Whitman's wild, disgraceful, lovely, dissonant music did two things for poetry: it loosed poets from the burden of formalism, and it gave everyone else the idea they could write poetry. But instead of storms of poetic genius, we got people who should've been reading the newspaper scribbling out poems that didn't rhyme. They failed to remember 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 so brilliantly was that he understood formal poetry. That's not to say you can only write good free verse if you know how to write a sonnet, but a knowledge of the rhythm and cadence of language is requisite for good poetry. Whitman's was nothing short of masterful.
The narrator (whoever it is—America, everything and everyone, certainly not just Whitman himself) doesn't praise or demonize America and its people, he celebrates them. This isn't your mama's poetry. Visceral, earthy, beautiful, quiet, laconic, insane, or any other adjective you want to throw at it, this is the American poem. Reading it is like traveling from one end to the other and meeting every citizen along the way. Leaves of Grass is basically the bible of American poetry.
Beyond just America, Whitman is busy celebrating life. If that includes death, fear, horror, so be it. This isn't a bunch of happy poems, it's an existential reflection about the human experience. Whitman understands how the land itself thinks, and he gives it long and sonorous voice. Read Whitman and weep; read Whitman and sing. He'd approve either way.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
Did you find this review helpful?