Today is the birthday of American poet Walt Whitman, born in 1819. Like many American writers, Whitman began his career as a printer and journalist, but we know him today because of his poetry. Because he was so revolutionary in his approach to verse, he had trouble finding a publisher for his poetry. He finally published his first book of poetry himself in 1855. It’s this book Leaves of Grass that Whitman edited and expanded throughout his life. Several critics lambasted Leaves of Grass, but Ralph Waldo Emerson celebrated it: “I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed” (1).
One of the great contributions that Whitman made to poetry was his experimentation with free verse. Without regular meter or rhyme, free verse combines rhythm, repetition, and parallelism to create music for the reader’s ears. Whitman’s verses with their optimistic, robust tones, celebrated the individual, painted images of democratic America, and reveled in the colloquial language of its common people.
Characteristic of his break with traditional verse, Whitman begins his epic Leaves of Grass with no mention or invocation of a muse; instead, he audaciously focuses on himself:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
Who can forget the scene in the movie Dead Poet’s Society (1989), where Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams, writes one of Whitman’s lines on the blackboard to inspire his students to leave their self-consciousness behind and to embrace their individual creativity?
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
Whitman died in 1892, but his poetry lived on, inspiring the unique voices of American poets of the 20th century.
Today’s Challenge: Get in Your Yawping Stance
What are key questions that you can ask to help you comprehend a poem? In one memorable scene from the film Dead Poets Society, Mr. Keating explains to his students that the greatness of poetry cannot be plotted on a graph by rating a poem’s perfection and its importance; instead, poetry is about a higher purpose:
We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.
To quote from Whitman, ‘O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?’ Answer. That you are here — that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?
Certain essential questions can be asked by any reader of any poem. These questions don’t promise to unearth a poem’s entire meaning, but they are a good starting place for beginning your comprehension of a poem’s sound and sense:
Who is the speaker in the poem?
What is the situation or subject that the poem is addressing?
What is the speaker’s tone or attitude toward the situation or subject?
What are some universal ideas or themes that are addressed in the poem?
Read the Whitman poem below. Before you begin asking questions, read it a number of times, and read it out loud. Then, answer the four questions above. If you’re working with a partner or a group, discuss your answers and compare what you said to what others said.
When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer
by Walt Whitman
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
(Common Core Reading 1-3: Ideas and Details)
Quotation of the Day: Language is not an abstract construction of the learned or of dictionary makers, but something arising out of the work, needs, joys, tears, affections, tastes of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground. -Walt Whitman