DC at Night

DC at Night

Monday, June 3, 2013

What Is the Grass?

And the words of the prophets (in this case Walt Whitman) are written on the Metro walls.
A few years ago, poet Mark Doty, who in 2008 won the National Book Award for Poetry, was in Nebraska to give a talk on American literary giant Walt Whitman. Arriving in town, Doty realized that he had forgotten  his copy of  Whitman's poetic masterpiece Leaves of Grass. So, he immediately went to the nearest used bookstore. "You can pretty much know that any used book store in America will have at least one copy of Leaves of Grass," Doty says

The particular copy he bought had been owned by a young college student. In the margins of Whitman's poem entitled "What Is the Grass?" she had written, in a long looping hand, "Isn't it grass?"

"It was a story of a mind at rest (the student's) and one that couldn't (Whitman's)," Doty says. "She believed words settled things. For him, (Whitman) the word settled nothing at all."

Walt Whitman
Doty, whose forthcoming book is entitled What is the Grass and will be a meditation on Whitman, was joined recently by DC poet Sally Keith at the Library of Congress to discuss the legacy of Whitman and his influence on their poetry.

"For a poet, he is our enormous, brilliant, and inescapable Uncle," Doty said. "He is the predecessor of us all. He asked the questions who are we and what does it mean to be part of the tribe, a part of the group? These have been with me my whole career."

Keith, who is also a professor in the creative writing program at George Mason, talked at length about Whitman's ties to Washington. Whitman, who spent most of his years in New York and New Jersey, arrived in Washington to look for his brother, George, who had been wounded during the Civil War. He stayed for 10 years taking care of wounded war veterans.

"I think of Whitman, sitting in the window of the hospital (which is now the Smithsonian Portrait Galley), looking out at the city," Keith said. She said you can take a walking Whitman literary tour in DC "which even, for some reason, has you have lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe." One of the highlights of that tour is the inscription of lines from Whitman's poetry that you encounter after a long escalator ride up to the exit of the Dupont Circle Metro station.
Thus in silence in dreams' projections,

Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals;

The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,

I sit by the restless all dark night - some are so young;

Some suffer so much - I recall the experience sweet and sad...

Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass, 1876
"Whitman, while in Washington, hoped for a national union. He wrote about the ebb and flow of human existence and the world of contradictions," Keith said.

Whitman, in 1855, became famous after self-publishing the 1st edition of Leaves of Grass, his major work which he continually revised and enlarged during the rest of his life. At the time, the book garnered much controversy for its free-verse style and frank treatment of sexuality. However, it is now heralded as one of the foundational texts in American literature and is celebrated for its patriotism and visionary humanism. Fellow American literary giant Ralph Waldo Emerson called the book of poetry "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
The special program took place on May 31st, the date of what would have been Whitman's 194th birthday. The event was the next to last in the Library of Congress' special celebrations of the birthdays of noted American writers. The final event for this season, devoted to the life and writings of African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, will be held on June 27th.

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