Named a Most Anticipated Book of 2020 by Buzzfeed, Library Journal, The Millions, and The Rumpus
Effortlessly blending biography, criticism, and memoir, National Book Award–winning poet and best-selling memoirist Mark Doty explores his personal quest for Walt Whitman.
Mark Doty 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—a poet, a New Yorker, and an American—keeps company with Whitman and his Leaves of Grass, tracing the resonances between his own experience and the legendary poet’s life and work.
What is it then between us? Whitman asks. In search of an answer, Doty explores spaces—both external and internal—where he finds the poet’s ghost. He meditates on desire, love, and the mysterious wellsprings of the poet’s enduring work: a radical experience of transformation and enlightenment, queer sexuality, and an obsession with death, as well as unabashed love for a great city and for the fresh, rowdy character of American speech. In riveting close readings threaded with personal memoir and illuminated by awe, Doty reveals the power of Whitman’s persistent presence in his life and in the American imagination at large.
How does a voice survive death? What Is the Grass is a conversation across time and space, a study of the astonishment one poet finds in the accomplishment of another, and an attempt to grasp Whitman’s deeply hopeful vision of human possibility.
About the Author
Mark Doty is the author of more than ten volumes of poetry and three memoirs. His many honors include the National Book Award and a Whiting Writers’ Award. He is a Distinguished Professor at Rutgers University and lives in New York City.
What Is the Grass may be the definitive book on Whitman’s life, afterlife and poetry. But it’s [in] the moments in Doty’s own life...that the book truly glistens.
— Jessica Ferri
An incisive, personal meditation.
Doty puts on a clinic in how to read closely but expansively, going back to Whitman’s greatest poems, bouncing them off incidents in his own life, but also the work of his contemporaries...This is shining proof that criticism can make you want to hold it close. — John Freeman
A masterful example [of the hybrid memoir]—weaving a close reading of Whitman’s life and writings into Doty’s own ruminations on art, queerness, humanism, and the American experience. — Arianna Rebolini
Doty is a reverential penitent before the greatest American poet, giving an account of how his own subjective experience intersects with that of the singer of ‘Song of Myself.’...What Doty most shares with Whitman, however, is a heretic’s faith in language, both its promise and its failures. — Ed Simon
[Doty] reveals a profound understanding of Whitman's life and poetry...Throughout, the author exudes an exuberance about life and words that rivals that of his subject...A captivating paean to Whitman combined with unblinking self-examination.
What is the Grass is a deep-dive into Walt Whitman’s life, work, worldview, and something that feels like his cosmic theology. As if that weren’t enough, we’re also invited into Mark Doty’s own candid self-seeking, in episodes of the author’s life rendered in generous complexity. This beautiful, ingenious book affirms my belief in language as a living thing, and in the universe as a place overflowing with purpose and meaning. I wish all of the great poets could be reintroduced to me in such fashion!
— Tracy K. Smith
Quick-witted, slyly erotic, and sometimes ecstatic, this book explores Mark Doty’s relationship with Walt Whitman, or with the idea of Walt Whitman. It is intimate in its reality and in all that it imagines, and it captures with splendid lyricism the author’s generous obsession with his forebear. Mark Doty has written a literate and lovely volume. — Andrew Solomon