The Art of Description: World into Word

The Art of Description: World into Word

by Mark Doty

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“It sounds like a simple thing, to say what you see,” Mark Doty begins. “But try to find words for the shades of a mottled sassafras leaf, or the reflectivity of a bay on an August morning, or the very beginnings of desire stirring in the gaze of someone looking right into your eyes . . .” Doty finds refuge in the sensory experience found in

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“It sounds like a simple thing, to say what you see,” Mark Doty begins. “But try to find words for the shades of a mottled sassafras leaf, or the reflectivity of a bay on an August morning, or the very beginnings of desire stirring in the gaze of someone looking right into your eyes . . .” Doty finds refuge in the sensory experience found in poems by Blake, Whitman, Bishop, and others. The Art of Description is an invaluable book by one of America’s most revered writers and teachers.

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Publishers Weekly
"To use words at all is to use them figuratively," says Doty in his writing guide, part of Graywolf's "The Art of…" series. As both a National Book Award-winning poet (Fire to Fire) and accomplished memoirist (Dog Years), Doty is not only qualified but uniquely articulate on the subject. How does a poet create color? Landscape? Context? Saying "blue" or "field" means different things to different people, and also falls short of encompassing any kind of atmosphere or significance. "Poetry's project is to use every aspect of language to its maximum effectiveness, finding within it nuances and powers we otherwise could not hear," he says, and in order to capture the "texture of experience," the poet must be aware of what is actually in front of him or her, both physically and metaphorically. Because the simple act of looking involves interpretation, descriptions are, in a sense, "self portraits"--no two people see the same way, so the poet inevitably puts him or herself into each and every image. For Doty, the art of description is mostly "a balance between terms, saying what you see and saying what you see." (Aug.)

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The Art of Description

World Into Word

By Mark Doty

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2010 Mark Doty
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55597-563-0


World into Word

It sounds like a simple thing, to say what you see. But try to find words for the shades of a mottled sassafras leaf, or the reflectivity of a bay on an August morning, or the very beginnings of desire stirring in the gaze of someone looking right into your eyes, and it immediately becomes clear that all we see is slippery, nuanced, elusive. As Susan Mitchell says, "The world is wily, and doesn't want to be caught."

Perception is simultaneous and layered, and to single out any aspect of it for naming is to turn your attention away from myriad other things, those braiding elements of the sensorium—that continuous, complex response to things perpetually delivered by the senses, the encompassing sphere that is such a large part of our subjectivity. The word always makes me think of a label invented to describe the totalizing experience offered by a kind of movie speakers, Sensurround—a commercial coinage, but a memorable one, in that it addresses the way we're englobed entirely by the reports of our senses, held in a kind of continuous thrall. A seamless weft of information—but information is the driest and least revealing of essential twenty-first-century words, and the data the senses offer every waking moment is anything but that.

In his memoir Planet of the Blind, Stephen Kuusisto describes a moment in Grand Central Station when he and his guide dog have just gotten themselves lost in the great urban hive of transport. Steve sees a dark, suggestive blur of shapes and colors; I want to write the word only or merely before dark, suggestive blur, but that isn't right. The way he sees is in fact a rich, engaging way of encountering the world, and that's Steve's point. His dog is new to the intricate passageways of the station, crowded with ranks of commuters streaming forward at a breathless pace, and Steve could reasonably be terrified. Instead he reports this as an occasion of pleasure, a perceptual adventure; both he and his companion animal are exhilarated, and having, as we say, the time of their lives.

In fact all perception is limited, no matter how acute your eyesight, how sharp the hearing, how sensitive the sense of touch. What we can take in is a partial rendering of the world. To go for a walk with a dog is enough to illustrate this principle. Where a universe of scents—historical, multifaceted—presents itself to the canine "reader," human nostrils detect maybe a little whiff of urine, maybe nothing at all. And dogs, in their turn, seem to be unable to see as we do. Their eyesight is geared to detect motion, the slightest bit of action, but when things are at rest they lack the ability to distinguish colors and patterns that human eyes might. Deer cannot see red or orange, a biologist writes, but apparently can see blue much better than we can. Who can even imagine what that would mean, for blue to be—well, more?

