Excerpted Criticism

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Diann Blakely Shoaf: On "My Alexandria"

Like Cavafy, whose native city the title of this new collection alludes to, Mark Doty is a poet of desire and loss, of the monuments and ruins belonging to ancient and modern, "high" and "popular" cultures alike. The ancient world as underlying our own, and the multilayered mysteries revealed through excavation, imagined or actual, are subjects that have served Doty before.

 
 

From Diann Blakely Shoaf, review of My Alexandria, Harvard Review (Spring 1993).

Tony Whedon: On "My Alexandria"

With his rhapsodic inclusiveness, Doty performs a kind of meditation through which the wounds of memory are healed. In many of his poems, the meditation blooms from the spirit of his narrative, appearing often in what seems like an extended addenda—or cadenza—to the poem. The tone of these meditations is thoughtful, almost essay-like, enfolding the poem in a membrane of sensuous exposition. In a lesser poet, this exposition might intrude on the poem, might seem like an apology for what the more dramatic parts of the poem fail to offer.

From Tony Whedon, "Let Me Go, If I Have to, In Brilliance," Poetry East, no.35 (1993), pp. 160-61.

Deborah Landau: On "My Alexandria"

The poems of My Alexandria transform homophobic narratives about the disease, offer comfort to those living with HIV, and encourage empathy from those whose lives have not yet been affected by the virus.... Although Doty’s poems are not polemical, they counter reductive representations of people with AIDS, are accessible to a wider audience, and have the potential to improve public response to the epidemic....

From Deborah Landau, "‘How to Live. What to Do.’: The Poetics and Politics of AIDS," American Literature vol. 68, no.1 (1996), pp. 193-225.

Tim Dean: On "Homo Will Not Inherit"

"Homo Will Not Inherit"

This poem takes its title from a flier that someone has posted on a downtown wall. The legend on the flier reads: "HOMO WILL NOT INHERIT. Repent & be saved." Doty’s poem picks up this anonymous, explicitly antigay text, and replies, in effect, that no repentance is necessary for salvation. Instead, the poem’s speaker embraces carnality and finds redemptive transfiguration in the netherworld of urban gay public sex. Rather than simply rejecting the Christian doctrine that views homosexuality as an abomination, this poem converts the abomination into something holy. We might say that the poem’s wager is not to forgive but to sanctify sin. According to "Homo Will Not Inherit," gay people don’t need to be accepted by the Christian church, because homo sex is itself a religious experience. For Doty the spiritual world is reached not by denying the flesh, but, on the contrary, by indulging it. In this conviction he follows Allen Ginsberg in Howl, who in turn was following William Blake.

The poem’s tone is both ecstatic and defiant. It is risky to take a legend that authoritatively spells out damnation for one’s very being—"Homo will not inherit"—and make it the title for one’s own statement of religious belief. In doing so, Doty is treating the antigay phrase in the way that some people recently have treated the antigay epithet queer, appropriating it as a term of proud defiance. This poem is important because it articulates a kind of credo, an affirmation of spiritual principle. If, as Scott Herring has remarked, for Doty poetry is a variety of religious experience, then a poem affirming his religious persuasions can tell us something about his idea of poetry too.

We see this affirmation of belief most clearly at the moment when the poem segues from description to reflection:

                        . . . I say it without arrogance, I have been an angel

for minutes at a time, and I have for hours believed—without judgement, without condemnation— that in each body, however obscured or recast,

is the divine body—common, habitable— the way in a field of sunflowers you can see every bloom’s

the multiple expression of a single shining idea, which is the face hammered into joy.

These lines form a single sentence that stretches easily, without convolution, over several stanzas. (Look again at the poem’s opening sentence, which takes up its first seven verses and culminates in the quote from the flier.) There is something of Walt Whitman in these long, prosy lines and in the poet’s organizing them by the repetition of parallelism and anaphora (repeated line-beginnings), rather than by the repetition of end-rhyme: "And I have been . . . / I have been . . . / . . . I have been . . . / . . . I have been. . . ."

