How to Write a Poem in the Style of Whitman
To write a poem in the style of Walt Whitman is to use natural language in its most exuberant form. Whitman is considered the father of free verse -- poetry without rhyme and meter -- but that’s not to say a good ear isn’t needed to produce natural cadences, and a good eye to produce stunning imagery and vivid detail. Above all else, Whitman possessed a profound sense of democracy, which led him to chronicle ordinary things that other poets might have missed.
Writing With Original Energy
If you’re writing like Whitman, you cannot be afraid of your own creative energy. You have to let your natural voice surface. Don’t be scared of free association, such as different words and ideas that pop into your mind unexpectedly. And hew to the true. Don’t shy away or write around subjects. Meet them head-on with enthusiasm. Whitman demands direct and fearless language: “I permit to speak at every hazard,/Nature without check with original energy.”
Finding Natural Cadences
Once your own voice is flowing, you’ll notice how language naturally resonates. Whitman was an unusually talented poet, but aspiring writers will find music in their own words as well. Without structured rhyme or meter, language follows the patterns of speech, and speech can be rhythmic. Rhyme, repetition and alliteration can arise organically without predetermined schemes. Read your free verse aloud and listen to how it rises and falls. Consider the last cadences of Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” which ends, “Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,/In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,/Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”
Using Vivid Detail
If you want to write a poem like Whitman, your senses have to be sharp. Don’t stop at simple explanations of things. Write every detail, every speck of life, until you’ve revealed something truly unique. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Whitman describes the summer sky as reflected in the water: “Had my eyes dazzled by the shimmering tracks of beams,/Look’d at the fine centrifugal spokes of light round the shape of my/head in the sunlit water.” As a Whitmanesque poet, you give life to things otherwise unnoticed.
Totally enmeshed in the democratic experiment of America, Whitman wrote about everything around him, from shipyards and factories to sailors and workers. His free verse forms were vast because he granted equal importance to every element of society. In “Democratic Vistas,” he challenged his 19th century contemporaries to abandon the artistic models of the feudal past and embrace “the voiceless but ever erect and active, pervading, underlying will and typic aspiration of the land.” Those trying to write like Whitman should look no farther than their own neighborhood. For his style mirrors the “copious, sane, gigantic offspring” of democracy.
- The Norton Anthology of Poetry; ed. Margaret Ferguson et al.
- A Documentary History of the United States; ed. Richard D. Heffner
Scott Neuffer is an award-winning journalist and writer who lives in Nevada. He holds a bachelor's degree in English and spent five years as an education and business reporter for Sierra Nevada Media Group. His first collection of short stories, "Scars of the New Order," was published in 2014.