Labyrinth Books and Princeton Public Library continue their collaborative live streamings of author events tonight at 6 p.m., when National Book Award-winning poet and Rutgers University creative writing professor Mark Doty discusses his new book, What is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life.
“Of the many poets I love, none has haunted me as Walt Whitman has,” notes Doty early in the book that merges an exploration of Whitman’s work and impact with personal memoir — including the New York City-based Doty’s visit to the Walt Whitman house and museum in Camden.
“I want to keep company with him, in this book, want to account for his persistent presence in my life,” adds Doty. “And I want to try, at the same time, to seek out the wellsprings of the extraordinary flowering that seemed to appear out of nowhere in the middle of his life, in the poems that look, sound, and think like nothing else before them. They have already reshaped American poetry, and the poetry of other countries and continents as well, but they have not yet finished their work of recasting our sense of what it means to be oneself, to be anyone at all.”
Reflecting on Whitman’s bold approach, Doty says, “How could this strange book not offer to its author a hundred separate possibilities for uncertainty, even for doubt of a particularly corrosive, self-lacerating kind? A book with no author’s name on the cover or title page, with a densely printed rather florid preface followed by twelve poems. Were they poems? No consistent meter, no comfortable and familiar pattern of rhyme. Not to mention the fact the book’s opening salvo is a dizzying sixty-five-page text, the sheer rock-wall of it divided only by stanza breaks. The sweeping lines, colloquial and Biblical at once, seem meant to carry us from earth to — well, not heaven exactly, but the earth seen in radical illumination. ‘I believe a leaf of grass,’ he writes, ‘is no less than the journey-work of the starts.’ He mocks religion while proclaiming the world holy. He loves being incarnate, relishing sheer physicality — to walk, to feel the movement of atmosphere on one’s skin — and the thrilling energies of eros, the firefighter’s fine muscles moving under their clothes. His feints and silences are so transparent they reveal at least as much as they conceal.”
Looking back from an era when individuals — including him — could affirm their own erotic attractions, Doty says, “What scandalized readers in Whitman’s time was his frankness about heterosexual bodies, and his portrayal of women as sexual beings. Only those alert to same-sex desire seemed capable of reading a deeper level of scandal in the poems, a ‘secret’ — shared in broad daylight but largely unreadable — that was for them more nourishing than any other text of their time.”
The author of 10 books of poetry and three other memoirs later focuses on Whitman’s “astonishing 65-page sprawl” he’d later call “Song of Myself” and say “Whitman swept aside anything he’d written before, as if with one powerful gesture he pushed off his desk everything no longer useful to him. What went crashing to the floor? His own tentative early poems and the expected forms and decorum of American poetry. Where does a poet find such courage, the will and stamina to make a radical beginning? It must lie in an internal imperative to give form to the inchoate: something that hasn’t been spoken, not yet articulated in a way that resonates with the felt texture of experience. The unsaid can be the source of an enormous pressure, a nearly physical need to say what living is like. If the poetic vocabulary of one’s day, the stances and forms of the hour, don’t seem capable of incorporating the way the world feels — well then, the pressure is intensified. Perhaps that’s why the three opening lines of Whitman’s poem, and of his book, seem to geyser out of the depths; he has waited so long to find them, for the words to emerge as if from nowhere:
I celebrate myself,
And what I shall assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
Doty argues that Whitman’s aim was and continues to be “the restructuring of reality. He intends to rewrite our sense of what subjectivity is — or at least wants us to acknowledge that the reality we already experience doesn’t conform to the traditional separation of subject and object, but to something more like the flux of being his poems portray. He is out to rewrite ontology; his assault is a friendly one, but frontal nonetheless.”
One of his weapons is the use of questions, such as “To be in any form, what is that?”
“Whitman’s questions are one of the continuingly startling things about him,” says Doty as he recalls presenting Whitman’s poems in his classes. “Some of my students resist this aspect of his work, and suspect him of posing as wonderer, asking questions to which he already has firm answers in mind. True, sometimes he uses a question, as opposed to a statement, in order to disarm us and draw us further into the argument of his poem.”
Then circling back to the book’s title, Doty states, “But Whitman’s greatest questions are provocations of another order. Take ‘What is the grass?’ What sort of question is that? It’s aflame with implication: that the common word doesn’t help to settle the matter, that there is something fundamentally peculiar or difficult about the phenomenon at hand that requires our attention.”
Mark Doty, Labyrinth Books and Princeton Public Library. Livestream Wednesday, May 6, 6 p.m. Participation is free. To register, visit labyrinthbooks.com/events/1229..