Selected Criticism

Poetic Theory
Johnstone, Robert
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

To the question "What is Whitman's theory of poetry?" the best response probably would be the Buddha-like gesture of silently holding up a copy of Leaves of Grass. Next best is to be cautious when abstracting general principles from Whitman's many prose and verse pronouncements on what poetry should be and should do. Whitman is uncomfortable with system, and shares with his fellow cultural nationalists the reflex American suspicion of the word "theory," even as he uses it. "Who is satisfied with the theory, or a parade of the theory?" he blusters in "The Eighteenth Presidency!"; "I say, delay not, come quickly to its most courageous facts and illustrations" (Whitman 1307). General statements of principle and program play their part, but the part is strictly limited to introducing and framing the concrete particularities that matter.

This reversal of the relationship of the particular and the general marks Whitman's ineradicable point of departure from Emerson, to whom he was greatly indebted for language describing the poet's character and mission. Whitman's stridently "new" aesthetic, like others before and after, relies heavily on such reversals of precedent, gaining the specificity of what it is not. If the forms of the old poetry are preset and regular, those of the new will be spontaneous and organic, regular or irregular as the occasion demands. Poems will be divided into sections, though nothing so constrictive, repetitive, and numbingly familiar as the rhyming quatrain stanza. Size will vary with content, mood, and intent. To the rigid metrics of traditional verse, Whitman opposes a looser and more changeable rhythm. (William Carlos Williams credits Whitman with foreshadowing the "variable foot," though it is difficult to state precisely what the term means in the prosody of either poet, beyond a studied avoidance of tick-tock mechanics [Perlman, Folsom, and Campion 119].) The most appropriate organic analogue for Whitman's sense of rhythm may be the human heartbeat. Its rhythm changes with the body's need, calm and quiet in repose, rushed and pounding when excited, always circulating energy in appropriate measure. Musicality is incidental: if the poem is true to life, and it should be, it will naturally sound life's music.

The idea that poetry above all else must be true to life is Whitman's first principle. His is a deeply mimetic, realist commitment. Rhythms and forms, content, language, all must be drawn from life. Poetry should seek immersion in the real, never escape from the mundane into the romance of fairyland or the transcendent spirit. To be sure, Whitman's sense of what life comprises is very broad. Life includes the homely realities of everyday existence in city and country, but also the facts of commerce, politics, war, the sciences and arts, religion, the intricate geographies and demographies of American life. Whitman wants much more than to titillate readers with the "blab of the pave"; he wants to awe them with the magnitude, diversity, and connectedness of a real world they inhabit but only minimally comprehend. Jorge Luis Borges remarks that Whitman's verse scans "Life and its splendor" (Perlman, Folsom, and Campion 142). Typically, the remark sounds banal when it is exact. The extraordinary length of Whitman's line, his most visible signature on the page, signals his uniquely expansive reception of the complex and continuous rhythms and contents of the inward and outward realities he experiences. Moreover, for all his immediacy and presentism, Whitman is not obsessively original. He acknowledges the value of continuity with the living past, and borrows technical devices from Homer, the Bible, and Shakespeare without embarrassment, simply because they still serve.

Whitman sings the near, the low, the common that Emerson affirms in his prose but avoids in his poetry. And mimesis demands that the everyday world be presented in its own language. He is the first great poet of the American vernacular, as Twain is its first great prose fiction writer. Before Whitman, vernacular poetry is mostly a vehicle of satire and class consciousness, the lettered poking fun at uncouth lower beings. More than any other nineteenth-century author (more even than Twain, who wobbles throughout his adult life on the relative value of the vernacular and the genteel), Whitman insists on the dignity, creativity, and propriety of the vernacular. It is a vernacularism largely of vocabulary and idiom. The rolling, chanting verse is more a literary adaptation than a direct echo of contemporary speech. Nevertheless, as Donald D. Kummings argues, the vernacularism is thorough enough to be prescriptive: the American poet must be a vernacular hero, at once a common and uncommon culture hero who represents and inspires. Whitman, though, is not a linguistic nationalist. He thinks English a wonderful vernacular medium; it "befriends the grand American expression," he declares in 1855 (Whitman 25). Like the poet-hero, English is a "universal absorber, combiner, and conqueror"; it "stands for Language in the largest sense" (1165). Whitman's catalogues of American place names, his use of Native American and Spanish words, of street slang, his coinages, gorge an imperial English in its American moment. That is only as it should be, for in Whitman's thought the American moment culminates and fulfills the translatio studii, absorbing, fusing all past centers of civilization.

Whitman's mimesis acts and shapes. The verse forms, subject matters, and vernacular language contribute to the multifaceted reality they reflect, affirm its immense variety and render it intelligible and inviting. All of his poetic utterance "smacks of the living physical identity, date, environment, individuality" (Whitman 1345), the better to perceive, express, and add to the great poems of the Soul and America. The trademark anaphoric parallelism of many of Whitman's lines, for example, is more than an extension of one of Shakespeare's tricks. It is a way of displaying the Many and the One without collapsing the former into the latter, conveying an ensemble conceived as a "full armory of concrete actualities, observations, humanity, past poems, ballads, facts, technique, war and peace, politics, North and South, East and West, nothing too large or too small, the sciences as far as possible" (Whitman 1345). Purely as sound pattern, rhyming parallelism dissolves difference in a succession of lines that begin uniquely but end in echo, building a sense of punctuated similarity. Anaphoric parallelism begins with formal similarity and ends with the differences of distinct concrete example. The form is useful for elaborating variations on a theme, differences within a unity, and, important to Whitman, for implying the equality of the many manifestations that constitute the One as Ensemble.

