Poetry: Mark Doty - Poetry Society, London

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The Independent Culture
The 43-year-old gay man thought by many to be the best poet to have emerged from America in the past 20 years is gingerly easing his long frame down into the Poetry Society's great, steeple-backed Bardic Chair, the one that almost got left behind when the society moved from Earls Court to Covent Garden a few years ago. Easy does it now, the movement seems to be saying, watch that dodgy back, Mark Doty!

He's made it. "I feel like someone should give me a crosier," he says, "very ecclesiastical..." With or without the prop, Doty does look a bit fastidiously ecclesiastical: that marvellous domed head of his with its close-cropped hair, the elegant black suit with its matching black waistcoats, and the olive-green silk shirt. Plus, of course, the sheer intensity of the pastoral gaze in his pale blue eyes...

He inhales deeply, takes a sip from a glass of mineral water, then smiles weakly. "I come to you 'fresh'" - he marks the inverted comas on the air - "from a week's teaching in Devon, bedraggled by aspiring poets demanding my attention for 18 hours a day. What you see is what is left of me..."

Fortunately, what's left of Doty is more than what most of the rest of us started out with. Tonight he reads us poems from his forthcoming collection, and an extract from an autobiographical essay that describes how he responded to the intense public interest in his grief provoked by the publication of Heaven's Coast, the memoir of those final, grief-saturated years with his partner, Wally Roberts, who died of Aids in 1994. There's something odd about switching from poetry to prose and then back again in a single reading. Doty describes how he feels about it. "The spotlight's different. I can take my jacket off. You can relax. The sentences behave differently..."

Doty makes every part of his face work hard when he reads, as if he's concerned to give - and give again - as fully as possible. He peels the lips back from his teeth; the muscles of jaw line tense and relax, corrugating his face. He has a gentle but insistent, if not intense, voice, with still some traces of a Southern accent - his forebears were dirt-poor millet farmers from Tennessee.

One poem - the shortest he's ever written, he tells us - is a sharp rebuttal of some British reviewer's attack on one of his poems. "I've felt enormously grateful to have readers at all," says Doty, "and it's part of the contract we make with any audience that some will like the work and some not..." All the same, this reviewer really got up his nose. "He was talking about the fact that when I described certain qualities of light, I used the same terms - which seemed to suggest that I didn't know any different words!"

Doty knows lots of different words, and he uses them with a marvellously rapturous lushness and extravagance, especially apparent in a poem called "Lilacs in New York City", which contains not only lots of wholesome gay coupling, but also the unforgettable line: "You enter me, and it's Macy's, some available version of infinity..."

"I'd like to say that poem was written with funds from the National Endowment for the Arts," Doty quips.