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Mark Doty’s Theory of Beauty (Greenwich Avenue)

21 September 2009

firetofireI consider Mark Doty to be a philosophical poet. This doesn’t mean that his poems are all about philosophy or that they directly discuss philosophical ideas, but that he relates his poems and the elements in his poems with a philosophical edge. He writes about everyday things and situations and people, then adds that little phrase or line that makes you think a second longer about what he just said. He talks about beauty and truth in a way that, while certainly philosophical, makes it part of the human condition. I love this about him.

One of the poems that I think does this best is Theory of Beauty (Greenwich Avenue). You can read it here. When the page opens, click “Next” to get to the poem.

I think this poem’s summary is in its last three lines, which I am in love with:

…beauty resides not within
individual objects but in the nearly
unimaginable richness of their relation.

In the poem, he sees a display of clocks in a shop window. The clocks themselves are nothing extraordinary, but he finds himself drawn to the beauty of the collection of clocks. The beauty, he says, is in their relation to each other, their clockness, and at the same time their ability to be so different and still all be the same thing.

The first line sets the scene: “Thirty-seven clocks in five tiers.” A simple scene, nothing out of the ordinary for a city street. He goes on to list a few of the clocks, and states that they are not beautiful or attractive. But his initial reaction to the clocks, to look and then walk away, turns into something strangely deep and powerful:

the urge to turn back to the stepped rows

and suddenly the preeminently important thing
is their fulfillment of the category clock.

In his mind, the clocks shift from being just clocks to participating in the category of clock; it is their participation in this category and the variety of ways that they do so that captures his attention.

The term “category” probably refers to Plato’s theory of Forms. Plato believed that all things in the world (chairs, noses, etc.) were imitations of Forms, and what made things chair-like or nose-like was their participation in the Form of the Chair (or nose). Mark Doty’s ideas about the clocks participating in the category of clock are similar:

the divergence of means
of occupying that name, honoring the terms
and intent of it but nonetheless

presenting a various set of faces
to the avenue…

The clocks are all different, yet they all fulfill the requirements of a clock. A few lines further on in the poem, Mark Doty writes:

the range of possibilities within any single set,
and what is pleasing is not the individual clock

…but the degree

to which it belongs and at the same time
pushes toward the edges of difference

He admires how much room for variety there is in the category of clock, how even though they all participate in this category they are so unique and they have their own qualities as well as the qualities of a clock.

What I love about this poem is Mark Doty’s ability to turn such a simple, unassuming image—a display of clocks in a shop window—into a profoundly philosophical experience. He sees in the clocks the relationship between an object and its Form (or category); he sees a representation of beauty, hidden in the faces of a multitude of clocks—mundane objects that are merely useful, sometimes (but not in this case) decorative. He shows us how to find beauty in things we may not normally notice, and he shows us the importance of that beauty.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. 25 September 2009 21:32

    Yes, he’s definitely a philosophical poet. I think the best summation of how he thinks beauty works is in “the House of Beauty”:

    If beauty is burning, what could you save?
    The house of beauty is a house of flames.

    And this is wholly anti-Platonic. Plato thought the real things were the categories, because the things we see are transient: but Doty thinks the beauty is because of the transience, maybe it’s the transience itself. Or as Peter Beagle’s unicorn puts it, only things that can die are real.

  2. 8 July 2011 16:51

    Its simply great i agree with the the writer mark doty sure is a philosophical poet. He searches for deep spiritual meanings in ordinary materialistic objects which may seem banal or obsene to others. His poems like Green crab’s shell and Embrace written in the memory of Wally Roberts are full of such metaphysical concepts which need to be explore.

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