Walt Whitman Writings

.. re, encompassing the whole through particulars. Williams writes, Whitman’s proposals are of the same piece with the modern trend toward imaginative understanding of life. The largeness which he interprets as his identity with the least and the greatest about him, his “democracy” represents the vigor of his imaginative life. (199) In “Song of Myself” Whitman presents images of everyday life in America. Like Williams, he possesses an acute sense of the moment.

Whitman perceives the external world and distinctly portrays it: “His glance is calm and commanding, he tosses the slouch of his hot away from his forehead,/The sun falls on his crispy hair and mustache, falls on the black of his polished and perfect limbs” (33). In this image Whitman conveys a common American, confident and determined, strong. The image is crisp and distinct. It is not a metaphor, but an example. It is a particular image of America, representative of the whole. Through this image, and multiple other images -catalogues of distinctly American portrayals, appropriately diverse scenes of a democracy – Whitman suggests that all people are involved in continually creating and sustaining America.

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The typical reader of “Song of Myself” sees himself in the poem. Whitman’s choice of imagery suggests that it is in everyday life that democracy exists, that on attention to the moment of existence (any moment} reveals a universality. Finally, Whitman identifies himself with all he observes: What is commonest, cheapest, nearest, easiest, is Me. Me going in for my chances, spending for vast returns, Adorning myself to bestow myself on the first that will take me. “Song of Myself” is an appeal to the common man, to see himself in the poem, to see himself in all.

In a 1962 interview with the Paris Review Williams remarks on the importance of rhythm in his poetry. His career was a search for an idiom that is a distinct reflection of the American pattern or style of speech. (159-185) His early poems, such as those found in Spring and All, lack traditional metre, but still convey to the reader a sense of rhythm. In the Avenue of Poplars, Williams writes, “He who has kissed/ a leaf/ need look no further-/I ascend/ through/ a canopy of leaves/and at the same time/I descend/for I do nothing unusual . . .” (228-9). The rhythm of this is subtle and beautiful; it exists but is essentially invisible to the reader.

In other words, the rhythm is not so pronounced as to imply artificial structure (as in iambic pentameter, for instance). This poem exhibits what Williams called the variable foot – its meter varies in order to be true to speech. According to Williams, a poet must escape the “complicated ritualistic forms designed to separate the work from ‘reality’ – such as rhyme, meter as meter and not as the essential of the work, one of its words” (l89). Williams’ meter suggests a clarity and preciseness of thought, an unencumbered directness. Often, the rhythm in Williams’ poetry depends on its visual appearance. In “The Red Wheelbarrow,” the eye perceives four small, distinct stanzas, with four words each. Each stanza has three words on the first line and one on the second; there is a minimalistic uniformity. There is no doubt that the form of this poem heightens the sense of its tone, but the actual effect defies definition.

The subtlety of the visual and auditory rhythm in the poem parallels the subtlety of its imagery. If the image is directly conveyed from Williams’ mind to reader’s mind, then so is the rhythm. An exploration of Williams’ use of rhythm naturally encourages a discussion of his use of prose. In Spring and All, he writes that “The nature of the difference between what is termed prose on the one hand and verse on the other is not to be discovered by a study of the metrical characteristics of the words as they occur in juxtaposition” (229). In other words, meter is not the essential factor in distinguishing between verse and prose.

Williams concludes that poetry and prose are aspects of the same art, and each becomes more distinct as the meter becomes more or less substantial. William uses prose as a practical mean of accomplishing what poetry can not in Spring and All. It is a way of clarify and convey information about an idea or emotion already expressed through poetry. There is no doubt that the rhythm of Whitman’s verse is more pronounced than that of Williams. It suggests the more traditional, but it is clear that Whitman is willing to break with form when desired, slipping toward prose: “Houses and rooms are full of perfumes,/ the shelves are crowded with perfumes,/ I breath the fragrance myself and know it and like it,/ The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it” (24) On the subject of rhythm, Williams said that “Whitman was on the right track, but when he switched to the English intonation, and followed the English method of recording the feet, he didn’t realize it was a different method, which was not satisfactory to an American” (Plimpton, 169).

This distinction that Williams makes between his own poetry and Whitman’s suggests that the search for a culture idiom is crucial to the development of a viable poetic persona. Whitman is successful in his appeal to a common American audience primarily through his use imagery, and the true value of Williams’ poetry may be found in his extremely subtle, variable, and exquisite form. Both poets take a pragmatic approach to their vocation, using whatever they need to successfully commune with their audience. According to Williams, a poet must write about “things with which he is familiar, simple things – at the same time to detach them from ordinary experience to the imagination” ( 197). This is the most obvious advice that a writer can offer: “Write what you know.” And that is what Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams do, as well as writing what their audience knows. In other words, both establish a relationship with their readers by appealing to a sense of the familiar and ordinary, “that life becomes actual only when it is identified with ourselves”. Whitman uses imagery that acts as examples of American culture, a framework in which Americans can identify.

Williams uses simple images of simple things, and a natural rhythm that seem to directly reflect his own thought processes, that of a modern American. The techniques of both authors create a distinctive poetic persona. The result is a substantial relationship between author and reader suggesting and providing common experience.


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