How Walt Whitman Changed The World of Poetry & What You Can Learn From It
In the early 19th century, poetry rhymed. Period. End of story. Free verse didn't exist yet, and anything that didn't descend from a long line of European traditions dictating style, content, and form was quickly dismissed as commoner's gobbly-gook. It might be called sentimental, perhaps moving, but not poetic.
Walt Whitman changed all that. The ideal American poet, according to Whitman, did not elevate himself above the common man. He didn't hold fast to tradition for tradition's sake. And, above all, he did not identify with Europe, it's land, people or society. He was American through and through.
Whitman wasn't preaching to the choir; his high-minded ideals directly contradicted everything about modern American poetry and American poets. He was preaching equality and free verse to sonnet-clinging elites. Moreover, while the Good Gray Poet is now known world-over as the father of free verse, when he published the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855 he was a nobody.
But Whitman's audacity knew no bounds; he wasn't content with coming out of the woodwork to call out the literati, and he wasn't content to take risks with his style. At the age of eleven, Walt left school to begin a career that included stints in teaching, printing, publishing, and journalism. He learned how to set type, and he acquired a feel for popular culture and, in a sense, marketing. In turn, this would lead to his ultimate show of panache -- the promotion of his own work.
Upon the debut of Leaves of Grass, Walt sent complimentary copies to a number of prominent literary figures (now a common promotion tactic, then a rare move of boldness). And when Ralph Waldo Emerson responded favorably to the copy he received, Whitman took the liberty to publish the response in the New York Daily Times without asking for Emerson's permission. He even went so far as to anonymously publish reviews of his own work in several newspapers. There would be no shortage of praise for Walt Whitman.
But Whitman and his poetry were not well-received by all. His poetry was regarded by many as obscene, and he was frequently perceived to be arrogant beyond belief. When it came to light that Whitman had published a number of self-written reviews, needless to say, people were not pleased. And in 1882 the sixth edition of Leaves of Grass, by now his life's work, was prohibited from being published in the city of Boston on grounds of obscenity. However, despite, or perhaps because of, all the controversy surrounding him, Walt Whitman accomplished a feat that most poets and authors do not: he lived to see his work rise to prominence.
Regardless whether you enjoy his poetry or agree with his methods, Whitman's audacity serves as an inspiration to us all. He's a reminder that sometimes you need more than talent; you need a bit of chutzpah, too.
image via Marcelo Noah