I admire “The Art of…” series from Graywolf, meant to “restore the art of criticism while illuminating the art of writing.” I’m not sure the art of criticism needs to be “restored” but the art of writing can always use more illuminating, and these books are solid, somewhere between long magazine articles and full books of criticism, both in their length and their readability.
Doty’s is the first of the series that I’ve read cover to cover, mostly because it’s such a joyful rendering of the work of written description, “joy” here meaning not necessarily happiness but full, heartfelt engagement with the experience, satisfying openness to what it is. Also winsome is Doty’s appreciation of every size or density of description, from spare poetry with quiet spaces and gaps, to poetry piled up with phrases and catalogues of experience.
You’ll learn the necessary lingo reading this book, and some practical techniques, for sure, but these aren’t presented as much as they are a lively part of Doty’s reflections on the value, frustrations, and pleasures of each subject. It’s a small, short book, but it feels expansive because Doty lives his subject in front of us–describing describing. He’s not just telling us anything, he’s practicing the work, embodying the challenge, as he goes.
Specific highlights of the book for me include: Doty’s discussion of “exactness” in Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish.” His “six principles of principles of figurative speech” accompanying a discussion of May Swenson’s “Little Lion Face.” And many of the more random, personal observations in his “A-Z of Description” that make up the second half of the book.
(Buy Mark Doty’s The Art of Description: World into Word.)