All accounts, it seems, are partial; thus all perception might be said to be tentative, an opportunity for interpretation, a guessing game.

On a warm August evening on a pier in Cherry Grove, New York, I watched a display of fireworks. The wooden dock was crowded, everyone excited for the show to start. Police boats and fire boats whizzed around on the water. When the first flare went up, it became clear that the barge from which the rockets flared was anchored a mere hundred yards off the end of the pier. We could see, in a way I never really did before, the rough industrial-looking process of firework-shooting. When a group of streaks all went up at once, the metal barge itself was lit, and you could smell the gunpowder, and see the fire fountains sputtering into action.

Proximity to the source meant that the shells were exploding right over our heads. A few children had to be comforted, a few shocked pets hurried away, but everyone else loved it, craning their heads back and taking in the gold and green and fuchsia sparks exploding over us in the form of starbursts or fantastic down-raining flowers.

Here I sigh. That last sentence just doesn't come anywhere close to evoking the actual visual or auditory experience. Not to mention the smell of burnt powder and drifting smoke picking up a little salt and seaweed tang, mingling with the annoying cigarette of the man next to me. Or my awareness that the colors overhead were complicated by a peripheral sense that the intense light of the launching rockets had lit up the water a peculiar army-surplus green, while a cheerful little blue and yellow inflatable skiff to our right rocked on the wavelets beneath all that celestial action.

But what struck me most was this: as the bits of fire came arcing down, they streaked across the night at the same time that I became aware of the spider-smoke behind them, strange contrails and patterns left where the flares had been; these were already shifted and lengthened by the wind—so that, beneath the descending display of lights, a kind of ghost display moved at a right angle to the first, strangely, like a visible history of fire written on the night.

That is a lot to try to fit into words, and it has taken me a paragraph to note, somewhat awkwardly, what the eye took in in a fraction of a second. I tried to put it into a single sentence in order to suggest, as Proust did, the simultaneity of perception. He wanted to dilate the sentence toward its outer limit, so that one would feel the blur of space and time that the unit of syntax held all at once, as it were—like seeing a whole landscape reflected back to you in a single drop of water. Because I'm not him, the attempt to render visual intricacy makes words feel unwieldy, like sacks of meaning that must be lugged into place, dragged here and there, then still don't feel quite accurate.

Which raises the question, why bother? Is it necessary to render this bit of perception into words? Why do I feel compelled to get this right?

To try to explain this feels a little like peering down my own throat in the mirror, trying to see inside myself. Hopeless. It's what I do, the nature of my attention, the signature of my selfhood: finding the words. When my friend Lucie took a lot of luggage on a trip, her host looked at her askance and said, All that's yours? Lucie drew herself up and said, That's the kind of person I am. And that was the end of that. They had arrived at an understanding.

But of course I can't leave it at that. What is it about the representation of the sensory world that compels so, what is the character of this desire?

It is a desire, an immediate impulse in the face of wonder or pleasure or feeling confounded or flummoxed. A need that flares up, as if it were my work in the world to do exactly this. To find accurate words, or, more ambitiously, terms commensurate with the clamoring world. Walt Whitman makes a myth of it in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" when he traces his own origin as a poet to the boyhood experience of hearing the song of a solitary bird beside the Long Island shore. The bird had lost his mate and sang into her absence, but the boy who overheard him felt somehow required to answer, to make a song in response to the rhythmic outpouring of longing offered to him:

Demon or bird! (said the boy's soul,)
Is it indeed toward your mate you sing? or is it really
to me?
For I, that was a child, my tongue's use sleeping,
now I have heard you,
Now in a moment I know what I am for, I awake,
And already a thousand singers, a thousand songs,
clearer, louder and more sorrowful than
A thousand warbling echoes have started to life
within me ...

The moment described is the originating point of a haunting, a felt imperative so commanding as to constitute a kind of possession. He who's awake with a thousand songs cannot stop singing.

