Along with Emily Dickinson Walt Whitman was the most experimental and technically innovative American poet of the 19th century (see blog post Sept. 20, 2009). While Dickinson disrupted conventional metrics, rhyme, punctuation, capitalization, and grammar, Whitman basically threw conventional poetic meter out the window and invented a whole new form—free verse.
Many readers think free verse is verse that doesn’t rhyme, or they get it confused with “blank verse.” Blank verse is actually unrhymed iambic pentameter. Shakespeare used it a lot. Free verse may or may not rhyme, but it is completely free of meter that can be scanned, counted, and labeled as iambic, trochaic, anapestic, or dactylic. Whitman created a completely new way of achieving rhythmic effects in poetry. He actually used grammar instead of the stressed and unstressed syllable patterns used in the conventional poetry of his time.
In 1855 he published Leaves of Grass and revolutionized the writing of poetry, dispensing with rhyme, as well as meter and regular verse forms. Yet his poetry still had rhythm, as well as other sound effects, such as assonance, consonance, and alliteration. What was revolutionary was his use of parallelism or repetition of grammatical structures to create rhythm.
It sounds so tame, but readers and critics alike were shocked, saying that his sprawling lines bore no resemblance to anything recognizable as poetry. Ironically, later critics have traced Whitman’s use of parallelism to the Bible, a text that those shocked readers would probably have been very familiar with. But in those days Biblical “prose,” no matter how rhythmic, was not considered to be in the same category as “poetry.”
Lest anyone think Whitman’s innovation was a matter of chance or accident, the opening poem in Leaves of Grass reveals Whitman’s consciousness, whether his use of parallelism was Biblically-based or not, that he was doing something different, new, and “modern.”
One’s-Self I Sing
One’s-Self I sing, a simple separate person,Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.
Of physiology from top to toe I sing,Not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the Muse, I say the Form complete is worthier far,
The Female equally with the Male I sing.
Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,Cheerful, for freest action form’d under the laws divine,
The Modern Man I sing.
The kernel structure of the poem is the inverted sentence “_________I sing,” which is repeated four times, establishing a pattern, not of meter, but of grammar. Each separate sentence features its own extension or modification, thus creating grammatical variety, as well as repetition.
The content of the poem asserts the modern ideas of individualism and democracy and expands those ideas to include the equality of body and “brain” and of male and female. While individualism and democracy were well established values in 1855, the elevation of the body and of women was highly controversial, even more so when associated with “laws divine.” Whitman uses a revolutionary poetic form to reinforce revolutionary ideas. And he reveals his conscious intention in his final line, “The Modern Man I sing.”
If Dickinson challenged conventional views of reality (see blog post Sept. 19, 2009), Whitman challenged conventional values, especially when it came to gender and sexuality. Not only did he assert the equality of the sexes, he celebrated the human body as much as he did nature and openly expressed both heterosexual and homosexual attraction, attachment, and desire.
While Dickinson could barely get published, Whitman’s published poems were reviled, not only as unpoetic but as obscene. Both were too far ahead of their time to be fully appreciated in their lifetimes, but, together, they have exerted more influence on modern poetry than any other pair, and they did it by writing poetry as it had never been written before.