Whitman's brand of populism mandated that he seek the liberation of people and culture, in a liberated poetic form. He did not invent free verse but embraced it and advanced it, against the ornamental, parade-ground regularities of meter and rhyme, which constrained his early poems to the point of banality.
Rhymes and rhymers pass away, poems distill'd from poems pass away...
America justifies itself, give it time, no disguise can deceive it or conceal from it, it is impassive enough.
In naturalism, freed from pie-in-the-sky otherworldliness:
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.
In exquisite sensuality:
Out of the rolling ocean...came a drop gently to me,
whispering I love you, before long I die,
I have travl'd a long way merely to look on you to touch you.
Without shame the man I like knows and avows the deliciousness of his sex,
Without shame the woman I like knows and avows hers.
And in sexual orientation. Although he resisted admitting his homosexuality, even to absurdly claiming he had six illegitimate children, he did so to avoid, as with regard to all matters, being pigeonholed, and thus vulnerable to easy dismissal. But his "Calamus" poems are frankly homosexual, even celebratory in the sexual orientation (Calamus is a plant with a phalluslike head):
O here I last saw him that tenderly loves me, and returns again never to separate from me,
And this, O this shall henceforth be the token of comrades, this calamus-root shall,
Interchange it youths with each other! let none render it back!
Whitman's sexual poems, like many others, were courageous. He was fired from a badly needed job as a clerk at the Interior Department in Washington by none less than the Secretary of the Interior himself. Secretary James Harlan stole Whitman's personal copy of Leaves of Grass from his desk, and noted, ironically, some of the heterosexual poems of the "Children of the Adam" section as "obscene."
The female form approaching, I pensive, love-flesh tremulous aching...
The face, the limbs, the index from head to foot, and what it arouses,
The mystic deliria, the madness amorous, the utter abandonment.
Whitman's courage, and humor, extended to his last days. Wheelchair-bound, sleeping on a waterbed "like a ship or a duck" to relieve constant pain from multiple ailments, including bodywide TB and strokes, he described himself as "some hard-cased dilapidated grim ancient shellfish or time-bang'd conch (no legs, utterly non-locomotive) cast up high and dry on the shore-sands." (Years before, after suffering a stroke that left him paralyzed except for his head and one arm, he had brought himself back to complete mobility through his own efforts, including wrestling with saplings in woods.) He struggled against pain and paralysis to complete a ninth edition of Leaves. And succeeded.
Whitman saw in the risky experiment of a free people possibilities for a great polity, culture and morality. Three years before his death, in 1888, when he was 69, he wrote that there had been in his life one "purpose enclosing all, and over and beneath":
Ever since what might be call'd thought, or the budding of thought, fairly began in my youthful mind, I had had a desire to attempt some worthy record of that entire faith and acceptance... which is the foundation of moral America.
His challenge to us, again typically American, is that the faith is to be fulfilled with each person and generation in the future.
Dear camerado! I confess I have urged you onward with me,
and still urge you, without the least idea what is our destination,
Or whether we shall be victorious, or utterly quell'd and defeated.