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Poet of the Week: Walt Whitman

When I began my research about Walt Whitman, I did not expect one of the first articles I read would be one from Investor’s Business Daily. Yet this article–and other more familiar sources–revealed why Walt Whitman is one of America’s most unique poets.

Along with Emily Dickinson, he is considered one of America’s most important poets.

As quoted from Poets.

Free Verse

From a poetic standpoint, Whitman stands out as one of the first poets to break the rules of traditional poetry. Although his poetry is most influenced by Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and the Bible, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was viewed as obscene when Whitman self-published it in 1855. But, his way of writing poetry also drew harsh responses.

He was criticized with breaking every rule of good form and good taste–of course, this was intentional on his part.

Kate Karbiener as quoted in Investor’s Business Daily

Free verse is considered the offspring of Whitman’s poetic prowess. His deviation from rhyme and iambic pentameter–not to mention his themes– forever changed the landscape of poetry, the way we view nature and ourselves.

Forbidden Topics

All faults may be forgiven of him who has perfect candor.

Walt Whitman

One of the most controversial aspects of Whitman’s poetry was his spiritualization of sex. So symbolic was Whitman’s description that it is difficult to determine which of the metaphors are fact or fiction.

Whitman lost a government position in January 1865 because the secretary of the Interior declared Leaves of Grass to be “indecent.” It didn’t help that Whitman based the cadence of his best-known work on that of the Bible. Although Whitman claimed to accept all faiths, he–who was raised as a Quaker–believed in none. Whether he believed or not, he was not inhibited by the influence of the Bible. He also desired to live a “cleansed” and “purged” life.

He was writing for those who believed, as he did, that ‘whatever satisfies the soul is truth.’

Investor’s Business Daily

Whitman compared Leaves of Grass to “a cathedral long under construction” or “a tree, with its cumulative growth rings.” I will share more about Leaves of Grass in my posts throughout the week, but it is important to note that Whitman’s expression about nature added a level of concern to the average reader.

“greatest theme” = “a symbolic identification of the regenerative power of nature with the deathless divinity of the soul.”


Another theme that entered his work was one that could not be avoided during his lifetime. Whitman experienced the tragedy of war first-hand when he went to nurse his brother’s wounds during the Civil War. His stance on anti-slavery is somewhat ambiguous because of his antiwar stance. He thought there were better ways to provide freedom for all than going to war. This placed him at odds with those on both sides of the slavery issue.


Whitman did not directly fight for the freedom of slaves, but he fought for the dignity of the human race. His poetry epitomizes a breaking of rules. Even his well-known depictions of himself–his rugged, bearded, pioneer persona–hide the truth. Whitman was “quiet, gentle, courteous; neither rowdy nor lawless.”

The more I read about Whitman and study his work, the more I see a person who desired healing for those who would read his work. A witness to pain and tragedy, he did not sit idly by and simply write. He placed himself in the action. He felt he could live out with a modicum of integrity within the current system of government. Through his poetry he allowed himself to express truth in words and conversational tones devoid of convention but dripping with conviction.

Is it any wonder those in the literary world–and the business one–look to him for a unique perspective on how to live an entrepreneurial, individualist life?

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