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Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, & America’s Poetic Voice

Role of Whitman and Dickinson in creating a distinctive American poetic "voice."

The 19th century began with high hopes of poetic achievement in the United States. Led by William Cullen Bryant and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a new generation of poets during the two decades after the War of 1812 created a body of poetry the equal of Britain?s in quality and breadth.

Their poetry, although decidedly American in terms of theme, place, and imagery, was overly sentimental, rhetorically inflated?in a word, artificial. It failed to reflect the yearnings, energies, and ambiguities of a nation in the throes of startling and immense changes.

That role fell to two younger poets: one, a keenly intelligent, sequestered woman, who lived nearly her entire life in her parent?s home at Amherst, Massachusetts; the other, a gregarious, shirt-sleeved working man from the bustling streets of New York. Although different in temperament and style, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman are now recognized as the founders of a uniquely American poetic voice. They radically broke with tradition by introducing into their poems subjects vital to humanity, especially sexuality?the darkest secret of their day.

"I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars."

~ Walt Whitman

Born on Long Island, Walt Whitman (1819-1892) grew up in Brooklyn, left school at 13, and worked as a printer, itinerant school teacher, and editor and correspondent for various newspapers. The tall, bearded aspiring author sought to write democratic poetry?a poetry vast enough to represent all the variety of a burgeoning American culture.

In 1855, Whitman published his first book of poems, Leaves of Grass, the work that he would revise and expand for the rest of his life. The 1855 edition contained 12 untitled poems, written in unconventional long cadenced lines of non-rhyming, often earthy verse. The longest and generally considered the best, later entitled Song of Myself was a vision of a symbolic "I" enraptured by the senses, upholding the unfettered potential of every individual in a democratic society.

Whitman?s "wild, barbaric yawp", his unabashed celebration of the pleasures of the flesh evoked considerable scorn and hostility. In his verse he voiced a robust yearning for emotional and physical release that in part stemmed from his experience as a gay man living in a society deeply intolerant of unconventional sexuality.

"Surgeons must be very careful?

When they take the knife!

Underneath their fine incisions

Stirs the Culprit?Life!"

~ Emily Dickinson

Born in Amherst, the second child of a prominent attorney, Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (1830-1886) attended Amherst Academy and studied for a year at nearby Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary.

With the exception of several visits to Boston and a trip to Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, when she was 23, Dickinson remained in Amherst, living in the same house on Main Street, where she was born, from 1855 until her death. Emily, like her sister Lavinia who also stayed at home, never married.

Dickinson?s poetry, compressed, hard, and blazingly vivid, reveals a private world of thought and sensation unlike any other poet of her day or, for that matter, few since. Who can ever forget her reference to the human body as "that pink stranger we call dust." The mysterious power of words mesmerized her.

Unlike Whitman, whose poetry celebrates 19th-century America?s outer transformation, her burgeoning cities and working people, Dickinson?s enigmatic lyrics bare witness to her inner-most thoughts about death, love, nature, home, and God?to what scholar Wendy Barker in Lunacy of Light calls "the borders of the self."

Dickinson?s true genius lay in her reinvention of language. She departed from conventional hymnbook meter by using jarring rhythmical variations, intense metaphors, and idiosyncratic syntax to create lyrics, alternately playful and darkly cryptic.

Extremely prolific, Dickinson composed nearly 1,800 poems, but she was not publicly recognized during her lifetime. The first volume of her work was not published until 1890, four years after her death.

Whitman and Dickinson, either notorious or hardly known in their day, are greatly admired today. Their poems, whether Whitman?s free-verse evocations of the modern city, or Dickinson?s intensely personal epigrams, signified a new departure by conveying an aura of mystery about the human condition.

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