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Walt Whitman Essay, Research Paper

In parting with traditional poetic formalities, Walt Whitman alleviated a burden

that impeded his ability to achieve full poetic expression. To Whitman, the

strict boundaries that formal meter, structure, and rhyme imposed set limits on

his stylistic freedom. This is not to say that these limits prevented Whitman

from conveying his themes. Rather, they presented a contradiction to which

Whitman refused to conform. In Whitman?s eyes, to meet these formal guidelines

one would also have to sacrifice the ability to express qualities and passion of

living men. Thus, Whitman contested traditional poetic protocol because it added

a layer of superficiality that concerned itself with creating perfect

rhythmical, metrical, and structural poetry. It was this end that bothered

Whitman, for he believed that each word in a poem should serve only one purpose:

"to harmonize with the name, nature, and drift of the poem". To

understand exactly what characteristics of traditional poetic rules posed such

problems for Whitman, we must establish a working definition of what this means.

Traditional poetic rules are those determined through the history of British

poetry . This statement in itself leaves much latitude for interpretation. For

the sake of comparison, generalizations must be made. First of all, traditional

British poetry adhered to a specific meter, a common example being the iambic

foot (unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable). Whatever the chosen

meter, these patterns were more or less consistent throughout the course of the

poem. Similarly, in a traditional British poem, it was desired that each of the

lines have the same amount of feet (for example the Shakespearean sonnet written

in iambic pentameter, meaning five feet or iambs). Along these same lines,

traditional poets valued a concise and logical structure. This meant that

stanzas consisted of a predetermined amount of lines or that the poem had a

predetermined amount of stanzas. Augmenting this formal structure were

predetermined rhyme schemes (such as ?abab cdcd efef gg? in Shakespearean

sonnets). Based on the above, we can describe traditional poetic etiquette as

adhering to the suggested formal patterns predetermined by the tradition of

British poetry. Just in reaching the above conclusion, a problem arises that all

poets, not just Whitman, face when trying to conform to this style. This problem

is that all of these rules are cumbersome. It is difficult for a poet to convey

the theme of a poem when he or she is concerned with whether or not each word

fits into a designated formal pattern. Yet, some would argue that this is what

makes poetry such an elegant art form. Surely, Whitman recognized the genius

found in Shakespeare?s sonnets and other constitutive examples of traditional

British poetry. However, whether or not Whitman recognized the genius of great

traditional British poets, is inconsequential. What did matter was whether or

not Whitman felt that this style was appropriate for him. The answer is no.

Whitman found problems not simply with the fact that clinging to the traditional

style might be burdensome (surely this would not have been an insurmountable

task for Whitman), but his main issue with traditional style concerned the

ornamental effect of formal regularity: "In future Leaves of Grass. Be more

severe with the final revisions of the poem, nothing will do, not one word or

sentence that is not perfectly clear– with positive purpose– harmony with the

name, nature, drift of the poem. Also, no ornaments, especially no ornamental

adjectives, unless they have come molten hot, and imperiously prove themselves.

No ornamental similes at all?not one; perfect transparent clearness, sanity,

and health are wanted?that is the divine style?O of it can be

attained." In the above quote we see the essence of Whitman?s ideology

towards the ?divine style? and to what standards his poetry should be held.

Thus, Whitman proposed that the formalities of traditional poetry resulted in

the true nature of the poem being lost to a kind of superficial elegance. To

Whitman, evidence of this postulate could be found in the general idea of what

was considered a standard theme in these ornamental poems. These themes often

seemed as removed from the everyday reader as the decorative language and

structure with which they were presented. Whitman found the quality of

romanticism in previous literary distasteful because the everyday reader could

not identify with the theme as it applied to his or her own life. Nor could the

reader relate to the characters, which tended to be one-dimensional (an

infallible hero, an evil villain, or a helpless maiden). This last consequence

led Whitman to rebel against tradition. Whitman sought not to cloud his writings

with such adornments. Rather, he was concerned with the "qualities of a

living and full-blooded man, amativeness, pride, adhesiveness, curiosity,

yearning for immortality, joyousness and sometimes uncertainty." In other

words, Whitman believed in a realistic exploration of the human spirit through

his own ?living poetry?. Consequently, if Whitman had conformed to the

traditional style of writing, he could not have achieved his ?living

poetry?. Yet, given the fact that Whitman avoided this formal style, the

question still remains how Whitman conveyed his themes with his ?divine

style?. This question can be answered by looking at a Whitman poem. Take for

example, On the Beach at Night. This poem deals with the theme of death and the

life that must carry on in the face of it. Whitman takes yet another stance on

this recurring theme in Leaves of Grass by envisioning death as "ravening

clouds, the burial clouds, in black masses spreading," (Line 5). In this

way death can be observed by a father and daughter, themselves symbolic,

standing on the shore. To elaborate, the small child conveys the innocent grief

and sadness that accompanies our realization of the finality of death. The fact

that a child is weeping is significant because in living we must deny the fact

that this finality exists, yet it is there. Thus, when death "Lower[s]

