Why Did Walt Whitman Use Free Verse?

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Some critics think Walt Whitman used free verse in a deliberate attempt to create a unique style of writing that blends journalism with music, oratory, and other cultural influences to transform American poetry. Other critics say his free verse voice was the result of a spiritual and revolutionary enlightenment. Most agree it was a combination of the two.

Born in 1819, Whitman was mostly self-taught throughout his childhood, completing formal education for only six years in Brooklyn, New York. Unlike other major writers of his time who attended highly-structured programs in private institutions, his schooling consisted of independent interests in art, literature, philosophy and music through visits to the museums and theaters of New York City. As early as the age of 17, he began his writing career as a journalist and fiction writer, publishing works in the “Democratic Review,” and writing for “The Long Island Journal” and “The New Orleans Sojourn.” In his free time, he attended operas, commenting that an opera can create a change in a person’s development.

Together, these experiences culminated in the late 1840s when Whitman began writing poetry while living and working in New Orleans. According to The Walt Whitman Archive, he appeared to have been directly affected by a soulful understanding of both master and slave, inspiring a free verse expression by a collective “I” voice that would later become the main character in his famous poem “Leaves of Grass.” Whitman wrote six different editions of the poem, his drafts showing evidence of massive editing and re-writing – an indication that he combined his inspiration with his desire to become a skilled craftsman to forever change American poetry.