Whitman’s Poetry

Further Study

Study Questions

Further Study Study Questions

Describe Whitman’s conceptions of the soul and the body, and the relationship between the two. Which is more important, in his view?

The soul and the body are inextricably linked for Whitman. While the soul is the ultimate repository of the self, and connection between souls is the highest order of relating, the body is the vessel that allows the soul to experience the world. Therefore the body is just as important. This is why he says in “Starting from Paumanok” that he will make his poems from the body and from material things, for the soul will follow from those. The body is also the source of identity in the world and the means for connection to others. Thus in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” he speaks of the body as one’s identity: it is the means by which different generations can experience the same thing (in this case the ferry crossing). Whitman values both the soul and the body, but the body is much easier to work with.

How do you account for the eroticism in Whitman’s poetry? Does he use homosexual eroticism differently from heterosexual eroticism?

Eroticism, in Whitman’s poetry, symbolizes the profound but always incomplete communion between people. Sex is as close as two people can get to becoming one, but the physical body, while it enables this closeness, is also a barrier to complete connection. Heterosexual eroticism is often used to discuss childbearing, which comes out of the same generative process that creates poetry. Homoeroticism, since it is purely about the connection between two people and has no biological function, can be used to talk about a broader range of ideas. In particular, homoeroticism comes to symbolize the kind of valorization of the body and the kind of sympathetic connection between people that Whitman values most.

What kinds of structures does Whitman use in his poetry? Why might he be using these rather than traditional structures like rhyme?

Two of the most important structures in Whitman’s poetry are the list and the anecdote. The list enables Whitman to present a great number of disparate items without having to make any claims as to their relative worth; this is a truly democratic way of presenting material. It is also an easy way for him to go about cataloguing America, a nation that is raw material for poetry. Anecdotes, on the other hand, are a way for him to demonstrate the kind of sympathetic experience he hopes his poetry will be. When he presents a story he’s heard from another, he presents it as something that has become so real to him that he feels he has experienced it himself. This kind of intense connection between people is the goal of Whitman’s poetry. He avoids traditional structures like rhyme because he wants to show that his is a truly American poetry, one that is fresh and new, and not indebted to previous poets from other countries.