Dickinson vs. Whitman

April 20, 2010

 

When you think about great American poets, chances are Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman are on your short list.  These two writers are very different stylistically and personally.

Emily Dickinson-Concise, Compact, Idiosyncratic, Radically Private.

Emily Dickinson was a notorious introvert.  Her poems are numbered instead of named, as if she never planned on showing them to others at all.  She makes every word count in her short lines and stanzas. Dickinson says a lot in a few meaningful words. She was a bit quirky, although I think idiosyncratic is not the right word for it. In “Poem 449” she talks about someone who died “for Beauty” who finds a kindred soul in their tomb-mate, a person who died “for Truth”.  They speak between tombs until the moss covers their lips and names.  That is a little more than quirky perhaps…

Walt Whitman- Gregarious, Expansive, Open-Form, Self-Celebratory.

Walt Whitman was an outgoing person who wrote often of being in the company of others and enjoying it.  In his poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”, Whitman describes feeling one with the inhabitants of the city:

                Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not,

                I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,

                I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters

                                around it,

                I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me,

                In the day among crowds of people sometimes they came upon me,

                In my walks home late at night or as I lay in my bed they came upon me,

Whitman was a very descriptive writer whose lines were long, and his poems longer, (even my quote was long).   He got to his point eventually, through verbose lines of poetry filled with repetitions and refrains.

Whitman and Dickinson were almost polar opposites.  While Whitman focused on nature and broad social scenes, Dickinson’s poems echoed her life, closed indoors, inside her own mind.  In “Poem 280”, Dickinson actually speaks of “a funeral, in [her] brain”.  Whitman’s lines were long, Dickinson’s very short.  Her “Poem 185” is only sixteen words long.  Whitman’s were more likely to be sixteen pages.  Whitman was also seemingly not too shy about his talents.  In “Song of Myself” (a title which hints at his pride in himself), he calls himself, “a kosmos, of Manhattan the son,” and says, “I speak the pass-word primeval, I give the sign of democracy, By God!”

Although their styles and poems are as different as a bright spring day in the park and a dark evening alone in your room, both are recognized as standards in American Poetry.

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