"

"Esta Noche"

This poem takes its title from a working-class gay bar in San Francsico’s Mission district, a down-at-heel area of the city inhabited primarily by African-Americans, Latina/os, and other ethnic minorities. The bar’s name is the Spanish word for "tonight," and on the night in question a female impersonator who calls herself la fabulosa Lola acts as the mistress of ceremonies for a drag show. In spite of its subject matter, Doty’s poem belongs to a very ancient tradition of epideictic verse—the poetry of praise. Unlike traditional epideixis, however, the object of the speaker’s praise, Lola, is neither a hero nor his beloved, just as she is neither exactly a man nor a woman, but a beguiling combination of both. Lola is also, significantly, a singer, like the poet himself—even if she is only lip-synching.

        . . . [S]he tosses back her hair—risky gesture— and raises her arms like a widow in a blood tragedy,         all will and black lace, and lipsyncs "You and Me

against the World". . . .

This is classic camp: an imitation of high cultural seriousness—the grief-stricken widow in a tragedy—rendered hilarious by its inauthenticity and the incongruity of its context. As with the kitsch Christ in "Homo Will Not Inherit," camp often works by presenting an emotionally serious subject in a trashy or parodic frame. The tone of defiance that was treated soberly in "Homo Will Not Inherit" is here handled irreverently; and the interpolated phrase "risky gesture" clinches this attitude of impiety. In other words, the widow’s moment of bravado, in which she throws back her hair, is instantaneously undercut by the hint that she’s wearing a wig that might fall off. When her wig becomes dislodged or falls askew, the drag queen is undone.

While the poem takes as its theme aesthetics—the study of beauty—and marvels at how "perfection and beauty are so alien / they almost never touch," Doty nevertheless treats this serious topic as an occasion for comedy. We are supposed to find "Esta Noche" funny as well as poignant. The poem does not make fun of the drag queen so much as it ventriloquizes her sense of humor, having learned from Lola’s sensibility. This comic tone is introduced in the poem’s second line with the single word "late," which is set off by medial caesurae:

la fabulosa Lola enters, late, mounts the stairs[.]

The line forms a symphony of hard and soft consonants, with the apparently dispensable word "late" prolonging the alliteration of l sounds in the title that the queen has conferred upon herself. The word "late" also echoes the plosive t sounds in the words that surround it: enters, mounts, stairs. We might even say that the repetition of this hard consonant creates a clattering sound in the line that mimics the noise of Lola’s heels as she ascends the stairs to the stage. But the word "late" is interpolated into this line to indicate above all that Lola follows what is known as "gay time." No drag queen in the world has ever shown up on time for anything. We do not need the word "late" in this line for purposes of narrative or of realism; the word is there primarily to make us smile, and to suggest—via the economy of a single crisp syllable—that the poem inhabits a stereotypically gay context.

Hence part of this poem’s complexity lies in its rendering Lola as both a comic and a serious figure. Although drag queens appear throughout Doty’s work, one of Lola’s most significant prototypes is, curiously enough, the nightingale in Keats’s famous ode. Keats’s poetic speaker identifies his voice with that of the beautiful singer, a bird that flies straight out of the English countryside into the space of mythology: "Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird," Keats’s speaker apostrophizes the nightingale. Somewhat similarly, Doty models his poetic voice on that icon of artifice and in-betweenness, the drag queen. This gesture of imitation emerges most definitively a few poems later in My Alexandria, in "Chanteuse," where

in a nearly empty room over a crowded bar, a beautiful black drag queen—perched on the edge of the piano, under a blue spot,

her legs crossed in front of her so that the straps of her sparkling ankle shoes glimmered—sang only to us.

One effect of this iconic moment is to encourage an identification of her song with his, thereby repeating the structural trope of Keats’s Romantic ode. Unlike most contemporary poets, Doty does not aspire to a natural voice; and in this respect he departs from the strong influence on modern American poetry of Whitman, of Ezra Pound, and of William Carlos Williams, all of whom in their various ways aspired to make poetry conform to the idioms of natural American speech. Thus despite his poetry’s accessibility and popularity, and despite his poems describing natural scenes and objects, Doty is a poetcontra naturem, a poet of the made (and made-up) rather than of the given. He takes the ancient and persistent charge against sodomy—that it is a crime "against nature"—and makes of the unnatural a virtue rather than a vice.

