Visions are not as far from ordinary life as we sometimes think, and artists need to live as if revelation is never finished. (Mark Doty, What Is the Grass, p. 31)
WHAT IS THE GRASS: WALT WHITMAN IN MY LIFE has been called one of the most anticipated books of 2020. And for anyone who knows the writing of poet and memoirist Mark Doty, that's certainly the case. I caught a Zoom (virtual) interview that he provided this summer and promptly ordered a copy of the book -- and knowing the book would probably devour hours when I "ought to be working," I waited a little longer.
Then gave in. So, fair warning: Be ready to clear six to eight hours from your schedule to savor this book.
I had two reasons for particularly wanting to read this, beyond being a fan of Mark Doty's poetry. First, I'm writing a series of novels set during the prelude to the Civil War, and since that's the time Walt Whitman wrote Leaves of Grass, every scrap of detail on that time and the emotional life of a vivid speaker then can be golden. I need these.
Second, I'm wandering in the land of memoir, trying to find the very personal balance of telling enough — because there are things that I did that, even now, look adventurous and intriguing and worth talking about — and not telling too many things that are best left unsaid. Since Doty has managed this before, most powerfully in My Alexandria but also in his poems, I wanted to learn more. (See some reviews I've written that circle around some of Doty's work, here.)
What I found is a book that walks several journeys at once: Whitman's into becoming the first "American poet" (leaving behind European fuss and feathers); America's in developing its own language; and Doty's braided experiences of both love and physicality that celebrate (eventually) his love of other men. But the book is also a langorous paddle along the river of life itself, from childhood to maturity to the contemplation of the dead.
The dead are not lost, but in circulation; they are involved in the present, in active participation. Bits of them are streaming through your hand and mine, just as language is circulating through us. Lexicon and materiality forever move onward and outward in the continuous wheeling expansion this world is. This is no mere philosophical proposition on Whitman's part, not an intellectual understanding but a felt actuality. We are alive forever in the endless circulation of matter. Nothing luckier, stranger, or more beautiful could ever happen. There is no better place.
Doty probes Whitman's own coming of age in the 1840s, in an era when the words "homosexual" and "heterosexual" weren't yet available. He touches on the warmth and affection that was customary among young adults of the time, men with men in particular. More, he fingers the period when movements and associations to better the lives of humans were exuberantly rising. For Whitman, writes Doty, "Either his character was shaped by the decade or happened to be a perfect fit; the expansive, optimistic curiosity of the times was superbly suited to his own."
For poetry lovers, Doty's explanations of how Whitman's lines, repetitions, and stanza breaks created and nurtured the energy of Leaves of Grass and especially of the poems "Song of Myself" and "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" provide the detail and illumination of perhaps an entire term (or more) of a wonderful literature seminar. For those who love plot more than the words that tell it, the binding of Whitman's life and Doty's can fascinate -- because, as in his earlier books (even the ones focused on dogs), Doty writes love stories. Not soppy ones, but surprising, inventive, redemptive ones in full chest hair or leather harnesses, in risky interludes, in committed long-term discoveries. And this book, dedicated to Doty's husband Ethan, is first to last a love story, "It's a matter of magnitude, of what leads one to step into one's largest self, and to enter into experiences that inscribe themselves so deeply into us as to become benchmarks in a life, unforgettable. ... I have never loved anyone in quite the way I do Ethan. We spent a long time coming to know one another physically, in the present tense, and from our bodies all else has proceeded."
Indulge yourself with this book. It will surely inform and shape how I write my own next novel, or next poem (it already has done the latter). May it enrich your season ahead, and bring this powerful writer into the circle of the people you enjoy listening to.