Day Two / Mark Doty: “What is the Grass?”

This morning Mark Doty bodied forth that “poet of the body” and “poet of the soul” Walt Whitman. He described the first handwritten manuscript of Leaves of Grass tucked casually beneath Whitman’s arm, tucked there—so near the armpit (and its “aroma finer than prayer”)—a manuscript “irradiated by visionary fire.”

Doty suggested that many of his own poems have emerged from Whitman’s work “like bromeliads blooming out of the sides of trees.” This simile alone would have been a significant contribution to the subject we have convened to explore. The epiphytic plants, close at hand in the tropic clime of Key West, are non-parasitic and remarkable for the strong and multitudinous threads that bind them to the physical presence of the other.  While they need their purchase upon the other, they draw sustenance from their own distinct environments, the air and rain and dirt within their own auras.

It is a distinct pleasure to be in the presence of a reader so attuned to the pleasures of a writer’s style and so sensitive to all the “buds folded beneath speech.” Doty explored the anaphoric repetitions that make Whitman’s cadence  and discussed subtleties such as the length of Whitman’s ellipses. He revealed how the casual idiom, the distinctly course, American, Yankeeism, pushes up against the mystical, prophetic vision and creates  “startling” and “chill-producing” moments.

“All goes onward and outward …. And nothing collapses,
And to die is different than anyone had supposed, and luckier.”

He gave a number of reasons for his obsession with Whitman, “this shadow looming large,” which he explores at length in his forthcoming book What is the Grass?  One reason offered today, in relation to the tremendous plasticity and expansiveness of selfhood demonstrated in Song of Myself, is his shared preoccupation with “the one and the many,” and the question of how “the I is a part of the continuity.”  Doty said Whitman explores what it means to be “a participant in the life of matter, the endless, boundless circulation.” I was reminded of Doty’s poem A Display of Mackerel.  In the poem he asks,

Suppose we could iridesce,
like these, and lose ourselves
entirely in the universe

of shimmer–would you want
to be yourself only,
unduplicatable, doomed

to be lost?

One thought on “Day Two / Mark Doty: “What is the Grass?”

  1. Tanjam Jacobson says:

    Mark Doty writes beautifully about “how the I is part of continuity” also in prose. This, long ago, on our meaning as witness, from Heaven’s Coast: “The world doesn’t need us to continue, although it does need us to attend, to study, to name. We are elements of the world’s consciousness of itself, and thus we are necessary: replaceable and irreplaceable at once.”

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