From Whitman to Olds: The Lifelong Story of American Poetry

Introduction: American Poetry From Whitman to Olds

American poetry is one of the most amazing phenomena in the history of the literature. Incorporating the elements of the literature peculiarities of various cultures and at the same time possessing and developing its own unique features, American poetry is an original issue that requires thorough consideration.

Tracking the development of American poetry becomes possible if taking the most famous creations of the most honored and widely recognized American poets of the past and the modern days, like Walt Whitman and Sharon Olds.

Taking such poems as The One Girl at the Boys’ Party and The Song of Myself, one can trace the similarities and the differences between the two pieces, namely, the objects of the poems, the processes taking place in the poems and the ideas that the authors convey in the poems, which will allow to make certain conclusions concerning the development of the American poetry from the XIX to the XX century.

Putting Two and Two Together: Whitman and Olds’ Poems Analysis

The Common and the Different Objects

When comparing Whitman’s Song of Myself and The One Girl at the Boys’ Party, one must admit that the accents out across the pieces are completely the same. Indeed, looking closer at the two poems, one can see distinctly that Whitman’s poem is written in the first person and exposes the feelings of the poet himself to the audience. Still, even though the author’s lead character is a man, the 11th verse of the poem focuses on a woman, so far and so desired, and her own feelings – or, to be more precise, the feelings that the lead character supposes her to have:

Which of the young men does she like the best?
Ah the homeliest of them is beautiful to her.
Where are you off to, lady? for I see you,
You splash in the water there, yet stay stock still in your room (19).

Much like Whitman’s creation, the poem written by Olds depicts the young girl, uncertain and shy, yet the feelings and emotions that the entire piece is ridden through belong to a different person, a woman as well, presumably, the girl’s mother.

In the given poem, the object is a young woman as well, pure and desired, yet completely unaware of her charm, which makes her even more attractive: “…she’ll subtract her height from ten feet, divide it into hundreds of gallons of water, the numbers bounding in her mind like molecules of chlorine in the bright blue pool (83).”

However, it is important to mark that the lead characters of the poems provide a striking contrast to each other, a caring mother and a cool-blooded man.

The Processes, Similar and Contrasting

Speaking of the processes going on in the given poems, one must mark that Whitman’s Song of Myself depicts the development of a young woman, her recognition of her own womanhood and attractiveness, as well as her frailty and tenderness: “The rest did not see her, but she saw them and loved them” (19).

The same process takes place in Olds’s poem which leads the reader into the holy of the holies, the secrets of girlhood: “her sweet face, solemn and sealed, a factor of one” (83). However, the process in Whitman’s novel concerns a woman and a grown-up personality, whereas Olds depict the transition from girlhood into womanhood.

The Ideas: The Clash and the Entity

Despite the seeming difference in the ideas of the poems, it cannot be denied that the two poetic pieces are intertwined with the common issue. Olds, one of the confessional writers who “have focused much of their work on family relationships (156),” as Beach explains, conveys the idea of care, the inexperienced youth and the gender issues, which becomes obvious when noticing such lines as “my girl,” “narrow silk suit” and “the curves of their sexes” (83).

As Podnieks and O’Reilly explain, “When critics and reviewers describe the poetry of Sharon Olds, they tend to place her within one of two categories: a sexually explicit poet or a poet who is a daughter or a mother” (241). It is important to note that Whitman focuses on the relationships between a man and a woman as well, yet his characters are more mature: “The beards of young men glisten’d with wet” (19).

However, the gender issue is also there, yet it is more subtle: “Which of the young men does she like the best?” (19). In Whitman’s poem, there’s less care and more of the manlike passion. In addition, Song of Myself is much more puritan, which is the feature of Whitman’s poetry (Shucard 179).

Conclusion: The Same Old Story or the New Beginning?

Showing the development of American poetry in the most explicit way, the two poems in question are quite close to each other. Despite the world of obvious differences and the inevitable clash of viewpoints, the poems depict the change within a woman in quite similar ways.

Peculiar and unique specimens of American poetry, these poems offer a plethora of ideas to consider. In addition, comparing and contrasting the man’s and the woman’s vision of womanhood, one can see that the sterner and the softer sex have much more points of contact than one could expect.

Works Cited

Beach, Christopher. The Cambridge Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.

Olds, Sharon. “The One Girl at the Boys’ Party.” Feminist Visions of Gender Similarities and Differences. Ed. Meredith M. Kimbal. New York, NY: Routledge, 1995. Print.

Podnieks, Elizabeth, and Andrea O’Reilly. Textual Mothers: Motherhood in Contemporary Women’s Literatures. Ontario, CA: Winfried Laurier University, 2010. Print.

Shucard, Alan. American Poetry: The Puritans through Walt Whitman. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts, 1990. Print.

Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” Leaves of Grass. Ed. Walt Whitman. Clarkston, WA: Mundus Publishing, 1929. Print.