I will be frank, open, honest, and all those other good things which Horatio Algers characters are: I do not like Walt Whitman.
Yes, I know that his "Song of Myself" is wildly popular and critically acclaimed. So what? If anything, wide popularity is a strike against it, not in its favor.
It's terrible. His poetry is unartistic to a degree where I can write some similar stuff practically be accident, and I'm no poet. Look, see:
"The tree's grain flows 'round and 'round, it is life, the tree is life, I am the tree."
I just wrote that. And almost every single verse Whitman penned is just as bad. Did that make any sense? Of course it didn't! And neither does Whitman's.
The only poem I've read by him that I liked at all was "O Captain! My Captain!". You know why? It used meter and rhyme, it was poignant and dramatic, and it was capable of being empathized with. A couple of those points are particularly important. I'll start with the first: "it uses meter and rhyme." Why is this important? Because most of Whitman's poetry was free verse.
Free verse has gained fairly widespread acceptance these days. Personally I despise it. Traditional poetry takes a lot of skill to pull off correctly, and requires an enormous vocabulary, meticulous attention to detail, and a sense of symmetry and patterns. Free verse requires none of that. It is the symptom of a modern virus which has infected the minds of today's artist elite. See, today, anything goes. If I do something random and useless, like, say, downloading every picture Flickr and printing them all out, then dumping them on the floor, that counts as an artistic museum exhibit; provided, of course, if I can come up with a tidy description displaying the appropriate amounts of nonsensical, vague, Whitman-like New-Agey philosophy coupled with a disconnect from the laws of logic.
Obviously, I have little respect for free verse.
Whitman's free verse was particularly loathsome, however. Perhaps it was the sheer audacity, pompousity, arrogance, and pride shown in writing however many pages of nonsense, dubbing them "Song of Myself", publishing them again and again, and finally succeeding in brainwashing a dazed and gaping public into thinking it was good poetry. Admittedly, if Whitman thought that it was an accurate representation of himself, perhaps he was correct.
Any one can write several sentences, compile them into non-standard paragraph form, and call it "free-verse poetry". I call it "ungrammatically formatted sentences."
Here, lets do some poetry:
comes crashing to shore
in waves upon waves.
It is big and blue.
The sea is blue."
This is fun. Let's do some more. Look ma, I'm a poet!
Type this on
an IBM keyboard.
so go the keys. "
Right now you're screwing up your face at me and saying, "look, that's not poetry."
"Sure is," I reply. "It's free verse!"
It rather reminds me of a story told me by an old friend of my grandfather's. We called him Uncle Denny, although he wasn't actually related. Anyway, Uncle Denny was a natural born prankster. At one time he was working at a college as a maintenance man or something of that nature. The college was hosting an art show.
Well, Uncle Denny noticed a blank spot on the wall, and nobody was looking, so he went over and hung his drop-cloth there. Then he just sort of waited around to see what people would say.
A group of high-brow artsy folks walked over and started admiring Uncle Denny's drop-cloth. They began discussing its philosophical meaning and artistic merits, until they noticed the absence of a signature. Seeing Uncle Denny nearby, they asked him who had painted the lovely picture.
"Oh, just a moment." he said. Then he went over and wrote his name on it. Aghast, the people demanded an explanation.
"Well, it's my drop-cloth." he replied. They did not see the humor in the affair.
But that's the sort of attitude the art elite seems to have.
I mentioned that there was a second point about "O Captain! My Captain!" that was important. That is its understandability, or empathise-ability. It deals with down to earth emotions and feelings, things we can understand. "Song of Myself" is incoherent. What beauty is there in chaos? Some may feel that the restrictions of a traditional verse are confining. I find beauty in the order of a traditional verse, and in the skill necessary to write it well. Let me give an example.
Say you looked at a lovely hand-carved statue. It was chiselled out with a lot of thought, care, and skill. Then look at a CNC routed carving. It doesn't make you feel the same way, does it? You may admire how far technology has come, but you aren't emotionally moved. the harder things are to obtain, the more we value them. A piece of traditional poetry took a lot of work to produce; done well, we treasure the results. The instant gratification version, free-verse, may thrill us for a short while("Look mom, I'm a poet!"), but the beauty doesn't really move us over and over.
Whitman's work suffered from the malady of lazy writing compounded with the disease of a simultaneously vacant and chaotic philosophy. Truly, does he deserved to be remembered as a great poet?