Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Essay: "Whitman's Use of Apostrophe"

Editor's Note:  This essay was submitted in fulfillment of the "open discussion" requirement for week 1 of the edX MOOC Poetry in American:  Whitman offered by Harvard University.  The following poems were studied:

"To a Stranger" http://www.bartleby.com/142/52.html
"Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/20006
"Song of the Broad-Axe" Sections 9 - 12 http://www.bartleby.com/142/81.html

Whitman's Use of Apostrophe

Whitman’s poems contain seemingly contradictory possibilities.  Strangers are intimate acquaintances.  Being part of a crowd results in meaningful chance encounters.  Noisy, busy activities create a shared experience.  Anonymity creates a sense of solidarity and fellowship.  Whitman’s use apostrophe allows him to combine these otherwise disparate elements. 

The use of direct address makes the reader, the crowd, and even the entire world part of Whitman’s conversation.  For example, “To a Stranger” begins by directly addressing a “passing stranger” in a crowd.  Once directly addressed, the stranger becomes more of an acquaintance, the setting more of a shared experience.  Yet, the stranger is still a stranger and part of the crowd, representative of all strangers.  The same phenomenon occurs when Whitman directly addresses “crowds of men and women” in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”  The crowds are anonymous, yet when directly addressed in this way become part of a shared experience.  A sense of fellowship is created.  Section 9 of “Song of the Broad-Axe” opens with bold apostrophe:  “America!  I do not vaunt my love for you; I have what I have.”  Here, Whitman addresses America directly and, in doing so, addresses every American directly.  His love is given to America and to each American at once.

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