But of course the song of the poet differs from the pure sonic outrush of the bird in that it's also an act of naming. (Just what birds are actually up to when they sing isn't clear, but it seems unlikely that they are doing what we think of as "naming" things.) The song that Whitman sings back to the migrating warbler describes the bird and its situation, describes the experience of listening beside the sea, describes the sea itself as a "fierce old mother" whose constant iteration is the whispered word death. Whitman's song, then, holds up a mirror to our mortal situation. As perhaps the bird's does, too, but who can say?

What we want when we describe is surely complex: To solve the problem of speechlessness, which is a state without agency, so that we feel impressed upon by things but unable to push back at them? To refuse silence, so that experience will not go unspoken? To be accurate (but to what? the look of things, the feel of being here? to the strange fact of being in the face of death?)? To arrive at exactitude in order to experience the satisfaction of matching words to the world, in order to give those words to someone else, or even just to savor them for ourselves? Critical theory is full of discussion of the inadequacies of speech, and it's true that words are arbitrary things, assigned to their objects in slippery ways, and that we cannot rely on words to convey to another person what it is like to be ourselves. "What proof do we have," writes Craig Morgan Teicher, "that / when I say mouse, you do not think / of a stop sign?"

But we have nothing else, and when words are tuned to their highest ability, deployed with the strengths the most accomplished poets bring to bear on the project of saying what's here before us—well, it is possible to feel, at least for a moment, language clicking into place, into a relation with the world that feels seamless and inevitable. If that is a dream, so be it. At that instant when language seems to match experience, some rift is healed, some rupture momentarily salved in what Hart Crane called "the silken skilled transmemberment of song."

What a word, transmemberment: it suggests the exchange of body parts, one being fusing with another, a Latinate gloss on Shakespeare's "sea change." I think of it as a kind of fusion between the word and the world, one becoming—at least in one "floating instant," to paraphrase Crane—a part of the other, grown indistinguishable.

The need to translate experience into something resembling adequate language is the writer's blessing or the writer's disease, depending on your point of view. That's why Whitman isn't sure if what sings to him is a demon or a bird. If it is indeed a symptom of a problem, of life not having been really lived until it is narrated, at least that's a condition that winds up giving real gifts to others. The pleasure of recognizing a described world is no small thing.


A Tremendous Fish

"That's exactly how it happened," Elizabeth Bishop said nearly thirty years after her poem "The Fish" was written. "I did catch it just as the poem says. That was in 1938. Oh, but I did change one thing; the poem says he had five hooks hanging from his mouth, but actually he only had three. I think it improved the poem when I made that change."

Talk about a fastidious sense of accuracy! But this emphasis on precision is a little misleading; the interviewer transcribed Bishop's comment with the emphasis on exactly, but her poem is actually more concerned with exactly how it happened. Here's the poem:

    The Fish

    I caught a tremendous fish
    and held him beside the boat
    half out of water, with my hook
    fast in a corner of his mouth.
    He didn't fight.
    He hadn't fought at all.
    He hung a grunting weight,
    battered and venerable
    and homely. Here and there
    his brown skin hung in strips
    like ancient wallpaper,
    and its pattern of darker brown
    was like wallpaper:
    shapes like full-blown roses
    stained and lost through age.
    He was speckled with barnacles,
    fine rosettes of lime,
    and infested
    with tiny white sea-lice,
    and underneath two or three
    rags of green weed hung down.
    While his gills were breathing in
    the terrible oxygen
    —the frightening gills,
    fresh and crisp with blood,
    that can cut so badly—
    I thought of the coarse white flesh
    packed in like feathers,
    the big bones and the little bones,
    the dramatic reds and blacks
    of his shiny entrails,
    and the pink swim-bladder
    like a big peony.
    I looked into his eyes
    which were far larger than mine
    but shallower, and yellowed,
    the irises backed and packed
    with tarnished tinfoil
    seen through the lenses
    of old scratched isinglass.
    They shifted a little, but not
    to return my stare.
    —It was more like the tipping
    of an object toward the light.
    I admired his sullen face,
    the mechanism of his jaw,
    and then I saw
    that from his lower lip
    —if you could call it a lip—
    grim, wet, and weaponlike,
    hung five old pieces of fish-line,
    or four and a wire leader
    with the swivel still attached,
    with all their five big hooks
    grown firmly in his mouth.
    A green line, frayed at the end
    where he broke it, two heavier lines,
    and a fine black thread
    still crimped from the strain and snap
    when it broke and he got away.
    Like medals with their ribbons
    frayed and wavering,
    a five-haired beard of wisdom
    trailing from his aching jaw.
    I stared and stared
    and victory filled up
    the little rented boat,
    from the pool of bilge
    where oil had spread a rainbow
    around the rusted engine
    to the bailer rusted orange,
    the sun-cracked thwarts,
    the oarlocks on their strings,
    the gunnels—until everything
    was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
    And I let the fish go.

