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.