Walt Whitman 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 Whitmans 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 Shakespeares 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 allnot one; perfect transparent clearness, sanity, and health are wantedthat is the divine styleO of it can be attained.” In the above quote we see the essence of Whitmans 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 Whitmans 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 Whitmans 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 Whitmans 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 Whitmans 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 Whitmans style, we may spend more time deciphering Whitmans themes or following Whitmans structures, than experiencing the poem in its entirety.
However, Whitmans effectiveness remains a matter of personal preference. It may be true that following Whitmans unpredictable style evokes more thoughtful analysis than in traditional poems. It also may be true that it is easier for some to follow Whitmans 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.