"I have been an angel," the speaker says, invoking one of the dominant images of Doty’s previous book My Alexandria, in whose central poem, "The Wings," an angel is described at one point as "that form // between us and the unthinkable." The angel is a spiritual mediator, a being on the border between this world and the next. As a liminal creature, the angel is a figure for the geographical and social margins pictured in "Homo Will Not Inherit." "I’ll tell you what I’ll inherit," the speaker defiantly replies, "the margins / which have always been mine." The angel is associated with "the margins," which in this poem take the form of an urban wasteland populated by the socially marginal—gay men cruising for sex through "downtown after hours / when there’s nothing left to buy." Doty is a poet of the marginal, the edge, the border, the coast; as he says in "Description," the prefatory ars poetica ofAtlantis, "what I need to tell is / swell and curve, shift // and blur of boundary." The angel is a figure—though certainly not his only one—for "blur of boundary."

But angel is also a slang term for a gay man, and the poem converts this vernacular meaning back into religious significance. Describing a man he encounters in the steamroom, the speaker transfigures anonymous sex into a virtually biblical allegory of spiritual possession:

I’ve seen flame flicker around the edges of the body, pentecostal, evidence of inhabitation. And I have been possessed of the god myself[.]

Here the hunk is a god, or a sign from God; and being sexually possessed by another man becomes a figure for the Holy Spirit’s visitation. Doty’s stunningly sacrilegious metaphor finds a similarity between the Spirit’s tongue of flame that lodges inside the believer and another man’s penis or tongue inside his own body ("I have been possessed of the god myself"). Whereas in orthodox Christian doctrine only Jesus incarnates divinity, in this poem "the divine body" inhabits everyone in a form of theological promiscuity.

The poem immediately cascades into another analogy to illustrate this principle, offering one of Doty’s favorite images, the sunflower, to insist that "you can see every bloom’s // the multiple expression / of a single shining idea, / which is the face hammered into joy." (For dilation upon this image, see "Four Cut Sunflowers, One Upside Down" and "In the Community Garden," both in Atlantis.) The "face hammered into joy" is both the flower’s face, its radiance personified, and that of the guy in the sauna who is "hammered into joy" by "some towering man" who fucks him. The verb hammered, which recurs throughout Doty’s work, has a double resonance here, connoting both vigorous sex and artistic creation—the way a smith hammers metal into something beautiful. To be "hammered into joy" is to go through pain and reach ecstasy, a trajectory the poem itself follows.

No small measure of this poem’s pain and defiance comes from the direction of its address—the fact that its second-person singular you turns out to be the anonymous author of the antigay legend: "you who’s posted this invitation // to a heaven nobody wants." We do not discover that the poem addresses its enemy until more than halfway through, and it comes as a surprise because the opening words specify a generic or typical setting, "Downtown anywhere." Unlike the majority of his poems, "Homo Will Not Inherit" is confrontational; then again, seen from a broader perspective, it is—like all poems—a reply to an utterance that precedes it.

The poem is set in the "edges no one wants," an undesirability that the speaker sets about transforming almost immediately with his description of "the avenue’s // shimmered azaleas of gasoline," an image that sees oily puddles as beautiful blossoms. The poem’s derelict urban setting is significant because it points to the connection between homosexuality and city life; and Doty, like Whitman and Hart Crane before him, is very much a poet of the city. He’s a poet of New York, Boston, and (in Sweet Machine) Venice, but also of Provincetown, Massachusetts, the city he’s made his home for the past decade. Although not a major metropolitan area, Provincetown, like New York, is a gay destination, a place where gay men congregate. Doty is interested in how people make these places their own—how, for example, the ancient Egyptian city of Alexandria was "transformed into feeling" by gay poet Cavafy, and how Hart Crane’s poetry does the same for New York City. The titles of Doty’s books are taken from these urban poets’ lovesongs to their cities: My Alexandria from Cavafy, and Atlantis from Crane’s poem of that title, his paean of praise to Brooklyn Bridge. Atlantis is the mythical lost island, not a city; but its name betokens a place that, while not exactly a utopia, is formed wholly from the imagination.