If the angel is one of his poetic figures for liminality and the coastal shoreline is another, then the drag queen represents a hybrid figure that combines "blur of boundary"—"shifting in and out of two languages like gowns / or genders"—with the achievements of artifice. The drag queen, like the poem, is a work of art; and it is Doty’s inclination to find works of art in the unlikeliest of places, to find loveliness in ruin. He does this in almost all his poems, showing us the radiance in what has been discarded or deemed undesirable. In "Esta Noche" he finds beauty in both the figure of the drag queen and in her dilapidated setting:

            . . . She’s a man     you wouldn’t look twice at in street clothes, two hundred pounds of hard living, the gap in her smile     sadly narrative—but she’s a monument,

in the mysterious permission of the dress.

We notice here that the dress grants "permission," just as twilight ("permission’s descending hour") did in "Homo Will Not Inherit." This word "permission" signals in both poems an impending metamorphosis, an almost magical transformation. "The costume is license / and calling," we are told at the end of "Esta Noche," in an avowal that could be spoken by either Lola, the speaker, or a hybrid voice that fuses their subjectivities. More than merely "permission," the dress is also a "calling," a vocation, as if from God or the poet’s muse. Thus more than a nightclub entertainer, the drag queen has become by the poem’s end another kind of poet, transfigured by his or her vocation.

The poem is attentive to the tawdriness of the scene—"the plywood platform," "the wobbling spot [light]," the "unavoidable gap in the center of her upper teeth"—and thus to the miracle of transformation, given how unpromising are the raw materials of this spectacle. Yet the spectacle reaches out to encompass the whole of nature, so that by the close of the poem the sky itself is seen as in drag:

        . . . She says you could wear the whole damn     black sky and all its spangles. It’s the only night we have to stand on. Put it on,     it’s the only thing we have to wear.

The starry sky has become a sequined dress, and the cosmos is revealed in its most elemental as drag material. "Esta Noche" makes nighttime itself into a realm of artifice, as if artifice were unavoidable—"the only night / we have to stand on." This curious locution treats the sky as a glittery fabric—"the rippling night pulled down over broad shoulders / and flounced around the hips"—yet also as something about which one has no choice: "it’s the only thing we have to wear." In this way of seeing things, artifice is ineluctable and yet there is something poignant about this inevitability. If in "Homo Will Not Inherit" "twilight, / permission’s descending hour" suggested a luxury that made anything seem possible, in "Esta Noche" the possibilities of night seem more like necessities for survival.

This idea of drag as necessary and inevitable, rather than optional and decadent, appears also in the earlier poem "Playland" (Bethlehem in Broad Daylight98-100), and in "Crêpe de Chine," a poem from Atlantis that might be paired with "Esta Noche." Promenading down a Manhattan street and imbibing the sensuousness of commercial display, the cross-gendered speaker of "Crêpe de Chine" echoes Lola in her chant:

I want to wear it, I want to put the whole big thing on my head, I want

the tumbling coiffeurs of heaven, or lacking that, a wig tiered and stunning as this island.

That’s what I want from the city: to wear it. That’s what drag is: a city

to cover our nakedness[.]                  (Atlantis 72)

Here as elsewhere the poet is not so much describing the drag queen as speaking in her voice and adopting her point of view. It’s not simply a matter of giving voice to the marginal figure of the drag queen, but of extending her sensibility, seeing the whole world through her eyes. Doty expands this sensibility—an appreciation of artifice learned as much from downtown gay bars as from Wallace Stevens’s aestheticist philosophy—by identifying it with urban architecture and cosmopolitan space as such. To want to wear the city—to describe drag and the city in terms of each other—is to desire an intimacy with urban space that suggests the poetic speaker’s dissolution into the very shapes and surfaces she beholds.

