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Walt Whitman (1652 words)

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 Whitman’s 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 Shakespeare’s 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.

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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 all?not one; perfect transparent clearness, sanity,
and health are wanted?that is the divine style?O of it can be
attained.” In the above quote we see the essence of Whitman’s 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


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