They belong to different generations, come from different roots, live in different places. But both are poets whose work is at once deeply personal and universal. Lucille Clifton lives in Maryland where she has been the state’s Poet Laureate. Mark Doty is at home in Massachusetts; his poetry has won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award. Two poets, two lives, kindred spirits, writing about a world of living and dying.
BILL MOYERS: They belong to different generations, come from different roots, live in different places. But both are poets whose work is at once deeply personal and universal. Lucille Clifton lives in Maryland where she has been the state's Poet Laureate. Mark Doty is at home in Massachusetts; his poetry has won the National Book Critics' Circle Award. Two poets, two lives, kindred spirits, writing about a world of living and dying. I'm Bill Moyers. Join me for the Sounds of Poetry with Mark Doty and Lucille Clifton.
Funding for this program is provided by the Herb Alpert Foundation and by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Corporate Funding is provided by Mutual of America, building America's future through pension and retirement plans, encouraging dialogue and discussion, the spirit of America, Mutual of America.
Second Opening Sequence
[Montage of poets' voices]
MARK DOTY [speaking to audience]: My life, like the life of a great many Americans, has been scoured by the AIDS epidemic. Nothing in my times has inscribed and transformed my experience as that whole constellation of experiences has. This poem was the gift of a dream. It's called "The Embrace."
"You weren't well or really ill yet either;
just a little tired, your handsomeness
tinged by grief or anticipation, which brought
to your face a thoughtful, deepening grace.
I didn't for a moment doubt you were dead.
I knew that to be true still, even in the dream.
You'd been out — at work maybe? —
having a good day, almost energetic.
We seemed to be moving from some old house
where we'd lived, boxes everywhere, things
in disarray: that was the story of my dream,
but even asleep I was shocked out of narrative
by your face, the physical fact of your face:
inches from mine, smooth-shaven, loving, alert.
Why so difficult, remembering the actual look
of you? Without a photograph, without strain?
So when I saw your unguarded, reliable face,
your unmistakable gaze opening all the warmth
and clarity of you — warm brown tea — we held
each other for the time the dream allowed.
Bless you. You came back, so I could see you
once more, plainly, so I could rest against you
without thinking this happiness lessened anything,
without thinking you were alive again."
BILL MOYERS: Do you feel fortunate to be a poet, to take those almost inexpressible emotions — most of us find it really hard to express grief and loss — and turn them into something that does last?
MARK DOTY: What I felt grateful for was having something to make because I was face-to-face with experiences over which I felt completely powerless. You can't do anything to stop a terminal illness. You can't stop the course of time. But, one thing I could control was the shaping, the ordering of my own language. So I could make something to serve as a kind of vessel for what I felt, a representation in that moment in time. And there I had some authority. Now that — that's a small consolation, in a way. It is a small gesture against loss. And yet, over time, that gesture becomes a larger one because that work of making something for yourself becomes translated into a gift for other people.
BILL MOYERS: How do you take something so deeply felt, so inaudible as grief, and work it, find the language that conveys it, and transmits it, that communicates it?
MARK DOTY: This is the place where the poet's craft, our love of the sheer physical pleasures of language, its sonics, its textures, its rhythms, is an enormous ally. Because I might write a poem which begins in raw and inchoate feeling. Most of my poems do begin that way. They come tumbling out of me. And then, that's not a poem. That's a cry. That's an utterance that is unshaped and it feels completely for me.
BILL MOYERS: You put it down…
MARK DOTY: I put it down, the words…
BILL MOYERS: …you let the words flow, cascade?
MARK DOTY: …I let them flow, I let them come out wherever they will. Uh, when I come back to those words, it's easy to see that they're not capable of giving my feelings, a version of my experience, to someone else. It's that act of standing back from them and beginning to shape the language that makes the poem start to be available to another person.
LUCILLE CLIFTON: Uh, my mother wrote poetry. My mother didn't graduate from elementary school. My daughters tease me because they say that every time I talk about my mother, she gets less and less educated. You know? They said they wait for the day when I say, "The woman knew absolutely nothing." Actually she was a very smart lady. And somehow — I don't know how it happened but she received a letter asking that some poems — if some of her poems could be put in a book. And my father would not let her do it. I always hasten to say that this is not because he was an evil man; it's because it was in the '50s. Some of you remember the '50s. And men thought they could tell you what to do. When I remember my mother's hand — putting her poems into a cold stove — as I stood on the steps and watched, I understood the meaning of fury.
she is standing by
glisten like rubies.
her hand is crying.
her hand is clutching
a sheaf of papers
she gives them up.
jewels into jewels.
her eyes are animals.
each hank of her hair
is a serpent's obedient
she will never recover.
remember. there is nothing
you will not bear
for this woman's sake.