"The Fish" continues a tradition of seeking, in the vast book of difference the American continent offers, opportunities to be educated. The poem interprets a wordless, creaturely presence—like Whitman's "noiseless patient spider" or Emily Dickinson's "narrow fellow in the grass"—and provides, in its way, speech for that which is wordless. "Every object rightly seen," wrote Emerson, "unlocks a new faculty of the soul." The poet turns to the natural world, pays close attention, and is rewarded with instruction. The news this particular fish carries is the possibility of endurance; he's an exemplar of survival—even victory—in the face of struggle. How could such a "battered and venerable" old soldier not serve as a heroic example?

But if this were the poem's sole intent, it could have been much shorter. Instead of getting to the point, Bishop is concerned with the experience of observing; her aim is to track the pathways of scrutiny. Elsewhere, she praises "baroque sermons (Donne's, for instance)" that "attempted to dramatize the mind in action rather than in repose." That's precisely what's going on in this poem: a carefully rendered model of an engaged mind at work.

First she notes sound and weight, fusing impressions synesthetically in a startling phrase, "a grunting weight." Peeling scales provoke simile: the fish's surface is reminiscent of the condition and pattern of ruined wallpaper. There's pleasure taken in working out this comparison, and these lines signal just how leisurely and careful an examination this will be. The poet seems to proceed from a faith that the refinement of observation is an inherently satisfying activity. To see is joy and scruple, privilege and duty. No wonder she loved Vermeer!

Now the poem's structural scaffolding is established: a shuttling of attention from outward detail to inward association, mind moving swiftly from observation to reverie. The eye moves restlessly over the surface of the fish, as if seeking what might satisfy it. The "camera" roves, pans, lingers, moves in for an extreme close-up, fixes a moment on the pulsing of the gills:

    While his gills were breathing in
    the terrible oxygen
    —the frightening gills,
    fresh and crisp with blood,
    that can cut so badly—
    I thought of the coarse white flesh
    packed in like feathers,
    the big bones and the little bones,
    the dramatic reds and blacks
    of his shiny entrails,
    and the pink swim-bladder
    like a big peony.

Within this single sentence Bishop travels from fish body to human body and back to fish flesh again, entering deeply into what is literally the fish's inner life, the hidden stuff of flesh and bone. It's a painterly passage, with its arrangement of white flesh, "dramatic" reds and blacks, and the image of that startling flower-pink bladder hurrying us back to land, to some remembered garden, to the shape and sheen of a peony blossom.

The eleven lines that follow—about those haunting, yellowed eyes, with their scratchy shine—are the most extended and intricate of the poem's descriptive acts so far, as if to focus our sights on the primacy of vision here, dilate our attention, and slow our movement forward. You can't help but think about the speaker's eyes, too, and the poet points attention this way carefully: "seen through the lenses," "to return my stare." Progress slows even further when the first of Bishop's characteristic hesitations is introduced:

    —It was more like the tipping
    of an object toward the light.

That little pause and gathering of breath—just a dash, followed by the careful qualifying phrase "It was more like"—makes a world of difference. What does it mean, for a poet to stop and consider, to question herself, just as she will again in a few lines at "—if you could call it a lip"?


Excerpted from The Art of Description by Mark Doty. Copyright © 2010 Mark Doty. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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