STARRED REVIEW
April 2020

What Is the Grass

By Mark Doty
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One of America’s most perceptive contemporary poets digs deep into the work of Walt Whitman in search of personal—and communal—signposts.


The poet and memoirist Mark Doty (My Alexandria, Dog Years) has lived intimately and intensely with Walt Whitman’s poetry for decades. As a reader, a teacher, a poet and a gay man, Doty has sought answers in the great American poet’s life and work, and through a lifetime’s deep dive into the muscular and elusive lines of Leaves of Grass, he has continually rediscovered and refined his own connection to Whitman. 

In What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life, an elegant blend of literary criticism and personal memoir, Doty positions this essential American poet in the larger framework of our national literature while chronicling his own deeply personal relationship to the writer who gave birth to new ways of looking at poetry and the world.

Doty draws our attention to Whitman’s great innovations: the invention of American free verse, the transformation of the colloquial into poetic discourse and his unabashed “open inscriptions of same-sex love.” Yet Doty, from his 21st-century vantage point, isn’t content with merely enshrining those daring advances. For him, Whitman is a living voice that reaches across time, “stepping into a readerly present with a directness and immediacy that have never lost their power to startle.” So, as Whitman’s words accompany Doty into intimate moments in his own life—often physical and spiritual encounters with lovers—they come to embody the great human embrace that the 19th-century poet propounded. Doty, of course, can be far more candid with details than his beloved forebear could have ever dared be. He notes that it was Whitman’s depictions of women’s sexuality that often got the poet in trouble in his own time, the meaning of his vibrant homoerotic imagery mostly lost on a society where same-sex relationships were not able to be openly acknowledged.

Doty calls Whitman “the quintessential poet of affirmation, celebrant of human vitality.” What Is the Grass repeatedly confirms that appraisal as Doty seeks the intersection of the spiritual and the corporeal. The details of Whitman’s sexual life remain veiled, and scholars have been reading between the lines for years to parse the truth. Doty is no exception, as he convincingly draws out the elusive meanings suggested by the monumental text. He reminds us that we can never know the whole truth about the dead (or really, about the living) but that “Walt Whitman is language now. . . . His body of work is his only body now, gorgeous, revelatory, daring, contradictory, both radically honest and carefully veiled. Its meaning resides in us,” Doty insists, “in the ways we readers use these poems as signposts, maps, temporary inhabitations—even, sometimes, dwelling places.”

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What Is the Grass

What Is the Grass

By Mark Doty
Norton
ISBN 9780393070224

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