Culture and Recreation


When did American poetry begin?

As the self-described poet of democracy, Walt Whitman (1819–1892) was the first to compose a truly American verse—one that showed no references to European antecedents (throwing off both the narrative and ode forms of verse) and that clearly articulated the American experience.

His first published poetry was the self-published collection Leaves of Grass (1855). In an effort to gain recognition, Whitman promptly sent a copy to the preeminent man of American letters, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–82), who could count as his acquaintances and friends the great British poets William Wordsworth (1770–1850) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), the renowned Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881), and prominent American writers Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864). It was a bold move on Whitman’s part, but it paid off: While Leaves of Grass had been unfavorably received by reviewers, Emerson composed a five-page tribute, expressing his enthusiasm for the poetry and remarking that Whitman was “at the beginning of a great career.” Thoreau, too, praised the work. More than a century later, biographer Justin Kaplan acclaimed that in its time Leaves of Grass was “the most brilliant and original poetry yet written in the New World, at once the fulfillment of American literary romanticism and the beginnings of American literary modernism.” Whitman’s well-known and frequently studied poems include “Song of Myself,” “O Captain! My Captain!,” “Song of the Open Road,” and “I Sing the Body Electric.”

While she was virtually unknown for her poetry during her lifetime, Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) was writing at about the same time as Whitman (the 1850s), publishing only a handful of poems before her death. Collections of Dickinson’s works were published posthumously, and today she, too, is regarded as one of the great early poets of the United States. Had more of her work been brought out in print, perhaps she would have been recognized as the first truly American poet.


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