What Is the Grass may be the definitive book on Whitman’s life, afterlife and poetry. But it’s the moments in Doty’s own life—his first marriage to a woman, who had a son his age; his joy in his first love affairs with men—that the book truly glistens ... Doty’s vision of Whitman’s face might seem kookily metaphysical, but it crystallizes the aims of [the book]: searching, seeing and recognizing ... Doty is comfortable looking back to Whitman for solace and recognition. But there are surprises in this kind of book.
... excellent ... as a major poet who worked at both evading and establishing his sexual identity, [Whitman] 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 ... 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 ... [Doty] 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 ... 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.
Doty's memoir is not only an exaltation of America's troubadour, but also a celebration of gay manhood, queerness, and the power and elasticity of poetry ... Doty devotes the largest number of pages to Whitman's 'uncharted desire,' how Whitman navigates and proclaims queer sexuality. Doty's fascination is as a poet, teacher, and as a man. He's at the top of his game in these chapters ... Doty examines his sexual life with rigor as well as a sense of wonder. He relishes the moment — insatiable — while simultaneously standing on the sidelines commentating ... Doty both embodies queer liberation and rejoices in it. But his relationship with Walt Whitman extends way beyond the political. Doty is on intimate terms with Whitman ... What is the Grass provides a deeper understanding of both Mark Doty and Walt Whitman.
It’s not just that Doty is an extraordinarily fine writer whose every word sings on the page ... sharp autobiographical vignettes ... What is the Grass resolves the problem that ‘Whatever the dead did or did not do in bed is largely irrecoverable’ by returning to the poetry itself ... In place of the slightly persecutory work of biographical detection, then, Doty substitutes the pleasures of reading. And this multifaceted book is among many things a memoir of reading itself: of returning to a body of work that has been of enormous importance to the author and showing not only how astonishing it is, but how much it has shaped his own life ... This is an exceptional, passionate memoir of reading, and of a poet’s lifelong work of understanding self and the world.
...an elegant blend of literary criticism and personal memoir ... Doty draws our attention to Whitman’s great innovations: the invention of American free verse, the transformation of the colloquial into poetic discourse and his unabashed 'open inscriptions of same-sex love.' Yet Doty, from his 21st-century vantage point, isn’t content with merely enshrining those daring advances. For him, Whitman is a living voice that reaches across time ...So, as Whitman’s words accompany Doty into intimate moments in his own life—often physical and spiritual encounters with lovers—they come to embody the great human embrace that the 19th-century poet propounded. Doty, of course, can be far more candid with details than his beloved forebear could have ever dared be ... The details of Whitman’s sexual life remain veiled, and scholars have been reading between the lines for years to parse the truth. Doty is no exception, as he convincingly draws out the elusive meanings suggested by the monumental text.
Doty, like Whitman, is gifted with words, a lover of beauty and of men, a New Yorker ... What Is the Grass is a close reading of Whitman's great work, but also of American poetry, same-sex love, the exuberance of the physical body, myriad cultural shifts and Doty's own life ... As is his habit, Doty's mind on the page wanders widely ... Readers should be prepared to dig out a copy of Leaves of Grass...upon reading this book, which makes an indispensable companion and guide.
The great thing Doty accomplishes in What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life is that, while making a case for Whitman’s queer identity, he admits that 'anyone sympathetic to such desires cannot miss Whitman’s intent.' In other words, read into Leaves Of Grass as much queerness as you choose ... This is not to suggest that Doty is guilty of shoddy scholarship—in fact his methods and conclusions are compelling ... Doty unpacks Whitman’s poetry in a valuable and accessible way, serving up generous excerpts from the poems. A professor of English, the poet has fun with some of his sources. He can barely contain his glee ... Along the way, Doty provides a very user-friendly guide to poets and poetry of the 19th and 20th centuries ... Doty deftly interweaves personal narrative with his literary concerns.
... a wistful record of a writer’s search for antecedents, and his delight in finding many of his own themes and obsessions prefigured in a well-known literary work ... Fans of Doty’s poetry will recognise the melancholic mood of certain turns of phrase ... Doty says he wrote this book to 'keep company with' Whitman, and indeed I often had the impression of going through a reading journal, with the short chapters effortlessly switching from a note on Whitman’s vocabulary to a memory of an accident to a glossary of Doty’s lovers ... And yet, for a defence of Whitman, What Is the Grass fails to engage with an aspect of the poet that dates him for many readers. His long, breathless sentences sometimes all too predictably embody what they describe: to 'contain multitudes' can after a while feel like a rhetorical device, a way of containing nothing precise ... Doty, too, is often carried away by the bluster – I flinched each time he wrote 'sexual congress' instead of, well, sex. He is unironic about his subject’s self-indulgences; he stacks the game unfairly at one point by comparing Whitman’s revolutionary free verse to the stilted cadences of Henry David Thoreau’s poems. Doty is more convincing in moments when he demonstrates how Whitman’s sublimated sexuality and his fascination with death came to shape not only his iconic stanzas but also the spaces between them. His gloss on 'Crossing Brooklyn Ferry' – one of Whitman’s most accomplished poems – is especially marvellous. He sends you straight back to the text, makes you feel like you’re returning to an old love.
