In Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, Mark Doty’s book-length meditation on art and poetry, he concludes that poems exist “as advocates of intimacy, as embodiments of paradox, as witnesses to earth, here, this moment, now. Evidence, thus, that tenderness and style are still the best gestures we can make in the face of death.” You don’t have to look far to find an example of what he means; just listen to him read his own poem, “Messiah (Christmas Portions).”
Tenderness toward the Earth and to his fellow inhabitants upon it is a central feature of many of Mark Doty’s poems. An embodiment of paradox, “Messiah (Christmas Portions)” reminds us that awe-full is the source of awful. And Doty’s is an awe-full and an awful tenderness, at once subsumed with the beauty and the brevity of everything: the sunset, the performance of Handel’s “Messiah,” and even the lifetime given to the speaker in the poem whose assertion “still time,” is also a recognition that one day he/she will no longer have time to change.
For Doty, the creation of a work of art is not a mere pastime or entertainment. His answer to the oft-repeated question “Do you have to suffer to be an artist?” seems to be: Everyone suffers, whether they are an artist or not. But we are also given a choice: Do we create more suffering, or do we bring more beauty into the world? Doty’s poems are a testament to the power of taking a stand for beauty.
“Messiah (Christmas Portions)” can be found in Sweet Machine and in Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems, winner of the 2008 National Book Award for Poetry. Mark Doty is almost as widely known as the author of several award-winning memoirs, including Heaven’s Coast, Firebird, and Dog Years.
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