In the longer poems, the method in the madness of Whitman's irregular stanzas and his nonlinear or "spatial" thematic development also is rooted in his desire for form indicative of the dynamic relationship between sharp, irreducible individualities and the whole within which they commune. One of the curiosities in Whitman's statements on poetic theory is his remark in "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads" that he agrees with Poe's argument that "there can be no such thing as a long poem." Whitman says the thought had haunted him before, but Poe's essays "work'd the sum out and proved it to me" (665). But Whitman grasps the corollary: there may be no such thing as a long poem, but there is such a thing as a sequence of short poems. The sections of his long poems may more profitably be read not as ill-assorted stanzas but as distinct poems, each with its own organic integrity and its assigned communicant's place within the whole. The agreement with Poe also suggests too that there may be less compulsive meddling and more deliberation in Whitman's habit of carving out short poems from long to stand on their own (e.g. the excision of "Transpositions" and "Reversals" from "Respondez!") or to be shuffled into other long poems. Collage and bricolage are tempting modern terms for this process, but the working spirit is closer to the anthological.

Similarly, Whitman's lists within poems resist conflation with varied sizes, rhythms, and contents. He invests in the surprise of disjunctive juxtaposition to protect against the danger inherent in successive roll calls—the numbing of the reader to inattention. The list, as list, defies replacement by summary generalization. "The following chants each for its kind I sing," he decrees in "Starting from Paumanok" (section 10); each item is identified and secured in the catalogue, granted the recognition due each member of the poetic community that is always, in Whitman's verse, evocative of the democratic community of the nation. The One, poem or nation, is the ever mutable outcome of the interactions of its constituents. In Democratic Vistas he describes the health of the open society (but could be describing the organic health of the open poem) as dependent on "an infinite number of currents and forces, and contributions, and temperatures, and cross purposes, whose ceaseless play of counterpart brings constant restoration and vitality" (929). The moral intent of this national, social, personal, and literary poesis is best expressed by a devout and subtle reader of Whitman, the philosopher William James, who calls, in like phrasing, for "the greatest possible enrichment of our ethical consciousness, through the intensest play of contrasts and the widest diversity of characters" (169).

Vernacular language has its active contribution also. Only the vernacular, "its bases broad and low, close to the ground" (Whitman 1166), is living, evolving language. A poem in the vernacular is inescapably entwined in that growth. The multiple, evanescent, contradictory agent of growth is slang. Slang is language "fermentation"; it is the catalytic ingredient in the process in which "froth and specks are thrown up" (1166), some to vanish, some to live. Furthermore, slang, which he also calls "indirection" (1165), one of his favorite words for his creative method, is radically literary. Slang goes beyond "bald literalism" (1165) into the metaphoric coupling of diverse concretes and "produces poets and poems" and in primal ages "the whole immense tangle of the old mythologies" (1166). For Whitman, as for other poets of sacred affection, from the author(s) of "The Song of Songs" to Dante to Blake, metaphor formation, poesis, eros, are cognates. The poet's most important obligation is to seize difference and particularity, static in their unperceived potential, and induce through poetry the ferment and dynamism of attraction, binding, friendship, love, union. Metaphor couples, rhythm drums the joining; assonance, consonance, rhyme, anaphora incarnate the mystery dance patterns of echo and contact.

What sets Whitman apart is the totality of the sphere of eros. In Whitman, affection binds much more than body, soul, and God. It connects race to race, state to state, land to land. Eros is the foundation principle of national political union of the great poem of the United States. Dissolution, unthinkably, would mean the fall of America out of poetry into severed, isolated, inert, and dying units. Affection, as the title of one poem states, is "The Base of All Metaphysics." Certainly Whitman's homoerotic imagery (here leaving aside the question of its relation to his sexual identity) is crucial to his project of universal, democratic metaphorization. The language of manly affection and bonding provides Whitman with an alternative to the implications of opposition, hierarchy, and restrictive family inevitably associated with traditional models of heterosexual eros. What he calls in "I Hear It was Charged against Me" the "dear love of comrades" is unrestrictive, egalitarian, more easily transportable to the nonhuman, for example to the "inseparable cities with their arms about each other's necks" ("For You O Democracy"). Whitman's "procreant urge of the world" ("Song of Myself," section 3) is ungendered or infinitely gendered. Each individuum is uniquely composed, desirous, and capable of unpredictable and multiple connection.

The poet, supremely, is the magus of attachment and generativity; "only the poet begets," he claims in "Song of the Answerer." Poetry absorbs the urge and urge, and casts spells that strengthen it, conjuring and multiplying "the act-poems of eyes, hands, hips and bosoms" ("Pent-up Aching Rivers") performed by all beings and things. To the reader, the poet bequeaths an enlarged capacity for the delights and possibilities of the world, an opening forced by constant astonishment at improbable feats of union and metaphoric transformation. The mortal sins in Whitman's esthetic are reduction, simplification, summary conclusion, and closure. However convenient, however necessary, they murder aspects of the real. "I resist anything better than my own diversity," says Whitman in "Song of Myself" (section 16). It is a wry and knowing maxim, and a reminder to readers of Whitman scholarship and criticism to be suspicious of any abstract or outline of his poetic theory.


Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays & Lectures. Ed. Joel Porte. New York: Library of America, 1983.

James, William. The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, and Human Immortality. New York: Dover, 1956.

Kummings, Donald D. "Walt Whitman's Vernacular Poetics." Canadian Review of American Studies 7 (1976): 119–131.

Matthiessen, F.O. American Renaissance. London: Oxford UP, 1941.

Perlman, Jim, Ed Folsom, and Dan Campion, eds. Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song. Minneapolis: Holy Cow!, 1981.

Preminger, Alex, ed. Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1974.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982.

Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984.


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