It is important to distinguish this approach from that of Whitman’s poetic speakers, who, when they move through the city, aspire to absorb what is seen into the poet’s self. Whereas the Whitmanian poetic self may be termed all-encompassing, Doty’s poetic self would be characterized more accurately as all-adoring. His poetic self exhibits a porosity that makes contact with urban forms and surfaces of all kinds endlessly stimulating and delightful. In experiencing sensuousness almost everywhere, this porous poetic self finds aesthetic pleasure in abundance. Doty seems to appreciate both the trashy andthe sublime, the beautiful and the dilapidated—or, more precisely, his poetic sensibility refuses to draw a hard-and-fast line between these conventionally polar categories. This sensibility is part of what makes his work "queer." It is also what has led some critics to censure his work, to find it either excessive or inadequate.

In the end, what a certain critical position finds objectionable in Doty is his poetics of praise. When Doty’s poetry appears too concerned with surfaces and with glitteriness; when he piles adjective upon adjective, what some critics find uncongenial is his poetic speakers’ adoration of the objects of their sensual apprehension. Without being fully aware of it, these critics (Harvard’s Helen Vendler among them) are objecting to what Doty loves. Their critique of his aesthetic is, at bottom, antigay—or, more precisely, antiqueer. Two comic poems in Sweet Machine, both of which are titled "Concerning Some Recent Criticism of His Work," respond to this denunciation of his delight in surface, artifice, and sensuousness. Both poems are antiphonal, structured as quotation and reply, and both crystallize themes evoked in "Homo Will Not Inherit" and "Esta Noche." The first version of "Concerning Some Recent Criticism of His Work" employs the genre of the drag queen’s snappy comeback, replying to the critique with this camp riposte:

—No such thing, the queen said, as too many sequins.            (Sweet Machine 36)

For this sensibility, excess is not superfluous but vital. The second, much longer version of the poem elaborates on the first version’s epigrammatic rejoinder by explaining that "Every sequin’s / an act of praise." Appreciating the surface of what he encounters, Doty elevates this appreciation into a poetics of praise—a mode, that is, of honoring the broken, the marginal, the dispossessed, the abandoned, the artificial. In the end, Doty is a love poet, though his love is rarely directed solely at other persons. His is a truly promiscuous aesthetic, one that finds beauty and therefore something to praise virtually everywhere it turns.

Copyright  © 2000 by Tim Dean

Rachel Blau DePlessis on: "Diving into the Wreck"

In this poem of journey and transformation Rich is tapping the energies and plots of myth, while re-envisioning the content. While there is a hero, a quest, and a buried treasure, the hero is a woman; the quest is a critique of old myths; the treasure is knowledge: the whole buried knowledge of the personal and cultural foundering of the relations between the sexes, and a self-knowledge that can be won only through the act of criticism.

Joseph Riddel: On "Of Mere Being"

"What are we to make of this late Stevens? Is he a man satisfied with his edgings and inchings, with the swarming activities of "statement, directly and indirectly getting at"? … Coming upon one of Stevens’ last edgings and inchings, a poem cryptically entitled "Of Mere Being," the critic is hard put to place his man. Does the "mere" of the title mean "simple" or "pure"? and does Stevens at last transcend (or inscend?) the physical to discover a central, the thing itself? [Here is quoted the poem in its entirety.] Beyond thought, beyond reason – here in the intuitive moment one perceives "mere being" but still perceives that one is perceiving. What he knows of mere being is a "palm" (a form, a faith?) beyond the physicality of tree and a bird’s song without meaning. Unreal, yes! – but that is Stevens" word for the reality of poetry, the "one of fictive music." What one knows of mere being is an image on the edge of space. at that point where being becomes nothingness. Is this not to prove the ultimate creativity of self, of the mind which must always conceive a reality beyond form or metaphor, beyond thought, but nevertheless at the end of, not outside, the mind?"

