While studying contemporary poetry, I’ve come to notice that Whitman is one of the most read and well received “classical” poets in today’s society of poets. It isn’t surprising that the modern day poet is naturally attracted to his transcendent words and to the role he played as a revolutionary prophet in the poetry community of the mid-late nineteenth century. Therefore the irony isn’t current poets’ desires to respond and emulate Whitman’s mission of “self” but rather their enthusiastic response to the confidence with which he embarked on this mission. Whitman writes sentences like, “I am as bad as the worst, but, thank God, I am as good as the best” throughout all of Song of Myself, as well as in even some of his war poetry. He does not hesitate to refrain from stating or attempt to conceal his confidence in his craft, and self-elected role as prophet. And to think, all of this self-assurance before the publication of his first book.
Although this sort of Whitman-esque attitude is not unheard of in the attitudes poets today, it is rare, and often unexpected. We have become accustomed to the humble poet, the doubting poet, or even the self-hating poet who does not ask, and definitely does not expect for “his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it” (Whitman’s definition of the “proof of a poet”). As a writer I am taught that nothing I write will be “good” until I no longer care if it is “good” and that the focus can not be “what I am trying to say to the world” but what the world says through me. These ideologies, although I often find to be rather true, are almost contradictory of the methodology and structure with which Whitman wrote.
Therefore, I think of Whitman as sort of the Renaissance Man of poetry. The poetry community looks up at him with lofty respect as a poet who not only said great things, but set out to say great things. There is a reason why Emily Dickinson, a poet who I think was just as revolutionary during the same period of time as Whitman, is studied and favored so much less by contemporary poets and teachers. Yes, we poets can relate to her often lonely lifestyle and self-doubt but it is un-inspirational and too like the insecurities we have in parts of ourselves.