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One aspects of some modern poets is that they sometimes write sentences without main verbs or no main verb in the main clause. I'm not talking about interjections or sentences where an implied 'be' is unmentioned. I'm talking about sentences like the following:

Song of Myself 42:

Not words of routine this song of mine,
  But abruptly to question, to leap beyond yet nearer bring;
  This printed and bound book--but the printer and the
      printing-office boy?

Or here:

Song of Myself 32:

  Myself moving forward then and now and forever,
  Gathering and showing more always and with velocity,
  Infinite and omnigenous, and the like of these among them,
  Not too exclusive toward the reachers of my remembrancers,
  Picking out here one that I love, and now go with him on brotherly terms.

Even though each lines ends with a comma, and although the final line does have the verb 'go', 'myself moving forward then and now and forever' is not subordinate to 'now go with him on brotherly terms'. Each line could be thought of as a grammatical unit and does not rely on the other lines for its grammaticality.

Certainly there were poets before Whitman that used unorthodox sentence fragments but it seems to me that Whitman was the first poet to do this on a large scale.

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2 Answers 2

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Whitman is precisely the opposite of fragmentary: he writes inclusively, compositely, with a long and loping cadence. That is his entire theme as well as his most characteristic form.

For fragments, go to Dickinson: she not only left fractured grammar, but fragment poems. She was heavily influenced by hymns, which is to say the psalms---and ancient Hebrew poetry has a good deal of fragmentation too, since it was literally composed in half-lines. (As was Beowulf.)

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    I think you're using "fragmentary" in a different sense than I'm using it. However, with "he writes inclusively, compositely, with a long and loping cadence" - I'm not able to understand that, so I won't say anything more.
    – bobsmith76
    Aug 7, 2022 at 8:33
  • You can write sentence fragments and still express complete thoughts eloquently; conversely, you can write in complete sentences and have a very fragmentary and disconnected exposition. The first is what Whitman is doing, but grammatically, he is using sentence fragments.
    – Peter Shor
    Nov 3, 2022 at 18:32
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No, at least one poet used sentence fragments in large scale in some of his poems nearly a century before Walt Whitman. This was Christopher Smart, who wrote unconventional poetry in the 18th century.

His most famous poem is probably For I will consider my cat Jeoffry, which consists almost entirely of "for" phrases, and is vaguely reminiscent of some of Whitman's poetry. Here are two excerpts:

For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.

...

For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction, if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he's a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incomplete without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt.
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.

He also wrote rhymed poetry with sentence fragments; Here is an excerpt from A Song to David; this part of the poem is mainly a series of adjectives and noun phrases:

Great, valiant, pious, good, and clean,
Sublime, contemplative, serene,
Strong, constant, pleasant, wise!
Bright effluence of exceeding grace;
Best man!—the swiftness and the race,
The peril, and the prize!

Great—from the lustre of his crown,
From Samuel's horn and God's renown,
Which is the people's voice;
For all the host, from rear to van,
Applauded and embrac'd the man—
The man of God's own choice.

Valiant—the word and up he rose—
The fight—he triumph'd o'er the foes,
Whom God's just laws abhor;
And arm'd in gallant faith he took
Against the boaster, from the brook,
The weapons of the war.

Pious—magnificent and grand;
'Twas he the famous temple plan'd:
(The seraph in his soul).
Foremost to give his Lord his dues,
Foremost to bless the welcome news,
And foremost to condole.

These two poems, however, seem not to have been widely appreciated until well after his death. Jubilate Agno, which "My Cat Jeoffry" is an excerpt from, was not published until 1939.

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  • Cool, thanks for the info, I appreciate it.
    – bobsmith76
    Aug 1, 2022 at 1:21
  • The next question should be: Was Whitman the first poet not thought of by his or her contemporaries to be insane (as Smart was) to write in sentence fragments? Nov 11, 2022 at 17:10
  • @DenkofZwemmen: Are you sure Walt Whitman wasn't also thought to be insane by some of his contemporaries?
    – Peter Shor
    Nov 11, 2022 at 19:13
  • @Peter Shor - Yeah, I sort of hesitated about that. Whitman might have been thought insane by some, but not because of his behavior (Kit Smart stopped people on the street and urged them to drop to their knees and pray with him), but because of the wild exuberance of his poetry. Nov 12, 2022 at 18:42

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