Monday, March 23, 2009

Mark Doty and Rapture as Middle-Class Luxury

No one can hold it against a gay man for having money. No one can hold it against a gay man for choosing to write poems about having money. Although I do find it odd that Mark Doty hasn't more explicitly interrogated his own economic status in his poems, and asked himself what that ultimately means in the construction of his poetic persona.

I'd like to take a look at the new poem "Theory of Marriage" featured in "Fire to Fire."

Middle-class gay men have a reactionary stance when class is brought up. Perhaps they are firmly invested in the discrimination they receive for being queer, but don't want to examine other more complicated issues regarding class, race, etc. etc..

What concerns me about the poem "Theory of Marriage" is that it seems to construct rapture as something that can be obtained through middle-class luxury. There seems to be no self-insight about the ostensibly unintentional comedy in this idea. Always invested in the idea of spiritual rapture/ecstasy, Doty no longer equates rapture with promiscuity, as he does in such poems as "Tiara"-- a justifiably radical defense of sexual behavior nowadays.

No. Now Doty sees his own middle-class status, the buying of a masseuse as a conduit to spiritual transformation.

This poem is ostensibly autobiographical. In his poem Mark and his partner Paul go see masseurs. In separate rooms, they receive their treatment, unable to see each other. They hear audible expressions of the other's pain/pleasure and unsure if each other is done with their massage, they continue with "the bliss" that becomes an exhaustion. They each spend more on their own massage simply out of respect to the other, not wanting to rush him:

..And he must think as I must think as well,
since I am still releasing the contained sounds of one

pushed into new life...

It should be emphasized here that the continuation of their sessions with their respective masseuse increases the cost of their venture.

As Doty himself writes: "In this way we spend a small but substantive fortune"," an explicit naming of middle-class conspicuous consumption. In fact, that quotation appears in an end-stopped line in and of itself. It's one of the few times in a Doty poem his class is named in such an explicit way. Obviously, he is calling attention to his socio-economic status.

Even more important: When Doty uses the phrase "In this way" he explicitly means a leisurely, even if protracted, massage, one that can be bought, one that will bring spiritual transcendence. Here's a description of the purchased rapture:

..vanishing again into the heaven
of rubbed temples, where no city exists except the one

in which the skull produces a repetitive, golden music...

One can "buy" spiritual transcendence. I wish I could claim that the poem shifts in tone to reveal the inflated nature of the this rhetoric. (The schematic closure of the poem indicates that Doty has been cured of his backpain.)

In a crucial way, in a necessary way, Doty uses this same sort of spiritual rhetoric in "Tiara" to defend his friend's HIV-impacted death, and by extension, promiscuity: "I think heaven is perfect stasis poised over the realm of desire...huge fragments/of music we die into/in the body's paradise.../given the ordinary marvels of form/and gravity what could he do/what can any of us do but ask for it?"

Where "Tiara" uses spiritual rhetoric to defend someone "Theory of Marriage" incorporates a similar lyric moment to self-importantly describe his own banal, middle-class experience. Some other new poems also offer this association. This theme makes the poem "about" the spiritual comfort of middle-class ecstasy rather than a "theory of marriage." How's that for false advertising, luring middle-class readers with one thing and then giving them another?


  1. I agree there's a problem with the presumption of class but I have a more general and less well-articulated complaint: it seems a lot of contemporary poetry finds rapture in the ordinary. Which wouldn't be so horrible if it didn't operate under a different sort of privilege--something like "only I understand the truly deep significance in this leather recliner." A combination of the self-indulgent I and the privileges of class perhaps?

  2. Hi,

    I'm wondering though if it isn't especially important for a gay male writers in some ways to be conscious of their class, its impact on lifestyle--especially since gay men are accused of having so much more money (having no kids). Do certain of his poems add to this misconception? This, of course, might not be the artist's responsibility. But still. Young gay men are often homeless, abandoned by their family once they come out. And older ones find a glass ceiling or prejudice from employers.

  3. An interesting line of argument. "Theory of Marriage", from "Theories and Apparitions" struck me as just that: a theory. Reading it, the poem that comes to my mind is "To Caravaggio" from "School of the Arts." It supports your view. The Caravaggio frames nature with art such that the earthly becomes a sign of heavenly rapture. Like Caravaggio's work, the poem touches on blasphemy. It's a fine poem. Something very different stabilises "Theory of Marriage": I read it as a humorous epithalamium, but I see what you mean. The word "substantive" replaces "substantiation" in the religious sense. Does the poem bear an ironical reading?

  4. Hi Eshuneutics,

    I'm glad you wrote a comment! You gave me a run for money with our discussion about Thom Gunn awhile ago. :)

    Great interp. I went back and forth about the ending of "Theory of Marriage." Intuitively for the reason you mention: the possible irony. After all, at the end of the poem, Paul does limp away after the intense massage. And it could be read that when Mark Doty says that his back has been cured, it could lend further credence to what you're saying. Or maybe not. Reading tone is a weird thing.

    I am fighting with reading it as "complete" irony though. (If one of my students used a phrase like "complete irony," I'd roll my eyes.)

    I'm afraid though I might give in the more I think about it.

    At the same time, I just see that lyric move repeated countless times in his poems. To read it as comedy might though be a way of him playing it out in a new way.

  5. I'm sort of with you on this one. Indulgence and affluence centre the narrative...of all the poems in the new volume, this is the one I read quickly and didn't go back to. I think that I have over-emphasised the irony to give myself the pleasure of comfortable reading. I am suspicious of my reading here. I find your thoughts provactively interesting. Delicious! I shall be in raptures soon. Keep going.

  6. Hi,

    I do want to warn you. I know I'll be stealing (hopefully without any detection) ideas on your blog, reshaping them and claiming them as my own. It'll be a covert response to your arguments, postings.