Ernest Hemingway maintained that American literature began with Huckleberry Finn, but if he had narrowed the category to American poetry, he would have had to acknowledge the primacy of Walt Whitman. "It was you that broke the new wood," Ezra Pound once said in grudging acknowledgment of a poet he disliked but whose extraordinary originality he recognized. While some excellent poetry had been written in the United States before Whitman's publication of Leaves of Grass on July 4, 1855, it was essentially British in form, style, and diction. Whitman pointed this out in a letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1856, when he declared that "old forms, majestic and proper in their own lands here in this land are exiles," and set for himself the epic task of creating a body of poetry that would capture the spirit, values, and character of a still newly emerging nation.
To do this, Whitman attempted to locate and employ the poetic qualities of ordinary American conversation, a goal in agreement with Henry David Thoreau's contention that "poetry is nothing but healthy speech." Whitman created an open stanza that expanded the possibilities of conventional metric organization, and he developed a long, flowing line that established rhythms beyond the limits of rhyme and standard meter. He used a particularly American vocabulary that led to the formation of an American "voice," eliminating the gulf between a poetic performance and an audience that had to be...
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