I’m back from the Antioch Writers’ Workshop in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Last Wednesday I had the honor to deliver their annual “First Book Talk” on Journal of a UFO Investigator. I now have a few new books, a lot of new friends.
One of these friends is the remarkable poet Jeff Gundy, a professor of English at Bluffton University in Ohio. He’s the author of five poetry collections, most recently Deerflies and Spoken Among the Trees. I’ll have more to say about Jeff’s poetry in a later post. Right now I’ll talk about a lecture of his that I sat in on, a session of his morning poetry class.
Jeff’s topic: poetic responses to the natural world. Among the pieces we read together was the “What is the grass?” segment of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” Also “What Is the Grass?” by contemporary poet Mark Doty. A rejoinder to Whitman? Not exactly. Better call it a commentary, or perhaps a mirroring.
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.
That’s how Whitman starts. He goes on to offer what he calls a series of “guesses.” Grass is “the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.” Or it’s “the handkerchief of the Lord”; or “a child, the produced babe of the vegetation”; or “a uniform hieroglyphic … Growing among black folks as among white.” But gradually the poet grows more confident. “And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.” Notice the language—no longer “I guess,” but “it seems to me.” And there follows a meditation on death, and on the immortality inherent in the natural cycle.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier.
Thus far Whitman. Now Doty:
On the margin
in the used text
I’ve purchased without opening
—pale green dutiful vessel—
some unconvinced student has written,
in a clear, looping hand,
Isn’t it grass?
How could I answer the child?
I do not exaggerate,
I think of her question for years.
And while first I imagine her the very type
of the incurious, revealing the difference
between a mind at rest and one that cannot,
later I come to imagine that she
had faith in language,
that was the difference: she believed
that the word settled things,
the matter need not be looked into again.
And he who’d written his book over and over, nearly ruining it,
so enchanted was he by what had first compelled him
—for him the word settled nothing at all.
Well. Call me philistine—my sympathies are mostly with that nameless student, whom Doty assumes (on the basis of the handwriting?) to be a woman. Whom he patronizingly calls, repeating Whitman’s phrase, “the child.”
Grass is—grass. I suspect Whitman could have answered the little boy perfectly well by explaining grass functionally. It’s green; and it grows in a lot of places, as long as there’s enough water; and it’s fun to play and roll around on but you’d better not do it in your Sunday suit or Mama will have conniptions … And so forth. The boy would have gone away satisfied, and we’d have one less poetic meditation on life and death.
What’s the real difference between Whitman and that student, who teaches us (as my students taught me during my 25 years as a university professor) that very often the obvious answer is the right answer? I think Doty’s missed the point. It’s not that she (?) had faith in language and Whitman didn’t. It’s that she hasn’t (yet?) acquired the poet’s thirst, the human thirst, to see materiality as meaningful.
Look at the words Whitman uses. “Flag.” “Hieroglyphic.” These are symbols, vehicles of meaning. His instinct is to see the essence of grass in what it testifies to a metaphysical reality beyond itself. A reality, moreover, that doesn’t exist for itself but in relation to us humans. The grass mirrors us: “flag of my disposition.” It teaches a moral lesson: we are all equal, black and white, rich and poor. It reveals to us the mystery of our deaths, and comforts us against the bitterness of death’s inevitability.
Who’s right? I vote for the student. Who’s enriched us more with his (or her?) words? Beyond question: the poet.