The first type of writing that comes to mind you hear the name Ralph Waldo Emerson is probably not poetry. After all, Emerson’s towering stature in American letters is primarily derived from his essays. Therefore it should not be at all surprising to discover one of the most enlightening works to be read by anyone about to embark upon a study of the verse composed by Emerson is actually a prose essay titled simply "The Poet."
Few poets have ever furnished such an invaluable prose resource for those wishing to understand the poetic vision of the verse to studied and analyzed. Emerson does nothing less than outline his standard for what American poetry should seek to do; really all poetry, of course, but Emerson was such a distinctive voice in the creation of the American character that it is almost impossible to separate his theories which opposed in starkly defined terms the direction being taken by the foremost poets of his day. Emerson’s rejected the notion that stood as the very foundation upon which no less a figure than Edgar Allan Poe had constructed his entire poetic career.
In “The Poet” Emerson asserts that the strict adherence to meter which characterizes the verse of Poe and so many others of the day is not the secret key to creating conveying ideas through the unique qualities of language afforded the poet, but the argument that stimulates the poet. Essentially, Emerson outlines in this prose piece---and then follows through with his actual poetry—the idea that it is the passion of the thought which drives the poet to pick up his pen that should set the meter of the verse rather the trying to conform that thought into the rigid restrictions of maintaining meter.
The result when Emerson was stimulated to put a thought into poetic form was the creation of a new kind of freedom for American poets to experiment with form as the mood struck them. While Emerson’s canon of poetry is without question the finest example of this break with convention, it must ultimately be admitted the greatest impact that Emerson’s own verse had the course of American poetry was how it influenced so many other in generation, but one man in particular. In fact, Emerson’s theories which he put into practice in his verse were essentially ignored by most men of letters who were doubtlessly inspired to ignore Emerson’s theorizing in prose and concretizing of those theories in verse for a rather good reason: Poe’s poetry could be recited from memory throughout the country while Emerson’s poetry was practically unknown to most. It didn’t take a genius to assume that perhaps Poe was onto something that Emerson was missing.
One very important poet disagreed, however, and that exception would prove to change the entire character of American poetry. That one man would be challenged by Emerson’s theorizing and liberated by his poems was a fellow named Walt Whitman whose Leaves of Grass would take Emerson’s ideas into realms that his own verse never quite reached.