What are some traits of Walt Whitman's poetic style?
Walt Whitman crafted one of the most distinctive styles in world poetry – a style that is instantly recognizable. Among the particular traits of that style are the following:
- a strong emphasis on the individual self, especially the self of Whitman in particular
- a strong tendency to use free verse in his poetry
- an epic tendency that tries to encompass almost every possible subject matter
- an emphasis on the real details of the everyday world but also on transcendent, spiritual themes
- an emphasis on life as it was actually lived in America , and yet a concern with all humanity; a focus on reality...
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Walt Whitman has been described as the quintessential American Poet. His poetic style is filled with poetic justice for American society, a society that was fresh and new through Whitman’s patriotic eyes. However, not only was Whitman a pioneer when it came to his poetic style, but he was also revolutionary when it came to the way he distributed his poetry. Walt Whitman designed, printed, and revised his own poetry several times, never fully satisfied with his gift for the American people.
In his biography regarding Whitman, Ed Folsomcomments on the production of Whitman’s first edition of Leaves of Grass, “Whitman believed that American poetry would have to be essentially different from any poetry written previously—it would have to look different, sound different, and deal with different subject matter if it was to guide the development of a radical new American democracy” (Folsom). Walt Whitman wanted to embody a new type of poet, a modern voice for his beloved people to follow. However, it is crucial to note that Whitman’s early, overtly patriotic stance on America was altered in his later years.
A recurring thematic style throughout his poetry is the relationship between the natural world and those who inhabit it. Heavily influenced by the transcendentalist of his time, Whitman sought to reveal this spiritual link between humanity and nature and by doing so began a new era of poetry.
In a very curious poem, Eidolons, Whitman introduces us to his belief in the spiritual and natural world that is a link between all humanity. The word Eidolons is defined as a phantom or apparition, perhaps alluding the fact that all that exists in our world is spiritual as well. This poem also introduces a common occurrence throughout Whitman’s poetry, the use of lists to emphasize the significance of all things that inhabit the earth. In one of the first lists Whitman describes humanity:
Lo, I or you,
Or woman, man, or state, known or unknown,
We seeming solid wealth, strength, beauty build,
But really build eidolons.
This excerpt also embodies Whitman’s controversial portrayal of human sexuality and his love for the human body in general. Also, Whitman might be referring to his belief that America, as a whole, is strong enough to create a new vision of artistry. Another stanza describes the natural world:
Densities, growth, facades,
Strata of mountains, soils, rocks, giant trees,
Far-born, far-dying, living long, to leave,
These two stanzas are one of the first representations of Whitman’s portrayal of the spiritual link between humanity and nature, a theme that will rear its head in much of his poetry.
Perhaps the most well known of Whitman’s poems, Song of Myself, embodies the main themes that Whitman wished to instill upon his readers. Song of Myself is a great example of Whitman's poetic style. The poem seems to be a celebration of humanity and nature, and even a celebration of Whitman himself. He even exclaims, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself”, perhaps encouraging everyone to do the same. The notion that the individual is a powerful entity was a common, yet progressive transcendentalist theme. In his article concerning Whitman, David Reynolds exclaims that, “this strong emphasis on the individual, so prevalent in reform circles of the 1850's, was echoed in Thoreau's "Walden" (1854) and, the next year, in the famous opening lines of Whitman's "Song of Myself," where self-empowerment reaches gargantuan proportions” (Reynolds).
In the poem, Whitman also seems to be celebrating the world itself, as he describes the simplicity and beauty found when “observing a blade of grass”. Whitman continues to describe the harsh times humans face, yet he always returns to the beauty of the world. Perhaps this suggests that the toils of everyday life are fleeting and that nature will always remain perfect.
In his introduction to A Companion to Walt Whitman, Donald D. Kummings begins by classifying Whitman as a “maximalist”. This is quite possibly one of the best descriptions of Whitman's poetic style. By comparing his technique to a more minimalist approach such as Emily Dickinson’s style, Whitman could be considered “the perpetrator of a sprawling mess” (Kummings, 1). However, this “mess” is something that American’s seem to love, and Whitman’s reputation is arguably larger today than it ever was.
Bauerlein, Mark. Whitman and the American Idiom. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1991.
Folsom, Ed, and Kenneth M. Price. The Walt Whitman Archive. University of Iowa/University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2005. Web. 04 Apr. 2010. <http://www.whitmanarchive.org/about/index.html>.
"From Biographia Literaria." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams. Vol. 2. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 378-395.
Kummings, Donald D. A Companion to Walt Whitman. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2006. Print
Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. Print
Reynolds, David S. "Of Me I Sing: Whitman in His Time." New York Times Book Review (1992): 1. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 20 Apr. 2010.