MAN IN AUDIENCE: As poets, a lot of times you write about very personal things. And then there comes a time when you have to speak those words. How do you express it without falling apart, so to speak?
MARK DOTY: The poem begins in passion and it begins in experience. And then, happily, there's a long process of shaping and of craft where you get to be distracted from what you felt by the form of the poem. So, by the time it comes around to reading it to an audience, it's a made thing. It's not life anymore. At that point, at a reading, it's not about how I feel anymore, you know. It's for you.
LUCILLE CLIFTON: It's probably a mistake to immediately suffer some kind of pain or whatever and to immediately think I can write about this. It takes patience. It takes time — not to get over it because you never get over it. But you do not get over things, but you learn to incorporate them into your life. And after a certain kind of time you are able to — you are sometimes able to deliver them to others without a lot of cost. But you always feel, if it is authentic, it seems to me that you do feel things and feel them as you read. And I don't think that feeling in front of others is a bad thing.
A year ago July, I had a kidney transplant. My youngest daughter donated her kidney to her mother. And, it is not lost on me, or on her, that she was the child that I tried — I tried stuff that's still illegal not to have her. She knows this. She always says that if I — if she would have been able to talk, she would have said, "Give me 30 years. You're going to need me." And, indeed, I did. So when I think about that, and when the doctors talk to me about possible rejection, I thought there is no way this kidney is leaving this body. This is for Lex.
When they tell me that my body
I think of thirty years ago
and the hangers I shoved inside
hard trying to not have you.
I think of the pills, the everything
I gathered against your
bulge; and you
my stubborn baby child,
hunched there in the dark
refusing my refusal.
suppose this body does say no
to yours. again, again I feel you
buckling in despite me,
fastened to life like the frown on
an angel's brow.
I was writing for twenty-something years before I was ever published. Remember that I grew up in the 50s, in the 40s and 50s, and at that time I never saw anybody like me publishing anything anywhere. So it never occurred to me that it was possible to do so. Absolutely never occurred to me. But I realized then that there was a difference between writing poems and publishing poems.
It is hard to remain human on a day
when birds perch weeping
in the trees, and the squirrel eyes
do not look away, but the dog ones do
another child has killed a child
and I catch myself relieved that they are
white and I might understand except
that I am tired of understanding.
if these alphabets could speak their own tongue
it would be all symbol surely;
the cat would hunch across the long table
and that would mean time is catching up,
and the spindle fish would run to ground
and that would mean the end is coming
and the grains of dust would gather themselves
along the streets and spell out:
these too are your children. this, too, is your child.
MAN IN AUDIENCE: There are times that when I write poems that I cannot decide where to take it or how it wants to be written. How do I overcome that?
LUCILLE CLIFTON: It's not something that you're sure of when you're doing it. I think one doesn't write out of surety, you know. I think that it's interesting to know that poems are not about answers, they're about questions, I think, and I also think that people think of them as the end of something. I think that poems are the beginning of something and that when poems happen, they don't happen like there's the poem and then it closes. It's here's the poem and then it opens, hopefully if it's alive.
MARK DOTY: The name of the store is the title of the poem. It's called "Fish-R-Us."
of coppery eyebrows
suspended in amnion,
not one moving —
A Mars, composed entirely
of single lips,
each of them gleaming —
this bag of fish
(have they actually
traveled here like this?)
bulges while they
to the new terms
of the big tank
at Fish-R-Us. Soon
they'll swim out
into separate waters,
but for now they're
shoulder to shoulder
in this clear and
burnished orb, each fry
about the size of this line,
too many lines for any
bronzy antique epic,
a million of them,
a billion incipient citizens
of a goldfish Beijing,
a Sao Paulo,
a Mexico City.
They seem to have sense
not to move but hang
fire, suspended, held
at just a bit of distance
(a bit is all there is), all
facing outward, eyes.
(they can't even blink)
turned toward the swollen skin
of the sac they're in,
And though nothing's
actually rippling but their gills,
it's still like looking up
into falling snow,
if all the flakes
were a dull, breathing gold,
as if they were
streaming toward —
not us, exactly,
but what they'll
they're small enough
— live sparks, for sale
at a nickel apiece —
that one can actually
see them transpiring:
they want to swim
forward, want to
eat, want to take place.
Who's going to feed
or cherish or even see them all?
