Study Guide

Song of the Open Road Form and Meter

By Walt Whitman

Form and Meter

Verses, Open and Free

We'd forgive you if you thought Walt Whitman was always the freewheeling free verser he's now known to be, busting onto the poetry scene like some kind of cross between the Kool-Aid man and Gandalf.

But the fact is that our guy started out writing in very conventional forms. He was big into regular meter and rhyme schemes that you could set your watch to. Sadly for Walt, though, none of those poems got him very far. It wasn't until the late 1840s that he started to develop the style of writing that he's known for today.

That style is called free verse. Unlike other poetic forms that adhere to a pattern of rhyme and rhythm, free verse is… well, free. It's not worried about rhyming or repeating any metrical patterns. It's out there, baby, and it's loving every minute of it.

More than just freedom, free verse is a great choice if you want to mimic the patterns of everyday, informal speech. It creates a conversational tone, which is something Walt was definitely going for. After all, his speaker talks to pretty much everything in this poem—other travelers, the air, the open road, and even stuff he couldn't see:

You road I enter upon and look around! I believe you are not all that is here;
I believe that much unseen is also here.
(15-16)

Whitman was big on talking, in fact, to everyone and everything and about everyone and everything. That explains why the guy's lines are longer than the Apple store's when the new iPhones come out. Just check out one example:

To take the best of the farmer's farm and the rich man's elegant villa, and the chaste blessings of the well-married couple, and the fruits of orchards and flowers of gardens, (177)

That's one line there, folks. The reason that it goes on longer is because, unless the poem's being printed on the side of a bus, most publishers actually ran out of page space before Whitman ran out of words to jam in a line. But he won't be denied. He just has to get out this thought about the farm, and the villa, and the couple, and the orchards, and the gardens, etc., etc., etc.

This brings us to another point about Whitman's form. These long lines are often long because they're packed with examples. A word that's often used to describe his style is "encyclopedic." He's not content just to give you one or two illustrations of his point. When you read Whitman, you often get the sense that he was trying to get down every possible example or variation he could think of.

The effect of this style is one of sheer excitement and enthusiasm. We've all heard someone gush about a film or a band they like. They go on and on and on about what's so great about it, right? Whitman is like this in "Song of the Open Road." Check it out:

From this hour, freedom!
From this hour I ordain myself loos'd of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master, total and absolute,
Listening to others, and considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.

I inhale great draughts of space;
The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.
(53-60)

All those lines essentially say the same thing: "I feel free." But it's how Whitman says it that gives the lines in this poem, and many others he wrote, such energy and excitement. This guy loves the open road, and not just a little bit.

So where most poetry tends to be small and focused, Whitman stands out (as he stood out in his day). Some folks even consider him the first American poet, since only his giant lines and boundless examples came close enough to cramming every element of the national experience into a single poem. Check out "Calling Card" for more examples, and just be warned for future reading: if you find yourself in a line of poetry that offers up a dozen for-instances, you're probably in Whitman territory.

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