Very few people will contest that Walt Whitman may be one of the most important and influential writers in American literary history and conceivably the single most influential poet. However many have claimed that Whitman’s writing is so free form as evident in his 1855 Preface to Leaves of Grass and Song of Myself that it has no style. The poetic structures he employs are unconventional but reflect his very democratic ideals towards America. Although Whitman’s writing does not include a structure that can be easily outlined, masterfully his writing conforms itself to no style, other then its own universal and unrestricted technique. Even though Whitman’s work does not lend itself to the conventional form of poetry in the way his contemporaries such as Longfellow and Whittier do, it holds a deliberate structure, despite its sprawling style of free association.
When people say Whitman has no style, they are making a statement about his adherence to conventional standards of poetic form. Style, though, is something completely personal, not conventional. Whitman dared to go outside the conventional boundaries of poetic expression because he seldom followed the standards in rhyme, meter, and stanza form. However, hasn’t every great poet changed the rules governing the creation of great art in some way or another? Without a doubt they have, that defines them as great poets and gives them style. Whitman’s greatness lies in his divergence from the norm, his individuality, not his strict adherence to the arbitrary rules of his predecessors.
Whitman’s approach to poetry is a reflection of his thought. These thoughts are free and wild, and his typical run-on sentences and his endless litanies of people and places represent the thoughts trying to be conveyed. The overall effect of these run-on sentences provides the reader with a feeling of greatness and of freedom. All of the feelings that are evoked from Whitman’s style can be classified as quintessentially American democratic feelings. The belief that Whitman had no style would imply that Americans as a society have no style, a statement that not only Whitman but Emerson and Thoreau as well fought against through their writings. Whitman and Emerson fighting for the same cause is not coincidental, Whitman has often been viewed as the “child” of Emerson, his work being greatly influenced by Emerson. Whitman’s technique of looking at everything as a whole and always opposed to breaking up the whole can be linked to his belief of unity within our country and t!
he reason why he took the Civil War extremely hard and personal.
Whitman’s work can be seen almost as a piece of music; it has a beginning and an ending with many different themes in between and many developments and variations taking place. In Song of Myself one section may clearly lead to another and other times not; the reason for this unclear path from beginning to end may be that Whitman is reaching toward the unknown. To be able to achieve this task he tries one approach, then another. It is almost as he is tossing seeds into his poetry and allowing the leaves of grass to grow together in whichever form or path they choose for themselves. Thoreau would appreciate this idea of some paths leading to civilization, while other paths leading to other paths.
The first few lines of Whitman’s Song of Myself define the true essence of his style; simple and personal. He leases part of himself in his work as shown in lines 1-4 of Song of Myself:
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul, (SOM 2096)
These lines provide evidence to support the claim that Whitman is trying to make a very personal connection with his readers to allow the work to not only be a representation of himself but a representation of everyone and everything. Line 3 sums up his attitude towards the work as he simply stated what’s mine is yours. This idea of simple and personal can be further enforced by the way Whitman chose to uniquely sign his book. Rather then signing his name he would display a photograph of himself in a short sleeve shirt and a very nonchalant pose. The idea that Whitman would not solely sign his own name to the book shows how he wanted it to be truly universal.
The universality of Whitman’s style can be pointed out once again in line 3 of Song of Myself. The reason why he says that every atom belonging to him as good as belonging to the reader because once one can see the world from a deeper level, one is able to see that we are all made of the same universal material. Whitman’s style of unrestricted rambling associations is a reflection of his desire to make his work universal because of his attempt to include anything and everything in his writings.
Whitman’s writing clearly does not fall into the typical framework of poetry as established by his predecessors, however his work has established its own style. This is what makes his poetry so suitable for expressing one’s soul. Whitman not only speaks of the soul, gives evidence of the soul, but his writing is an extension of the soul. His style literally expresses the dynamic, open, and unrestricted independence of the soul. This technique is a circular one, returning upon itself in its celebration of identification, awareness, wisdom, and celebration of individual and universal unification. Song of Myself opens with Whitman “observing a spear of summer grass” and comes to a close over 1300 lines later with this same idea of recognition of universality: “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, / If you want me again look for me under your boot soles” (SOM 2138).
The underlying style and structure of Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass is that like the leaves of grass the writing should take its own path, should form itself rather then the author forming it. The beauty behind the writing is that it flows freely because it was not forced to work together. Whitman’s poems without a doubt have a style and form to them even though it conforms to none of the rules by which poetry has ever been judged.
Although its been said that since Whitman’s writing is so free-form it has no style, those who make this claim are unable to see the true beauty behind Whitman’s writing. There happens to be a loose unrestricted form within Whitman’s writing, but not a structure that could be nicely outlined the way literary critics enjoy. The mysterious and unique expression that is found within the words of Whitman’s writing would lose its unadulterated beauty if it had been written in a conventional method.