Friday, May 31, 2013

May 31: Barbaric Yawp Day

Today is the birthday American poet Walt Whitman, born in 1819. Like many American writers, Whitman began his career as a printer and journalist, but we know him today because of his poetry. Because he was so revolutionary in his approach to verse, he had trouble finding a publisher for his poetry. He finally published his first book of poetry himself in 1855. It’s this book Leaves of Grass that Whitman edited and expanded throughout his life. Several critics lambasted Leaves of Grass, but Ralph Waldo Emerson celebrated it: "I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed" (1).

One of the great contributions that Whitman made to poetry was his experimentation with free verse. Without regular meter or rhyme, free verse combines rhythm, repetition, and parallelism to create music for the reader’s ears. Whitman’s verses with their optimistic, robust tones, celebrated the individual, painted images of democratic America, and reveled in the colloquial language of its common people.

Characteristic of his break with traditional verse, Whitman begins his epic Leaves of Grass with no mention or invocation of a muse; instead, he audaciously focuses on himself:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Who can forget the scene in the movie Dead Poet’s Society, where Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams, writes one of Whitman’s lines on the blackboard to inspire his students to leave self-consciousness behind and embrace their individual creativity?

I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
Whitman died in 1892, but his poetry lived on, inspiring the unique voices of American poets of the 20th century.

Today’s Challenge: Famous First Lines
Below are the first lines of some of the best known American poems. Read each line and see if you can identify the poet.

1. O Captain my Captain! our fearful trip is done,

2. There is no frigate like a book.

3. Whose woods these are I think I know.

4. What happens to a dream deferred?

5. So much depends

6. The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day,

7. Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,

8. By the shore of Gitchie Gumee,

9. Hog butcher for the world,

Quote of the Day: Language is not an abstract construction of the learned or of dictionary makers, but something arising out of the work, needs, joys, tears, affections, tastes of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground. --Walt Whitman

Answers: 1. Walt Whitman 2. Emily Dickinson 3. Robert Frost 4. Langston Hughes 5. William Carlos Williams 6. Ernest L. Thayer 7. Edgar Allen Poe 8. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 9. Carl Sandburg

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