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Watch Your Language, Walt Whitman!

Modern poets owe much to their predecessors, and the breakthroughs of more recent poets are often based upon the earlier experiments of someone else. No singular poet of the past receives so much credit for the shape of modern poetry as Walt Whitman, and while he is credited largely for his changes to poetic form, he should also be recognized for his revolutionary approach to language and word usage. Although Whitman’s overall approach to poetry and language was not entirely new in and of itself, it expanded radically upon older ideas and incorporated a number of experimental variations. By using common language and slang words, vulgar or profane terms and phrases, and new words of his own creation, Whitman changed the entire vocabulary of poets forever. When later poets attempted to find a voice of their own, Whitman was a solid inspiration not simply because of his own celebrated style but because he, himself, had worked through the same process of self-discovery and found his own inspirations in his forebears to develop his own use of language. Later poets, claiming to have created a new approach to poetry, often were merely advancing Whitman’s own ideas into a modern context.

Walt Whitman himself was not entirely original with his use of language in poetry. It could have been said about Whitman’s poems that, “They who have been accustomed to the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers … will, no doubt, frequently have to struggle with feelings of strangeness and awkwardness: they will look around for poetry, and will be induced to inquire by what species of courtesy these attempts can be permitted to assume that title.” (Wordsworth, 241) These words were not meant for Whitman, however; they were instead applied to the works of a British poet who had come from the generation just before him, William Wordsworth. Wordsworth set new standards for poetry and believed that the lofty language used exclusively in poems had lost its relevance and should fall into disuse in deference to the language of the common man. Wordsworth sought a more approachable poetic language, something accessible to all readers. “The principle object, then, which I proposed to myself in these poems was to chose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as possible, in a selection of language really used by men … Low and rustic life was generally chosen … The language, too, of these men is adopted … because such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived.” (Wordsworth, 241) Wordsworth saw older poetic language as out of touch with his contemporary audience, and he saw the everyday words and phrases of common men as a far more personal, meaningful language. Whitman viewed poetic language in the same manner and merely made the next step towards once again advancing the language of poetry to a more modern context. It may, in fact, be true that, “it is impossible to say something about the language(s) of poetry that will not be entirely hostage to the historical, cultural moment of its saying,” (Olney, 2) for just as Whitman adopted a new language that was more connected with his moment in time, others who would come later would rework the use of poetic language to more adequately reflect their own time as well. For Whitman, this meant leaving behind the more colloquial language seen in the poems of the past, including those of Wordsworth himself. It was time, Whitman wrote in the essay “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads,” for “a readjustment of the whole theory and nature of poetry.” (Olney, 101)

Whitman was determined to find a new voice through his poetry, a voice that represented the people of his time and of his country. He wrote of himself in an anonymous review of his own poetry that, “[n]ot a whisper comes out of him of the old stock talk and rhyme of poetry.” (Whitman, “Walt Whitman and his Poems,” 31) He knew, like Wordsworth before him, that a new voice and language was needed to revitalize poetry but he also knew that it would be seen as unusual to an audience so steeped in the old vernacular. “It is indeed a strange voice! … If this is poetry, where must its foregoers stand?” (Whitman, “An English and an American Poet,” 41) Where indeed. Whitman was not dismissing his foregoers, however; he was merely attempting to make his own poetry more relevant and connected with his modern world. Whitman’s works in Leaves of Grass can be considered “to recognize in language a creative medium that will not remain a slave to the world of referents, and to regard … poetic language as a means of social revitalization.” (Killingsworth, 51) To really speak through his poetry – to make an impact upon society – Whitman needed a language that could be understood and appreciated by everyone.

It has been said that Whitman’s poems in Leaves of Grass were “no doubt a ‘language experiment,’ a radical essay in consciousness whose aim, in Whitman’s own words, was ‘to give the spirit, the body, the man, new words, new potentialities of speech.’” (Killingsworth, 49) This misses the point of Whitman’s intentions, however. Certainly Whitman loved language. He was awed by “[w]hat beauty there is in words. What a lurking curious charm in the sound of some words!” (Whitman, “An American Primer,” 65) Yet he was not simply a grammarian or a linguist. Whitman sought to use language as a key to bring poetry into the mainstream and away from its selective and lofty origins. Wordsworth had made similar inroads, but Whitman was determined to make a poetic language that spoke without hindrance to the common man, the people of his country whose language was as rich and varied as its speakers. He felt that “American writers are to show far more freedom in the use of words. Ten thousand native idiomatic words are growing, or are to-day already grown, out of which vast numbers could be used by American writers, with meaning and effect, - words that would be welcomed by the nation, being of the national blood, - words that would give that taste of identity and locality which is so dear in literature.” (Whitman, “An American Primer,” 79) This is how Whitman transcended the foundations laid by Wordsworth. Whitman sought not simply to adopt from the language of common men, but to completely break free from a poetic language that was any different from common speech. He sought a language of the people that was more vibrant because it was alive in its current usage among the people. “Central of course to Whitman’s notion of the business of the Great American Poet was the idea that the truest poetry was to be found in objects and activities and persons and language heretofore considered entirely unpoetic.” (Olney, 117) The common and everyday things of society were more symbolic and beautiful to Whitman than any grand poetic terms of the past. The language of the common man, varied and coarse as it might be, was Whitman’s poetic resource.

