Thinking about my intro for Mark for Saturday evening. Where to start? Here’s my attempt from his reading here two years ago~
By way of introducing Mark Doty, I would like to introduce a koan from a collection of koans called the Mumonkan, or Gateless Gate. This is case 40 of 48. It concerns a monk named Isan and his teacher Hyakujo, the abbot of the Monastery. Isan is tenzo or head cook at the monastery. The Abbot wants to find someone suitable to serve as abbot for a new and very large Monastery. He issues a challenge to the head monk and all the other students. It’s the usual Zen setup: The favored head monk will give a competent but lackluster answer and someone no one expected will come forward with something unprecedented and blow everyone away.
So Hyakujo fills a wooden pitcher with water, places it on the floor, and says: This must not be called a pitcher. What do you call it? The favored head monk says, “It cannot be called a wooden sandal.” Okay, so he’s pointing to the arbitrariness of language. He gets some Zen points for that.
Hyakujo then asks Isan the same question. Isan walks up, kicks over the pitcher and walks out, thus defeating the head monk and then being vested with, as the koan slyly implies, the perhaps questionable reward of becoming abbot.
I could see Mark responding in this way to the Abbot’s challenge. First of all, it pulls off a slightly bitchy, elegant note he strikes now and then in his poems, but more importantly Isan does to the pitcher what Mark does to language: breaks it open and heightens its properties. Negates and celebrates.
It’s a very tired convention to say that language is a wedge between the speaker and reality. Isan’s response does something much more thrilling. It is a pure event, a material correlate of sense, as are Mark’s poems.
What does a pitcher do? It holds water. What happens when the pitcher breaks? We see the water doing what it does.
As Shakespeare does in Hamlet, Eliot in “The Four Quartets,” the very materiality of the poem belies the claim of language’s inadequacy. He is constantly breaking his poems so that we see are invited into the flaw, the place where language breaks down.
In Mark’s gorgeous new book The Art of Description, he talks about Neruda’s quote from the poem, “I Explain a Few Things,” “and through the streets the blood of children/ran simply, like the blood of children.”
Mark’s work isn’t just some pale stand-in for experience. The language is fully alive even as it is at once entirely interrogated. His poems are organic creatures of sound and rhythm and breathing that have the capacity to stretch across time and place and heart. Louise Glück said, via Richard McCann (and I don’t mean that in the FB way) that one of the functions of poetry is to restore us to avidity. This is a quality in great abundance in Mark’s work; it return us to our bodies.
Our capacity for syntax and for the interaction of conversation is primitive and at work before a child is born. The quality of relatedness among human beings is enabled by language in whatever form it emerges. And this is what I think is one of the main contributions of Mark’s work, the deep sense of connection it embodies.
And coming back to the koan, we can read the pitcher to be the body and again, it shows us as Mark’s work does over and over, the fragile unreliable nature of it.
Another feature of Isan’s response is that it’s a way of saying, You’ve set up this competition and I’m not interested. He walks away from the whole setup. In this way, it’s a gesture against scarcity, as in that which ranks one poet against another. Mark’s presence in the poetry world is one of extreme generosity and support of other poets.
I’m thrilled that Mark could come and be part of this series. He’s been one of my most important teachers. What I call a deep tissue teacher, someone whose influence reaches to where my faith flags and introduces a new and more mobile response than whatever habit had been occluding my sense of possibility. I was fortunate to be in Mark’s workshop in Provincetown ten years ago. My journal from this day was simply a page that was blank except for the date, and one word at the top: God. The relief that Louise spoke of –of being restored to avidity.