The Art of Description by Mark Doty

2 posts

A Hazy (Blue) Shade of Winter

Though not an artist, I love to wrestle with the use of color in poetry. Like the Internet, it giveth (in professional hands) and taketh away (in amateurs’).

For a pep talk on the matter, I often refer to Mark Doty’s The Art of Description, where he considers the value of color — when used lightly and effectively (and ah, there’s the rub!). Let’s audit the course and listen in to his lecture:


“A beautiful use of ‘oppositional color’ appears in an early poem of A. R. Ammons’s:

 Winter Scene

There is now not a single
leaf on the cherry tree:

except when the jay
plummets in, lights, and,

in pure clarity, squalls:
then every branch

quivers and
breaks out in blue leaves.


“There are no cherries here, but we can’t help but see a small burst of color when we hear the word, and then how rich that final blue becomes when it ‘breaks out’ in the space where only a little potential red and green have been. It seems fair to say the poem’s ‘about’ the blue of winter—blue light on snow, blue winter twilights, that wintry shade in the western sky after sundown.

“It’s surprising how strongly the naming of particulars brings color into a poem’s perceptual web. This stanza by Robert Has arose across the continent from Ammons’s poem, and uses only ‘silver’ and ‘golden’ as signposts to render a lushly austere summer landscape:


The creek’s silver in the sun of almost August,
And bright dry air, and last runnels of snowmelt,
Percolating through the roots of mountain grasses
Vinegar wee, golden smoke, or meadow rust…

(“That Music”)


“Roots and grasses, vinegar and smoke and rust: perhaps this stanza comes as close to a painting (impossible, longed-for accomplishment) as a poem can get.”


As you can see, this brief foray into color gives pause. It gives reason, too — reason to revise your existing poems with color in mind. Subtle yet powerful color. The kind that implies as much as it paints.

J. Crew Poetry Clues


My daughter, once a huge fan of J. Crew clothing, introduced me to the wonderfully-entertaining (if you like words) J. Crew catalogue. Heck with the clothes. There one would find color names that looked more at home in a biosphere than a coloring book. What would I do to be employed by J. Crew, my job not to model clothes and look good (not on my résumé in either case), but to invent creative and sales-inducing names for colors!

This all rushed back to me as I was reading Mark Doty’s The Art of Description, part of Graywolf Press’s “The Art Of” Series. In that book, Doty ventures on a side trip–a Huck Finn-like raft trip, if you will–devoted to poetry writing and the use of color. All poets use colors as part of their descriptive toolbox, but do they keep J. Crew (that famous Lake Poet manual) in mind?

“How does color get onto the page, into the reader’s internal eye?” Doty asks. “Certainly not by naming it,” he concludes.

And yet, as writers, how often do we do just that? In fact, if we use the Word function to search and highlight words we tend to favor (read: overuse), most of us are likely to see a color. For me, it’s green. Yes, I use it creatively at times, but the fact is, it remains your garden-variety GREEN.

To make his point, Doty starts with the term “the red door.” He shows how adding modifiers for different textures as a dimension can improve the description: “the rough, scraped red door.” Then he takes it another step, calling on J. Crew for some how-to:

“Readers may remember when every mailbox in America sported the J. Crew catalog, with its nouveau prep clothes, every T-shirt or sweater available in a range of colors with memorable names: pool, pine, sierra, stone. It’s marketing kitsch, but those writers knew what they were doing; the word not only makes us see the color in a way that a more straightforward name never would, but also invokes an inviting world of associations, the aqua spells of pool, the scented cool of pine. It’s an indirect way of naming, and it avoids the problem of color words that can seem as flat as Crayola hues, and tend to lead to lying anyway. When we refer to leaves as green or bark as brown, we reduce language to a debasing perceptual shorthand. Every leaf is made up of a complex interaction of shades, tones that shift as light does. Watch a Russian olive toss in the wind in sunlight!…What you see is as far from “green” as the appallingly named “flesh” of the crayon boxes of my childhood is from the beautiful variety of human skin. Even to say the phrase “Russian olive” is to bring something of the flashing, always-moving aspect of those leaves with their silvery undersides into speech, if only by association.”

This riff also brings back the basic color rule of never being obvious, repetitive, and insulting to our readers. You don’t say “green leaf” or “white snow” or “blue sky” when that is a reader’s normal association anyway. You employ color only when it defies expectations.

Or at least that’s step one. As Doty (J. Crew catalogue in hand) proves, it’s more subtle than even that. Careful modifiers and associations that might make your readers do the equivalent of clicking “Add to Cart” come into play.

Pretend you have that dream job from J. Crew, in other words. Next time you write a poem, put that cool scent of pine strategy to work!