The downtown of "Homo Will Not Inherit" has been vacated by middle-class flight to the suburbs, a sociological phenomenon that made downtownanywhere a place for gay men to gather in "blackfronted bars," which assure anonymity, and adult bookstores, "where there’s nothing to read / but longing’s repetitive texts." Suburban flight meant that only the families of the dispossessed lived downtown in U.S. cities, which then could be zoned for sex businesses such as the porno stores, gay bars, and bathhouses sketched in this poem. "Homo Will Not Inherit" offers less a critique of this urban predicament than an account of the imagination’s power to transform blight and "ruin" into beauty. It is not a case of the socially irresponsible artist’s aestheticizing a material problem, but rather of showing how an oppressed minority uses imagination to make an inhospitable reality into its "kingdom." The transformation requires a subterfuge or inauthenticity that Doty associates with the paradoxical authenticity of art. For this poet, artifice is an honorific not a pejorative term; his art emphasizes its madeness, its fabulated qualities, rather than aspiring to the status of the natural. For a wonderful example of this commitment to fabulation, see the poem "Chanteuse" (in My Alexandria), which pictures "the rapt singer / who caught us in the glory / of her artifice."

Doty’s emphasis on artifice is submerged in "Homo Will Not Inherit" by his fierce spirituality; yet the imagination’s power to transubstantiate the given world is revealed in the way that gay men’s desire surreptitiously invents another city within the architecture of public urban space. After office hours, the "public city’s / ledgered and locked, but the secret city’s boundless." As with many of W. B. Yeats’s poems, the time of this lyric is "twilight, / permission’s descending hour," the time when appearances change and diurnal reality melts away. Thus the poem’s temporal setting, as well as its geographical locale, is liminal, transitional, a no-man’s land—or, in this case, a gay man’s land. The "permission" that descends can be understood as both erotic and poetic license: a sanction to desire and pursue other men, but also an authorization to see things differently, to invest mundane reality with fantasy.

But this does not mean abandoning or transcending material reality. On the contrary, Doty embraces the dirty, derelict city and its vices, picturing "downtown anywhere" as equal to the heavenly city promised in Scripture:

                . . . This failing city’s radiant as any we’ll ever know, paved with oily rainbow, charred gates

jeweled with tags, swoops of letters over letters, indecipherable as anything written by desire. I’m not ashamed

to love Babylon’s scrawl. How could I be? It’s written on my face as much as on these walls. This city’s inescapable,

gorgeous, and on fire. I have my kingdom.

This is the speaker’s final, triumphant riposte to the author of the poster that provides his poem’s title. Homo does not need to inherit the kingdom of heaven, because "I have my kingdom." The half-line, four-word closing sentence’s declarative assertion is particularly effective because it contrasts so sharply with the expansive syntax earlier in the poem. Notice how the attributes of "this failing city" reprise imagery that the poet has used already: the city streets "paved with oily rainbow" pick up "the avenue’s // shimmered azaleas of gasoline," which are enhanced by the symbolical resonance of the rainbow, God’s sign to Moses. His description of urban graffiti—"swoops of letters / over letters, indecipherable as anything / written by desire"—recalls the poet’s characterization of pornography as "longing’s repetitive texts," an echo that not only dignifies what conventionally is considered sordid, but also draws his own poem into the same orbit, since this lyric constitutes something "written by desire" and includes "a dirty story" too.

In the ironically labeled "dirty story" that the speaker relates, the man in the bathhouse "nudg[es] his key toward me, / as if perhaps I spoke another tongue." The key, like a tongue, is a physical sign of sexual invitation: Come to my room. The key is also, of course, a stereotypical phallic symbol, an image of sexual penetration (as immortalized by Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams). But it also carries the biblical resonance of access to paradise, since Jesus presents the believer with keys to the kingdom of heaven. These connotations of the image of the key return at the poem’s end with the speaker’s characterization of the city as "inescapable"—not because it’s "ledgered and locked," but because "the secret city’s boundless," unconfined by physical parameters. This idea and its metaphoric elaboration owes something to Emily Dickinson’s brilliant exposition on the scope of poetic imagination, "I dwell in Possibility—" (poem 657).

