The Art of Description
Graywolf Press, 2010
Most of us have felt it, and not only the writers among us: the urgent desire to describe an event, a feeling, an object as precisely and evocatively as we can, followed by a frustrating sense of our language’s inadequacy to the task. In The Art of Description, Mark Doty writes that we have a sense of “life not having been really lived until it’s narrated”, which, as Whitman understood, is both demon and bird, a curse as well as a blessing. One need not be a deconstructionist to recognize that moment when language gives out; “you just had to be there” has become the customary signal for such a failure. But even within that depleted phrase is a desire to connect, to share one’s experience—and by extension oneself—with someone else. Description, Doty writes, is a “real gift”, as “the pleasure of recognizing a described world is no small thing.”
Luckily for us, Doty—a prolific poet and prose writer himself—has got it bad. His contribution to Graywolf Press’s “The Art of” series is less a how-to book than a meandering meditation on how description works, and why we bother in the first place. Though he humbly claims to fail in his own borderline-purple description of a fireworks show (he may just be trying too hard), he is transported by the descriptive powers of poets as diverse as Elizabeth Bishop, Henry Vaughan, George Herbert, Allen Ginsberg, Hart Crane, May Swenson, and Susan Howe. Doty’s wide reading lends him the requisite authority, but it also enables the breadth and quality of attention that description requires. What is often invoked in his readings is where and how beautifully description fails: “Description is made both more moving and more exact when it is acknowledged that it is inevitably incomplete.” Aware that the pernicious theoretical “mistrust of language” threatens to smother the baby in its crib, he makes an appeal for a “middle ground” between renouncing referentiality altogether and “cleaving to an outdated notion that words can be controlled.”
Doty implies that a poem by definition is a description, not only of the world but, even more often than prose, of the writer’s self. This is nothing new; most of what Doty has to say isn’t. The concept of translating the “world into word” (the phrase is emblazoned across the book’s cover) is particularly tired. But this does not necessarily detract from the book’s value; any reminder to pay attention to our surroundings and revisit even the most familiar poem is always worthwhile. English literature students who may have wearied of Bishop’s “The Fish” (which gets a chapter-long treatment) or Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” will be invigorated by Doty’s enthusiasm, while those new to poetry will get lessons in how to read a poem and in how to balance between “saying what you see and saying what you see.”
Indeed the central, gentle plea—“argument” is too strong a word—of Doty’s idiosyncratic book is for us to pay attention. One cannot observe in a hurry: Doty suggests that such “looking and looking causes time to open; sustained attention allows us to tumble right out of progression.” Doty links physics and poetry, stating that we can never be certain of the truth of what we see because our observation affects reality (quantum mechanics must have been in the air when Blake wrote “For the Eye altering alters all”—or perhaps 19th-century physicists were just breathing in all that metaphysical lyric). It is the poet’s task to record these shifts in reality as well as the uncertainty that they carry within them. And it is the tension between precision and uncertainty that fuels the most powerful description.
It is to his credit that Doty does not allow his eagerness to cloud his understanding of some ethically problematic issues, such as assigning voices to animals—an ability they neither want nor need—in order to somehow “understand” what they must be thinking and feeling. Language is the human compensation for existential distance; to give speech to animals, even in poetry, is to force this distance upon them. Throughout his discussion of Elizabeth Bishop’s “heroic” fish, Doty points out how precise observation and metaphor allow the speaker to begin to apprehend the fish’s experience of being caught, and yet—and this is the trick—how such precision leaves space for, and even becomes about, the “strangeness” that “persists”. It is easy to forget that when we are making a poem, searching for, according to Coleridge, “the best words in their best order”, that we can never really say what we mean. Doty reminds us that “It’s the unsayability of what being is that drives the poet to speak and to speak, to make versions of the world, understanding their inevitable incompletion, the impossibility of circumscribing the unreadable thing living is.”
Because Doty shows himself to be this careful with language, it is especially surprising to find that, at times, he views the real-life effects of language rather uncritically for a poet. He forgets, for instance, that the Nazis, with their corrupt poetry of propaganda, did not quite subscribe to the view that “the more we can name what we’re seeing, the more language we have for it, the less likely we are to destroy it.” It was the power of naming that helped destroy “undesirables”; one need only think of the various invented names for Jews and the meanings imposed upon the word “Jew”. Doty reasons optimistically that if we can name the plants in a forest, the less likely we are to raze it, but he does not seem to consider that language can also “mean” in the wrong direction.
“Every object rightly seen unlocks a new faculty of the soul”, wrote Emerson. If there were such a thing as secular religion, the act of description might be its practice: close attention always contains an element of reverence for the thing observed, and to describe it “rightly” is akin to the “unlocking” of the soul that is prayer. When that object is the Divine, the dilemma becomes even more urgent: after that first soul-unlocking, how dare we presume that our fallen language is adequate to describe, let alone communicate with, a power beyond all speech? Doty cites George Herbert’s “Prayer” as an example of just this conflict. Herbert, a 17th-century scholar and Anglican priest, was keenly aware of the paradox of prayer, how the ultimate failure of description (a form prayer often takes) can actually be its fulfillment: only when one’s faith in language is exhausted can that faith be reanimated by the unspeakable mystery of God. Specific and evocative throughout most of the poem—he compares prayer to an “Engine against th’ Almightie, sinner’s towre,/ Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear”—Herbert ends with the indeterminate phrase “something understood”, a moment of divine contact in which language becomes hazy and falls away.
Good description knows when to resist its own energy, to “name the object of…attention without the least depriving it of any of its mystery.” It seems a cosmic joke that vision, our primary sense and the one from which we draw our metaphors for understanding, more often “wrongly” than “rightly” sees, and in fact cannot see the connections between us which we most desire. It is no accident that Herbert ends his poem not with sight, but with the sound of church bells, the feeling of the soul’s vitality, and the imagined scent of spices. Finally, though, it is “Something understood”, something metaphorically seen, that is the prayer’s answer. Doty suggests that the act of writing, of shifting between world, self, and word, is thus a kind of faith, a “joy and scruple, privilege and duty” whose moment of failure might also be one of transcendence.
Rachel Abramowitz is reading for a DPhil in English literature at Christ Church, Oxford.