Uncle Walt & Aunt Emily: Where It All Starts

Walt-WhitmanIt’s poetry semester in our department, which is always a good time: students take an advanced poetry workshop then augment that with a “lyrical forms” class, which surveys all sorts of texts and concepts that are critical to an in-depth understanding of poetry from the poet’s perspective.

My students can attest that I think there’s a very useful compare-contrast exercise to start off any such dive into a deeper consideration of what poetry is and what it can do. It’s so useful, in fact, that I have a habit (one for which I won’t apologize or seek any rehabilitation) of starting almost any poetry class I’m teaching with this simple, seminal set of questions:

How are the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman different? How are they similar? How are some of the essential elements of their aesthetic sensibilities — both of which were highly idiosyncratic in their time — now almost synonymous with many people’s general understanding of how poems are supposed to work? Specifically, how did their poems look, sound? Why were they writing their poems? What were they writing their poems about? Who were they writing their poems to, for, or about?

155_EmilyDickinsonSmallYou could do a similar exercise for any number of poets with interesting connections, whether personal or poetic: Elizabeth Bishop and Robert LowellEzra Pound and T.S. EliotLangston Hughes and Robert Hayden

But somehow any round of useful yin-yang comparisons seems to start (and, to some extent, end) with Walt and Emily. Somehow what defined them as poets — what made them unique, what made them universal; the ways they were large and contained multitudes; what they (and only they) could see and what they could not see to see — still seems to define so many of us as poets, even today. Therefore, I invite you — as I’m wont to do, with no apology — to dive into Emily… and into Walt.


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