Poet Mark Doty Reflects on Community Bonds Forged by Handel’s ‘Messiah’

Poet Mark Doty, winner of the National Book Award, reflects on one of the great traditions of the holiday season: Handel's "Messiah."

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    Finally tonight, one of the great traditions of the holiday season told through the words of poet Mark Doty. Doty is author of more than a dozen books of poetry, essays, and memoirs.

    His most recent volume, "Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems," won the National Book Award.

  • MARK DOTY, author:

    One winter, the Choral Society in the little coastal town in Massachusetts where I lived decided to mount a production of Handel's "Messiah".

    And this was ambitious and exciting, but also, you know, a little daunting. And we weren't really sure how well this was going to work out. But the afternoon that I went to the performance, a beautiful sunset was just beginning to form over the church steeple. And I looked at that and I thought, that is a sure thing. If I go into the sanctuary, well, we will see.

    This is called "Messiah": Christmas Portions."

    "Over the roof, two clouds propose a Zion of their own, blazing colors of tarnish on copper against the steely close of a coastal afternoon, December, while under the steeple, the Choral Society prepares to perform "Messiah.

    "Pouring on to the raked stage, not steep really, but for from here, the first pew, they are a looming cloud bank of familiar angels, that neighbor who fights operatically with her girlfriend, for one, and the friendly bearded clerk from the post office, tenor trapped in the body of a baritone, altos from the A&P, soprano from the T-shirt shop.

    "Today, they're all poised, costume and purpose conveying the right note of distance and formality. Silence in the hall, anticipatory, as this we're all about to open a gift we're not sure we will like."

    Here were people that I saw every week at the post office or the grocery store going about their daily tasks. And, suddenly, there they were in a different space in a new role, and they opened their mouth and out poured this glory. And that's a thrilling thing, when you realize that right there in your community, just under the surface, waiting to break out is the gorgeous fire of this music.

    "How could they compete with sunset's burnished oratorio? Thoughts which vanish when the violins begin. Who'd have thought they'd be so good? Every valley, proclaims the solo tenor, a sleek blonde I've seen somewhere before — the liquor store? — shall be exalted, and in his handsome mouth the word is lifted and opened into more syllables than we could count, central ah dilated in a baroque melisma, liquefied.

    "This music demonstrates what it claims: Glory shall be revealed. If art's acceptable evidence, mustn't what lies behind the world be at least as beautiful as the human voice? The tenors lack confidence, and the soloists, half of them anyway, don't have the strength to found the mighty kingdoms these passages propose. But the chorus, all together, equals my burning clouds, and seems itself to burn, commingled powers deeded to a larger, centering claim."

    There's something about that experience collectively that makes it more powerful. We understand that we're not just by ourselves experiencing this sense of being uplifted, but that we do that communally and that our fellow voices do it for us. We are citizens together in that, that moment of a kind of rapture.

    "Aren't we enlarged by the scale of what we're able to desire? Everything, the choir insists, might flame. Inside these wrappings burns another, brighter life, quickened now by song. Hear how it cascades in overlapping, lapidary waves of praise? Still time, still time to change."