In the Preface to Leaves of Grass, Whitman writes, "The American poets are to enclose old and new[,] for America is the race of races. Of them a bard* is to be commensurate with a people. To him the other continents arrive as contributions...he gives them reception for their sake and his own sake. His spirit responds to his country's spirit...he incarnates its geography and natural life and rivers and lakes." What is Whitman asking of the American poet?
*bard - The ideal national poet, usually linked to older heroic or epic traditions.
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Whitman views America as the ultimate land of equality and opportunity--or what should be. It is a place of infinite variety and growth and newness, incorporating everything from farmers and trappers and "red men" and soldiers to an indescribable variety of flora and fauna, inventions and inventiveness, mines and exploration, the spawning of new states, and a well-spoken, caring people who do not bow to their President, but rather are on equal footing with him. It is the exciting convergence of the Old World and the New, science with art and religion, with all its collaboration and clashes.
Thus, Whitman expects the American poet to reflect this excitement and variety and equality. A bit later on, he writes that:
For such the expression of the American poet is to be transcendent and new. It is to be indirect and not direct or descriptive or epic. Its quality goes through these to much more. Let the age and wars of other nations be chanted and their eras and characters be illustrated and that finish the verse. Not so the great psalm of the republic. Here the theme is creative and has vista. Here comes one among the well beloved stonecutters and plans with decision and science and sees the solid and beautiful forms of the future where there are now no solid forms.
The true American poem does not stop developing; it does not truly end, just as America will not. The poet is to envision its future and write it down to "see the solid and beautiful forms of the future where there are now no solid forms." He is to be equitable; nothing is to be adjudged good or bad. His place is to emphasize the equality of all and the promise of the country and the land. If the American people become slothful, his purpose is to arouse their blood once again, to keep the promise of America new and exciting, for "he can make every word he speaks draw blood." He is to be a "complete lover" of "the known universe," a hedonist, a photographer with words. He must live completely in the present and let it overwhelm him so he can be a true witness.
His final words in the preface sum up his feelings well: "The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it."
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