Exercise Five: Barbaric Yawp

I too am not a bit tamed - I too am untranslatable;
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world

The idea of the "barbaric yawp" is so linked to Walt Whitman that many folks often, wrongly, assume that Whitman's poetry was always about creating this type of poem - a poem that spills over from line to line in a rush to catalog every last iteration of a thought.

This is how Whitman's poetry seems to those who would come after him - people who want to line up a dozen or so different facts or images or moments and call these their "Whitman-esque" lines.
Of course, they are missing the real work Whitman did with his poems. They are missing how he didn't just line up images, but he placed them in sequences that followed a pattern - perhaps going from one body part to the next (as in "Song of Myself") or from one strata of society to another (as in "The Sleepers") or from one minute to the next (as in "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night").

Whitman, of course, also focused on language and word choice and just the right image or metaphor, but for this exercise we will focus on the use of the catalog and the pattern we assign to that catalog.

Step One:
Read over the three poems linked to this page. This should give you a sense of the texture of poem we are going for. Emulating Whitman's style here requires that we get reacquainted with his work. Do not skip this step.

Step Two:
Choose a subject that lends itself to cataloging. Maybe it is a physical place like your home town or your favorite thinking spot. Maybe it is a broad subject like "love" or "regret." Best to choose something you always find yourself thinking about because you are sure to have lots of stored up images and ideas.

Step Three:
Start making a list of everything that comes to mind when you think of this subject. Use single words or phrases or even quotes if you can think of them. The point is to write as much as you can without stopping. Force yourself to fill up an entire page before you stop - and that means everything, the margins and any blank space - be barbaric.

Step Four:
Now start to categorize - what can go with what? What patterns do you see emerging or what pattern do you want to apply? 

Step Five:
Start writing "barbaric" lines- use lines that reach from one end of the page to the next and don't stop with an image until you have nothing else to say about it - and don't be too concerned with word choice. Notice how Whitman uses easy words like "beautiful" and "courageous" but elevates them with repetition. Also, don't get caught up in punctuation; Whitman shows urgency by leaving out punctuation and sometimes not even capitalizing. String your images according to the pattern you decided on. Don't worry so much about sound and rhyme at this point, just get the words onto the page.

Step Six:
After a day or two away from the poem, go back and edit. Look for pacing, making sure that your lines are not lingering (notice how Whitman's don't linger but they press forward, hungry for the next image and the next moment). Look for the pattern and make sure it is working for you.

An Example from Whitman's "The Sleepers"
This moment in "The Sleepers" is a great example of how Whitman blows out a single image of a swimmer into a sort of commentary on the struggle between nature and man:
I see a beautiful gigantic swimmer swimming naked through the eddies of the sea,
His brown hair lies close and even to his head, he strikes out with courageous arms, he urges
himself with his legs,
I see his white body, I see his undaunted eyes,
I hate the swift-running eddies that would dash him head-foremost on the rocks.

What are you doing you ruffianly red-trickled waves?
Will you kill the courageous giant? will you kill him in the prime of his middle age?
Steady and long he struggles,

He is baffled, bang'd, bruis'd, he holds out while his strength holds out,
The slapping eddies are spotted with his blood, they bear him away, they roll him, swing him,
turn him,
His beautiful body is borne in the circling eddies, it is continually bruis'd on rocks,
Swiftly and out of sight is borne the brave corpse.
Think of the barbaric yawp as the most important thing that must be said NOW. This is how Whitman writes every one of his poems, like it is a matter of life or death. He's emphatic about his message and in love with every image. This moment in "The Sleepers" makes us feel like Whitman is standing behind us, holding our head as we face the sea in front of us - when he says "I see" and "I see" we can feel him move our head from side to side and almost hear him say, "You see?" and "You see?" And then there is the tenderness and empathy he feels for the swimmer, wavering between fatherly and sexual - he's omniscient and asexual, so we are, too.

Think about the way the barbaric yawp breaks us free from our usual limitations - not just punctuation and line length, but, when you read "The Sleepers" and "Song of Myself" (and also, one of my favorites, "Song of the Broad Axe"), you'll see how Whitman also bounces from one voice to the next, from one thought to the next. But this is not free verse - Whitman's jumps are methodical, there's an internal logic to his thoughts.

Have fun being barbaric!