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Can we Chastise Poetry? Whitman, Dickinson, and the Poetry Itself

Updated on September 13, 2016

Poetry is often an interesting retrospection for the writer and can seem a confusing concoction of adeptly thought-out, strangely placed words for the reader to pretend to comprehend. Never being fond of either Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson’s poetry, this is difficult to properly judge. Honestly, both are a bit too aggravating to read without pausing to debate on what the poet actually meant and what the words on the page are literally saying.

Although it’s never wise to castigate the “grandfather” and “grandmother” of contemporary American poetry, it is still apparent why their work has provoked such a following in the poetic cannon. For example, Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is an affecting tale of (presumably) the speaker of the poem’s past. Like all of us, the speaker intends to live a full life before he dies. However, this particular “Song” is difficult to reflect upon due to the dichotomy between the beauty of living life to its fullest and the dark undertones of death that seems fairly imminent.

Whitman’s poetry does appear deeper than the average “ode to oneself” and is reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s opium-induced ramblings of Wonderland. Speculating that Whitman is indeed the speaker in the poetry, opens the discourse to a view of a personal life that is both twisted and saddening. For instance, his tirade on grass as the “produced babe of vegetation” (ln 7, v6) is a stretch even for the esteemed grandpa. This doesn’t mean that he was actually talking about grass, but, with all poetic symbols, it’s hard to know for sure. Consider that he was, though, and the grass to him is the epitome of life, sprouting as it does for everyone, just the same (ticky-tacky anyone?). His mantra speaks wonders, certainly, if the poem isn’t taken literally and is instead taken philosophically. If, for example, the grass is a symbol for God and the meaning of life (as many symbols are, let’s be honest, here), then Whitman provides a captivating description.

Dickinson, on the other hand, has a cute little quirk using dashes to pull a reader into her thoughts. It’s easy to imagine flipping through pages of her poetry and being visually assaulted by the dashes – however, regardless how ingenious, they are a bit extreme. Dashes can be used for emphasis – as we well know – but the limit should be set at four per poem, just for the reader’s sanity. In poem “465,” for example, there are fifteen dashes and only sixteen lines of poetry. Get a grip, Emily.

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