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Did Walt Whitman's poems change the way poetry was originally designed?  

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user3330103 | eNotes Newbie

Posted April 24, 2013 at 9:15 PM via web

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Did Walt Whitman's poems change the way poetry was originally designed?

 

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William Delaney | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

Posted April 25, 2013 at 11:24 AM (Answer #1)

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It is my understanding that Walt Whitman had a great influence. In some anthologies of modern poetry Whitman's poems appear on the first pages. Poetry did not change overnight because of him. In fact, many poets and critics were offended by his disdain for all the traditional trappings of poetry, especially rhyme and meter. Henry James wrote a critical review in which he said something to the effect that it is customary when writing prose to run the sentences together in paragraphs and not break them up into irregular lines, often without subjects or verbs or predicates.

Whitman himself was strongly influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had written the following in his essay "The Poet":

For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem, -- a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.

That seems to be what Whitman was attempting--to express his thoughts so passionately that created new forms. He refused to be bound by tradition going all the way back to the ancient Greeks.  America was a new land and a land of freedom, as Emerson emphasized in so many of his essays, including "The American Scholar."

One of the most influential of the modern poets was Ezra Pound (1885-1972). He wrote the following short poem which seems to be expressing an acceptance by many contemporary poets--but not all, by any means--of Whitman's radical example.

A PACT

I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman -
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root -
Let there be commerce between us.

Following Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and others, many contemporary poets have totally abandoned rhyme and meter, traditional forms such as odes and sonnets, and many have abendoned "poetic diction," including reliance on similes, metaphors, and other imagery. The short poem by Ezra Pound quoted above is an example. There are no rhymes and no detectable meter. There is one image, which is probably what distinguishes it as a poem:

It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root -

It seems highly significant that Ezra Pound, who had such a strong influence on modern poets in America and Great Britain, would look to Whitman as his "father" and acknowledge that it was Whitman who "broke the new wood"--meaning, I suppose, that it was Whitman who figuratively chopped down the tree and made the wood accessible to his thousands of literary descendants. It was a huge achievement for Walt Whitman to demolish poetic conventions which had been slavishly followed ever since the ancient Greeks and ancient Romans. It has had a liberating influence on poets and poetry--although it has to be acknowledged that it might have been responsible for the creation of a considerable amount of bad poetry at the same time.

Whitman's Leaves of Grass is a truly remarkable book. It is a great classic. The reader can feel the powerful emotion that seems to create brand-new poetic forms and to fulfill Emerson's prophecy:

For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem, -- a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.

 

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