Walt Whitman

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Analyzing Walt Whitman's Poetic Voice, Style, and Techniques


Walt Whitman's poetic voice is characterized by its free verse style, expansive and inclusive tone, and use of cataloging and parallelism. His techniques often include vivid imagery, repetition, and a conversational yet grandiose diction. Whitman's poetry reflects his democratic ideals and celebration of the individual, nature, and the interconnectedness of all life.

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How would you describe Walt Whitman's poetic voice?

Walt Whitman’s poetic voice displays a number of memorable and characteristic features, including the following:

  • self-confidence
  • plain-spokenness
  • enthusiasm
  • celebration
  • joy
  • idealism
  • patriotism, but not in a narrow, jingoistic sense
  • a concern with both the inner and outer, the self and the world
  • originality of thought and particularly of expression
  • frankness
  • honesty
  • a tone of friendship and affection

Perhaps the most helpful way to get a sense of Whitman’s voice, however, is to actually listen to it carefully as it speaks – as, for instance, in the following excerpt from the very beginning of Leaves of Grass:

One's-self I sing, a simple separate person,

Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.

Of physiology from top to toe I sing,

Not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the Muse, I say

the Form complete is worthier far,

The Female equally with the Male I sing.

Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,

Cheerful, for freest action form'd under the laws divine,

The Modern Man I sing.

Note the opening emphasis on the individual self, an emphasis so characteristic of Romanticism in general and of American democracy in particular. Note the plainness of the phrasing; note the direct address to the reader. Note the explicit celebration of democracy.  Note the celebration of the body, and the comprehensiveness of that celebration (“from top to toe”); note the equal emphasis on body and mind, on flesh and soul. Note the attempt to combine and celebrate apparent opposites, to speak for everyone and for everything. Note the assumption that everything, indeed, is potentially worthy of poetic celebration – that an epic need not concern itself with mythical gods and mythical heroes but with real human beings in a recognizably real environment. Note the comprehensive emphasis on “Life” itself and on the literal vitality and energy of life. Note, also, the assumption that the human and the divine are ideally in true harmony with one another, that human freedom can co-exist with (and indeed express) divine laws, and that what is new is just as worthy of poetic celebration as anything old and traditional.

Note the unconventional form of the poem, which seems strikingly original but which also reminds us of the writings of another radical poetic innovator -- William Blake.  Note the assumption that the form of the poem should mimic the rhythms of an actual, credible speaking voice -- that rhyme is not necessary, that strict, predictable meter is not necessary, that rigid, predetermined forms are not necessary. Both in substance and in style, both in topics and in form, the voice we hear in Whitman's poems is the voice of an individual who is confident in himself but who also reaches out to others and assumes that he can speak for himself as well as for them. This is a voice nurtured in a democracy: unafraid to speak up and have its say, but also assuming that everyone else has the same right as well, that speaking is important, but that listening is worthwhile as well.

This is a voice that seems to express confident thoughts but that doesn't sound dogmatic, extreme, confrontational, or belligerent.  This is a voice sure of itself but open to new insights, new experiences, new ideas. This is a voice unintimidated by tradition and convention -- a voice open to every aspect of experience and to every kind of person.

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What are some traits of Walt Whitman's poetic style?

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.

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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 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.
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What poetic techniques did Walt Whitman use in his work?

American poet Walt Whitman (1819–1892) was a brilliant innovator of poetic expression and used language in ways never before seen. His Leaves of Grass, a collection of poems which he wrote and revised until his death, contains in its final version over 400 poems.

Widely considered "the father of free verse," Whitman's unique poetic style uses cadences reminiscent of the Bible, and one of his techniques, syntactic parallelism, is also seen in Hebrew poetry.

Whitman also uses anaphora (the repetition of the same words at the beginning of lines) as well as other forms of repetition, cataloguing, and some very original mixtures of words borrowed from foreign languages, slang expressions, and Americanisms.

Whitman's poems are rich in metaphor and imagery, made all the more powerful by their delivery in a style that sometimes feels like an incantation. Whitman broke new ground in poetry while utilizing techniques drawn in part from ancient Greek and Biblical sources.

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