Walt Whitman

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

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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...

(The entire section contains 615 words.)

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