Book Reviews · Lit Life

Epic American Poetry Battle: Dickinson v. Whitman

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Dust off your American Lit textbooks, because we’re going back to class to revisit two of the best American poets in preparation for Independence Day (sorry, Britain…). During American Literature Week here on Lit & Love, we will be discussing some pretty patriotic pieces in all of our posts.

Having already reviewed one of the most American stories ever told as well as one of the best modern stories about America, today I decided to discuss a little bit about the American voice in poetry. When studying and teaching American poetry, one of the things that really strikes me is the development of a truly authentic American voice over simply copying the voices found in British literature.

For a long time in America, we simply copied what good ol’ Britain did. It made sense: it was our most influential frame of reference and most people in early America were of British descent. We made English our national language, we developed a government based on similar philosophy of the European Enlightenment,  and we used their nation as a measuring stick for our own. For the most part we looked to Britain as what not to do as well–Let’s avoid giving too much power to one person, please–but when it came to culture and refinement, we still looked to Britain as our model for propriety.

I think my favorite example of America mimicking Britain is us using the same melody for our national anthems. “My Country, Tis of Thee,” the first national anthem of the US, is set to the music of “God Save the Queen,” the British National Anthem. Even today, we still have a tendency to do this. Think of all those TV shows we’ve based off of British television: The Office, Shameless, and Dancing with the Stars to name a few.

As a self-proclaimed Anglophile, I get the allure of all things British–Thank you, thank you for Harry Potter and Doctor Who!–and I understand that imitation is the best form of flattery, but eventually America needed to really carve out their own identity to truly understand who they were as a nation.

This was especially true in literature. I mean, the first British settlers in America lived in the time of Shakespeare, the most influential British author ever.  In the 17th and 18th centuries, we see so much writing that simply mimicked the strict form and meter of popular British literature of the time.  It really wasn’t until the mid-1800s that authors in America started to find their own voice in literature.

The American voice is strongly punctuated with defining the individual and celebrating that individuality. However, two of the strongest voices within American poetry during that time couldn’t have been more different. The writings of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman were truly two of the first authentically American voices in American writing. Both represent the spirit of individualism and experimentation. However, each represented a starkly opposite side of the spectrum of poetic writing.

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson is one of the most unique voices in American literature. However, her voice was developed in a vacuum, free of influence from the outside world, and without regard for any particular audience. As many know, Dickinson’s poetry was purely personal and never meant for publication. She was a relative recluse for the majority of her later life, and her family published her work posthumously. I always wonder if she is rolling over in her grave knowing that so many people are reading and connecting to her private musings.

Much of Dickinson’s poetry represents the darkness of the individual mind, especially the individual attempting to cope with the realities of mortality. Dickinson does this with carefully constructed lines composed of words parceled-out individually. Her lines are measured and precise, and as you read her poetry you can almost see her pausing and waiting with a pen in hand for the right word to use next.

However, she still manages to create her own path even though she is being precise and, at times, rigid. Her use of slant rhyme (near-rhyme) and her irregular use of punctuation and capitalization show her rebellion against traditional British convention, and allows her to create a dark and intimate poetic voice. You can see this clearly in “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” one of my favorite poems by her.

“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain”

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,

And Mourners to and fro

Kept treading – treading – till it seemed

That Sense was breaking through –

And when they all were seated,

A Service, like a Drum –

Kept beating – beating – till I thought

My mind was going numb –

And then I heard them lift a Box

And creak across my Soul

With those same Boots of Lead, again,

Then Space – began to toll,

As all the Heavens were a Bell,

And Being, but an Ear,

And I, and Silence, some strange Race,

Wrecked, solitary, here –

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,

And I dropped down, and down –

And hit a World, at every plunge,

And Finished knowing – then –

Walt Whitman

Oh, Uncle Walt! Walt Whitman is truly one of the greatest influences on American literature. His poetry consists of sprawling lines and replicates the cadence of the common individual. His poetry can seem unfocused and wordy, but the truth found within those lines echo the truth of the human condition: that we as humans are flawed, beautiful, and ever so resilient.

Whitman’s poetry focuses on the optimism of the America emerging in the 19th century. Many of his poems focus on the individual and the geography and people of America. While Dickinson shies away from others, Whitman celebrates community and connection. He was also truly one of the most rebellious poets of the time experimenting with form as well as subject matter.  He is known as the Father of Free Verse (poetry that does not have rhyme or meter pattern), and often credited with its invention.

In terms of subject matter, his poems are extremely personal, and at times pretty racy (especially for the time). Emily Dickinson once wrote about his writing in a letter to a friend: “You speak of Mr. Whitman. I never read his book, but was told it was disgraceful.” Although prim and proper Dickinson probably wouldn’t have approved of his poetry, his poems connected with many during this time as well as today.

While Dickinson’s poetry is quietly personal, Whitman shouts his ideas and longings from the mountaintops. You can see this clearly in the first section of “Song of Myself,” Whitman’s 52 section opus of a poem.

From “Song of Myself”

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,

I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,

Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,

I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,

Hoping to cease not till death.

Creeds and schools in abeyance,

Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,

I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,

Nature without check with original energy.

Whether sprawling or precise, they truly sing about the human experience which makes them still so beloved today. Although the two authors couldn’t be more different in their approach, both authors successfully capture and helped define the American voice.

Some of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems:

Some of my favorite Walt Whitman poems:

So who wins the battle? Which author do you enjoy more, Dickinson or Whitman?

Lit & Love,

Amy Signature

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