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Doty, Mark (b. 1953)  
 
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Author of several volumes of poetry and two major memoirs, Mark Doty, winner of the National Book Award for poetry, is one of the most celebrated American poets to emerge from the 1980s and 1990s. Doty helped bring the AIDS narrative and the experiences of gay men to a wider audience through emotionally resonant stories, a richly stylized poetic voice, and poems characterized by brilliant language and a polished surface. His work universalizes themes of loss, mortality, and renewal.

Most notable in this respect are the highly praised volumes of poetry My Alexandria (1993) and Atlantis (1995) and the prose memoir Heaven's Coast (1996), which deal poignantly and frankly with the failing health and ultimate death of Doty's partner Wally Roberts. My Alexandria was chosen by Philip Levine for the National Poetry Series, won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was a National Book Award finalist. The volume also won Britain's T. S. Eliot Prize, making Doty the first American to earn that honor.

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In 2008, Doty was awarded the National Book Award for poetry for Fire to Fire: New and Collected Poems.

Beginnings

Born in Maryville, Tennessee, on August 10, 1953, Doty is the son of an army engineer. His father's job necessitated the family's frequent relocation, to places in Tennessee, Florida, southern California, and Arizona. In his memoir Firebird (1999), Doty recounts growing up as a "smart bookish sissy with glasses and a Southern accent." The book, which spans Doty's childhood and adolescence, describes a troubled family life and explores the poet's early recognition of his homosexuality. It emphasizes how the idea of beauty affected Doty's growth as an artist.

In 1971, at age eighteen, Doty, apprehensive about his homosexual urges, hurriedly married fellow poet Ruth Dawson. The two poets co-wrote three chapbooks, work to which Doty no longer feels an allegiance. At this time, Doty was attending Drake University in Iowa, after which he earned an MFA in creative writing at Goddard College in Vermont. In 1980, feeling that he must live life as an openly gay man, Doty ended his marriage and moved to New York City, where he soon met Roberts, the man who would become his partner of 12 years.

Doty published what he considers his first book, Turtle, Swan in 1987. The debut volume was praised by Marianne Boruch in American Poetry Review as a "stunning arrival" and lauded by Booklist for universalizing gay experience and showing "an example of how we live, how we suffer and transcend suffering." A much discussed poem from this first book is the stirring "Charlie Howard's Descent," which meditates on the true-life tragedy of a young man from Bangor, Maine, who was thrown off a bridge by homophobic teenagers in 1984. Doty's indictment of is eloquent and forceful.

Doty's second book, Bethlehem in Broad Daylight (1991) was also warmly received. Its poems are both formally accomplished and emotionally accessible. An exemplary poem from this book is "The Death of Antinoüs," which features the Emperor Hadrian holding the "chiseled liquid waist" of the statue of his lost love. The poem ends: "Longing, of course, / becomes its own object, the way / that desire can make anything into a god."

The Best of Times, Worst of Times

In 1989, Doty and his partner were tested for the HIV virus. Doty tested negative; Roberts tested positive. After a steady decline of five years, Roberts succumbed to AIDS-related complications in 1994. His diagnosis and failing health are the subject of Doty's emotionally searing third book My Alexandria, a volume widely considered the poet's best collection of poetry. It was responsible for his breakthrough into the literary spotlight.

In My Alexandria Doty explores mortality and the impending loss of his partner. In doing so, he, somewhat paradoxically, creates poems rich in linguistic beauty and stunning in their insight. The poems' expressions of grief are by turns quiet, intimate, angry, and demanding, but always graceful and lucid. For example, in "The Wings," Doty writes:

Don't let anybody tell you

death's the price exacted
for the ability to love;

couldn't we live forever
without running out of occasions?

"The Wings" is a long poem in several sections that makes absence a presence as it moves from an auction where the treasures of the dead are sold, to a heart-wrenching scene where the speaker tenderly describes the ghosts that make up an AIDS quilt. Near the end, the poem takes on a prayerful tone and the speaker calls for "the encompassing wings of the one called / unharmed" to enfold his dying lover.

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Mark Doty. Photograph by Mark Lacey.
  
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