What does it say about the amount of time I spent online that I can't remember where I entered the contest to win this book from Graywolf Press? I've got it narrowed down to Twitter, Facebook, or Goodreads, because I follow Graywolf on all those sites.
No matter. I entered a contest, I won the book.
I was tickled to win, because I have some of the other books in The Art Of series that Graywolf publishes. These are wonderful books, slim volumes by a variety of writers on a narrowly focused topic pertaining to writing. The Art of Description is, fittingly, by a poet, Mark Doty.
Now, Mark Doty and I have a bit of history. A few years ago he published a memoir called Dog Years, about the role his dogs played in his life following the slow and sad death of his partner. As often happens with books about dogs, they don't get to live forever. I've read enough of these kinds of books to be prepared. And I'm not one to cry when I read--I guess I need more visual clues--but Dog Years had me dissolved into puddles. Seriously, one of the most moving books I've ever read.
When I began reading The Art of Description, I couldn't shake the sadness of Dog Years at first. How stupid! These books have nothing to do with each other! But I had to put it down a couple of times before I could really clear Dog Years out of my brain and focus.
In retrospect, that's not such a bad thing. It tells me that Doty's writing made a strong impression on me, and part of that had to do with description. Let's face it--a man and his dog can be the worst kind of schlock imaginable, and yet, in Doty's hands, it wasn't. So what can we learn from Doty about writing description?
Quite a lot. Doty approaches the topic seriously and thoughtfully. Part of it is a conscious decision process: "Perception is simultaneous and layered, and to single out any aspect of it for naming is to turn your attention away from myriad other things." Part of it is filtered through each individual: "It's incomplete to say that description describes consciousness; it's more like a balance between terms, saying what you see and saying what you see."
Doty chooses examples carefully. Elizabeth Bishop's poem The Fish is examined thoroughly and enlighteningly--even as a writer myself I don't always think about the care and precision writers use when choosing their words. Later, he looks at William Blake's Ah! Sunflower, and then contrasts it with Alan Shapiro's poem Sunflower, which is a direct response to the Blake poem, and how description operates in each of them.
The last half of the book is called Description's Alphabet. Each letter stands for an aspect of description, such as the letter A: "Description is an ART to the degree that it gives us not just the world but the inner life of the witness."
Some of the letter, like A, have very short passages. Others, like C, get longer discussions. C stands for color, and Doty makes clear what needs to happen: "When we refer to leaves as green or bark as brown, we reduce language to a debasing perceptual shorthand. Every leaf is made up of a complex interaction of shades, tones that shift as light does."
And tones that shift according to the perception of the viewer, the writer, and the reader.
This book didn't make me cry :-) but it did make me think. Thanks, Graywolf Press!