This Old Poem #60:
Mark Doty’s Broadway
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 7/3/03

  AIDS. Death. Suffering. Homosexuality. What’s not to love about Mark Doty’s bathetic, overwrought, &- ultimately- lightweight- poems? At least if you’re a PC Elitist & want a poem/poet to drape fluttering praise over like the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima. Don’t believe me? Look at this blurb from the American Academy of Arts and Letters:

  "This masterful poet writes elegies so full of life we find our hopes restored. Moving, splendidly observant, and unflinching, Mark Doty's poems extend the range of the American lyric poem."


  Or this from ex-Poetaster Laureate Philip Levine:


  "If it were mine to invent the poet to complete the century of William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, I would create Mark Doty just as he is, a maker of big, risky, fearless poems in which ordinary human experience becomes music."


  & just cuz you’re asking- No! MD is not masterful, his poems are not vivacious nor restorative, etc. His poems are not ‘fearless’ nor is he in Wallace Stevens’ league, & not even the overrated WCW. But that has not stopped MD from copping these prizes:


Winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize

1993 National Book Critics Circle Award

1993 Los Angeles Times Book Award

1993 National Book Award Finalist

Selected for the 1992 National Poetry Series by Philip Levine


  Oh, did you notice that the same blurbist/crony also awarded MD a prize? Just checking if you’ve noticed some running themes throughout the TOP series. & in case that were not enough PL re-emphasizes:


  "The courage of this book is that it looks away from nothing: the miracle is that wherever it looks it finds poetry. . . . Mark Doty is a maker of big, risky, fearless poems in which ordinary human experience becomes music."


  You know that when words like courage & miracle are used that the blurbist cannot think of a single specific thing to actually praise the writing. Here are some more blurbs with exegesis:


  "Doty is at the height of his powers in these beautiful and important poems." -- Diann Blakely Shoaf, Harvard Review


***Mr. Doty, please look favorably upon my manuscript in next year’s [Fill in the university press contest’s name] book contest. Love, Diann  PS- I’ve always been a HUGE fan of your work!


"Doty's poems elegize the past and ready us for future grief, focusing intensely on the anticipated death of his lover from AIDS." -- Tony Whedon, Poetry East


***[I cannot let this Rump Rider know that his kind gives me the willies! I’d look like a bigot.] Wonderful, yes, wonderful poems….


  "An understated, unflinching look at life in the face of death. The poems are as courageously elegant as the achievement is grand." -- from the National Book Critics Circle Citation


***Unflinching, courage….damn! Where’s my thesaurus, I try so hard to be unique.


"You'll read it again and again, and you will not lend it out as much as you give it." -- Alexander Chee, San Francisco Review of Books


***No one wants this damn book- please, someone, TAKE IT!


"Though AIDS is a pervasive metaphor, the crystalline sensibility and breathtaking beauty of these poems is redemptive." -- Marjorie Lewellyn Marks, Los Angeles Times Book Review


***All this dying bullshit. As if I care? Then again, $150 a review is still $150.


  If MD’s poems were any fluffier they would blow away. Look at how trite the titular poem is- & watch how drastically a major excising will improve it.




Under Grand Central's tattered vault
    --maybe half a dozen electric stars still lit--
        one saxophone blew, and a sheer black scrim


billowed over some minor constellation
    under repair. Then, on Broadway, red wings
        in a storefront tableau, lustrous, the live macaws

preening, beaks opening and closing
    like those animated knives that unfold all night
        in jewelers' windows. For sale,

glass eyes turned outward toward the rain,
    the birds lined up like the endless flowers
        and cheap gems, the makeshift tables

of secondhand magazines
    and shoes the hawkers eye
        while they shelter in the doorways of banks.

So many pockets and paper cups
    and hands reeled over the weight
        of that glittered pavement, and at 103rd

a woman reached to me across the wet roof
    of a stranger's car and said, I'm Carlotta,
        I'm hungry
. She was only asking for change,

so I don't know why I took her hand.
    The rooftops were glowing above us,
        enormous, crystalline, a second city

lit from within. That night
    a man on the downtown local stood up
        and said, My name is Ezekiel,

I am a poet, and my poem this evening is called
. He stood up straight
        to recite, a child reminded of his posture

by the gravity of his text, his hands
    hidden in the pockets of his coat.
        Love is protected, he said,

the way leaves are packed in snow,
    the rubies of fall. God is protecting
        the jewel of love for us.

He didn't ask for anything, but I gave him
    all the change left in my pocket,
        and the man beside me, impulsive, moved,

gave Ezekiel his watch.
    It wasn't an expensive watch,
        I don't even know if it worked,

but the poet started, then walked away
    as if so much good fortune
        must be hurried away from,

before anyone realizes it's a mistake.
    Carlotta, her stocking cap glazed
        like feathers in the rain,

under the radiant towers, the floodlit ramparts,
    must have wondered at my impulse to touch her,
        which was like touching myself,

the way your own hand feels when you hold it
    because you want to feel contained.
        She said, You get home safe now, you hear?

In the same way Ezekiel turned back
    to the benevolent stranger.
        I will write a poem for you tomorrow,

he said. The poem I will write will go like this:
    Our ancestors are replenishing
        the jewel of love for us


  The self-awareness to the point of embarrassment, the overly long exposition, the relentless need to prove how hip & intelligent (at the same time), the raft of clichés, are all MD staples. Here’s a 9 line rewrite:



So many pockets and paper cups
    and hands reeled over the weight
        of that glittered pavement, and at 103rd

a woman reached to me across the wet roof,
    enormous, crystalline, a second city,
        like feathers in the rain,

under the radiant towers, the floodlit ramparts,
    must have wondered at my impulse to touch her.
        She said, You get home safe now, you hear?


  No schmaltz- just the tale. An enigmatic exchange somewhere under the neon. But MD does this sort of overwriting in many of his poems. Here’s a snip from Long Point Light:

of the afterlife. In the dark
its deeper invitations emerge:
green witness at night's end,

flickering margin of horizon,
marker of safety and limit.
but limitless, the way it calls us,

and where it seems to want us
to come, And so I invite it
into the poem, to speak,

and the lighthouse says:
Here is the world you asked for,
gorgeous and opportune,

  Again clichés abound, & the bathetic self-consciousness is SO precious & forced. Here’s from the ungodly long & banal poem Metro North:

in spattered glass. Then
     daylight's soft charcoal
          lusters stone walls

and we ascend to what
     passes for brightness,
          this February,

  Ugh! It gets worse:

Desolate fields--open spaces,
     in a city where you
          can hardly turn around!--

seem to center
     on little flames,
          something always burning

in a barrel or can
     As if to represent

dogged persistence?
     Though whether what burns
          is will or rage or

  See? Let me end with this definition: Poetry is a literary art form whose quality of, & concision in, word choice is structured non-prosaically (in both senses of the term prosaic). Any other definition is not as pure of this- oh, say, a definition like Poetry is words that make you feel better about yourself. Guess which definition MD subscribes to?

Final Score: (1-100):

Mark Doty’s Broadway: 40
TOP’s Broadway: 78

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