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Now begins our segment Wise Words from Whitman:
"The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem […] Here is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations" (source).
Walt Whitman wrote that, in his 1885 preface to Leaves of Grass, the collection of poems in which "Pioneers! O Pioneers" appeared in 1865 (in the original version). He felt that America in his time was the greatest embodiment of a creative potential. It was bursting with diversity, combining the best of peoples and cultures from around the world. And, best of all, it was new and original; it was a nation still in the process of expanding into new territory, still creating and defining itself.
So it wouldn't be a stretch to say that newness was kind of a big deal for Whitman. And what's the way to achieve or uncover something new? Be a pioneer! Don't rest too long on your laurels, folks. If you want to make Whitman proud, you should always be moving forward into new areas of thought, land, life.
For his part, Whitman was all about pioneering a new kind of poetry, one that reflected the vastness and diversity and newness of America. One that let him, like the American pioneers he describes, seize "fresh and strong the world" (19).
We can see his love of the newfangled just by looking at a page of his poetry. He abandons most forms of rhyme and meter that were the mainstay of poetry in his day (back in the mid-19th century). Many of his lines spread all the way across the page and spill over into the space below. That was a big no-no for the more fancy pants poets of his day.
Plus, he expands the notion of what makes for suitable subject matter for poetry. If you'll permit us one more quote from that preface: "the genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors […] but always most in the common people."
In his poetry, he writes endlessly long lists of these people in all their social positions and occupations (such as the pioneer occupation) and of the landscapes they inhabit and the tools they use. He rejoices in their beauty. He praises and exalts.
And what's the result of all this poetic pioneering? Well, nothing major. Just that today he's considered by many to be the founding father of American poetry. So, you know, no big deal.
This poem talks about pioneers in the wayback days, like a hundred fifty years ago. That's great and all, but what's a pioneer got to do with our life today? There don't seem to be many virgin forests and uncharted paths around. We've got cars instead of covered wagons, and Google's satellites have mapped out every corner of the earth, right? So it's done. We're all pioneered out.
Well, maybe not. Shmoop thinks that pioneer spirit lives on. It's one of the founding ideas that define America. It's part of how Americans think of themselves and their nation--always striving to break with the past and pushing forward into new territory.
And it doesn't have to be a geographical space; it can be new areas of business or science. You see this pioneer spirit in the emphasis we put on newness and innovation, on the entrepreneurial spirit. Just think about how excited people get about the hottest new start-up company, or even how excited we get about people like Jamaican runner Usain Bolt, who break records and stretch the boundaries of what humans can accomplish.
Face it folks, as lazy as we may be at times, America is a nation of explorers and immigrants. We're always on the move. Whitman knew it. And he loved it.
For all your Whitman needs.
A Poet's Preface
Have a looksee at Whitman's famous preface to the 1885 edition of Leaves of Grass.
These Ain't Your Mom's Jeans
Check out this Levi's commercial, which made famous use of Whitman's "Pioneers! O Pioneers!"
"Pioneers! O Pioneers"
You haven't lived until you've heard this one aloud. We're not joking.
The Beard to End All Beards
Sported by none other that Whitman himself. Seriously, you could get lost in that thing. We think there are gnomes living in there.
Well, not his hand. But his handwriting.
Leaves of Grass
Read it. Cover to cover. It's the most important book in American poetry. For realsies. (Oh, and "Pioneers! O Pioneers!" is on page 183.)