In the end, Doty’s city is ablaze with a fire that may be both infernal, the hellfire of damnation, and "pentecostal," the divine fire of spiritual transformation, as invoked several stanzas earlier. The image of "charred gates" evokes the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, destroyed by the fire of God’s wrath for, among other things, the sin of sodomy. Yet there are also mythological and camp connotations to this image of the city "on fire," since it is both "the secret city" that arises, phoenix-like, from "the public city," and an urban space aflame with homosexuality (a flamboyant gay man is known colloquially as a flaming queen or, simply, a flamer). The phoenix is an important mythological reference for Doty, as the title of his most recent memoir,Firebird (1999), suggests. Indeed, for Doty, fire is an image not only of destruction but also of transformation, a figure for metamorphosis embodied by the phoenix. These multiple meanings are all condensed in the single phrase "and on fire."

"Homo Will Not Inherit" is a religious and a political poem. A brief summary of recent gay history may provide the context to help readers appreciate fully this poem’s ideological significance. Its second line refers to "bathhouse steam," and its "dirty story" describes a bathhouse sexual encounter. Bathhouses are gay sex institutions, places men go to have sex with each other. (Many of the scenes in Larry Kramer’s 1978 novel, Faggots, are set in bathhouses and convey their atmosphere well.) Bathhouses flourished in the 1970s and early 80s in U.S. cities, but in the late 80s and 1990s they were blamed for the spread of AIDS and, in major gay metropolitan centers such as New York and San Francisco, were shut down. As a poet of the AIDS epidemic, Doty is taking a political risk by describing bathhouse sex in such rhapsodic, unabashed terms. His poem’s title, "Homo Will Not Inherit," conjures the idea of inheritance as dependent on death. In the 80s, U.S. political discourse suggested that gay men had inherited death itself as a result of too much sex in places such as bathhouses. This political discourse overlapped with religious fundamentalist rhetoric, which claimed that AIDS was God’s judgment on unnatural sex (the fact that more heterosexuals than lesbians were dying from AIDS was conveniently overlooked). Doty’s poem turns these antigay assumptions on their heads by treating bathhouse sex as paradisaical and deeply spiritual. In his description of "worshipping a while in his church," he even alludes—comically and sacrilegiously—to a camp euphemism for cocksucking: having church is slang for blowing guys, because one kneels in front of a standing man in order to fellate him in a semipublic space. Church is also gay slang for the bathhouse.

When the speaker refers to the moment "after we’d been, you understand, / worshipping a while in his church," his idiomatic expression lightens the predominantly defiant tone of this poem with a comic note. And with the apparently throwaway phrase "you understand," we realize that he’s addressing not only the person who wrote the antigay slogan, but also his gay readers: the "you" who composed the slogan would not understand this euphemism for cocksucking, but the gay reader does. This style of double address—in which things are said that one audience will miss while another audience gets it—defines camp, a mode of presentation associated with both homosexuality and artificiality. Camp sensibility, which often comprises nothing more than a certain oblique way of looking at things, infuses Doty’s work without diminishing its seriousness.

Earlier in "Homo Will Not Inherit," there is another campy moment when the speaker describes "a xeroxed headshot / of Jesus: permed, blonde, blurred at the edges // as though photographed through a greasy lens." This is Hollywood’s Jesus, a figure so processed and contrived as to rival advertising images, 70s gay porn images, classic movie star images. This is kitsch Christ, the leader of a religion worthy of acolytes such as Tammy Faye Baker. We might even say that this Jesus—bleached, permed, and ready for his close-up—is in drag. The significance of drag in Doty’s work leads us to his poem on this website, "Esta Noche."

Copyright  © 2000 by Tim Dean

Kimberly W. Benston: "Amiri Baraka: An Interview"

enston: How would you do a self-criticism, for example, of The System of Dante’s Hell?

