“What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life” by Mark Doty— Biogaphy, Criticism and Memoir

Doty, Mark. “What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life”,W.W. Norton, 2020,

Biography Criticism and Memoir

Amos Lassen

Writer Mark Doty brings together biography, criticism, and memoir as he explores his personal quest for Walt Whitman. He says that he has always felt haunted by “Walt Whitman’s bold, perennially new American voice, and by his equally radical claims about body and soul and what it means to be a self.” In “What Is the Grass”, Doty traces “the resonances between his own experience” and Whitman’s life and work. Whitman asks “What is it then between us?”. Doty searches for an answer, both externally and internally. He meditates on desire, love, and the poet’s enduring work which is a radical experience of transformation and enlightenment, queer sexuality, and an obsession with death and the love for a great city and the character of American speech. Through close readings with personal memoir and illuminated by wonder, Doty shows the power of Whitman’s presence in his life and in the American imagination. What we have is a conversation across time and space, a look at the “astonishment” that Doty finds in Whitman, and his attempt to understand Whitman’s vision of human possibility.

I believe that many gay men have read all or parts of ‘Leaves of Grass’ looking for the lines, that speak to me as a gay male. I understood that such lines of poetry were there and I wanted to know what another gay male, a poet felt about desire. Doty proves that he can give a scholarly look at the work and then write about in ways we can all understand. He delves into the meaning he sees of various passages that Whitman is not afraid to write about and thereby expose.  Doty covers “the etymology of words used and the newness of their use in his collection, the edits he makes over time, the typeset of his words, the quiet, blank spaces, his innovations, and the movement and placement of various passages in different editions.”

Doty sees Whitman as a man both of his time, and out of his time. He further explores Whitman’s family, his readings, his mentors, his motivations, his influence on writers who came after him, and his drives. He writes of Whitman’s genius and how that genius changed the face of American poetry as well as that of the world.  

I once met Mark Doty when he was the guest of the Little Rock, Arkansas library system. Here was a man who inspired me with his poems and who never hid his sexuality. The transparency of his writings show him as both a strong and weak person (like all of us). I was very proud to shake his hand.

As he looks at various passages from Whitman, he says he feels Whitman is speaking directly to him and to the rest of us. Whitman is present in all of our lives and we see that in how his poetry remains relevant through the ages. What Doty captures so beautifully is Whitman’s genius.

Reading Doty, we learn how to read Whitman closely as he shows us how the poems reflect incidents in his own life and those of his  contemporaries. Doty’s own ruminations on art, queerness, humanism, and the American experience are woven into Whitman’s life and vice versa.

Doty’s life and words are on a par with Whitman’s. He examines Whitman’s life, work, worldview, and his cosmic theology. As he does, he takes us into his own life in candid episodes. Language comes alive and we see meaning and purpose in the world. What the two poets share the most is faith in language. Doty’s relationship with Whitman is intimate in its “reality and in all that it imagines”.

“What is the Grass” is a sublime read that is fully of grace and intimacy. It made me feel alive again while being quarantined and I was reawaken to the power of language and the beauty of words.

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