The United States Needs Poets

Whitman thought a creation such as Leaves of Grass was truly necessary. He actually thought, "The United States needed poets!" How strange does that sound to us today?

Indeed Whitman got the idea for the need of poetry from people like Emerson, Longfellow and Thoreau, educated men who had been to university and felt that intellectually the country needed force and direction. Whitman ran with this idea in his own way. Being a man who was for the most part uneducated, with a very different background than his contemporaries in poetry, he still took very seriously the notion that America needed poets.

Though political freedom had been established for decades, America was still a long way from gaining cultural independence. Even Whitman admitted to growing up reading Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron, two of nineteenth-century America's most popular writers. Charles Dickens was all the rage in the 1840s; he even came to America in 1842. And the death of the poet laureate William Wordsworth in 1850 inspired a rush of new American interest in his work.

It is in the preface to Leaves of Grass that Whitman explains how he sees a philosophical need for someone to speak out for the country:

Of all nations the United States with veins full of poetical stuff most need poets and will doubtless have the greatest and use them the greatest." The twelve-page, double-columned "Preface" that stands between the reader and Whitman's twelve poems remains his definitive declaration of independence: the new American poet would represent and inspire the people, assuming the roles of priests and politicians; the new American poetry would be as strong and fluid as its rivers, as sweeping and grand as its landscape, as various as its people.

The urgent tone of the "Preface" exposes Whitman's desperation over the state of 1850s America—a country corrupted by its own leaders, torn apart by its own people, and facing an imminent civil war.

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