Oliver's humanity shines through when she writes about love – for the ocean, people she has lost, and her dog Percy, who says of books, "I ate one once."
The poet gets in her own way, however, when she muddies her work with sweeping statements or political comments, such as:
We will be known as a culture that
and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity
for the few and cared little for the penury of the
These fall flat because they lack specificity and detail, which gives poetry so much of its power. They also ask readers to supply the emotion and resonance rather than the poet.
Oliver has far more impact when she does the hard work of helping others view the world through her lens. Yet where she acts as a "window" for her poems, Mark Doty holds a magnifying glass to his subjects. He uses language as a way to highlight a moment, elevate it, and unearth hidden depth and meaning.
Fire to Fire, his new and selected poems, illustrates how he has done this over the past 20 years.
Striking imagery and a powerful imagination are two of his best tools, as evident in his earliest poems. When Doty writes about an Easter contest in "Ararat," for example (from "Turtle, Swan," 1987), he doesn't recall an egg, but an oval full of glorious possibilities.
What might have coiled inside it?
Crocuses tight on their clock-springs,
a bird who'd sing himself into an angel
in the highest reaches of the garden,
the morning's flaming arrow?
Any small thing can save you.
The descriptions are surprising yet spot-on, and the precise imagery provides the perfect balance for plainer, more conversational phrasing.
Doty seamlessly blends the two, allowing him to pull a reader into the poem, loosen his hold ever so slightly, and then pull him or her in deeper.