Henry W. Wells: On "As You Leave the Room"

""As You Leave the Room" was apparently completed a year after "On the Way to the Bus" [reprinted in Opus Posthumous, p. 136]. Its first eight or nine lines may have been written as early as 1947, according to the conjecture of Samuel French Morse, editor of Opus Posthumous. But the last seven lines appear to refer specifically to "On the Way to the Bus." Stevens has again been calling his life as poet to account and wondering if it has not all been misspent in pursuit of an illusion. Or has his fondness for introducing the intellect into poetry reduced his work to the dryness of a skeleton? Are his poems merely the skeletons of poems, not true, living organisms of verse? At this point he recalls a few of his resilient pieces, throbbing with feeling, alive in flesh and blood. He remembers his sensuous "Credences of Summer," with its affirmation of fulfillment in all phases of experience, his poem on the hero, and similar pieces. Above all, he recalls "On the Way to the Bus" [which ends with "a perfection emerging from a new known, / An understanding beyond journalism, // A way of pronouncing the word inside of one’s tongue / Under the wintry trees of the terrace"], celebrating the illumination which he experienced on a winter morning only a few months before and the resilient faith in life, emotion, and clarity of thought there expressed. No, he concludes, neither he as a man nor his poems are failures, skeletons, the shadows or apologies for life. They are vital, residing at life’s core."

Kia Penso: On "The Emperor of Ice-Cream"

Here is an interesting experiment anyone can try if he or she has followed me this far: first, find an intelligent and discerning person who is perhaps not very interested in or familiar with Stevens' poems; this is not as difficult as it might seem. Get this person to read "The Emperor of Ice-Cream." (This person, obviously, has to be honest and not trying to ingratiate himself with you, i.e. willing to say "I don't get it.") Then try to explain, using only the one poem, why it is about belief. What details of that scene have anything to do with belief? "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" is frequently anthologized, and yet, standing by itself it reads like lively wordplay that has carefully crafted the illusion of referring to something. We start out hearing some of the objects as symbols. But what could a deal dresser missing a few glass knobs be a symbol of? And a dead woman's protruding feet are much too distracting as objects in themselves to be pointing to something transcendent. The poem does refer to something, of course. The line "let be be finale of seem" can be explained. But it is not a simple task to explain what it has to do with the action in the rest of the poem. Part of the meaning of the poem comes from the speaker's zest for details, which he possesses even in this setting. The attitude is expressed in the tone of voice and in details such as the fantails embroidered on the sheet. Why notice the embroidery now? These little, illuminated details nevertheless come to the narrator's attention in the flow of the practical tasks. It's the bright, unillusioned sufficiency of all this together that makes the narrator say "Let be be finale of seem." All of which can be explained to someone, but doesn’t guarantee that they will see it for themselves. This experiment reveals two things: 1) how Stevens’ poems are interrelated, and 2) how even though they are interrelated the individual poem makes a very vigorous claim--it demands that we learn to think in its idiom.

From Wallace Stevens, Harmonium, and The Whole of Harmonium. Archon Books. Copyright © 1991

Helen Vendler: On "The Emperor of Ice-Cream"

"For purposes of experiment, I have put the details the poem gives us into the form of a first-person narrative; I see the poem as a rewritten form of this ur-narrative, in which the narrative has been changed into an impersonal form, and the linear temporal structure of narrative form has been replaced by a strict geometric spatial construction – two rooms juxtaposed. Here (with apologies) is my conjectural narrative ur-form of the poem, constructed purely as an explanatory device:

I went, as a neighbor, to a house to help lay out the corpse of an old woman who had died alone; I was helping to prepare for the home wake. I entered, familiarly, not by the front door but by the kitchen door. I was shocked and repelled as I went into the kitchen by the disorderly festival going on inside: a big muscular neighbor who worked at the cigar-factory had been called in to crank the ice-cream machine, various neighbors had sent over their scullery-girls to help out and their yard-boys bearing newspaper-wrapped flowers from their yards to decorate the house and the bier: the scullery-girls were taking advantage of the occasion to dawdle around the kitchen and flirt with the yard-boys, and they were all waiting around to have a taste of the ice cream when it was finished. It all seemed to me crude and boisterous and squalid and unfeeling in the house of the dead – all that appetite, all that concupiscence.

