Literary Devices: Exploring Anaphora Through the Poetry of Walt Whitman

What is anaphora? This literary device, which appears in biblical verses as well as the works of Walt Whitman, can be used to build up tension or energy in rhetoric, poetry and prose. Here, Aaron Bauer uses Walt Whitman's "I Hear America Singing" to explore anaphora.
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What is anaphora? This literary device, which appears in biblical verses as well as the works of Walt Whitman, can be used to build up anticipation in rhetoric, poetry and prose. Here, Aaron Bauer uses Walt Whitman's "I Hear America Singing" to explore anaphora.

Walt Whitman was born today, May 31, in the year 1819. If you haven’t read Whitman recently, you really should. He is widely considered one of the most important poets in the American literary cannon.

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Whitman wrote primarily in free verse—that is, poetry without meter. He often used long poetic lines. While he is now considered a foundational American, his poems weren’t well received when they were published. In fact, Whitman self-published the book for which best known, Leaves of Grass. 

He continued revising and publishing new versions of Leaves of Grass until he died. The last version he edited is often referred to as the “Deathbed Edition”—now that’s a little dark.

If you have heard the King James Version of the Bible read aloud, you will recognize the cadence and phrasing of his Whitman’s poetry. One contributor to this is Whitman’s use of anaphora.

What is anaphora, you ask?

Anaphora is the repetition of words at the beginning of a sentence. This was a common feature of biblical texts. For example, in Matthew 5, we have the Beatitudes:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

The beginning of each line here sets up an expectation that provides the listener with a level of satisfaction when it is completed. Because of its occurrences in the Bible, many preachers adopted this style of speaking in their sermons. (Listen to MLK’s sermons if you want to hear another master of anaphora at work.)

What anaphora does to the reader is get them used to a certain refrain and structure in a sentence so that we begin to anticipate it. Then, when the writer breaks the pattern, the reader is surprised and begins to pay more attention to what comes next.

One of my favorite examples of Whitman using anaphora comes in his poem, “I Hear America Singing.” Watch for the repetition at the beginning of the lines and see what he does to develop and disrupt the pattern:

"I Hear America Singing"

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs. 

You can hear in this poem that the pattern of the anaphora actually takes a few lines to develop. The first and second lines of the poem hint at it, but it isn’t until the third line that we get the first instance of the anaphora with the line:

The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,

 Words Overflown By Stars

Words Overflown By Stars

And after this line, for most of the rest of the poem, we are given this same pattern: A person in a given profession profession is singing, and then we get a description of what they are doing. The first line of the poem sets us up not only by giving us the seeds of what will be used to construct the anaphora later on, but also by letting us know essentially the structure the poem is going to take—a list! The speaker begins the poem by saying:

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,

The carols are different from group to group, but they all come together to make up America. The mechanics, the carpenters, the mothers are all individual parts of what comprises America.

Nearer to the end of the poem, the speaker begins to mess with the beginning of the sentence while keeping us within the same mindset:

The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,

Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,

The speaker chooses to say “The delicious singing of the mother” rather than what we would have expected him to say, “The mother singing.” But why break the pattern here? I think it is because he is stepping back from individual professions and looking at larger groups of people: mothers, young wives, and girls. The next line steps even further back while still not entirely disrupting the pattern the anaphora had worked to establish.

At this point, we are looking at America through a camera that is zooming out. We start the poem in someone’s home or shop watching him work, then zoom out to a community, then a state, and then finally we see the country of America itself in the closing lines:

The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,

Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

This theme of looking at individual elements of a thing and seeing how they come together to create a whole runs through much of Whitman’s work.

Although there aren’t any fireworks in this poem, it always reminds me of the Fourth of July, when communities can gather and celebrate the unity and strength that can come from America’s diversity—that it is this diversity itself that has made America great.

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