Whitman's wild, disgraceful, lovely, dissonant music did two things for poetry: it loosed its creators from the burden of mere formalism, and somehow gave everyone who read it the idea they could write the same kind of thing. But instead of a flurry of poetic genius all you had was a bunch of people who should have been at home reading the newspaper scribbling out poems that didn't have to rhyme and didn't need meter. What they failed to remember is that a poem still has to be good.
Free verse doesn't mean no rules. The only reason Whitman was able to write Leaves of Grass and write it brilliantly was that he already understood how to understand and write formal poetry. That's not to suggest you can only write good free verse if you know how to write a sonnet first, but an understanding of the rhythm and cadence of language is requisite for good poetry. Whitman's was nothing short of masterful.
The narrator (whoever that may be—America, everything and everyone, certainly not simply Whitman himself) does not praise or describe or criticize America and its people, he celebrates them. This is not the poetry your mama read to you. Visceral, earthy, beautiful, quiet, laconic, insane, or any other adjective you want to throw at it (except bad ones), this is the American poem. Reading it is like traveling from one side to the other and meeting every citizen as you go. As unrestrained and yet as sedate as America itself, Leaves of Grass is basically the Bible of American poetry.
Beyond simply America though, Whitman is busy celebrating life. If that includes death and fear and horror, so be it. This isn't just a bunch of lighthearted happy poems (as my euphoric praise may have indicated), it's a thorough reflection on existence, primarily within the context of the experience, not of Americans, but of America. Whitman seems to understand what and how the land itself thinks, and to respond accordingly to the proliferation of existence on its surface. Read Whitman and weep; read Whitman and sing. He would approve either way.
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