From "A child said, What is the grass?"
by Walt Whitman

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it
     is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful
     green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we
     may see and remark, and say Whose?

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This talk was given by Mark Doty at the Academy of American Poets' Online Poetry Classroom Summer Institute.

MARK DOTY: I think this poem illustrates that process of meaning making as an individual action of inquiry that is also open to the reader. The poem begins so directly with that question coming from the child. Whitman tells us, I don't know what it is any more than he does, but then proceeds to spend the rest of the poem telling us what it is. So having announced his position of ignorance, he is now open to the generation of possibilities. And that 'I guess,' 'I guess,' 'or,' 'or,' provides a wonderful way of allowing one figure to be posited and another one to enter without canceling out the preceding one, allowing more layers and more possibilities, something that Elizabeth Bishop does interestingly too.

It never occurred to me that she might have gotten it from Whitman, but she will very frequently describe something and say, "no, it's not like that, it's more like this," or "or, it's like such and such," so what this does is allow her to use two or three similes instead of one, and the reader keeps all those things in mind. In Whitman's poem, we keep all these interpretations of grass side by side as the poem continues to accumulate. Grass as the flag of the spirit, grass as evidence of the presence of God, grass as child, grass as a signature of democracy, that which grows among all sorts, all classes, all colors, all types. Then that extraordinary line "And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves." At this point, the poem arrives at another level. That image is a wonderful example of the capacity of figurative speech to introduce tension into a poem, what Rilke called polarity, that tug between opposing magnetic poles. To have beautiful uncut hair and graves so close together in that line, yoked, produces a tremendous amount of vibrating energy that continues to propel the rest of the poem. "This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old /mothers."

Do you hear how this is also a suggestion that the process of inquiry is continuing? "Oh, I perceive after all," which has come a long way from the "I don't know" at the beginning of the poem. Look at that, to further Eddie's point, look at that question posed to the reader. Third stanza from the end of the poem: "What do you think has become of the young and old men? / What do you think has become of the women and children?" That is such an act of saying, "Now this work of inquiry is no longer my property. It is no longer my particular struggle to understand." This is the point where the poet announces himself as voice of a people, as agent of the reader, as one who will in some way bind us together in this utterance. I'm doing all the talking about this poem because it makes me so happy.

INTERVIEWER: I like that moment when the speaker says he wishes he could translate, and the point of the poem rises up. It reminds me of what you were saying about those fractured, broken points where the poet loses his place. To me, this moment is the opposite of that. It's a kind of self-healing moment that propels the poem to its final great cry of "And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier." It's the poet coming to consolation.

MARK DOTY: In a way, by saying, "I wish I could translate," he says "I can't. I'm not up to the task of saying what the grass says," even though he proceeds to do it pretty well. But that little bit of humility there is probably very important in earning our complicity. If we're going to be participants in these actions of meaning making, we've got to trust the person who's speaking for us, right? We've got to believe this person has credibility and a purchase on truth. The more anybody claims a purchase on truth, the less likely we are to buy it.

INTERVIEWER: What's so brilliant about Whitman is that he always begins as our spokesperson. Then he creates this extraordinary breakthrough to knowledge or wisdom.

MARK DOTY: And that little ellipsis in the selection is quite crucial, "It all goes onward and outward…and nothing collapses." That moment of, I can't go further, and that small acknowledgement is the way he earns our participation.

INTERVIEWER: So I'm wondering, looking at this text, how you might address the risk of having a class that misreads the poem? How do you respond to those that see it as a jolly old time where we all love each other—that's just not what's there.

MARK DOTY: Whitman certainly participated in that misreading and really wanted it to be misread in that way as he got older. You know, this is a highly personal answer, but when my lover died and we had scattered his ashes, this was what I read. This was 1994, height of the AIDS epidemic, so when you read "What do you think has become of the young and old men?" it's not rhetorical. I think this is very hard to do with teenagers, to say those bodies, the roofs of the mouths that turn into grass are not rhetorical figures. Why so many dead young men? Because of the war. Perhaps holding this poem next to some of Whitman's very painful writing about his work as a nurse, that incredible description of the amputation, the arm that plops heavily into the pail, may be a way to ground this in the actual fact of the ruined body. That's what makes this such a radical poem: the notion that the failure of the flesh is lucky. But it is possible that we can stand back and view it as a positive new-age-y sermon, as long as our bodies aren't on the line. It's a good question to ask because it's absolutely true that there's profound struggle in the poem, and it's that struggle that makes Whitman human and a great poet. In revisions, he is frequently and perhaps especially trying to write away from the struggle. There are whole blocks of work where he pretends he's not struggling: "Children of Adam."

A great example of the struggling Whitman is "The Sleepers, " in the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass. It is a magnificent poem about how turbulent the experience of having less is, the experience of not having an ego. So the suggestion in "A child asks . . ." that it's lucky to be unbound and part of the whole body is really interesting against the disturbance of "The Sleepers" speaker wandering through sleeping New York and feeling every bed, each part of every body, and being terrified by it.

"The Sleepers" also shows you the kind of distortion he made in his poems through the revision process. The most turbulent, uncertain, and intriguing passages in "The Sleepers" are gone 15, 20 years later. There's one passage where he's under the bridge and a big ear of corn comes at him, for instance.

Read more of Mark Doty's Talk

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