Baraka: Well, first of all, in terms of form, it tended at times to be obscure. The reason for that is that is that I was really writing defensively. I was trying to get away from the influence of people like Creeley and Olson. I was living in New York then and the whole Creeley-Olson influence was beginning to beat me up. I was in a very closed, little circle—that was about the time I went to Cuba—and I felt the need to break out of the type of form that I was using then. I guess this was not only because of the form itself but because of the content which that form enclosed, which was not my politics. The two little warring schools that were going on then were what I call the Jewish-Ethnic-Bohemian School (Allen Ginsberg and his group) and the Anglo-German Black Mountain School. I was caught between the two of them because they were all literary buddies and so forth. So I wrote the novel defensively and offensively at the same time because I was trying to get away. I literally decided to write just instinctively, without any kind of preunderstanding of what I was shaping-—just write it down.

[. . . .]

Benston: In the early poetry, is there at any point an attempt to create the same kind of clarity you achieved in System, to attain a similar freedom from what you’re calling the Creeley-Olson influence?

Baraka: The poetry of that period was still definitely relying heavily on the Creeley-Olson thing. But, while the Creeley-Olson thing is still here in the poetry’s form, the content was trying to aggressively address the folks around me, the people that I worked with all the time, who were all Creeley-Olson types, people who took an antipolitical line (the Creeley types more so than Olson’s followers—Olson’s thing was always more political). I was coming out saying that I thought that their political line was wrong. A lot of the poetry in The Dead Lecturer is speaking out against the political line of the whole Black Mountain group, to which I was very close.

om "Amiri Baraka: An Interview" from Boundary 2, Winter 1978. Copyright © 1978 by boundary 2.

David Ossman: Interview with Baraka

What [did you learn from] . . . the Black Mountain people, and [William Carlos] Williams?

From Williams, mostly how to write in my own language—how to write the way I speak rather than the way I think a poem ought to be written—to write just the way it comes to me, in my own speech, utilizing the rhythms of speech rather than any kind of metrical concept. To talk verse. Spoken verse. From Pound, the same concepts that went into the Imagist’s poetry—the idea of the image and what an image ought to be. I learned, probably, about verse from Pound—how a poem should be made, what a poem ought to look like—some little inkling. And from Williams, I guess, how to get it out in my own language.

[. . . .]

Does your being a Negro influence the speech patterns—or anything else, for that matter, in your writing?

It could hardly help it. There are certain influences on me, as a Negro person, that certainly wouldn’t apply to a poet like Allen Ginsberg. I couldn’t have written that poem "Kaddish," for instance. And I’m sure he couldn’t write certain things that have to deal with, say, Southern Baptist church rhythms. Everything applies—everything in your life. Sociologically, there are different influences, different things that I’ve seen, that I know, that Allen or no one knows.

From The Sullen Art. Copyright © 1963 by David Ossman

Helen Vendler: On "Negro Minstrelsy" in The Dream Songs

The fiction of The Dream Songs .. is that its two protagonists are "end men" in an American minstrel show. This common form of vaudeville (still seen in my childhood) presented, while the curtain was lowered between vaudeville acts, banter between two "end men," one standing at stage left, one at stage right, in front of the closed curtain. The end men were white actors in exaggerated blackface, whol told jokes in an exaggerated Negro dialect, one acting the taciturn "straight man" to the buffoonery of the other. They addressed each other by nicknames such as "Tambo" or "Mr. Bones" (the latter a name referring to dice). The unnamed Friend in The Dream Songs, acting as straight man and speaking to Henry in Negro dialect, addresses Henry as "Mr. Bones" or variants thereof. Henry, the voluble, infantile, and plaintive chief speaker, is the lyric "I" of the songs: he never addresses his "straight man" by name. Henry’s own colloquial idiolect (sometimes represented in third-person free indirect discourse or second-person self-reproach) is not exclusively framed in any one dialect, but rather exhibits many dialectical influences, from slang to anarchism to baby-talk.

One can see that there is no integrated Ego in The Dream Songs: there is only Conscience at one end of the stage and the Id at the other, talking to each other across a Void, never able to find common ground. …

From Helen Vendler, The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition (The T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures at the University of Kent), (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1995), 35-36.

