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Précis Essay, NUS, Singapore There are perhaps only two American inventions: Jazz, and Free Verse poetry. Walt Whitman is the first practitioner
There are perhaps only two American inventions: Jazz, and Free Verse poetry. Walt Whitman is the first practitioner of free verse, self-publishing his long poem in numerous sections, Leaves of Grass, first in 1855 and then revising and re-publishing it several times over the next 40 years before his death! The first edition was so controversial that he was fired from his job. People didn’t know what to think about these–they didn’t look like poems, they had no identifiable shape, and they didn’t fulfill what we expected poetry to do at the time.
Whitman was writing at the time of the American Civil War, a time when the nation was still young enough that he didn’t fully understand what it might mean to be American. What did it mean to be a nation founded on equality? He decides the body, the flesh, is what unites us with each other and with nature. A single blade of grass, he says, “is nothing less than the journeywork of stars.”
His work is comprised of great catalogs, descriptions of landscapes from eastern shores to southwestern deserts, of different classes of people “the president and a prostitute the same”, of gender, race, religious faith, sexuality, and family. He’s inclusive, and the great breathless lines of his poems seem to be trying to capture not only his experience as a nurse during the war but the experience of a nation made up of so much diversity. He celebrates it and makes an argument for equality at a time when equality was taboo. Perhaps he had a vision of America that we are still trying to achieve. For Whitman, the democratic experiment, America, is the poem.
Below is a small lyric example of a Whitman poem in which you can see him trying to get all the details right. Notice the doubling up of adjectives to describe specifically what he’s talking about. Notice the use of gerunds as he stays in motion throughout the poem. Finally, notice how the spider, the natural world, becomes a metaphor for the human spirit, the soul. Whitman’s poem is a kind of mirror.
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