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Today I'm going to be talking about the brilliant but intimidating Walt Whitman. I have read a few of his quite extensive list of works and really loved what I have read. His longer and most famous works are intimidating and I believe humanly impossible to completely comprehend at a literal level and a literary level, but they are a great reading experiences. So first a quick bio. on Whitman, then a look at a few shorter poems and the two longest poems.
Whitman is a very interesting man that was years before his time. He was born in 1819 and died in 1892, is often considered the father of free verse, and is one of the most influential people in the American literature canon. He was a humanist (someone who places a high value on human beings both individually and collectively and prefers critical thinking and evidence to superstitions or faiths) and served as a transitional writer between the Transcendentalists and Realists. His works were very controversial upon publication particularly because of their sexual nature. What's interesting about the sexuality of Whitman's works is that they defy gender expectations, norms, and heterosexuality norms which is very impression for a white man writing in the mid 1800s. Whitman was a volunteer nurse during the American Civil War and wrote many poems, prose, and letters about the war.
Whitman also wrote in free verse, and although he was not the first to do so, he was the first to popularize the form and gain critical and public recognition for his works in free verse. Whitman believed in a symbiotic relationship between the poet and the reader, and discussed sex and sexuality openly in his works. It is commonly accepted by biographers and literary critics that Whitman was either homosexual or bisexual in orientation, but there is no proof that he had physical relations with any men, only speculation. Interestingly, Whitman never discussed his own sexuality even though his poems were full of sexual imagery.
Here are Whitman's most famous works, and a few of my favorites. I have not read all of Leaves of Grass, but I included some information on it because it is so crucial. As always, I have linked you to the poems whenever possible through the poem titles.
Leaves of Grass:
Leaves of Grass is a novel length collection of poems in free verse that Whitman published with his own money in 1855 and edited and revised until his death. Numerous editions of this work exist because he was revising and re-releasing so often. The first edition contained twelve poems and the last collection released before Whitman's death contained four hundred poems. If you have read John Green's Paper Towns, then you will be familiar with lines from this collection as Margo is a big fan of Whitman.
Each of the poems are slightly connected by themes of nature and the celebration of humanity. The collection expresses Whitman's philosophies on life. In this collection you can see the Transcendentalist ideas that inspired Whitman as he celebrates nature and humanity's connection to and role in nature. This collection of course also contains those controversial sensual themes and images that I mentioned earlier and celebrates the human body, mind, and spirit.
This collection contains many of Whitman's popular poems including "I Sing the Body Electric," his eulogy to President Lincoln titled, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" and "Song of Myself" which I will speak more about below.
Keep in mind that are multiple versions of this poem because of Whitman's many revisions.
"Song of Myself" is a fifty two stanza poem that would take a lifetime to fully comprehend and analyze and I don't think it is meant to be fully comprehended. This poems presents images of man and nature, man and woman, and man and man in connection with one another. I would use the adjective psychedelic to describe this poem even though that concept would not become popular for over a century from the date of this poem's first publication. The poem is spiritual and something you have to experience for yourself. It is theorized that Whitman had some fancy out-of-body experience/epiphany with a specific name that I can't remember before he wrote this poem, and I would totally believe that.
Now for two individual and short poems by Whitman that I love.
For me this poem represents just what I love about great poetry. I first read this poem as a sophomore in college in my poetry class. I read it and went "Huh, okay, well don't really get that one" and moved on. I came across it a year or so later in another class and thought it was absolutely brilliant upon rereading. Poetry really is a personal and new experience each time you encounter it.
I love the extended metaphor Whitman creates between the spider on an island and a lonely soul. The images in the last stanza of the soul throwing its webs until it catches hold on something are very poetic and yet accurate.
I love this poem for its comments on education and learning. The difference between learning about stars in the classroom and looking up while outside and seeing the actual stars is very vast. As a future educator, this poem means a lot to me and it is something I try to keep in mind in regards to plans for my classroom and myself as well as a student.