Sometimes the most understated of metaphors holds the most easily overstated ideas. It was that perfect middle ground between meaningful and meaningless that one poet bared to a bereft audience Monday night.
The Department of English and Purdue Libraries brought Mark Doty to Fowler Hall as the keynote speaker of the 82nd Purdue Literary Awards.
An anonymous donor provided the money to fund this reading and many years of Purdue’s Literary Awards to come. Perhaps it was fitting this came as an anonymous gift, which was in line with what the introductory speaker coined Doty’s “theme of generosity.”
“It is a scene nearly impossible to describe, so I set out to describe it,” Doty said.
Those words were spoken before reading the night’s first poem, aptly titled “Description.” He set up his challenge then surpassed it, as anyone in the audience could not deny this was a poet of astounding adjective command. In the question and answer session following the reading, one man posed that Doty “painted” with his word choice.
“(People) want to describe things to bring them into ourselves,” Doty said.
Often Doty used animal behavior or facets of nature to reflect upon aspects of human nature, pain and desire. This abstract reflection occurred in describing the beauty and overwhelming feelings nature inspires within us. In a school of “millions of minnows” he sees our anxiety in becoming individuals, not blessed like so many animals are with anonymity and being of identical form.
“There is a deep something in what it means for us humans to look at animals living at a different pace, that we live in a different kind of time,” Doty said.
Jon Baum, a junior in the College of Liberal Arts and an enthusiastic attendee, thinks this method of metaphor works exceptionally well.
“I’ve loved how he often uses dogs and the cherished things they do as a vessel for addressing so much of human emotion and experience,” Baum said. “Our social anxieties, deeply held customs and the like all seem so wrong, or at least misguided, when one simply observes a dog play. Like the one he read tonight about the dog playing in a cemetery, disgracing the grave markers.”
Though his words are undoubtedly moving on paper, the proving of any literature reading is in its verbal presentation. Doty’s delivery came through what sounded like gritted teeth, placing emphasis that these were, indeed, the words he wished to speak. There was a methodical yet not cold delivery to his every word, even as his sentences came out at an excited pace. His voice rose and fell in intensity and tone as he moved freely from the philosophical to the quixotic during his poetry.
Jessie Rotkowitz, a senior in the College of Liberal Arts who also attended the reading, found Doty’s writing a joy to listen to in person.
“He has this keen sense of what makes us human, and he can see it in the least human inspirations,” Rotkowitz said. “His vulnerability and confrontation of that vulnerability make for incredibly moving experiences when you hear him, even if it’s about the more concrete stuff he spoke of tonight, like a salt marsh or an empty hair salon burning down. His words, even when appearing vapid, drip with meaning.”
For all of the empathy and emotional revelation Doty’s work instilled in his audience, it was the line “their Hell brothers, the mosquito,” that earned him the loudest audience reaction – boisterous laughter. Doty is certainly an artist capable of eliciting in his readers the full spectrum of emotional response. It’s hard to imagine not learning from this experience. As Doty said, any great poet shifts your perception.