How Excellent Is Thy Name Walt Whitman

One of the most celebrated poets in American literature, Walt Whitman has left an indisputable impression on the history of poetry. His name will forever be linked to the brilliance of his words and the intellectualism of his works. But what makes Whitman’s name so excellent? To answer this question one must look not only at his renowned prose but also at the way he has influenced generations of writers, thinkers, and readers.

Whitman’s most famous work, Leaves of Grass, is generally recognized as being a revolutionary piece of literature, pioneering a distinctly American poetic style. Where other poets sought to imitate European models, Whitman forged a path of his own. Not only did his language contain a coarseness and earthiness which distinguished it from other contemporary works, but it also included elements of Eastern culture and audio-visual experimentation, which served to capture the essence of the nation in a new way. It was with Leaves of Grass that Whitman laid down the groundwork for a uniquely American poetic style, one which has been privileged by generations of writers and readers.

The reach of Whitman’s influence, however, extends far beyond the poetic style of Leaves of Grass. Like other great American visionaries, Whitman sought to engage with the people of his time and act as a spokesperson for oppressed groups. His work, including work in journalism and other writings, showed a man intent on advocating for civil rights, women’s equality and anti-slavery, for example. The intellectual rigour of his words, and the moral standards to which he held himself, became a benchmark for many and a beacon in chaotic times.

His life also served as an example to later generations. Despite his own financial hardships, Whitman’s unwavering commitment to living his truth, and freely expressing himself, remains inspiring to this day. His refusal to be bound by societal conventions, and his ceaseless search for free expression, created a legacy that would later be followed by the likes of counterculture icons such as Allen Ginsberg. Perhaps, Whitman’s legacy is best summarised in his own words: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain Multitudes”.

The excellence of Walt Whitman’s name can even be seen in the world of academia, where his work is continually discussed, debated and analysed. Across the English-speaking world, university courses and degree programs refer to his work and debate its worth. This includes topics such as the exploration of his use of imagery or the evolution of his style. His influence has spread across many disciplines and required students to think deeply about the implications of his work beyond just the words on the page.

Whitman and Popular Culture

The scope of Whitman’s influence also extends far beyond academia into popular culture. His work frequently appears in literature, film and television, referencing his timelessness and continuing relevance. Musicians such as Bob Dylan, David Bowie, and Eminem have also paid tribute to Whitman. Even actor/ director Robert Redford has made references to Whitman’s work, doing so in his 1994 classic, Quiz Show. Here, he quotes Whitman to the judge, saying: “We were together, I forget the rest”. Redford’s choice reflects the widespread cultural significance of Whitman’s work.

Beyond literature, be it on page or screen, Whitman’s influence has been felt in the theatre world. Many adaptations of his work have been created for the stage, often dealing with themes of freedom and liberation. One of the best examples of this is a 2019 adaptation of Leaves of Grass by Andrew Lang focused on the diversity of life and how one should choose not to be tied to one thing or another. The adaptation acts as a reminder of Whitman’s message of free expression.

The Works of Walt Whitman

The intellectual influence that Whitman has had over American literature and culture cannot be overstated. His works continue to at least 15 books, including the beloved Leaves of Grass, and have been impacting generations since his death in 1892. His words have encapsulated the zeitgeist of a nation, exposing its beauty and its flaws, whilst being praised for its sharpness and clarity. While some have described his work as revolutionary, Whitman himself saw it as a natural part of poetic history, referring to himself as an “interloper of ideas”.

Appreciation for Walt Whitman

The appreciation for Walt Whitman’s work is so widespread that the United States Postal Service has even issued a stamp in his honor, while public libraries across the nation display his collected works. Additionally, a number of literary awards have been created in his name, both in the United States and across the world. These awards not only recognize the excellence of Whitman’s work, but they provide a platform for up and coming writers to share their work and be inspired by Whitman’s brilliance.

Critical Evaluation of Walt Whitman

Though Whitman’s work remains popular amongst both scholars and readers, some have argued that it does not fulfil the criteria of a true masterpiece. They suggest that the complex rhythms and unusual syntax detract from the beauty of the work, and that the lack of a conventional plot makes it difficult to engage with. Additionally, some have pointed to the fact that Whitman frequently relied upon extreme repetitions, which can cause his work to be seen as bloated or over-long.

Relevance for Later Social Movements

There can be no doubt that Whitman’s unique style and powerful wordplay have had a lasting impact on generations of poets. His writings have provided a source of inspiration and hope to those who feel oppressed by society. His words have become a banner for free thinkers and those who seek to challenge dominant norms. This can be seen in the way that his words have been embraced by later social movements, such as the Civil Rights and LGBT movements. His writings have provided comfort and solace to those searching for a more inclusive, respectful and equal society.


The legacy of Walt Whitman will live on forever, and it is hard to imagine American literature without his contributions to the canon. His commitment to speaking truth to power and examining complex topics provides a unique perspective that has touched generations of writers and readers, and will continue to do so for many years to come. It is through this reason that, although Whitman is no longer with us, his name will remain excellent, and will continue to inspire.

Dannah Hannah is an established poet and author who loves to write about the beauty and power of poetry. She has published several collections of her own works, as well as articles and reviews on poets she admires. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English, with a specialization in poetics, from the University of Toronto. Hannah was also a panelist for the 2017 Futurepoem book Poetry + Social Justice, which aimed to bring attention to activism through poetry. She lives in Toronto, Canada, where she continues to write and explore the depths of poetry and its influence on our lives.

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