Subversive Poetry

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It is his subversive poetry that challenged the antiquated traditions and conservative ideals associated with literature; because of this, Walt Whitman is arguably the most important poet of the American Romantic.

Whitman was an American poet, essayist, and journalist during the 19th century. As a humanist, he was part of the transition between transcendentalism and realism, and incorporated both views of thought into his work. Contemporary historians have cited Whitman as among the most influential poets in American edict — often called the father of free verse. In the early 19th century, free verse had yet to exist — American poetry descended from a long line of European tradition that dictated content, style, and form. Anything other than that was quickly dismissed as somewhat of an amphigory.

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Whitman believed that the American poet did not elevate himself above the commoner — he didn’t hold to tradition for tradition’s sake, and most importantly, he did not identify with Europe, its people or its society. Unfortunately, his ideals contradicted everything about modern America poetry and American poets — who traditionally adhered rigidly to a definite verse structure or set of characteristics. Consequently, when he published the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855, he was virtually a nobody.

Whitman spent most of his professional life writing and rewriting Leaves of Grass, revising it constantly before his death. He paid for the publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass himself, after receiving high praise from Ralph Waldo Emerson, to whom he sent a complimentary copy (at the time seen as a bold move, but now a common promotional strategy). He even went so far as to anonymously publish reviews of his own work in several other newspaper, for which he was scrutinized.

Sex and sexuality have dominated Leaves of Grass from the very beginning and have shaped the course of its reception.

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