BOOK REVIEW: The Art of Description by Mark Doty

The Art of Description: World into WordThe Art of Description: World into Word by Mark Doty
My rating: 5 of 5 stars page


Usually, when a book isn’t what one expected, a feeling of disappointment accompanies that mismatch between expectation and experience. For me, this was the rare exception to that situation. I expected more of a how-to manual and less of a collection of essays. [I also expected a book that was less poetry-dominant and which touched upon prose writing to a greater extent. But that was entirely my oversight.] Anyhow, I think I got far more out of this book than I would have if it had been the book I expected. It encouraged me to revamp my thought process about writing description — be it poetic or prose.

The book is short, consisting of six chapters that take varied approaches to the subject. The first few chapters build on an idea that the art of description requires insight both into perception and into the nature of that which we become conscious. That is, one is not trying to perfectly describe the full extent of the world that lies before one. If one did that: a.) one would fail; b.) the reader would not be granted insight into what captures the writer’s eye – i.e. insight into the mind of the artist; c.) one’s writing would become drudgery to read. [I recently started Yukio Mishima’s “The Temple of Dawn” and he begins the first chapter with dense, wall-to-wall description of the story’s Bangkok environs, and I found the thicket of description was losing me. It should be noted that after that opening, the readability becomes excellent – i.e. very story- and character-centric.] There are certainly other issues discussed in the first four chapters. One idea that resonated with me was Chapter two’s discussion of the importance of how we perceive time (as opposed to the orderly pace at which it unfolds,) and the role of temporal perception in description.

The penultimate and final chapters are quite distinct, both different from each other and from the preceding chapters. Chapter five, entitled “Four Sunflowers,” presents four poems that feature sunflowers to show how various poetic masters take on a given subject. The four poems are by William Blake, Alan Shapiro, Allan Ginsberg, and Tracy Jo Barnwell. The final chapter follows a glossary format, and is entitled, “Descriptions Alphabet.” This section actually makes up about half of the book, and it considers a range of relevant topics in an ABC format. Some of these topics are discussed in more detail than others, and are of greater importance than others. Discussions that particularly resonated with me were one on “Economy” versus “Excess,” one about metaphors, similes, and Figures of speech, and those on Qualifiers, Sonic quality, and Verbs. In this chapter, the author delves into the value of common advice that is often (unfortunately) delivered in Biblical – i.e. “thou shall” / “thou shalt not” form. The point being that it’s often bad practice to follow such advice so dogmatically.

As I said, I got a lot out of this book. It’s a quick read, but loaded with food-for-thought. I’d highly recommend it both for poets and for prose writers. (Though, as I mentioned, it’s very much directed toward poets, e.g. all of the examples come from poetry. That said, the approach to thinking about description can be of value to any writer.)

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