They pulse in their golden ball."
BILL MOYERS: Would you read this?
MARK DOTY: Absolutely. This is from a longer sequence called Atlantis, the characters in the poem are a friend, Michael, and my late partner. His name was Wally Roberts.
Michael writes to tell me his dream:
I was helping Randy out of bed,
supporting him on one side
with another friend on the other,
and as we stood him up, he stepped out
of the body I was holding and became
a shining body, brilliant light
held in the form I first knew him in.
This is what I imagine will happen,
the spirit's release. Michael,
when we support our friends,
one of us on either side, our arms
under the man or woman's arms,
what is it we're holding? Vessel,
shadow, hurrying light? All those years
I made love to a man without thinking
how little his body had to do with me;
now, diminished, he's never been so plainly
himself — remote and unguarded,
an otherness I can't know
the first thing about. I said,
You need to drink more water
or you're going to turn into
an old dry leaf And he said,
Maybe I want to be an old leaf
In the dream, Randy's leaping into
the future, and still here; Michael's holding him
and releasing at once. Just as Steve's
holding Jerry, though he's already gone,
Marie holding John, gone, Maggie holding
her John, gone, Carlos and Darren
holding another Michael, gone,
and I'm holding Wally, who's going.
Where isn't the question,
though we think it is;
we don't even know where the living are,
in this raddled and unraveling "here."
What is the body? Rain on a window,
a clear movement over whose gaze?
Husk, leaf little boat of paper
and wood to mark the speed of the stream?
Randy and Jerry, Michael and Wally
and John: lucky we don't have to know
what something is in order to hold it.
BILL MOYERS: Why do you write?
MARK DOTY: Why do I write? You know, you have probably heard this answer before. I think because I don't have the choice, because, it is the way in which I know who I am. And I perennially find that if I don't give shape to my experience in language, if I don't spend time in the crafting and honing of that experience in words, I don't feel real to myself. It's as if the layer of experience which completes it is the act of writing, the act of naming what I've felt and what I've known.
LUCILLE CLIFTON: September 15th was the 35th anniversary of the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, with four little girls in it. So on the 15th I was thinking about how they would be women now — how one of them might have solved some of the problems of the planet.
"Have you heard the one about the shivering lives, the never-to-be-born daughters and sons, the one about Cynthia and Carol and Denise and Edy Mae? Have you heard the one about the four little birds shattered into skylarks in the white light of Birmingham? Have you heard how the skylarks, known for their music, swooped into heaven? How the Sunday morning strains shook the piano? How the blast is still too bright to hear them play?"
I think of myself as a servant of poetry. And it is my job to defend the poem even against the poet, which is the hard part. Derek Walcott has a line, something about going for a walk. And someone says, "Where are you going?" And he says, "I'm following the poem, going where the poem is going."
MARK DOTY: I write for the person and it's hard to say who that is but it's sort of a kind of interior companion, a shadow person, if you will, who's really on my side, really wants to understand me but needs things very carefully explained. And it's sort of like the message-in-the-bottle approach, you know. The poem is sent off and you don't know when, where, if somebody's going to open that bottle who really can receive it and go there with you.
One of my favorite poems in the world is Reiner Maria Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo" which is a poem about encountering a beautiful ruined statue in the Louvre, an antique Greek figure which is now headless. And despite the fact that this figure is broken, Rilke looks at it and sees how incredibly alive this work of art is, despite the fact that it's just a fragment.
His poem begins "we cannot know what his fantastic head was like."
This is also a poem about encountering a fragment, and I've borrowed Rilke's opening, which you will hear in another version a few lines into the poem. This poem also makes a reference to the great Renaissance painter Giotto, and Giotto's frescoes have this blue that, that represents the celestial, that represents heaven, and it is a sock-you-in-the-eyes blue. It is of that intensity and power.
This is called "A Green Crab's Shell."
Not, exactly, green:
closer to bronze
preserved in kind brine,
from a Greco-Roman wreck,
patinated and oddly
muscular. We cannot
know what his fantastic
legs were like —
of armament, crowned
by the foreclaws'
gesture of menace
and power. A gull's
gobbled the center,
leaving this chamber
— size of a demitasse —
open to reveal
a shocking, Giotto blue.
Though it smells
of seaweed and ruin,
this little traveling case
comes with such lavish lining!
the brilliant rinse
of summer's firmament.
What color is
the underside of skin?
Not so bad, to die,
if we could be opened
into this —
if the smallest chambers
revealed some sky.
You're so nice! Thank you.