Friday, November 7, 2008

Living as variously as possible (An Inflorescence - Mark Doty & Frank O'Hara, poets)

In-flo-res-cence - from the Latin inflorescere - to begin to blossom. 1. the producing of blossoms; flowering; 2. the arrangement of flowers on a stem or axis; 3. a flower cluster on a common axis; 4. flowers collectively; 5. a solitary flower, regarded as a reduced cluster.

This Friday sees an abbreviated version of my occasional poetry series An Inflorescence (see my side bar), today featuring contemporary New York poet Mark Doty whose own site I found in a round about way via Books, Inq. a new favorite place.

He has Frank O'Hara's gravestone, pictured on his website, which was reason enough for me to linger

"Grace to be born and live
as variously as possible"

Indeed. I am a rabid O'Hara fan, as you may know - 1, 2, 3, - I have read some of Doty's poems before, but only noticed today in Signal, which he posts in full on his site, how evocative he is of O'Hara. Not in form, Doty is more formal, as in 'adhering to form' as opposed to 'featuring repressed subject matter,' and I like that in a poem. Look at the orderly vertical column of paired lines in Signal.

LOST COCKATIEL, cried the sign, hand-lettered,
taped to the side of a building: last seen on 16th

between Fifth and Sixth, gray body, orange cheek patches,
yellow head. Name: Omar. Somebody's dear, I guess,

though how do you lose a cockatiel on 16th Street?
Flown from a ledge into the sky he's eyed

As with O'Hara, he takes modern colloquial trademarks and plays with them by formalizing them as poetry. Here the abbreviated language one would find in a sign becomes the quick, blunt rhythm of New York City. He "letters" the poem, with caps and italics, as the sign would be lettered - a sort-of meta poetry. His diction is colloquial as is O'Hara's, using phrases like "Not likely" or conjunctions like "everybody's." This poem has two other O'Hara-esque features - one is a sense of humor, though with its own Doty-ish character, being less breathless, more refined, than O'Hara. Here is an excerpt of O'Hara's Steps:
...where's Lana Turner
she's out eating
and Garbo's backstage at the Met
everyone's taking their coat off
so they can show a rib-cage to the rib-watchers
and park's full of dancers with their tights and shoes in little bags
who are often mistaken for worker-outers at the West Side Y
why not
the Pittsburgh Pirates shout because they won
and in a sense we're all winning
we're alive

A little crazy, it sounds like he just ran up a flight of stairs and he's bursting to tell you what he saw, and yet it is soooo good.

The other wonderfully O'Haran thing Doty does in a way totally his own is create accidentalish quality to the language that makes me feel as though he wrote it there on the street on a tiny scrap of paper so he wouldn't forget it. This casualness is belied by both the poem's form, as well as the thoughtful journey it takes (on the subway, actually) but it is one of the features that marks the poem of its time and place - my time, my city - in a way that I adore in O'Hara and and now in Mark Doty's work too. The poem is inherently readable and there is pleasure in appreciating its surface qualities. Yet, if you do a little work, it reveals more - complexities of structure, word play, urban images, artistic references... all sorts of fun. Dive in if you're game. Here's the whole poem.

Happy Friday. I'm off to an exam on neurotransmitters.

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