Then I left the sexuality and gluttony of the kitchen, and went in to the death in the bedroom. The corpse of the old woman was lying exposed on the bed. My first impulse was to find a sheet to cover the corpse; I went to the cheap old pine dresser, but it was hard to get the sheet out of it because each of the three drawers was lacking a drawer-pull; she must have been too infirm to get to the store to get new glass knobs. But I got a sheet out, noticing that she had hand-embroidered a fantail border on it; she wanted to make it beautiful, even though she was so poor that she made her own sheets, and cut them as minimally as she could so as to get as many as possible out of a length of cloth. She cut them so short, in fact, that when I pulled the sheet up far enough to cover her face, it was too short to cover her feet. It was almost worse to have to look at her old calloused feet than to look at her face; somehow her feet were more dead, more mute, than her face had been

She is dead, and the fact cannot be hidden by any sheet. What remains after death, in the cold light of reality, is life – all of that life, with its coarse muscularity and crude hunger and greedy concupiscence, that is going on in the kitchen. The only god of this world is the cold god of persistent life and appetite; and I must look steadily at this repellent but true tableau – the animal life in the kitchen, the corpse in the back bedroom. Life offers no other tableaus of reality, once we pierce beneath appearances.

Daniel R. Schwarz: On "A High-Toned Old Christian Woman"

" … [I]n "A High-Toned Old Christian Woman" (1922), a poem that indicates the symmetry of Stevens’s imagination, the speaker is both jester and trickster, troubador and picaro. Stevens proposes that religious fictions have no greater status than fictions of the imagination that include sensuality and play. Addressing the High Toned Old Christian Woman, the speaker comically proposes an alternative to Christianity in the form of a mummer’s parade or a Mardi Gras festivity. He proposes "poetry" as the supreme fiction rather than God. He develops an alternative to the prayers and hymns – and poems – that celebrated Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. ("And palm for palm, / Madame, we are where we began.") Cast in the form of a brief Socratic dialogue, the argument with the widow is another version of an argument with himself. The poem moves toward an appreciation of paganism – perhaps evoking the late Roman empire – and sensuality in the wonderfully jazzy line "Such tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk" in which the pleasure principle moves beyond Christianity; note how tunk transforms "well-stuffed," "muzzy," and "sublime" by means of a symphony of "us":


Therefore, that in the planetary scene

Your disaffected flagellants, well-stuffed,

Smacking their muzzy bellies on parade,

Proud of such novelties of the sublime,

Such tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk,

May, merely may, madame, whip from themselves

A jovial hullabaloo among the spheres.

It is not merely that Stevens argues for the necessary angel of the human, but that he enacts it with all its ambiguity, energy, misunderstanding and hopefulness. It is the alternative fictive universe to that proposed by those Christians – including the widow – upholding the "moral law" and upheld by it. That other universe cannot be controlled and takes on its own carnivalesque, ribald masks; the "hullabaloo among the spheres" is a kind of carnival, a release, a pleasure principle. And, as he has enacted in the poem, the more we would deny that aspect of life, the more it asserts itself: "But fictive things / Wink as they will. Wink most when widows wince."’

Wilson Taylor: On "Recollections of Stevens by Acquaintances"

"I didn’t know him as anything but a lawyer and a business executive [in 1931, when Taylor, an experienced surety lawyer, began working in the Hartford Accident and Indemnity’s Insurance Department in New York] …

From Peter Brazeau, ed. Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985), 84-85.

A Biographical Sketch of Wallace Stevens

Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania on October 2, 1879, and died at the age of seventy-six in Hartford, Connecticut on August 2, 1955. He attended Harvard as a special student from 1897 to 1900 but did not graduate; he graduated from New York law school in 1903 and was admitted to the New York bar in 1904, the year he met Elsie Kachel, a young woman from Reading, whom he married in 1909. They had one daughter, Holly Bight, born in 1924, conceived on a leisurely ocean voyage California via the Panama Canal that they took to celebrate the publication of his first book.