His iconic book of poems, and the only one he ever produced, Leaves of Grass, has become one of the most published and purchased works of poetry in history. His language was that of the common man, signaling a break from the formality of previous poetry that still largely borrowed from the English (along with some Italian and French) traditions. His "Song of Myself" rooted his ethos in the American soil and his free-verse sounded a voice of the people, not of an aristocracy or Church--his government and religion were found in "democratic vistas" of the American landscape and within the souls of the nation's disparate people. Though he saw our country at its lowest point as a volunteer medical worker during the Civil War, he wrote about the unifying spirit of freedom that could rescue anyone willing to look inside themselves and across the faces of our citizenry. And he believed exploring ourselves and our natural environments was a way to touch the hand of God.
When we think of who defines most American poetry, some may note Emily Dickinson or others Robert Frost. But it was Whitman's style and vision that changed literature forever and became the influence of countless authors to follow. English professor Thomas C. Foster writes, "There would be an American poetry without Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. It just wouldn't be the one we have." Kick off your summer and celebrate our nation's father of poetry by picking up some of Whitman's writing today.