Helen Vendler: On "Dream Song 384"

The aesthetic problem Berryman sets himself when he decides to write actions and discourse for his unmanageable Id has been solved here, as elsewhere, by relying on broad cartoon-like strokes. The Id is represented in several ways: by incoherence of affect ("O ho alas alas / When will indifference come"); by childish regression of action and words ("I’d like to scrabble till I got right down / away down")’ by interspersed melodramatic nonsense-syllables of revenge ("open ha to see," "grave clothes he & then"); and by a temporary abandon (between the sixteenth and seventeenth line) of end-punctuation of any sort. The final tableau – as Henry in self-pluralizing wish ("we") takes an ax to his father’s casket, rips the decayed wrappings of the corpse, and then drives the ax into his father’s body – resembles in its components an episode out of Poe, but it forgoes Poe’s ghastly ceremoniousness of action and diction: this is why the Dream Songs deserve the name of "cartoon." The reductiveness and garishness and violence we associate with cartoons – and do not normally associate with our "sensitive" therapeutically-presented selves – are Berryman’s startling comic means toward representation of his irrepressible Id. Cartoon-strokes enable him to render his life-donnée in literary terms, at the considerable cost of an occluded and alienated authorial self, concealed behind its puppets.

 
 

From Helen Vendler, The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition (The T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures at the University of Kent), (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1995), 51-52.

Lea Baechler: On "Dream Song 384"

In 384, composed in the late sixties a few years before Berryman’s suicide, the poet’s inability to comprehend John Allyn [his father]’s action and forgive it translates into an anger so violent that it results in an imagined assault on the father’s corpse. Open to rather intensive Freudian interpretation, the poem is stripped of all the hopeful figurations of light and usual funerary offerings – "The marker slants, flowerless, day’s almost done." The poet announces, "I stand above my father’s grave with rage," revealing that he has made this imagined "awful pilgrimage" more than once "to one / who cannot visit me, who tore this page / out." … The last line articulates a desire to destroy the starting point, that is, both the father himself and the fact of his suicide. As progenitor, the father is thus Berryman’s "start"; the father’s suicide is the "start" of the poet’s lifelong misery and the beginning of his residence in "the country of the dead" (Song #279). The irony in that desire to fell too late "the start" that is, the corpse of the father who has lived, begat, and willfully ended his life – compounds the rage and impotently the poet experiences in response to what is irreversible.

 
 

From Lea Baechler, "Berryman, Roethke and the Elegy" in Jay Parini, Ed. The Columbia History of American Poetry (New York: Columbia U P, 1993), 620-621. Copyright 1993 by Columbia University Press.

J. M. Linebarger: On "Dream Song 384"

The emotions that Henry expresses toward his father are as we would expect, ambivalent. Thrice he explicitly states his continuing love for his father (143, 145). But rage and despair dominate the last reference to the father, in the penultimate Dream Song. Henry stands before his father's grave, longing not to be darkly moved by the thought of hiS father’s suicide. Unable to feel indifference he spits on the grave; and he ends the poem in a vicious and mad wish to re-kilI his father:

I'd like to scrabble till I got right down  away down under the grass  and ax the casket open ha to see  just how he's taking it, which he sought so hard . . .                                                              & then Henry  will heft the ax once more, his final card,  and fell it on the start.

Henry's presence at the gravesite is only an imagined scene if William J. Martz is correct in saying that Berryman never returned to it. The angry wish to kill the father is a result of the emotions that Henry has suffered because of his father's death—fear, angst resentment, a sense of desertion. These are the emotions that Berryman finds dominant in the first two of Stephen Crane's "Sullivan County Sketches." Like Berryman, Crane was only a boy when his father died. Berryman feels that the sketches are based upon that loss and present a "world . . . of perfect aloneness, in which relations are possible only through rage and fear" (37-40). Henry's fear and aloneness are clear in other Dream Songs; his rage is fully expressed in the scene of axing his already-dead father. That Berryman had the "Sullivan County Sketches" in mind as he wrote Song 384 is suggested by the phrase "his final card"; the first sketch presents a mysterious old recluse who plays cards with a younger man and "cleans the little man out and howls ‘GO.’" ". . . We have here," Berryman says, "a fantasy on Crane's father and the child's sense of abandonment (impoverishment) as his resented death . . ." (Stephen Crane, 39)

from John Berryman. Copyright © 1974 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.

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