Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Unscrew the locks from the doors!/ Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” wrote Walt Whitman, the American poet whose impact on the American poetic tradition has been greatest, in “Song of Myself.” Whitman’s sensibilities were essentially Romantic, and in these lines he is calling for a radical “unlocking” of old hierarchical political structures and old strictures governing interpersonal relations. Whitman is the great poet of democracy, hearkening back, in his thinking and writing, to the ideas of the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wrote, “Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains.” For Rousseau, as for Whitman, humankind is essentially free but has been corrupted by institutions of society, such as governments and churches, that create limitations to that freedom. If people are to return to their free and natural state, they must revolt against the tyranny of kings, the dogma of churches, and the conventions of social intercourse that prevent them from being free and natural with one another.

Koch is clearly the beneficiary of this Romantic tradition. Were it not for Whitman, writing approximately one hundred years earlier, free verse would probably not have developed to the point where a poem such as “Locks” would have been possible. Much of the humor in this poem lies in the fact that Koch builds upon Whitman’s techniques—in his use of free verse, in his cataloging, in his lengthy lines—to sing...

(The entire section is 452 words.)