Walt Whitman

poetry

A Noiseless Patient Spider

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

– – –

Whitman is often seen, and rightly so, as the founder of modern American poetry. He is, as I noted in the entry on Carl Sandburg, a populist. He is in love with America. More to the point, he is in love with the American people. As a Long Islander by birth he was a lifelong New Yorker – a city which is a microcosm of America, especially in the 1800s, when you could go to both the “countryside” in Harlem and the financial district downtown. But he traveled extensively, both across the country and the world. In the Civil War he was a nurse, and his war poems express a deep love of love and human life.

He writes in a distinct style, one that was quite unique at the time. It’s harder to see in his shorter works but his longer poems, such as “Song of Myself” or “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” lack any real prosody (that is, formal rhyme and meter), instead coming out as a strange prose/poetry hybrid, gangly, long-limbed. His books are thick, dense tangles of adjectives and exclamations, like walking through a forest or a crowd. It’s rare that one gets a palpable sense of a poet just by looking at the layout of his books, but in the case of Whitman it is so. On the surface his word choice seems anchored in the vernacular, the conversational – but in reality his sensibility is highly refined. You don’t hear “filament” and “gossamer” bandied about every day. But his lack of formality and his apparent tone make his poetry approachable to “the masses,” whose who would not normally read poetry. And this approachability seems to be a defining American trait – at least we wish it to be. Whitman wanted to be read by those he wrote about. And he was – by the time of his death he had quite a following.

What’s most memorable about Whitman is his boundless love and emotion. Think of the famous “O Captain! My Captain!” Whitman wailed on the death Abraham Lincoln. His poems reveal a huge arc of emotion, written plainly, with frank language. Fear, joy, lust, love in all its forms, sadness, envy, and most controversially, homoeroticism. He relishes living these emotions – he indulges in them equally – and he appreciates the necessity of emotion and pain more than any other poet. As I said before his works are filled with adjectives and adverbs and other modes of description. Whitman was a walking thesaurus, a true master of words, and he was never hesitant to show it. He uses exclamations (“O my soul!”), repetition, and anaphora (the repetition of a single word or phrase to begin a series of lines) to heighten emotion. Whitman is boasting about himself and his subjects – the boast being another American trait. Being both boastful and approachably humble is the essential paradox of Americanness, and it’s within this paradox that Whitman thrives.

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