Walt Whitman's poetic style may be best described as innovative and unconventional. Whitman constructed his poems according to his own rules. His lines vary in length but are often quite long and are composed in free verse without standard patterns of rhythm or rhyme. His rhythms appear through his choice of language, especially the long lists he often inserts to catalog the elements of the natural world or the diversity of the American people and landscape. Further, Whitman often incorporates repetitions of key ideas and phrases (anaphora) and creates parallel structures in his poems, both of which serve for rhetorical emphasis. He even includes traditional elements like alliteration and assonance to add further flavor to his poetry.
In terms of diction, Whitman uses all kinds of different language. He incorporates everything from foreign words to slang. He also uses words from the everyday life of America. Even terms from commerce and business are fair game for Whitman as he attempts to paint a portrait of the America of his day.
Indeed, that is one of Whitman's most important traits: the depiction and celebration of American people and American life. He writes of individuals, the common people from all parts of America, optimistically singing of their strengths as he captures American diversity.
Whitman's poems are also highly symbolic. Grass, birds, the sea, and other commonplace elements become symbols of life and human experience. These symbols are not static either. Whitman uses them in many different circumstances to represent many different ideas about the natural world and the people that are part of it.
Indeed, Whitman forged a new path in American poetry, and his poems remain fascinating, relevant, and challenging.
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 blended with an enthusiastic mysticism
- an emphasis on democracy and love of other persons
- an emphasis on speakers (in his poems) speaking honestly and directly, in fairly simple language accessible to most readers
- an emphasis on freedom of all sorts – physical freedom, social freedom, freedom of the imagination, and freedom from formal constraints
- a kind of Romantic enthusiasm for life and beauty and brotherly love
- an emphasis on optimism, on idealism, on discerning and celebrating anything good and worthy in humanity
- an emphasis on the poet as a kind of prophet, a spokesman for his people and his time
- an emphasis on both physical and spiritual beauty, and of the close relations between the two
- an openness to all kinds of experiences, emotions, and thoughts
- an emphasis on human dignity, on the possibility of progress, and on the potential worth of all persons
- a rejection of anything merely genteel, sophisticated, tamely civilized, and safely proper
- an emphasis on personal experience and personal confessionalism
- an emphasis on originality, on the need to transcend tired forms and stale conventions
- an emphasis on the natural, both in humans and in the physical universe
- a more frankly erotic emphasis than was common in much poetry of his time
Many of these traits are clearly visible in the opening lines of "Song of Myself":
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.
Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.Here we see a number of traits already mentioned, especially the emphasis on self; the celebratory impulse; the sense of connection between speaker and reader and the sense that the speaker speaks both for himself and for the reader; the appreciation of nature; the emphasis on the physical, including the physical body; the sense of attachment to America; the autobiographical impulse; the sense of speaking for oneself rather than merely adhering to traditional "Creeds and schools"; the emphasis on "Nature" and, especially, on "original energy." No other American poet had written quite like this before, and few have mastered this style in the many decades since Whitman pioneered it. He was an American original and wrote with a stylistic freedom worthy of an American poet.