Mark Doty

Mark Doty

A weeklong electronic journal.
May 1 2000 9:00 PM

Mark Doty

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I've been carrying a poem in my head for days, and yesterday a first wild shapeless bit of it came tumbling out, the raw beginnings. That's usually how it works for me—something gestates a while, seems to grow more insistent, as if the little magnet of an image that is at the core of the poem were hard at work, drawing meanings and associations to itself, gaining focus, preparing to be born. It usually comes gradually—a few lines and phrases first, then, in a while, the rough sprawling first draft. I'd thought—since I already had a rough beginning, that today might be the day; my poem might be ready to happen.

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I do mean "happen," with its suggestions of something taking place outside of my volition. Of course, I'm participating; those are my fingers moving over the keyboard, but there's always some sense that a poem is a conversation between what the poet wills and something else. I think of it as the given. I have to wait for the given to come. And then I have to work with all my might to wrestle it into something readable, something clear or whole—but if the given isn't there, all my labor's bound to be for naught—a poem can't be constructed out of will alone.

Here's what I thought I would do. Take the dogs out to the woods, on our morning ritual (a quick stop for coffee and a muffin, then a short drive to the edge of a realm of forest and pond that's half town land, half National Seashore, where we walk till I am more awake and the dogs are breathless and slow, their excited galloping steadied to a meditative lope). Make coffee, without talking much, glance at the headlines, and Paul would wander off to his desmesne upstairs while I move toward my study, my cave of books and totem objects. I might fiddle with some things on my desk, light a candle, decide against reading my e-mail, then sidle up to that computer file and begin to read over the bit of the poem I've written, seeing whether it's ready to move. What I have so far are just fragments, bits and pieces: a start, but the real matter is yet to come.

That's what I'd planned. But the sun came out.

This year, spring in Massachusetts has hardly felt like a spring at all—or rather like some archetypal old rawboned New England spring, the stuff of legend: brave daffodils butting their heads up into bluster, nesting finches blown out of the forsythia by gale winds. Today started out drizzly and gray as ever, but just as I was considering getting myself to the desk, the sun actually came out and stayed out—unbelievable! People tumbled out of their houses like characters in one of those old musicals where the doors and windows open and a town suddenly comes to life. We've had it, we've been penned in, bundled up, looking out at the rain. But today the sky was a dramatic scoured-clean blue, one huge irresistible invitation, and the poem—well, the poem would have to wait.

Which is not a bad thing, at least up to a point. There's something to be said for delay, for allowing an impetus to gather momentum. You can let the perceptions and encounters of the day also come to bear on what's gathering. I like the period of gestation, the sense that I'm carrying some invisible coming-into-being. A poem can be delayed too long—ignored, the impetus might wither or drift away. But a day in the sun, a day of big end-of-April skies—how could that hurt?

And it's not like I have a choice anyway; what is given, today, what insists on itself, is light. We're starved for it. So it's out into the garden, replacing little white Christmas lights we keep in a big Norway maple over our deck all year and which have burnt out. Time for the roses' first feeding of the season—I have big climbing ones, spectacular things, deeply happy to live in this climate; Provincetown may feel raw and chill to us late into the spring, but the roses are entranced. My favorite, a showy, overblown pink called Madame Gregoire de Staechelin, is only 9 years old, but its thick main trunk, scrambling up the clapboards, is as big around as my wrist.

Then another walk: to town, the coffee bar, and the harbor, which is completely awash in the brilliant light, the air so clear you can see across Long Point to Truro, even make out the roofs of cottages on the opposite shore. This clarity seems to heighten everything. Light picks out the details of things as if it were enjoying them, pointing to what we ought to notice: the lascivious tumble of stuff brought in from the bay, for instance— clamshells, rusty bolts, seaweed, snails, bits of broken china. The dogs wade up to their bellies, a little wind riffling their ears. As we're walking under a derelict pier, a pigeon lands on the boards over our heads, and for a minute in this strong sun it's almost blinding, that gray and white, and the opalescent throat—even the pigeons seem perfect! Later for my poem.