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 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.