Walt Whitman sought to create a new and distinctly American form of poetry. His efforts had a profound influence on subsequent generations of American poets. In this lesson, students will explore the historical context of Whitman's concept of "democratic poetry" by reading his poetry and prose and by examining daguerreotypes taken circa 1850. Next, students will compare the poetic concepts and techniques behind Whitman's "I Hear America Singing" and Langston Hughes' "Let America Be America Again," and will have an opportunity to apply similar concepts and techniques in creating a poem from their own experience.
Clues to Walt Whitman's effort to create a new and distinctly American form of verse may be found in his Notebooks, now available online from the American Memory Collection. In an entry to be examined in this lesson, Whitman indicated that he wanted his poetry to explore important ideas of a universal scope (as in the European tradition), but in authentic American situations and settings using specific details with direct appeal to the senses.
Reading Emily Dickinson’s letters alongside her poems helps students to better appreciate a remarkable voice in American literature, grasp how Dickinson perceived herself and her poetry, and—perhaps most relevant to their own endeavors—consider the ways in which a writer constructs a “supposed person.”
In this lesson, students will explore Dickinson’s poem “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” both as it was published as well as how it developed through Dickinson’s correspondence with her sister-in-law Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson.
In this lesson, students closely examine Dickinson’s poem “There’s a certain slant of light” in order to understand her craft. Students explore different components of Dickinson’s poetry and then practice their own critical and poetry writing skills in an emulation exercise. Finally, in the spirit of Dickinson’s correspondences, students will exchange their poems and offer informed critiques of each others’ work.