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Poetic Form: Leaning on Many Leaves

When Walt Whitman self-published the original twelve poems the world has come to know as Leaves of Grass in 1855, it was not well-received. Perhaps if Ralph Waldo Emerson, a like-minded Transcendentalist, had not deemed it “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has now contributed,” Whitman, out of discouragement, might not have published the 1856 edition with its thirty-two poems. Perhaps he might never have revisited his original work throughout the rest of his life, composed more poems, and continued to revise this collection to its current 400 poems.

But, how do we categorize Walt Whitman’s form? Let’s look at Song of Myself.

One reason that Whitman was not well-regarded is because he deviated from what the literary world regarded as poetry. He wrote in a conversational tone without rhyme and definitive meter. We know this form today as free verse. It is perhaps one of the most common forms used today.

It can be asserted that Whitman’s Song of Myself is an epic poem with its fifty-two sections. These sections were provided for the benefit of the reader in 1867, and not the original, organic version Whitman wrote in the 1855 edition. The poem certainly mimics the heroic-epic that Whitman admired in Homer and Dante. But, Whitman breaks the rules by speaking in first-person rather than omniscient third-person because, after all, he is the hero. Epic poetry is considered part of the oral tradition, which could be asserted Whitman’s conversational style promotes, but it typically tells a myth or legend that takes place well-before the narrative. In contrast, Whitman is writing in real time because it is his time and his voice.

Could it be considered a persona poem? Certainly. Whitman doesn’t stick to one first-person point of view. He writes as “Me,” “Myself” (and “Me Myself”), as well as I. This is important because persona poetry cannot be a direct representation of the poet. It relies on metaphor. The poem is a dramatic monologue or soliloquy. Another of Whitman’s influences was Shakespeare, whose characters wax eloquent on numerous occasions throughout his plays.

But, isn’t it also a song? Well, maybe. It certainly has a lyrical quality. It does have a quality similar to Hebraic poetry. Which could be one reason that his poem about himself was stringently criticized in the mid-nineteenth century. Whitman may not have adhered to the faith he grew up with as a child, but the influence of the Bible never left him.

So, what is Song of Myself? Like Walt Whitman–perhaps like all of us if we dare to explore the complexities of our individual human characters against the backdrop of the earthly and heavenly realms–this poem’s form is difficult to define. Perhaps that is indeed the masterful point.

Categories: Poetic Form

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