Understanding Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman is America’s greatest poet.  He is read not only by Americans but by people around the world. Whitman has been lovingly translated by many of the great poets of other languages and found an enthusiastic following in places as diverse as India and South Africa.   Walt Whitman intended his work to be a portrait of America and also a reflection of its democratic values.  He wrote for Americans but he is now a part of a world literature.  For many people across the globe Walt Whitman is the voice of America.  If you want to learn more about America there is no better place to start than by reading Walt Whitman.  Walt Whitman is the poet who best exemplifies America’s unique literary tradition and culture.

Whitman only became a poet after spending most of his adult life working at various newspapers and news journals writing articles for the general reader.  He first tried his hand at writing poetry when he was well into his middle age.  Inspired by the writings of the essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, Whitman thought that he could make a work that would be as much a part of America as its coastlines and its forests.  He put all of his poems into a single book called Leaves of Grass.  Originally only containing twelve poems, he then edited and added to it for the rest of his life until its poems numbered in the several hundred by his death.  He thought that his book would become an American bible and be read by all of its people regardless of their background, class, or race.  While Leaves of Grass may not yet be so widely read as the bible its readership has grown steadily since Whitman himself paid to have the first edition published in 1855.  In a gesture that would have surely touched Walt Whitman, his name now graces countless numbers of schools and public buildings across the country as Americans have come to recognize him as their greatest artist.

Steel engraving of Walt Whitman. Published in ...

It might not always be realized now that his work has been around so long but Leaves of Grass was intensely experimental at the time that it was published.  It was the first work of free-verse poetry that followed no strict rhyme scheme or meter.  He filled the book with long lists of things and images that seemed to have no logical connection or pattern.  The book was frankly sexual in a way that unsettled many readers and caused it to be occasionally censored and banned by the legal authorities.

Readers now may be more accustomed to at least the idea of free verse poetry, but there is still much that might confuse or lead astray the first time reader.  It is probably a mistake to try to read Leaves of Grass from start to finish if you haven’t read any of it before.  Leaves of Grass is the result of a lifetime of writing and there are many parts of it that are very different and of different levels of quality.  Whitman’s greatest poems are scattered throughout the book and are the best place to begin.

A partial list of Whitman’s great poems includes “Song of Myself,”  “Faces,” “I Sing the Body Electric,” “The Sleepers,” “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” and “When Lilacs in the Door-yard Last Bloom’d.”

“When Lilacs in the Door-yard Last Bloom’d” is considered by most to be Whitman’s best poem.  It was written shortly after the death of Abraham Lincoln and is Whitman’s attempt to come to terms not only with Lincoln’s death but with his own mortality.  Using some of his most beautiful imagery and language Whitman links a love of life and all its sensuality with a love of death and all of its finality.  Few poets have ever so successfully used their writing to look at what is hardest in life to face.

Scattered among the longer poems in Leaves of Grass are many shorter poems of between two or five lines.  While you are struggling with some of Whitman’s longer poems it might be wise to read at least a few of these and see his gift for precision and image making.  In these shorter poems especially Whitman is pushing at what can be expressed using his new technique of free verse.

A poem like “The Runner” is a perfect example-

“On a flat road runs the well-train’d runner;
He is lean and sinewy, with muscular legs;
He is thinly clothed- he leans forward as he runs,
With lightly closed fists, and arms partially rais’d”

Walt Whitman is a poet who you can read for the rest of your life.  He intended his work to be a personal companion.  He pictured it being taken under the arm by people as they went to work and as they went about the basic daily tasks of life.  Poetry at its best helps to enrich our experience.  Whitman accomplishes this more than almost any other poet.  His basic compassion and love of other people is infectious and liberates whoever reads him.

Perhaps no one could have put it better than Whitman himself in “To Rich Givers”-

“For I myself am not one who bestows nothing upon man and woman;
For I bestow upon any man or woman the entrance to all the gifts of the universe.”

MesAyah – Life through the mic (http://mesayah.wordpress.com/)



5 thoughts on “Understanding Walt Whitman

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