While Wordsworth had encouraged an adoption of the language of the common man, he limited himself to acceptable words. Whitman went beyond Wordsworth by not only incorporating slang or vulgar words but by celebrating those words as being more poetic for being so unusual. “Whitman’s vocabulary is much richer and much more varied than one often thinks … and Whitman draws from all sorts of sources and from many levels of usage,” adopting words from “all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.” (Olney, 116) Whitman speaks not simply in the language of the common man but in the specialized languages and registers of tradesman, incorporating their slang and idioms as a celebration of the colorful variety of words used by the American people. Whitman, in an essay titled “Slang in America” stated that, “slang, profoundly consider’d, is the lawless germinal element, below all words and sentences, and behind all poetry.” (Matthiessen, 277) Whitman saw such language not as degenerated but colorful, showing more depth and passion than words that were more formally accepted. He believed that, “[m]any of the slang words among fighting men, gamblers, thieves, prostitutes, are powerful words. These words out to be collected, - the bad words as well as the good. Many of these bad words are fine.” (Whitman, “An American Primer,” 67) While “bad” words often served to make his poems controversial, they also added a vibrant honestly which connected more closely with the people Whitman wanted to reach.

Whitman’s use of “bad” words went beyond the adoption of slang and involved words that would have commonly been considered vulgar, profane, and forbidden. Once again, Whitman would be of the attitude that ‘these bad words are fine,’ and he would use them unapologetically. He believed that, “the appetite of the people of these States, in popular speeches and writings, is for unhemmed latitude, coarseness, directness, live epithets, expletives, words of opprobrium, resistance.” (Whitman, “An American Primer,” 71) Whitman had no reservations about using such coarse words because they once again represented the common man and his own language. Whitman, in fact, “rescues for poetry the unpoetic, the vulgar, the profane, and the obscene.” (Ellmann, “Whitman,” 19) He makes poetry new and strange and vibrant by the inclusion of such language, and he brings poetry out of the heavens and down to earth. He confronts not only the words but their forbidden subjects as well, forcing an open discourse with readers of his poetry about topics that previously would have only been discussed in backrooms or brothels. He explored many ideas, but “Whitman’s language is more earthy because he was aware, in a way that distinguished him not merely from Emerson but from every other writer of the day, of the power of sex.” (Matthiessen, 281) Sex, and all of the parts and actions involved, was never so directly and casually displayed in poetry before, and Whitman again made his poetry more accessible to the common man, discussing things that were indeed discussed by common people in America, even if only in hushed tones.

While Whitman’s greatest individual contributions to reshaping the language of poetry were the adoption of slang and forbidden words, he also incorporated words of his own creation. Many poets before him had engaged in forms of wordplay, but Whitman created words that reflected his approach to using a common language. James Olney believes that this gave Whitman his own individuality in a language of commonality. Olney states that, “[o]ne other feature of Whitman’s vocabulary that makes him sound like himself and no one else is his choice, and sometimes creation, of words … that in their formation and sound, in their oral shaping, enact what they signify.” (119) If Whitman had truly been trying to make his poems ‘sound like himself and no one else,’ he would surely have created words more often in an effort to make his own place in the common language of his poems, but that is far from the case. “Although it has been estimated that Whitman had a vocabulary of more than thirteen thousand words, of which slightly over half were used by him only once, the number of his authentic coinages is not very large.” (Matthiessen, 287) Considering the minimal creation of new words seen in Whitman’s works, it seems unlikely that he was trying to make his poems sound more like himself by their inclusion. In fact, making his poems sound more like himself is entirely contrary to Whitman’s focus upon embracing the language of the common man. Instead, Whitman’s creation of new words was thoughtful and well placed, used only when other words were simply inadequate to explain what he wished to express. Later poets, such as e.e. cummings and Allen Ginsberg, would adopt a similar use of created words when the situation demanded, but those poets generally followed the example of Whitman and constructed such words rarely.

