Are Emily Dickenson and Walt Whitman the Parents of American Poetry?

Poets, Progenitors and Progeny

by Michelle Kassorla, Ph.D.

Illustration by Michelle Kassorla.

Let’s entertain, for a moment, the image of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson as literary “parents” of American poetry:

Whitman, Dickinson Become Parents of Healthy Child

(AP) Today, it was reported that American poets Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson became parents of a healthy infant.  The baby, named, “American Poetry,” is said to be doing well.
The Father, Mr. Whitman, is the romantic type, inclined toward a transcendent understanding of things, who speaks not of trees but of “treeness,” and who, above all, appreciates the nature of things–language, life, experience.  He is inclined toward the making of lists, it is true, and sending them about in envelopes of phrase, but this is merely his way of communicating, of showing his respect for the free thought and imaginative capabilities of his friends and admirers.
The Mother, Miss Dickinson, is a no-nonsense New England woman.  She says what she has to in as few words as possible and assumes you’ve gotten the picture.  Although she enjoys nature, it is not the broad picture she is interested in–it is the specific.  Little things really matter to Miss Dickenson, and they are constantly reminding her of her state of being, her mortality, and her relationship with the world.  Free thought is not important, economy of phrase is.  She doesn’t have time for lists, envelopes, or even full sheets of paper.
The couple, after the child’s birth, will be permanently residing in the U.S.

Although a relationship, even a meeting,  between these two poets never occurred, we use the metaphor of their existence as “parents” of American Poetry because they seem to represent the “Adam and Eve” of that genre of literature in America.  This is a prevalent view, which is further forwarded by critics and scholars of poetry who teach it to preceding generations of students.   For example, here is a paragraph from Literature, An Introduction to Reading and Writing, by Edgar Roberts and Henry Jacobs:

Emily Dickinson never met Walt Whitman or read his poetry–in a letter she observes the she “was told he was disgraceful”–but together they establish the real beginnings of modern American poetry.  Whitman’s experiments with form and Dickinson’s with language and imagery go far toward creating the American poetic idiom.[i]

We are led to believe, in this example, that there is an existence of a thing known as the “the American poetic idiom,” and that it has somehow sprung from the poetic loins of Whitman and Dickinson.  Although the prelapsarian model of American poetic lineage has some merit, it, like the model it was drawn from, contains some confounding problems.

It is probably true that Whitman and Dickinson have parented many progeny in America.  They are, separately, awarded founding rights to two major schools of poetry in America–Whitman the transcendental, and Dickinson the metaphysical.

Both poets ignored the strident poetic forms of their predecessors–Whitman with his cataloguing and loose association of words, and Dickinson with her “irregular” rhymes and rhythms, and her unconventional use of punctuation–and, taken together,  challenged American poetry and championed experimentation in form and content.

Whitman and Dickinson showed the power of poetry:  how poetry, like a well ground lens, could be used both to scope the vastness of the heavens and the microcosms of the unseen.

It is understandable, then, that many critics and authors would draw connection to them,  tracing the development of American poetry like a line of biblical “begats,” in order to derive literary legitimacy for poets and poetic works.


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