Doty is more convincing in moments when he demonstrates how Whitman’s sublimated sexuality and his fascination with death came to shape not only his iconic stanzas but also the spaces between them. His gloss on “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” – one of Whitman’s most accomplished poems – is especially marvellous. He sends you straight back to the text, makes you feel like you’re returning to an old love. You can’t help sidle up to Doty when he wonders in a fit of enchantment: “Have I looked back to Whitman because he has all my life, though I did not know it, looked forward to me?”
Doty is insightful on the promiscuous range of Whitman’s vocabulary (‘gulch’, ‘hankering’, ‘I guess’, ‘woolypates’, ‘foofoo’, ‘squaw’) and the irresistible transgressive force of the poet’s rangy lines. In a passage quoted by Doty, Herbert Marcuse argues that smoking marijuana brings ‘extra-societal insights’ in ways that getting drunk does not, because of the effort required of the dope-smoker to stand outside conventions and laws. In form as well as content, Whitman’s work thrills with its ‘extra-societal insights’ about the queer body at the moment of its birth for the modern reader. Doty returns to memoir in the closing section, with an account of a motorbike accident and its complex aftermath, before supplying a happy ending of sorts. What, Doty wonders, paraphrasing Rilke, does being on earth ask of us? Simply to become poetry. He turns to ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’ to flesh out this audacious claim, treating us to one last buttonholing from Whitman across the generations (‘It avails not, time nor place – distance avails not,/I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence’). Lawrence called Whitman a poet with ‘his privacy leaking out in a sort of dribble, oozing into the universe’. But Doty helps us feel the touch and connection of great art afresh. It is a warmly affecting performance.
In place of the slightly persecutory work of biographical detection, then, Doty substitutes the pleasures of reading. And this multifaceted book is among many things a memoir of reading itself: of returning to a body of work that has been of enormous importance to the author and showing not only how astonishing it is, but how much it has shaped his own life. Passages of close reading fill What is the Grass, as they search for the sources of Whitman’s extraordinary invention. Doty identifies five: revelatory experience, gay love, the rise of the American city, the natural world and the demotic freshness of American English.
Doty is particularly good on the way queer writers through the ages have seen themselves in Leaves of Grass, and his line-by-line readings show a fine poet’s ear. He brings in insightful biographical titbits (did Whitman’s visits to a failing Egyptology museum inspire his idea of grass as a “hieroglyphic”?) and surprising comparisons (with, say, Bijou, the 1972 art house porn film). He reads with care, in the sense of both attentiveness and love.