August 18, 2022

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Love, Death, and Whitman: Poet Mark Doty on the Paradox of Desire and the Courage to Love Against the Certitude of Loss

Love and demise come to us on widespread phrases — unbidden and whole, impervious to protest, bare of pretension. They additionally come to us entwined: Every love is a franchise of grief, for to like something is to simply accept its loss — by a dissipation of ardor or of atoms, the atoms constellating the beloved or the atoms constellating us and the consciousness that does the loving, sure to someday go the best way of each different consciousness and each different love that ever was and ever will likely be.

In some deep sense, this inevitability of loss is exactly what makes love so ecstatic — a concentrated expertise of aliveness consecrated by its personal perishability.

Walt Whitman touched on this together with his tender, unflinching hand when he requested, “What indeed is beautiful, except Death and Love?”; when he noticed that “to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.” He meant, I believe, the luckiness of getting lived in any respect, for demise is simply attainable the place life, improbable against the austere odds of the universe, as soon as existed.

That inescapable interaction is what poet Mark Doty explores all through his incandescent ebook What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life (public library) — half biography, half memoir, half lyric meditation on life, love, and their consanguinity with demise.

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Noting how deeply Whitman — the self-anointed poet of the body and poet of the soul — “understood that the particular is always perishing, and therefore all the more to be cherished,” Doty considers the physique as an instrument of temporality and cherishment, by means of which the track of life sings itself and binds us to the refrain of all different our bodies:

Begin with the physique: water, vapor, air. You’re the shore on which an ocean of air is consistently breaking, in waves of breath. “Inside” and “outside” of lungs, permeable boundary of pores and skin, eyes, ears, nostril, holes within the physique for substance passing out and in, no secure and stuck entity that’s you, however a transferring set of factors by means of which cross water, air, mild, meals, elements of the our bodies of others: their breath, tongues, genitals, palms.


The world enters us and departs, simply as language and picture and concept are imprinted upon our consciousness, thought of, forgotten, handed on, launched.

This perishable, permeable physique, with its ceaseless entropic circulate, lies on the coronary heart of the paradox of need — that electrical impulse felt within the Body and felt within the Soul, furnishing our most palpable proof that the 2 are one. “Behold,” Whitman wrote, “the body includes and is the meaning, the main concern and includes and is the soul.” And so need turns into a sacrament to the interleaving of affection and demise, temporal by definition and necessity, its temporality the wellspring of its delirium.

Awake to this fundament of feeling, Doty challenges the damaging Romantic excellent of interminable need inside any given love — an idea by nature self-negating, dishonoring the very factor that offers need its electrical cost:

Even within the imagined paradise of limitless eros, there have to be room for demise; in any other case the endlessness, the shortage of restrict or of boundary, lastly drains issues of their stress, removes all edges… The identical physique that strains towards freedom and escape additionally has outer edges, additionally exists in time, and it’s that doubling that makes the physique the horny and troubling factor it’s. O style and see. Isn’t the flesh a solution to drink of the fountain of otherhood, a solution to style the not-I, a solution to blur the perimeters and thus really feel the actual fact of them?

Art by Margaret C. Cook from the 1913 English edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

The longing of the ephemeral physique is the Borgesian mirror by which the everlasting longing of the soul is endlessly mirrored and mirrored again, flickering with the bittersweet fantastic thing about our mortal future, with the transcendent urgency of life and love. Doty writes:

You must each bear in mind the place love leads and love anyway; you possibly can each see the top of need and be consumed by it all of sudden. The ecstatic physique’s a spot to really feel timelessness and to listen to, ear held near the chest of one other, the wind that blows in there, hurrying us forward and away, and to know that this consciousness doesn’t put an finish to longing however lends to it a shadow that’s, within the late hour, stunning.

With a watch to Whitman’s central credo, staked on the poet’s ethos that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” and that we’re due to this fact not separate selves however contiguous territories of aliveness made all of the extra alive and extra contiguous by love, Doty writes:

When the Self dissolves right into a world of separate selves and demise turns into actual, love turns into a pact with grief; what’s gained then is the inescapably poignant reality of individuality. There won’t ever be one other you, and I really like the cussed particularity of you as a result of you’ll disappear.

Art by Lia Halloran for The Universe in Verse. Available as a print.

Complement these fragments of Doty’s irreducibly splendid What Is the Grass with Hannah Arendt on how to live with the fundamental fear of love’s loss and Elizabeth Gilbert on love, loss, and the consecrating power of grief, then revisit Whitman himself on what makes life worth living.

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