Through work that critics have deemed “transcendent,” “intimate,” “gutsy” and even “miraculous,” Mark Doty has established his place as one of the most prominent voices in contemporary American poetry.
He is the author of eight collections of poems, including My Alexandria (1993), winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award; Sweet Machine (1998); Source (2001); School of the Arts (2005) and Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems (2008), which earned him the National Book Award for Poetry. Doty has also authored four memoirs, most recently the New York Times‘ bestseller Dog Years(2007).
Yet on the way to his many accomplishments, Doty has certainly traveled some difficult roads. Born into a nomadic military family in 1953, Doty was, as he put it, a “chubby smart bookish sissy with glasses and a Southern accent newly arrived from unimaginable places.” He faced many struggles in his youth, and fled a troubled home at age seventeen. After graduating from Drake University in Iowa, he moved to Manhattan, where he worked temporary office jobs and studied part-time at Goddard College in Vermont to earn his M.F.A.
It was in New York that Doty met Wally Roberts, his partner of twelve years, and then published his first book of poetry, Turtle, Swan, in 1987. Roberts was diagnosed with HIV in 1989, and his struggle and eventual death in 1994 was a devastating turn in the poet’s life. But as ever, Doty persevered and began to write about the couples’ experiences, the major subject of his regarded collection Atlantis (1995) and his first memoir Heaven’s Coast (1996), winner of the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction.
His writing has always refused to yield to complacency or compromise; as one reviewer noted, “we find Mark Doty exploring new territories and questioning himself at every turn.” He makes the notion of beauty a central concern in his work, often drawing a radiance and energy from sources that others would leave to be forgotten. Seizing upon the power of examination and understanding, he constantly reveals the ways in which, as he claims in one of his poems, “Any small thing can save you.” Poet Mary Oliver praised Doty’s “intense search for the exact word or phrase, of whatever issue, which lead him (and us) into the very furnace of meaning within the human story,” and called his poetry “ferocious, luminous and important.”
Doty’s writing has been featured in an array of literary publications, including The Atlantic Monthly, The London Review of Books, Ploughshares, Poetry, and The New Yorker. He has received a Whiting Writers Award, two Lambda Literary Awards, and is the only American to have won the U.K.’s T. S. Eliot Prize. He has also been awarded fellowships from the Guggenheim, Ingram Merrill, Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest and Rockefeller Foundations, as well as the National Endowment for the Arts.
Doty has been a faculty member at the University of Houston, the Juniper Summer Writing Institute, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and recently served as the inaugural judge for the White Crane/James White Poetry Prize. He currently teaches at Rutgers University.
In the Airport Marshes
A kind of heaven,
this clamor, a lulliloo:
“to shout joyously,
to welcome with cries,
from a cry of joy among
some African peoples”:
Webster’s New International,
1934, a foot-thick volume
as this patch of marsh.
Today I require the term
and there it is—these definitions
wait to be lived,
actual as these frogs,
who chorus as if
there’s no tomorrow,
or else they’ve all
the time in the world.
We ruin the rain,
they go right on,
this year. Hard to imagine
the eagerness of a body
which pours itself
you have to take on faith,
since all they seem
to be is chiming Morse
belling out long-short
over the parched tarmac
of the runway. I never till now
needed the word lulliloo.
How do you reckon your little music?
Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems (2008)
My Alexandria (1993), chosen for the National Poetry Series by Philip Levine
Bethlehem in Broad Daylight (1991)
Turtle, Swan (1987)
Dog Years, New York: HarperCollins, 2007
Mark Doty on Poets.org
Doty’s essay “Tide of Voices: Why Poetry Matters Now”