Poet Mark Doty on Connection and Creativity

“We are all co-extensive, and our work is to move toward union… We must know our fellows in order for everything to move forward; it is our spiritual imperative to connect, or else the destiny of the world cannot be completed.”

Poet Mark Doty on Connection and Creativity

“I’m stricken by the ricochet wonder of it all,” poet Diane Ackerman wrote in her sublime Cosmic Pastoral, “the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else.”

This continues to strike me as a fine way to go through life — perhaps the finest: wonder-smitten by reality, in all its dazzling interleavings.

It strikes me, too, as the deepest fundament of creativity — this willingness to look for and look at, really look at, the totality of being and to see, as Whitman did, that each of us, every ephemeral living thing, is a “kosmos” containing all “races, eras, dates, generations, the past, the future, dwelling there, like space, inseparable together”; to see this and, as Virginia Woolf did in that rapturous moment when she realized what it means to be an artist, “have a shock”; to make of that shock something that shimmers with the wonder of existence — that transcendent something we call art.

Poetry is like that Mark Doty explores in his wondrous book What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life — part biography of a rare artist of another time and for all time, part memoir by a rare artist of our own time, part timeless meditation on the nature of creativity as the work of connection and consecration.

All artists know that open country where creativity lives, the place where the ego dissolves and the boundary blurs between where we end and the rest of the world beings — what Willa Cather captured as the experience of being “dissolved into something complete and great” and what Doty calls “experiences of boundlessness.” He writes:

Such experiences appear in or flicker around the edges of every life; we are mysterious to ourselves, and often sense that there are depths we can’t easily sound, or that the origins or destiny of the human reside somewhere in a silence we carry within us.


It’s the same thing poetry does, opening within the ordinary a space where time pools or stills, and something blazes up out of the familiar.

Nature is my reflection of me.. Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for an English 1913 edition. Leaves of Grass. Available as a printed version.

A century after William James observed that “our normal waking consciousness… is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different,” Doty adds:

Visions can be as close to everyday life as we think. Artists need to believe that revelation will never end.

This dwelling-place is the place where unfinished revelation can both be where we find poetry as well as where poetry ends.

Poetic imagination isn’t usually directed by the will. Some other part of the self seems to go forward on its own as — beginning in image or metaphor or music, a phrase that floats up and sticks in the mind — a poem begins.


Poetry is used to describe what cannot be named easily. We are often driven to create it or to read it, even if other languages seem incapable.

But the work is not work in the ordinary sense, not the kind James Baldwin heralded as the artist’s responsibility to their talent when he observed that “beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.” (The most that artists of genius can ever offer those of talent is their advice, for they can never offer their genius, true as it is to its Latin roots in the innate and irreplicable spirit of a being.) Doty analyzes the distinction between talent and genius.

The work of a poet of genius accounts about the same as the plumbing that accounts for the fountains in Rome. It provides the necessary foundation, which is the technical scaffolding, but it cannot itself create the sense of transport.

What accounts for a poem — or for any work of art that reaches from one human consciousness to touch and transform another — is the willingness to stay in that liminal space beyond space, time, and ego, and see what grows there when all the stagnant certitudes we call a self fall away. Doty says:

Like language and images and ideas, the world comes and goes. From years of experience with typewriters, I create this book from thinking, feeling and experience. The light coming from the screen into my body via my eyes causes my brain to send impulses that move my fingers against the keys. There is no place in the world where that which is “I” firmly, clearly ends, no line of demarcation. A jellyfish’s body is between 94% and 98% water. This means that the body is made up of water moving within it. The jellyfish is not able to separate from its environment and can be considered more of a water-based process, or an activity in the water.

One of the otherworldly drawings of jellyfish by Whitman’s contemporary Ernst Haeckel, who coined the word ecology to describe the interleaved relationships between organisms in the house of life. Print available to The Nature Conservancy.

Drawing on the work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin — who too contained multitudes as a Darwinian Jesuit priest, paleontologist, and physicist reckoning with the same permeable boundary between knowledge and mystery that Whitman channeled in his poetry — Doty adds:

Our work is to unite. We all share a common co-extensive nature. Teilhard believes that evolution is a collective movement toward higher consciousness. “No evolutionary future,” he writes in The Man Phenomenon, “awaits anyone except in association with everyone else.” We must know our fellows in order for everything to move forward; it is our spiritual imperative to connect, or else the destiny of the world cannot be completed.

This elemental truth is what Emily Dickinson contoured in her proto-ecological poem about the coextensive wonder of a single flower and what prompted the Nobel-winning quantum pioneer Erwin Schrödinger to make his seemingly cryptic but exquisitely reasoned statement that, in the whole of the universe, “the over-all number of minds is just one.”

Art from Thomas Wright’s An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750. Available as both a printed copy and stationery card.

Complement this fragment of Doty’s altogether transcendent What Is the Grass — in which he also explores the paradox of love and death with ravishing soulfulness — with poet, potter, and Black Mountain College icon M.C. Richards on what it really means to be an artist, poet Naomi Shihab Nye on the two driving forces of creativity, and Nick Cave on its combinatorial nature, and then revisit Whitman’s own poetic wisdom on creativity.

Giving = Being Loving

Since a decade and a half I’ve been writing for hundreds of hours each month, spending thousands of dollars every month. MarginalianThe magazine, which bore for fifteen years the unsettling name Brain Pickings. Thanks to the support of readers, it has been free from ads and still exists. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Consider donating if you feel this work makes your life easier. Every dollar counts.


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