Weekends with Whitman – Starting from Paumanok

Starting from Paumanok’s begins with the lines “Starting from fish-shape Paumanok where I was born, / Well begotten and rais’d by a perfect mother, / After roaming many lands, lover of populous pavements, / … / Solitary, singing in the West, I strike up for a New World.” The pattern is similar to 1 Nephi 1:1 in the Book of Mormon “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days; yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God, therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days.”

Like many of Whitman’s poems this one is long form, consisting of 19 sections. Elements of his philosophy are throughout the poem. He uses a geographic depiction of America, and occasionally both North and South America as continents, to describe his body and soul. He uses the United States–often listing them off–to describe the relationship of his body and it’s various parts as being in eternal union with his soul and its various parts. He says furthermore that no State should be placed above another; that all should be regarded equally. The metaphor communicates an powerful psychological idea–that examining, learning about, and accepting each part of the self is among the most important gifts one can give him- or herself. By sharing what one discovers, he or she also creates an inheritance for the future. Couching it in metaphor as he does his sexuality may very well have been a sop to the Victorian moralism common to New York at the time he was growing up.

Whitman’s ideal of living by instinct flows out from his ideal of radical self-acceptance. Images and sounds of wild male birds and vast herds of buffalo dominated by hirsute bulls expound his belief that living by instinct is the highest value, and that by fulfilling their instincts, individuals are creating an inheritance for future generations. While he includes female imagery in his poetry, he shows his strongest attraction to males. He describes the songs of male mocking birds along with the hirsute bulls on the prairie. Ironically, by the time he completed his final revision to Leaves of Grass, the vast buffalo herds of the high plains had been reduced to a few thousand individuals; the process of obliterating the land he described was in full swing. Just 70 years after Whitman’s death, Rachel Carlson was publishing “Silent Spring”, a book describing in detail the literal decimation of wild birds by industrial chemical pollution.

The most disappointing lines in Starting from Paumanok come in section 16, and it left me saddened and outraged.

It’s impossible to express the sadness of this. In 19 sections of poem, Whitman barely writes six lines about the “red aborigines” of the Americas. His blase use of the word “melting” to describe one of the most horrific episodes of genocide in human history immediately brings to mind the words “the final solution to the Jewish question”. Even worse is that he didn’t offer even one word about slavery or Jim Crow.

It boggles my mind, though maybe it shouldn’t. Whitman invented a new form of poetry, expounded on the need for both him and his readers to love and accept themselves, but at this point in the book he hasn’t even discussed the idea of justice–not for Indiginous People, not for black men, women, and children living in chattel bondage, not for the natural world he describes with love and wonder, not for women who were prevented by law from owning property or voting, not even for homosexuals like himself. Whitman made America his soul. He loved it. He accepted it. He examined it. He praised it. I find myself wondering why, in all that, he didn’t fight for it.

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