Walt Whitman's poetry speaks in America's voice
Walt Whitman

Emily Dickinson called his work "disgraceful." The secretary of the interior fired him from a clerking job because of the poor moral character of his writing. His book "Leaves of Grass" was banned in Boston as "obscene literature."

But today, Walt Whitman is considered perhaps the greatest of all American poets. He broke from contemporary standards by writing frankly about the human body, and his use of everyday language and reliance on "free verse" (that is, poetry without a set rhyme scheme or rhythm) are echoed in the works of generations of poets. As poet Ezra Pound said, Whitman is "America's poet. ... He is America."

"I read him constantly and learn from him constantly," National Book Award-winning poet Gerald Stern said. "He was voluminous in spirit and in fact, and one has to separate the wheat from the chaff. This requires very careful reading and deep attention, but it is worthwhile since Whitman - and Emily Dickinson - are the two great American poets."

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Stern is not alone in his debt to Whitman.

"Whitman is thought of as being the most influential American poet," said David Blake, professor of English at The College of New Jersey and author of "Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity." "It's hard to escape Whitman's influence."

And how many other bards get 12,000-foot-long suspension bridges named after them?

There's a reason the Walt Whitman Bridge, which stretches from Camden to Philadelphia, is named for the Good Gray Poet: Whitman, who was born in Brooklyn in 1819, moved from Washington, D.C., to Camden after he suffered a stroke in 1873, and he stayed there until his death in 1892. His home is even preserved as a historic landmark in Camden, a place he wrote of as "a city invincible."

Whitman's enduring popularity has a lot to do with his reliance on everyday subjects in his poetry.

"He wrote about the blacksmith. He wrote about the carpenter. ... He wrote about African Americans, about the runaway slave," Blake said.

Whitman's influence is evident in the works of generations of poets, particularly those from New Jersey. William Carlos Williams owes his use of everyday language and imagery to Whitman, and Allen Ginsberg's long line finds its precedent in Whitman's poetry.

But Whitman's most lasting legacy may be his ability to give a nation its poetic voice, impressing a distinctly American perspective on an art form that had been dominated by English poets.

"His break from English diction and English metrics changed the course of American poetry, or at least introduced a new strain of poetic discourse," said Stephen Dunn, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and distinguished professor of creative writing at Richard Stockton College. "In essence, he gave us permission to write in American, to speak our own language, to even write in the first person."

Whitman's contribution to poetry made him one of the great Americans, and one of the great New Jersey residents.

E-mail Thomas Dunford: TDunford@pressofac.com


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