Walt Whitman Discussion Questions
PostedJanuary 01, 2000
1. Walt Whitman is often considered to be a larger-than-life poet, writing expansive lines and embracing the whole of America as his inspiration. In "Song of Myself" (Part 31), however, he writes, "I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars." How does Whitman call attention to small objects in "Song of Myself"? Why do you think he called his life's work Leaves of Grass? What does "a leaf of grass" mean to Whitman? To you?
2. Whitman writes in "Song of Myself, "Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself,/ I am large, I contain multitudes." Discuss some of the contradictions you discover while reading. How do these contradictions resonate for you?
3. In "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," Whitman imagines that each subsequent traveler on the ferry would look into the water and see the same visions that he saw. "Closer yet I approach you...I consider'd long and seriously of you before you were born," he writes. In this and many other poems in Leaves of Grass, Whitman seems to be talking directly to you, the future reader of his poems. How does it feel to be directly addressed? Does this change the way you read the book?
4. Two of Whitman's most famous poems, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" and "O Captain! My Captain!", are about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Compare the types of speech in each poem. What differences do you hear between the two poems?
5. In "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," Whitman begins with a mockingbird, "Out of the mocking-bird's throat, the musical shuttle," and continues to come back to the mockingbird, a native American bird, throughout the poem. What images and associations does the idea of a mockingbird conjure for you? Does Whitman imitate other sounds in this poem? What role does the mockingbird play in the poem?
6. When Whitman had the opportunity to create an audio recording of one of his poems, he chose the poem "America." Read the poem silently and then aloud. If possible, listen to the recording of Whitman reading it at www.whitmanarchive.org/multimedia/audio.html. Does he sound like you expected him to sound? How is sound important to the meaning in the poem? What poems would you want to hear in Whitman's voice?
7. In "Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand" Whitman implores us to "Carry me when you go forth over land or sea;/ For thus merely touching you is enough, is best,/ And thus touching you would I silently sleep and be carried eternally." He also warns us that "For it is not for what I have put into it that I have written this book,/ Nor is it by reading it you will acquire it." What does the poem suggest about the physical act of reading? And of writing? And of speaking to another? What do these things mean to you?