At one point in poet Mark Doty’s gorgeous and immersive ode to Walt Whitman, What Is the Grass (Norton), the writer recalls entering a busy men’s changing room after a solitary walk along a Massachusetts beach: “I seem to step out of the daily world. It’s the same thing poetry does, opening within the ordinary space where time pools or stills, and something blazes up out of the familiar.” For Doty, the great white-bearded American bard blazes up in all parts of his life, and one of the treasures of Doty’s memoir-as-literary study is how it invites us to find Whitman in our own day-to-day realities. With Doty as our guide, even a solitary line flying in from the 19th century (describing grass, Whitman writes, “And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves”) can suddenly reveal itself to be explosive, vital, and illuminating.
Perhaps there is no better moment to channel Whitman than right now in the midst of the current crisis. Whitman understood unity despite separation. We invited Doty to read one of his favorite Whitman poems, and he’s chosen a section from “Song of Myself” (line 39-418 of the 1855 edition).
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