© 2024 Hawaiʻi Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Poet Mark Doty Pays Tribute To Walt Whitman In His New Book


Over these weeks of social distancing, many of us have felt a craving for human connection. The author Mark Doty has a suggestion for a place to turn - the words of Walt Whitman.

MARK DOTY: He so loves his readers. He wants nothing more than company, and his poems reach out to readers and attempt to include them, invite us to be part of the experience that he's describing, invite us to be part of his singing.

SHAPIRO: Doty is also a poet, and he has a new book called "What Is The Grass." It's part memoir, part literary love letter to Walt Whitman's poems, a testament to how poetry can help us understand our lives. And in this unparalleled moment of isolation, Doty told me there is a core idea in Whitman's poetry that speaks to him.

DOTY: There is a sustaining force, a sustaining energy in human life that no matter the crisis we confront, we know that we are part of something ongoing and that that is a tremendous gift and a source of confidence and of peace and joy and knowledge. What could we long for more at this moment than peace and joy and knowledge?

SHAPIRO: As you point out in the book, the most common word in all of Whitman's poetry is you. And he speaks so much of the way you and I in the abstract - the idea of you and the idea of I - relate to each other, both physically and across time and space. So what do you think he can help us understand about this experience of isolation and distance, like the lack of having other people physically in our presence right now?

DOTY: He suggests, you know, that I is always in relation, that I is a part of the whole. If humanity is one great sort of field of being, we are sparks of light. We are part of that fabric. And so even when you are alone, you aren't - not exactly. You are always part of that tribe, even if you are at some distance from the other members of the group.

SHAPIRO: What's the beautiful line he has, reaching across the generations to the reader of the future?

DOTY: He says, men and women of a generation hence, or many generations hence, he says, I considered seriously of you before you were ever born. To the lovely thought that the poet is speaking into the future and speaks with a great faith in the future that might be harder for us at this moment in time to feel. And so his belief that tomorrow will come and that tomorrow we, the human beings, will carry forward on this journey is one that can feel very consoling, very helpful now, too.

SHAPIRO: Give us a line that represents that.

DOTY: Oh. Give me just a second to turn to that.


DOTY: I have so many editions of "Leaves Of Grass" that I always have to figure out which one I'm in.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Right.

DOTY: He's speaking now. This is section three of "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" - into the future. It avails not, time or place. Distance avails not. I am with you, you men and women of the generation or ever so many generations hence. Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt. Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of the crowd. Just as you were refreshed by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refreshed. Just as you stand and lean on the rail yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried.

SHAPIRO: Well, we might not be in a crowd right now, but we can at least look at that same sky.

DOTY: (Laughter) Exactly. And you know what's marvelous about that passage - one thing that's marvelous about it? He says, I was one of the crowd. And when Whitman was writing that poem, he's 36 years - 37 years old. He's not gone yet. He's not going to be gone for quite a while, yet he writes that poem as if he's already in the past, so looking forward to us in the future.

SHAPIRO: You're a poet, and you've spent your life surrounded by poetry. So if you could speak for a moment to people who don't often reach for poetry, make the case for why today maybe they should consider doing so.

DOTY: Well, you know, it's a very curious art because poetry is made out of language, out of the same stuff we use to order lunch, you know, or talk to a bank teller. Yet of all the arts, poetry is probably the one that can get closest to what it feels like to be inside somebody else's skin, how it is to be and to mirror back to you how it is to be yourself. So I think that there are poems that would speak to any reader, anyone willing to give it a try, and that any reader might find that encouraging, helpful to see your own life mirrored back to you.

SHAPIRO: Can you just give us a thought from Whitman to end on, a few lines that might be helpful to people right now?

DOTY: Let's see what I can do. This is a passage from "Song Of Myself," again, in which we hear Whitman's certainty - standing above the losses and the limits of being an individual self to hold everything as if all of humanity were speaking to us. He says, in all people I see myself, none more and not one a barley-corn less. And all the good or bad I say of myself, I say of them. And I know I am solid and sound. To me, the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow. All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means. And I know I am deathless. I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept by a carpenter's compass. I know I shall not pass like a child's carlacue cut with a burnt stick at night.

SHAPIRO: That's a beautiful ending. Mark Doty, thank you so much for talking with us.

DOTY: Thank you, Ari. My pleasure.

SHAPIRO: His new book is "What Is The Grass: Walt Whitman In My Life."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

More from Hawai‘i Public Radio