Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Whitman and 19th century American Poetry

--This is the title page of the first edition of Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." Instead of an author's name, it had this image of Whitman in working-class garb and none of the poems were titled. It was clearly intended as something different from conventional poetry of the period.

--Compare any of the comments on poetry offered in the section of Whitman's preface you read to examples from Longfellow, the most popular poet of the period. How does Whitman's vision of poetry differ from Longfellow's practice? Are there any similarities?

--In the preface, Whitman offers an idealized model of the American nation and its people as "the greatest poem." How does his poem "Song of Myself" embody this principle in form or content?

--Whitman presents himself as the American "bard," the poet as representative or speaker for the nation. How does he enact this principle in the poem?

--"Song of Myself" is a long poem (when first published, it didn't have section numbers as it does now). Do you perceive any structuring principle or order, or does it feel like just a bunch of 'stuff'? If there is order, what do you perceive as the principle or logic of that order? If not, why write it this way?


  1. “Song of Myself” is really interesting in terms of order and structuring. I have a pretty limited knowledge of poetry but while reading this poem, I felt structure in Whitman’s words through their meaning. The entire order of the poem seemed to be a progression of life, life’s connection to the growing and progressing actual body, and how these two things fit into and progress with nature. He starts off with pretty vague descriptions of things like, “the smoke of my own breath,” “my respiration and inspiration,” etc. He then gets more specific describing people such as “butcher-boys” and “blacksmiths” giving more identity to who he is describing. Then on page 2227, he describes himself with his name reaching the kind of epitome of what we would classify as something representing identity. His topics along with aspects of identity get ever more specific. He starts the poem with simple yet complex descriptions of nature and things around him and by page 2233, he is discussing space and time. With this intensity of topic, identity and description Whitman seems to be questioning the importance of the specificity of everything and might be suggesting we have made things all to complex. The simplicity of the image he presents on the cover and lack of his name and titles also plays to this thought.

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  3. Whitman's "Song of Myself" completely embodies his prefaced idea of the American nation and people as "the greatest poem".
    In the poem,Whitman alludes to the cultural diversity of America and, considering the high marks beauty and visual sensory experience is given in poetry, this is a vital part of why he can consider the nation and people parts of the greatest poem ever. The diverse backgrounds of the nation's people is not singular to the theme; since poetry is often tragic, so too must part of the nation, clearly expressed when Whitman acknowledges the underbelly of society: for example the listless opium-eater, "with rigid head and just open'd lips," (Whitman 303) or the dangers associated with quartering runaway slaves during a period of intense debate and legal contradiction concerning the matter of slavery (Whitman 198).

    The poet also cleverly quilts stories about scores of Americans, their occupations and dreams, in a poetic way that coincides with the preface.In all of these different ways does Whitman allude to America containing the components of a great poem.