He even treated the first publication of his lifelong project of poetic conversations with America, “Leaves of Grass” (1855), as a social event — working closely with typesetters, selling volumes door-to-door and anonymously reviewing it in newspapers that he edited. (Incidentally, he liked his book a lot.) Whitman didn’t simply “contain multitudes,” as he providentially announced in one of his first and most famous poems, “Song of Myself.” He embraced them.
And yet, as many biographers have noted — and as Mark Doty’s excellent new personal rumination, “What Is the Grass,” confirms — Whitman was a more private individual than he let on. And as a major poet who worked at both evading and establishing his sexual identity, he is almost a perfect topic for Doty, who recalls (in some of this book’s most powerful opening chapters) his own youth spent trying to live his life as others expected him to live it.
Whitman often declared himself a heterogeneous creature of gargantuan American hungers (“Copulation is no more rank to me than death is. I believe in the flesh and the appetites. ... Divine I am inside and out”) who loved men as much as women. And yet his desire for men predominated. When, late in life, he falsely claimed to have fathered six children, he was talking more about Walt Whitman the self-mythologizing poet than he was about Walt Whitman the actual man.
Nobody did more than Whitman to imagine into existence the image of the poet as a renegade speaker of basic human truths. The now famous title-page photo in the first-edition of “Leaves of Grass” depicted him as a slouching, rough-hewed, hip-cocked and loosely bearded worker-as-intellectual; and over the centuries, that posture has been reiterated so often that it almost feels like an American brand, from Hemingway and Mailer to Kerouac and Ginsberg. For while Whitman was possibly the most emblematically American poet that America ever produced, he presented himself as a relatively modest creature of the immediate here and now. He didn’t behave, and wasn’t received, as some typical “Romantic” word fancier too ethereal for the world that produced him (such as Keats, say, or the deeply isolated Emily Dickinson). Whitman’s method was to roam freely among the wild-living and hard-working people who read him.
As Doty declares, Whitman’s poems can only be truly understood in the act of reading them. The poet seems to discover the words, thoughts and rhythms he shares with us even while he sings them. In one of many daguerreotypes of Whitman, Doty describes the poet gazing out at his readers in a similar way:
“Its power to hold our attention rests in the eyes, which are clear and magnetic and look through us to something beyond the viewer. As I look from the eyes to the slight smile and then back to the eyes again, it seems the distance between this face and the world is lit up by love. ... There is nothing over about this face, nothing that has ceased to arrive in the present.”
Whitman loved the camera — and the camera loved him. He was probably the first American poet who knew how to use photographic images to convey a new idea in contemporary poetry — that the poem is never so important as the poet who produced it. Or, at the very least, the poet’s face and body are inextricable from his or her poems.
By presenting himself as a rudimentary human being, Whitman maintained his most intimate privacies. For while he pretended to express himself unashamedly, he often elided his deepest feelings and experiences, such as when he toned down, or even suppressed, many personal, homoerotic images and reflections in his “Calamus” cycle.
Doty has long been one of our best living American poets, and his recent memoirs, including 2008’s “Dog Years,” prove him one of our best prose writers as well. “What is the Grass” doesn’t possess a single inelegant sentence or poorly expressed thought. Doty does what traditional academic criticism often fails to do: He makes poetry part of how we live and how we think about living.
In each chapter, Doty reads Whitman through a personal memory: attending “masked parties” in Manhattan as a youth; sitting “enthroned” on his grandmother’s knee, learning about the eminent pleasures of books; or feeling the invigorated sense of death he experienced on the night his partner suffered a near-fatal motorcycle accident. But he doesn’t simply “analyze” poems or narrate events; instead he continually illuminates how those who love books can grow old reading writers who help make sense of their lives.
Great books and writers, Doty tells us early, mark an “intersection of space and time.” They connect us to their times while helping us better understand our own. And over the years, what they taught us and who we become grow so entangled that we can’t easily tell them apart. “What Is the Grass” provides an excellent opportunity to re-examine the work of one of America’s first major poets through the prose of one of its best living ones.
Scott Bradfield is the author, most recently, of “Dazzle Resplendent: Adventures of a Misanthropic Dog.”
What Is the Grass
Walt Whitman in My Life
By Mark Doty
W. W. Norton. 288 pp. $25.95