... stunning ... Doty invites readers to see Whitman as a human being rather than an inscrutable genius ... [Doty] provides just what is necessary to bring Whitman into focus as the distinctly American poet who offered fresh thinking about desire, selfhood, and the possibilities of language. Which is to say that Doty hasn’t written a conventional, cradle to grave biography of Whitman. He has written something richer and more seductive ... a book of candid, ardently written meditations that illuminate Whitman’s life as an artist, the poems in Leaves, and what it means to be a desiring human body ... The surprise in this book is not what Doty identifies as sources but rather how beautifully he rhapsodizes about these influences while distilling the poems in Leaves so that we can grasp Whitman’s essence and vision of humanity ... These memoir pieces are unsparing and often immensely moving ... compulsively readable because [Doty] tracks his personal relationship with Whitman’s poems. His mind, heart, and aesthetic shimmer brightly in these pages, which both celebrate and constitute a singular work of art.
... exuberant if uneven ... Doty shifts between exquisite close readings and tales of his own sexual awakening, critical analysis blended with an autobiographical prose poem, a kind of call-and-response to Whitman ... A leading poet in his own right, Doty brings an attuned eye and ear to the backstory behind Whitman’s 1855 poetry collection ... This is Doty at his best: In gorgeous, calibrated sentences, he evokes the flourishes and sprung rhythms that make Whitman so contemporary, the poet’s intimate conversations with his readers, lines that we now hear as come-ons ... Less successful are Doty’s own confessions...These sections come across as self-regarding, a tad fulsome ... Quibble aside, Doty’s passion is contagious at a moment when the American body politic is under vicious assault. An assured, eloquent study of our poetic progenitor, What Is the Grass makes the case for Whitman as the medicine we need.
... [a] sometimes startling mixture of memoir and literary criticism, providing an invigorating introduction to the continuing artistic value of Whitman’s output. This blend of the personal and critical appreciation, however, is stretched quite thin at times. Too often, Doty allows the focus on his own life and relations to distract from the greatness of his chosen master. One imagines Doty’s recounting of sexual experiences felt essential to him, perhaps mirroring Whitman’s un-blinkered celebration of life in all its manifest glory. And yet that is precisely where Doty’s cleanly crafted lyrical writing stumbles. Too often, the Whitman he celebrates is the egocentric theosophizer of appetites and urges, instead of a literary genius. As with Whitman, readers may be overwhelmed with Doty’s overabundance of imagery and intimate detail, but also (as with Whitman) audiences will find individual passages that can inspire, change, and sustain a life ... Despite its flaws, this important and very personal take on Whitman’s lasting influence as 'America’s Poet' should be a worthwhile addition to libraries with strong poetry or LGBTQ collections.
... a remarkable book that defies easy classification ... Whitman began editing both his book and his life, becoming less forthright and less of a prophet as time passed...Doty gives some attention to this retreat, though not as much as one would like ... While What Is the Grass is deeply personal, it is also clearly the result of many years of close study and scholarship. However, it lacks certain features (internal documentation, a bibliography, and a subject index) which would make it more useful for other scholars ... On balance, though What is the Grass is a fascinating book about Whitman, his poetry, and the ways queer life has evolved in America over the last three centuries, thanks, in no small part, to Whitman’s foresight.
... lyrical ... [Doty's] literary relationship with Whitman is that of reader—but also that of student, lover, and finally mirror ... Doty recognizes—and helps us see—how much the poet is still part of the world of the living.
Doty’s book seeks to explain an enduring mystery: the explosive appearance in 1855 of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, from a hack writer who had shown no previous brilliance, and who had no clear literary antecedents. 'Where on earth did it come from?' Doty wonders ... What I like best in Doty’s book is not his sometimes windy pronouncements about Whitman’s visionary expansiveness, or the occasional romance-novel phrasing of his own erotic memories .... it’s the minimalist in Whitman that I love. So I treasure Doty’s occasional forays into the minute particulars of Whitman’s life and art, to which he accords some of the same attentiveness that he brought to still-life painting in his excellent book Still Life with Oysters and Lemon. ... Doty at his best is drawn to those verbal thickets in Whitman’s poetry, that local bristling of word against word: 'Echoes, ripples, and buzzed whispers …. loveroot, silkthread, crotch and vine' ... Yes, Whitman is expansive, cosmic, all-embracing, maximal. What could be more obvious? But what other poet wrote so movingly of the miniature, the microscopic, the overlooked? ... The erotic, after all, partakes of the concrete particular: the hinge of the hand, the touch of the lips.
