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poetryhelp's avatar

Help Analyzing "Excelsior" by Walt Whitman. PLEASE!

Asked by poetryhelp (1 points ) September 10th, 2009

Please help me with this poem…I am having a hard time grasping the main idea. I am thinking that he believes he is the best and super human and therefore the only person worthy enough to write poetry but I’m not sure. All of my friends and I have different thoughts on it :/

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9 Answers

rebbel's avatar

Isn’t the main idea of poetry that one can make of it whatever one wants, or what you read in it?

gailcalled's avatar

A good poem is complex; there is the obvious story line; there is the subtext and then the figurative and metaphorical language, and there is the meter and form (they count). Whitman made all his choices deliberately, as does every fine poet.

Start with the translation of the title.. Then look at the form. Then pour over the line-by-line meanings. You and your friends can have different takes, but there are some universal truths in every poem.

jamielynn2328's avatar

Sometimes it takes me hours to come up with one word. I consider myself a poet. Take one phrase and try to figure it out. Poetry is about perception. While the words mean something to the poet, it is meant to be interpreted and have individual meaning for each reader.

Jeruba's avatar

@rebbel, no, that’s too broad. Poetry is not literary Rorschach. It does mean something. The poet has an idea, an observation, a thought, maybe even a very deep and subtle experience to communicate. The poet also has an intent and a purpose. He or she wants to evoke an answering experience in you, to make you feel something in response. There will not necessarily be one single rigid interpretation—you can’t just translate it from oblique words into ordinary speech—but neither is it so wide open that you can make believe it’s about anything you’d like it to be about. The poet and the reader are like two electrodes, and the poem is the arc of electric current that jumps between them.

Brahmaviharas's avatar

I disagree that poems have to be complex and difficult to understand. That’s a ploy by modern poets to hide the fact that they have nothing deep to say. As Goethe said, they put “too much water in their ink.” Most good poems have a simple, clear theme, expressed beautifully. Sometimes you can’t understand what the poet meant until you know all his works, or the things that happened in his life, either of which gives you context. And then there’s also historical context.

In this poem, Whitman isn’t saying that he’s the best and superhuman; it’s one of his main themes that to be human, ordinary human, is divine, wonderful—in general, for everyone. Notice the use of the word “would be.” That means he “wants to be,” not that he is. So the poem is basically saying “Isn’t it awesome to be alive? Isn’t this body I have, this happiness that I feel, amazing? I want to be the best I can be, to savor living, and write good poetry expressing how I feel.”

Understanding the poet is the first step. The next step is to decide what it means to you.

Zen's avatar

I love it when these kids join fluther with a school problem and stay for the duration of their answers. Heck, he even nicknamed himself poetryhelp, lol. Welcome to fluther. Won’t you stay for a while once you’ve figured out Whitman’s poem, or is parting such sweet sorrow yet again?

gailcalled's avatar

@Brahmaviharas: No real poet would ever say, “Isn’t it awesome to be alive?”

Read this short piece by Frost; it’s really about the aging poet. What’s he saying?

Thers a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.

The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.

Jeruba's avatar

I agree, @Zen. There’s always that surge in the fall and again around finals time.

I also don’t think we help them much when we just give them answers. That’s why several responses were geared to helping the questioner think about the poem and come up with his or her own answer. I hope the youngsters will learn quickly that we’re willing to coach and guide, but we aren’t a homework service and we don’t usually do any spoon-feeding.

Zen's avatar

@Jeruba Agreed, however, I am willing to be a homework service for a fee. Accept PayPal or lurve.

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