Saturday, March 21, 2009

Mark Doty and The Politics of Self-Importance (Part One)

When one thinks of the word self-importance, immediate negative connotations come to mind: wrong-headed self-image, conceited, vanity, etc. I would like to make the claim that self-importance in relation to the plight of homosexuals in America should be seen as a completely different entity. In a society that denies gay men equal rights, in a society that wishes they were dead, in a society where gay male youth are statistically more likely to kill themselves than their straight counterparts, I think that self-importance can be a good, if not necessary, thing. Who else is going to tell us that we are worth something, that we, indeed, matter? Gay men need more than pride. They need hubris. And definitely, a sense of self-importance.

Self-importance is crucial. I think that some of the early Mark Doty poems, especially at the time they were published, knew this. And this accomplishment cannot be taken for granted.

I will definitely spend time with this idea in my mind as I write these posts about Doty. In certain poems, Doty locates the self-importance in the narrative or lyric "I", but when one looks closer at the poems with that "I", the first person pronoun is actually a referent to a whole group of disenfranchised people: male homosexuals. This is what makes a group of his poems excitingly polemical. Their importance cannot be undervalued.

As Doty's career evolved, that "I" becomes something else, more often than not, a presumably autobiographical "I" that refers to himself in way that is much more limited, but not necessarily insignificant. Or at least not completely so. This essay-in-parts wants to examine the way this self-importance, once radical and subversive, has changed into something else.

One cannot ignore the reason as to why not more critiques have not been offered of Doty's work. For someone who has such a stronghold on the poetry market place, people are undoubtedly concerned about their own careers, and the reception they may or may not be granted as a result. I don't think there's very many writers--straight or gay--who would not want Doty's stamp of approval. This must be noted and understood as a deterrent to honest critique of his poetry.

My future posts do not aim to be a disavowal of Doty's accomplishments, but instead a supplement to his own work. It is a necessary critical interrogation I'm sure Doty would want as well. As one of the most popular and influential poets of his generation, we must determine the aesthetic and/or political and/or ethical and/or spiritual limitations and potentialities of his work through rigorous close readings, sometimes that are against the grain.

The politics of self-importance is one way to enter into an analysis of his poetry.

My next post will be a close reading of an early Doty poem.


  1. Do you think his I collapsed into singular self-reference when he wrote his first memoir?

  2. Hi,

    I get a little nervous about marking a particular moment as to when this shift occurred. And as a person invested in creative non-fiction, I don't want to blame this collapse on memoir. At the same time: pretty much yeah.

    For me, the hugest political shift occurred with the book "The Source" (2001) which I'll get to later in a post.

    At the same time, "Heaven's Coast" appeared in early to mid 1990s, as far as I remember. So: maybe this isn't quite correct. But perhaps that landmark memoir simply foreshadowed this shift of an "I" to one that is more self-indulgent, more apolitical. Writing grief is a self-indulgence after all. One needs Time to do such a thing.

    This is not to say that self-indulgence is a Good or Bad Thing, but as something that needs to be evaluated in a case-by-case basis.

    After all gay men are so busy fighting and being subjected to discrimination, why shouldn't they have their own indulgences as much as their heterosexual counterparts?

  3. I worked on an essay about the lyric "I" in nonfiction. What's so troubling about the "I" in memoir is that it is so stable. It's where all the "truth" trouble comes in. Of course the I is the author. In poetry, that's not necessarily the case. I worry that when poets put on their memoir hats, they make the "I" singular and then return to that poetry with that same single focus.
    Memoir--the true self-indulgence. How do you bring the slippery "I" back to the poetry? How do you bring it to the memoir in the first place?