How Walt Whitman Remolded Poetry By Breaking Boundaries

Walt Whitman departed from our world 131 years ago today. His legacy revolutionized American poetry by embracing free verse and exploring the taboo.

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Walt Whitman has been lauded as the face of national poetry and even as the physical embodiment of America itself. Considered the father of free verse, Whitman’s writing deviated from the traditional standard of poetry which contained rhythmic patterns. As its name suggests, the free verse does not adhere to formal rules or restrictions, instead preferring to follow the natural flow of speech.

Whitman’s vagabond lifestyle would go on to be a major cornerstone in his legacy, inspiring later generations of writers such as Jack Kerouac of the Beat movement. As we remember the legendary American writer, we take a closer look at his life’s work and determine how Whitman opened Pandora’s box for the future of poetry.

Leaves of Grass

Perhaps Whitman’s most recognized work, Leaves of Grass is a collection of free verse poems written in the style of an American epic. The first edition was published in 1855 with Walt’s own money, but he would continue to labor and revise the series of poems for the rest of his life. Today, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is held in high regard by critics and fans alike, yet this was not the case for his contemporaries.

Book Cover with green natural backdrop.

Despite its status as one of Whitman’s finest productions, his collections of poems were initially met with disinterest and abhorrence from both family and peers. It was described as obscene filth and profane in its use of innuendos, leading to the ridicule and shunning of Whitman. He would even be fired from his job at the United States Department of the Interior.

Yet, he persisted in the face of criticism and believed that the book’s apparent bluntness was its source of strength. As Whitman would go on to say:

All faults may be forgiven of him who has perfect candor.

Walt Whitman

But what exactly did Whitman write about in Leaves of Grass that would provoke such backlash to his life’s seminal work?

Exploring The Unfathomed

Leaves of Grass was notorious for its vivid descriptions of human sexuality and various functions of the human body, often with homosexual undertones, topics that were previously unheard of in poetry. Whitman’s sensual writings came about as a response to Ralph Waldo Emerson‘s declaration that each age would require a poet with “a whole new experience to unfold’, one that he could share with the rest of the world.”

Walt Whitman posing with black hat, steel engraving for Leaves of Grass.

It was Whitman’s openness to put such taboo subjects on the forefront of his poems while incorporating unorthodox materialistic themes such as straw and leaves in his writings that established Leaves of Grass as a pivotal step toward reimagining the possibilities of American poetry.

Embracing Imagination

By actively going against the established boundaries and regulations for poetry, Whitman’s free verse coupled with the will to openly discuss forbidden topics would redefine what it ultimately meant to produce a poem. While there were critics who dismissed Whitman as a “pretentious ass”, others saw this brazen shift in style as an opportunity to show the world what could be.

As Karen Karbiener, a 19th-century literary scholar would put it best:

His aim was to set free the American imagination, to awaken and encourage the development of uniquely American art.

Karen Karbiener, NYU

Whitman’s ideas on sexuality and breaking away from the standard would continue to carry considerable influence, having an impact on the likes of Jack Kerouac and other members of the beat generation, all of which would have a significant part to play in the counterculture movement of the 1960s which forever changed the landscape of literature.

Interested to learn more about Walt Whitman? Be sure to explore Bookstr’s selection of information here.