The Meaning of Poetry According to Walt Whitman

Categories: Walt Whitman

Every poem is an answer to the question: what is poetry for? Write about how any one poet has confronted this question in his or her work. Every poem is the poets attempt to answer the question: what is poetry for, and no less the work of Walt Whitman, perhaps one of Americans greatest poets. In Song of Myself, he wrote Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems, and his one masterpiece the collection Leaves of Grass proved very much so.

In the first poem in the collection, Ones Self I Sing, Whitman stated what his poetry will be, Of Life immerse in passion, pulse and power/… The Modern Man I sing. Poetry is Whitmans chosen form of expression of the triumph of the self and the celebration of life. He believes that one has to celebrates [sic] natural propensities in himself; and this is the way he celebrates all. This is exactly what he advocates in his greatest poem Song of Myself, Of these one and all (referring to aspects of life), I weave the song of myself.

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This will be a theme which resonates throughout his lifes work, that he sees himself as an embodiment of all experience. He declared this intention of his poems quite explicitly, Thou Reader throbbest life and pride and love the same as I/ Therefore for thee the following chants. It is through these songs, these poems that he is able to share his appreciation for existence, and able to breathes [sic] into anything that was before thought small, [such that] it dilates with the grandeur and life of the universe.

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The free verse he writes in enforces freedom from any form of structure, thus the enjoyment of life at its simplest.

In celebrating life, Whitmans poetry is thus reflective of the exultation of the moment. He respects the past, projects the future, but rejoices in the moment. In two poems he raised I project the history of the future [ To a Historian) and I raise the present of the past [ For Him I Say ] The confusion of being caught in the past and apprehensive of the future is a popular theme in literature. Since the past is bygone and no man can foretell the future, why not enjoy the present moment? It is this philosophy that Whitman aims to convey through his composition. Poetry becomes philosophy where the poet tries to convey his ideas, to share with us their sensitivity of life.

In this way poetry also becomes an outlet for the poet to be heard. Through poetry he is able to express his ideas overtly without imposing them, For that great idea,/ That my brethen, that is the mission of poets. He frequently asserts that he writes because he feels compelled to, because there is so much he wants to share of his unique experience in life. As he writes in Song of Myself, My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach…/ Walt you contain enough, why dont you let it out then? In his poems, he often addresses the reader personally, questioning our views directly. Poetry thus becomes a silent transaction of thought, an exchange of individual views. Whereas for the poet it is expression, for the reader it becomes experience. More than anything else, Whitman believed that poetry, true poems had to penetrate the surface into the secret of things, to mirror the true realities and reveal the unseen eidolons to the less sensitive. 1 He was so obsessed with the truth that he was known as the Poet of Science. In Song of the Answerer, he writes of the standards he set for his poems, The words of true poems do not merely please,/ The words of true poems are the tuft and final applause of science. Thus, poetry is the mirror in which you see the reality, the truth, as the poet sees it: What I [Whtiman] experience or portray shall go from my composition without a shred of my composition. You shall stand by my side and look in the mirror with me. It is to remove the veil of what is known such that others can more fully appreciate the beauty underneathe, what is known I strip away for all truths want in all things. [Song of Myself] >

From these, it is understandable why Whitmans poetry is always associated with philosophy. Even the title of his best work, Leaves of Grass is a presentation of his conviction. The simplest thing in life can be the most profound: What is the grass? … How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he. Similarly for his poetry. Whereas poetry is usually less verbose than prose, it can be more intense, simply because they are the best words in their best usage. Between the simple lines of words, Whitman could present his life. Philosophy aside, poetry serves a fundamental, but equally important purpose: poetry is the record of life, such that mortal memories are made immortal, frozen in words. Whitman is a master in observation. He literally floods many of his poems with the details of daily life, from the great The Presdient holding a cabinet council is surrounded by the great Secretaries to the small and almost insignificant, the shoemaker waxes his thread. Nobody is forgotten, because to Whitman, every form of life is celebrated and should be remembered, I will not have a single person slighted or left away (Song of Myself]. Such lyrical presentation of the most mundane things seal a place in history for the ordinary, making what could well be temporal, therefore immortal.

Literature is always on the side of the underdogs, therefore so is poetry. Whitman expresses the same idea, that despite put[ing] in my poems that with you is heroism upon land and sea, he does not play marches for the accepted victors only, I play marches for the conquerd and slain persons. Poetry is one avenue where the subverted, the forgotten, the unknowns, brushed aside by society for others that appeared more glorious, could find a voice. The kept woman, sponger, thief are invited/ The heavy lippd slave is invited, the veneralee is invited; There shall be no difference between them and the rest. There is once again the idea of the truth. Beneathe it all, there is no real difference between the heroes and the slained. Perhaps one of the greatest function of poetry is that even the most insignificant, can be remembered amidst the most beautiful form.

As records, poetry becomes the contemporary observation of what becomes history. For Whitman, many of his poems, particularly in Drum-taps and Memories of President Lincoln, two chapters in Leaves of Grass, embodies the memories of the Civil War. He had been a helper in Washington, attending to the wounded, and he described this personal account of the war in The Wound-dresser, where remembered the poignancy Many a soldiers loving arms about this neck have crossd and rested, / Many a soldiers kiss dwells on these bearded lips. It lends a more intimate view of what is otherwise plain facts. Poetry reflects truth beautifully without removing from it the emotions that come with knowledge.

Walt Whitman wrote that the words of the true poem give you more than poems/ They give you to form for yourself poems, religions, politics, war, peace, behaviour, histories, essays, daily life and everything else in Song of the Answerer. What is poetry for? It gives one a perspective into life, past the superficiality of appearances, and in understanding life better, gain more experience.


  1. Walt Whitman “Leaves of Grass”

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The Meaning of Poetry According to Walt Whitman. (2021, Sep 16). Retrieved from

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