Academic critics of Dryden or Pope were not in the habit, the last time I checked, of interspersing their monographs with reminiscences of sex clubs in Manhattan. An affectionate excursus on that subject in Mark Doty’s What is the Grass announces that this is no ordinary piece of literary criticism ... Doty is one of the most compelling modern singers of ‘the body electric’ and in What is the Grass he has produced an elegant meditation on the great founding father of American poetry ... Whitman’s aesthetic of intimacy is replicated in Doty’s engaging memoir ... Lawrence called Whitman a poet with ‘his privacy leaking out in a sort of dribble, oozing into the universe’. But Doty helps us feel the touch and connection of great art afresh. It is a warmly affecting performance.
Mark Doty has written a warm and intelligent account of Whitman, interweaving his personal responses to the poetry with autobiographical episodes, the lives and deaths of partners and friends and pets, and even, possibly, a spooky encounter with young Walt himself, who, at an intense moment, gazes through the features of a lover 'with the visionary dazzle of starlight in his eyes' ... Is Doty Whitmanian? His poems are a highly engaging mixture of the quotidian and the numinous: they are discursive, even essayistic, anecdotal in a nicely contrived throwaway manner which sets off perfectly their discoveries of loveliness amid the ordinary ... there are certainly Whitmanian resonances to be found in his work ... But the hesitancies in that don’t feel very Whitmanian. They are part of what makes the thing precious, implying an experience too exquisite to be pinned down, and Doty’s best poems are often like that, reports back from a life of tasteful self-scrutiny, and much more purposefully exquisite than Whitman ever is. Whitman loved Italian opera in all its lush and vulgar extravagance; Doty’s preferred form is the still life ... However private the springs of his imagination, Whitman, in his idiosyncratic way, saw himself fulfilling a civic duty, but Doty would never dream of adopting heroic nationalism as a poetic mode, and indeed he expresses regret in What is the Grass about Whitman’s committed 'project as American bard'. But engage with the American bard he must, as perhaps all American poets must in one way or another, in much the same way that no English poet of the eighteenth century could really get going without grappling with Milton. 'He defines for us the project of poetry, its possibilities, its parameters,' as C. K. Williams writes, on behalf of American poets in general. 'It’s not necessary to refer to him: he’s there.'
Of the many poets I love, none has haunted me as Walt Whitman,' writes Mark Doty early in his moving book What is the Grass . Defying categories, Doty’s book is part appreciation, part criticism, and part memoir, a book in which the boundaries between Doty and his predecessor are sometimes blurred. Having spent a lifetime reading, studying, and teaching Whitman, Doty — the author of more than a dozen works of poetry and prose — reminds us just how revolutionary, how foundational this poet was, how fresh and surprising the poems remain ... Focusing on the cosmic embrace of Whitman, Doty unfolds the poet’s ecstatic vision. And though Whitman’s version of himself is outsized, both cosmic and earthy, reaching into the past and future at once, Doty also asks us 'what poet ever addressed his readers so often and so directly … A digital scan of his work reveals the single word most used … is not the I we might have expected but you.'
A clear inspiration to Doty, the book documents the relationship he feels with Whitman on the poetic and personal levels—a distinction that is nearly imperceptible as one is part of the other. As gay men, Whitman and Doty both navigated worlds that attempted to close them in. But their art and will and pure need to live authentically rendered them free. Doty draws the lines of that freedom with clarity and grace in What is the Grass ... As a teacher who has taught Whitman for nearly twenty years, and as a poet who loves both him and Doty, this book is a pure joy. But even those who have not read either writer can find something of themselves in Doty’s latest. It articulates the understanding we all share, the clear and direct connection between each of us that Whitman lived and breathed, and of which Doty now reminds us.
While all four sources receive Doty’s penetrating and illuminating scrutiny, the second, Whitman’s sexuality, which Doty shares, receives the most attention and the most autobiographical witnessing. Drawing on his own physical experience, Doty illustrates precisely what Whitman’s pervasive homoerotic imagery means and how it informs his poetic achievement and grand vision of life. The cosmic delight Doty adduces from Whitman’s sexuality burns bright throughout the book. Doty has given us a scintillating work of literary exegesis and gay memoir informed, as Whitman would want it, by heart, soul, and body alike.
Throughout, Doty displays a number of his gifts and writing techniques ... Through Doty’s eyes, we see Whitman not only as the writer who transformed American poetry (Doty credits him for inventing free verse), but as a tireless self-promoter (he reviewed himself from time to time) and as a man of many passions. Fans of Whitman will surely enjoy Doty’s extensive passages of exegesis, and many readers will admire the author’s occasional descriptions of his own revisions of his ideas about Whitman’s diction and poetic design. Throughout, the author exudes an exuberance about life and words that rivals that of his subject. Also informative (and necessary) are Doty’s evocations of 19th-century Brooklyn and New York City ... A captivating paean to Whitman combined with an unblinking self-examination.