In his time, Whitman’s new style, form, and language “was an assault on the very citadel of the poem itself; it constituted a direct challenge to all living poets to show cause why they should not do likewise. It is a challenge that still holds good after a century of vigorous life during which it has been practically continuously under fire but never defeated.” (Williams, 330) Whitman not only sought to create a new style but believed that the language of poetry simply had to change. He made no pretense that his method was the best; in fact he seems to have encouraged all poets to find their own voice and constantly express themselves in new ways. In the preface to the 1855 version of Leaves of Grass, Whitman states that, “the expression of the American poet is to be transcendent and new.” (Olney, 44) William Carlos Williams would nearly restate the same sentiment six decades later when he stated that verse needed to be made “always new, irregular,” (Ellmann, “Williams,” 312) and Ezra Pound would echo the sentiment with his insistence that all writing should “make it new.” (Ellmann, “Pound,” 375) Central to these and other modern poets would be the desire not simply to make a new style or discuss new subjects but to incorporate a new language, a language that would speak to the common man in his own words and his own phrases while changing the old poetic language and making it strange and new.

All of Whitman’s advancements have had profound effects upon the language of later poets. The use of vulgarity, profanity, sex, and slang are common elements of much modern poetry (simply examine the works of Allen Ginsberg for all of the above in one collected arena). Above all else, the use of common language, current with the times, has been a prevailing feature in the works of modern poets. When Ezra Pound laid out his model for writing Imagist poetry, his modes would mirror those of not only the poetic foundations of Whitman but of Wordsworth before him. Similar to both earlier poets, Pound would call for the use of “the language of common speech.” (Ellmann, “Pound,” 376) Pound was certainly not alone. Other poets would hold strongly to common language, and some would even go so far as to advance beyond using just the spoken word. Ginsberg developed past Whitman, stretching beyond common spoken language to employ the direct language of thought, thus achieving “a mental release which is not mentally blocked, the breath of verbal intercourse.” (Ginsberg, 213) Ginsberg gave credit where credit was due, however, noting that his thought language was “the breakthrough begun by Whitman but never carried forward.” (Ginsberg, 219) Here Ginsberg was referring more strongly to Whitman’s rhythms and form, but it can clearly be observed in Ginsberg’s poems that he had also build upon Whitman’s breakthroughs in language, taking the next step forward in modernizing the language of poetry to make poetry new and meaningful in his own modern context.

When Wordsworth decided to write with the low and rustic language of the common man, it would have amazed his contemporaries not merely to learn that the future Walt Whitman had adopted, adapted, and advanced the same concept but that poets far into the modern era would value the same basic principles. The language of the common man, such a hallmark of Whitman’s poetry, has had profoundly lasting influences upon modern poets. Each modern poet, attempting to find their own voice and to reshape poetry into something new, would follow the same path of discovery, experimentation, adoption and modification of the language that had been seen in Whitman before them. While his approach to language was not entirely original, it was his elaboration upon old ideas and his total inclusion of all common language, good and bad, that expanded the boundaries of the use of language and thought in modern poetry. Whitman’s lasting influence, while often credited as simply his experimentation with form and rhythm, must be see through his appropriation of common language to supplant the more formal poetic languages of the past.

Works Cited:

Ellmann, Richard and Robert O’Clair. “Walt Whitman.” The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry.
Richard Ellman and Robert O’Clair, eds. Norton: New York, 1988. 19-22.
Ellmann, Richard and R. O’Clair. “William Carlos Williams.” The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry.
Richard Ellman and Robert O’Clair, eds. Norton: New York, 1988. 312-315.
Ellmann, Richard and Robert O’Clair. “Ezra Pound.” The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. Richard
Ellman and Robert O’Clair, eds. Norton: New York, 1988. 374-378.
Ginsberg, Allen. “A Letter to Eberhart.” Beat Down to Your Soul: What was the Beat Generation? Ann
Charters, ed. Penguin, New York, 2001. 208-221.
Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. “Tropes of Selfhood.” The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman: The Life
After the Life. Robert K. Martin, ed. U. Iowa: Iowa City, 1992. 39-52.
Matthiessen, F.O. “Words! book-words! what are you?” Walt Whitman. Francis Murphy, ed. Penguin:
Baltimore, 1970. 275-291.
Olney, James. The Language(s) of Poetry: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins. U.
Georgia Press: Athens, 1993.
Whitman, Walt. “An American Primer.” Walt Whitman. Francis Murphy, ed. Penguin: Baltimore, 1970.
Whitman, Walt (anonymously). “An English and an American Poet.” Walt Whitman. Francis Murphy, ed.
Penguin: Baltimore, 1970. 37-42.
Whitman, Walt (anonymously). “Walt Whitman and his Poems.” Walt Whitman. Francis Murphy, ed.
Penguin: Baltimore, 1970. 29-37.
Williams, William Carlos. “”An Essay on Leaves of Grass.” Walt Whitman. Francis Murphy, ed. Penguin:
Baltimore, 1970. 329-331.
Wordsworth, William. “Preface to Lyrical Ballads, with Pastoral and Other Poems (1802).” Norton
Anthology of English Literature. M.H. Abrahms, ed. Norton: New York, 2000. 239-251.

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Watch Your Language, Walt Whitman!, by Paul Cales, © October 2002