Walt Whitman

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How would you describe Walt Whitman's poetic voice?

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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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