The following essay appears in our Autumn 2016 issue. The entire issue is available for immediate download.
Years ago, getting ready to teach a workshop in a town away from home–downtown Lincoln, Nebraska, far from home indeed—I realized I’d forgotten my copy of Leaves of Grass. I went into a used bookstore, pulled a copy off the shelf (there is a copy of Leaves in every used bookstore, everywhere in the nation; count on it) and paid for it without opening it. The passage I needed was the opening of the sixth section of what would come to be called “Song of Myself,” as Whitman went on shaping and revising his impossible American omnibus of a book:
A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child?… I do not know what it
is any more than he.
Turning to the page, I was disheartened to find that the margins were lined with notes, inked in the looping penmanship of a dutiful undergraduate. Beside the poet’s question, the student had inked, “Isn’t it grass?”
MARK DOTY is the author of the National Book Award-winning poetry collection, Fire to Fire. He has also written eight other collections of poetry, including Deep Lane (Norton, 2015). His five books of nonfiction prose include Dog Years, a New York Times bestseller, and Heaven’s Coast, winner of the PEN/Martha Albrand Award. What is the Grass, an exploration of his longstanding fascination with Walt Whitman, will be published by Norton in 2019, the 200th anniversary of Whitman’s death.