Our next look into the most influential poets of all time explores Walt Whitman, the father of free verse and major transcendentalist figure.
Walt Whitman was born on Long Island in 1819 and was active during the boom of transcendentalism and humanism in 19th century American poetry, best known for his “distinctly American” poetic voice.
Career and Influence
Before making it as a career poet, Whitman worked as a journalist and teacher. His own education was limited, having left school at the age of eleven to work.
Much of his knowledge of printing came from his stint as a journalist and working around printing presses, which proved useful by the time he self published his most notable poetry collection, Leaves of Grass, in 1855.
Whitman combined his reverence for nature with the spirit of democracy and liberty to create his voice of a nation. Mary Whitall Smith said of Whitman that “You cannot really understand America without [him], without Leaves of Grass . . . and no student of the philosophy of history can do without him.”
What makes Whitman’s poetry unique?
In addition to his voice and philosophy with which he wrote, Walt Whitman’s work was also distinct for its lack of rhyme and meter — he was a pioneer of free verse poetry.
Take a look at the closing few lines of his 1860 poem, “I Hear America Singing,” a poem that personifies the country through the people within:
“The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.“
In short, Walt Whitman remains both the father of free verse and a father of American poetry. He has inspired the likes of Langston Hughes, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Oscar Wilde, and even Bram Stoker as he wrote Dracula, proving just how far his work continues to reach.
To read about another influential poet, click here.