What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life

Norton. Apr. 2020. 288p. ISBN 9780393070224. $25.95. LIT
Doty (Dog Years) explores his relationship to Walt Whitman’s poetry and life in this 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.
VERDICT 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.
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