sullen and fast athwart[s] and down[s] the sky" (Line 6), we are forced to

recognize the existence of death. The poem expands on this idea through the

reassurances of the father. Again, in Whitman?s usual style, the father

carries with him several identifiable human qualities. One, he asserts his

experience in the recognition of death, by reassuring that "all those stars

both silvery and golden shall shine out again," (Line 20). In this way he

protects his daughter from the realization of death and the sorrow it brings, by

comforting her with the knowledge that these stars are immortal. Thus, he is

saying that life must carry on even in the face of death. Yet the father goes on

to illustrate a second point, for he himself gains something from this

experience. He realizes his underlying love for his daughter minimizes the

?immortality? of the stars. "Something there is that is more

immortal?" (Line 28). Still, the poetic vehicle that is the father

carries another purpose, and that is displayed by his ambiguity in addressing

his daughter: "I give thee the first suggestion, the problem and

indirection" (Line 27). This represents the idea that these issues are in

constant question. Answers are often complex and changing. But what remains

constant, is the cycle of life and death, and the love for his daughter. It is

with these central concerns in mind, not with the meeting expectations of

formality, that Whitman selects each word and structures each phrase in his

poem. The reason for Whitman?s success in deviating from the traditional style

is his variability. Each stanza, line and phrase is unpredictable. While each is

unpredictable with respect to any traditional template, each serves to further

the concerns of the poem. For instance, the second stanza is one sentence. This

serves to effectively capture the emotion and imagery of the ?burial clouds?

suddenly eclipsing the night sky because there are no breaks (periods) in the

action. In accordance with this last example, each stanza in the poem seems to

encompass one idea or event. Thus, these stanzas vary not only in length, but

also in importance. Also, it is important to note that there is no rhyme scheme.

This is not to say that Whitman has no use for rhyme, for there is internal

rhyme in line 27 (suggestion and indirection). In this example we see that

Whitman does not incorporate rhyme just to fulfill some pattern at the end of

lines, he uses it to add emphasis to a certain passage. In this particular

passage, the rhyme adds emphasis to the fact that there are no absolute or

direct answers to the concerns Whitman addresses in the poem. Still, the true

genius in Whitman?s style, is his ability to not only address the thoughts,

emotions, and concerns of a living man, but mirror the living flow of these

qualities in his lyrical style. Yet, there is a disadvantage to Whitman?s

style that the reader may or may not encounter. Difficulties in reading Whitman

arise in his lack of traditional regularity, form, and design. There is

something to be said of reading a poem, which is neatly packaged within the

confines of a pre-designed structure. It provides a level comfort that goes hand

in hand with familiarity. When reading a traditional British poem, we know to

expect certain themes and structures (which present these themes). When we come

across something as unpredictable as Whitman?s style, we may spend more time

deciphering Whitman?s themes or following Whitman?s structures, than

experiencing the poem in its entirety. However, Whitman?s effectiveness

remains a matter of personal preference. It may be true that following

Whitman?s unpredictable style evokes more thoughtful analysis than in

traditional poems. It also may be true that it is easier for some to follow

Whitman?s flow of human consciousness. Was Whitman revolutionary in his style?

The answer is both yes and no. Yes, he pioneered a new tradition in American

literature, a tradition which influence continues to be felt in modern literary

circles (one being modern day English classes across the country). Yet, his

?divine style? is not new. Its roots can be traced to many classical

cultures, and eastern cultures that span the globe. However, it remains to be

said that Whitman led a personal crusade against what he believed was an

ornamental style. Whether motivated by thirst for publicity (Whitman was

somewhat of a public celebrity in his day), true literary idealism, or both,

Whitman forged his own literary style to convey his themes of the ?living?

individual, free from any constrains of formal poetry. This freedom of thought,

this unpredictability of action, has made Walt Whitman a quintessential example

of American individualism.

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