What Will Your Verse Be?
by Brandy Anderson
Walt Whitman is a revolutionist. By changing the literary world he forever altered the entire culture of America. He boldly tossed away the more structured meters of past poets in favour of inventing a new sense of musicality. Whitman touches people on a deeply personal level. His “valved voice” reaches straight into the human heart, where the text wraps its letters around the beating, writhing organ until a transformation begins to overcome the entire mind and bodyand he achieves this total embodiment like no other writer has before or since.
Whitman’s poetry must be heard to be fully appreciated. Simply reading the lines does not capture the true experience he offers. The “I” cannot be embodied as fully when it is silent; it must be proclaimed, for the reader needs to say it, to feel it, for it to resonate within the soul. This beginning begs to be said aloud: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,/ And what I assume you shall assume,/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (1-3 Song). The “I” falls flat when it is quietly read. There is no ownership of the “I” in silence. When the reader puts a voice to this, the “I” suddenly becomes the reader’s and the “I” and “you” become the listener’s too.
Whitman’s affect on the national mind is palpable when you look at American culture, past and present. One of the most popular films of the last twenty-five years devotes a pivotal moment to Whitman. The hero of the story, in attempts to move his charges, recites “O Me! O life!” from Leaves of Grass. The energy of Whitman’s words, the feelings that are being invoked within the minds of all who listen keenly comes across as the poet’s words are spoken: “That you are here-that life exists, and identity;/ That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse” (166). This is a clear example of the power emitted by Whitman over a century after his death. The hope that he continually gives to his readers, his listeners, is incomparable.
Whitman employs numerous “tricks” when he writes, most notably his gift for cadence and observance. His skill is so great that it lulls the reader and listener into an almost transcendent state of being. His words elevate the soul and exercise the mind, coaxing thoughts of tolerance, reflection, and understanding. In Song of Myself, Whitman laments the sad plight of a prostitute, and he observes that “The crowed laugh at her blackguard oaths, the men jeer and wink to each other” (line 306) but then, in a rush of emotion, he shouts “(Miserable! I do not laugh at your oaths nor jeer at you;)” (307). He is urging us all to exercise our sympathy and empathy, to not judge others, to spread kindness to all regardless of station or class or colour. Whitman is pleading for tolerance and his message is beautiful.
Pulling the reader into the poetry is a particular skill Whitman uses more than any other writer of the time. By making the reader a responsible participant, he brings forth a new type of engagement that demands the reader be active rather than passive. He guides the reader through many journeys, each of his poems represents a taste of life. He provides hope, if the reader only takes the time to listen. He says, “You shall possess the good of the earth and sun” (34 Song) and he urges that “You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things form me,/ You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self” (36-37 Song). Whitman urges the reader, urges you, me, everyone, to think for ourselves and to calmly come to conclusions rather than rashly taking someone’s skewed story. The way he inserts life lessons into gorgeous poetry is extraordinary.
The very format of Whitman’s poetry is music in words. One of the most blatant examples of his use of assonance is found in the second section of Song of Myself when he describes “Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowed with perfumes,/ I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it,/ The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it” (14-16). When spoken aloud, these verses set the listener floating on a ribbon of images, almost as if the listener was bouncing on top of the musical notes in sheet music, each word springing the listener’s feet across the clef note after clef note.
His work is littered with examples of his command of assonance. “Who has done his day’s work? who will soonest be through with supper?/ Who wishes to walk with me?/ Will you speak before I am gone? will you prove already too late?” (1328-1329 Song). Whitman also is a master of cadence. His musicality is heard throughout his work. Children of Adam drips with carefully placed repetition: “Singing the need of superb children and therein superb grown people,
Singing the muscular urge and the blending,
Singing the bedfellow’s song, (O resistless yearning!)” (5-8)
A scan down the page shows his use of repetition here, but it is not until it is read aloud that the cadence comes alive. The rise and fall and rolling of his verse fills the air. The words are carefully chosen and placed so that the musicality of the verse matches the meaning of the words. He seamlessly sews both body and though of his verses so that it carries the listener away.
Free verse was non-existent before Whitman. His style was completely of his own making, he invented a new genre that changed American literature forever. Scores of writers such as Kerouac, Wolf, Ginsberg, to name only a few, are indebted to his literary breakthrough. The former constrictions of poetry were not enough to quell Whitman’s spirit, he simply invented his own way of spreading his message. He fused together his two great loves, blending writing and the opera together in poetical form. He truly becomes the “poet of the body” and the “poet of the soul” (421 Song) like no other.
Not only does Whitman disregard former manacles when it comes to formatting, he also tackles subjects no one else dared to utter about. He was not afraid of sex, he was not afraid of politics, he was not afraid of life. He wrote about everything and anything and too bad for those who did not like it. In Once I Pass’d through a Populous City, the speaker remembers his casual affair with a woman he had just met. He recalls “Day by day and night by night we were together-all else has long been forgotten by me,/ I remember I say only that woman who passionately clung to me” (3-4, 2259) and then he alludes to the briefness of the affair and the impending separation, noting “I see her close beside me with silent lips sad and tremulous” (7, 2259). He is so honest in his descriptions of everyday life, unlike any other poet.
Whitman tackles these details with a microscope, he wants to talk about everything having to do with living, even when it is something as earthy as the “scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer” (525 Song). Whitman does this because he is real; he is real, and so you are real, and so I am real and we are all “No more modest than immodest” (500 Song). Birth, death, love, lust, sex, despair, he captures it all and he does it with a revolutionary style. He recognizes his unmatched literary dexterity and he utilizes it for the greater good. He pushes the envelope and loudly proclaims “Through me forbidden voices,/ Voices of sexes and lusts, voices veil’d and I remove the veil,/ Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigur’d” (516-518 Song) will be not only spoken aloud but shouted aloud, given life so that we may all understand and appreciate life and all life has to offer.
Whitman boldly claims that “Of all nations the United States with veins full of poetical stuff most need poets and will doubtless have the greatest and use them the greatest. Their Presidents shall not be their common referee so much as their poets shall” (2197 Preface Leaves). His continuing influence supports this brash statement. A quick search for Whitman on Youtube provides a plethora of videos ranging from slick documentaries to simple recitations of his poetry to more elaborate and creative interpretations of his writing. This clearly indicates Whitman’s hold worldwide, and not only on the American consciousness. In fact, Whitman’s innovation is so widely appreciated that American Opera Projects in conjunction with The Walt Whitman Project has produced an operatic series that puts Whitman’s words to music called “Walt Whitman in Song”.