Starting from Paumanok, by Walt Whitman (1 of 3)

Starting from Paumanok, by Walt Whitman, is a long-form poem that consists of 19 sections, and clocks in at about 12 pages. It’s about births, origins, and beginnings. At the heart of this “evangel-poem” is the inauguration of a new way of thinking and feeling, a new way of celebrating life — in a word, a new religion.

Through orthogonal space we wend

The structure and shape of Paumanok is almost entirely defined by two kinds of motion, one that occurs on a horizontal plane, as it were, and moves left to right or right to left, from one event to the next, and another that occurs on a vertical axis, and moves up and down or down and up, from the concrete to the abstract.

For example, the first line of the poem, “Starting from fish-shape Paumanok where I was born,” signals a flashback to a previous time and place, from which the poem commences. And as we travel through space-time, from left to right, from one event to the next, Whitman’s voice, like a streaking-pulsing meteor, expands and contracts between the particular and the universal, between the many and “The Fang’d and glittering One whose head is over all.”

One of the effects of Whitman’s treatment is that we travel giddily along through orthogonal space.

Spinoza and Schopenhauer would be greatly impressed.

Anyhow, more on Paumanok and Whitman’s godless religion in the next two posts…


5 Responses to Starting from Paumanok, by Walt Whitman (1 of 3)

  1. Fiona Bell says:

    So Whitman is helping to restore you to your old self? A wonderful source of medication. Not growing up with the same mythology here in Australia as perhaps you would be used to, I think I lacked the context I needed when I first started reading Whitman as an undergrad. Years later, doing the Masters on the Beat Generation and having a better understanding of American literature and mythology, I could appreciate Whitman more. Especially when viewing him through Ginsberg’s eyes, that’s when I learnt to love him. Probably sounds rather silly, but from my experience, you only study Whitman here as part of an American literature course if you are lucky, or part of a poetry course. I studied American literature and poetry, and though his name came up, we never read him, so I bought “Leaves of Grass” and gave it a go at nineteen and didn’t “get it” at all until I was at least twenty-five. I hope he is bringing back your thirst or desire, or whatever it is that seems to have been dampened of late.

  2. I’d like to hear more about your experience with Whitman. In particular what aspects of American mythology do you have in mind? And what precisely did you miss out on before you studied gen-Beat? Because Whitman’s voice is a great big resounding bellow, I often forget that his verse is saturated with regionalism. I’m easily fooled into thinking that his poetry has universal appeal. Cheers.

  3. Fiona Bell says:

    I think Whitman certainly has universal appeal, but that some of his themes are rooted in a more American context. I was thinking along the lines of his “athletic democracy” and his vision of America. The mythology of the “American Dream” and struggle for independence don’t translate precisely here in Australia. We have the “Aussie Battler”, but they are survivors, working class people who don’t necessarily experience any prosperity or success. Unlike the American Dream, where people who have perhaps come from little and through hard work have achieved the dream, become successful etc. etc. There is a promise of a better life within the American Dream that does not exist for the Aussie Battler. Were too affected by the “tall poppies syndrome” here.

    Through Ginsberg, I recognized this sense of a lost Utopia, a Utopian project that was always doomed to fail. America as a project had so much promise, but as Nat Hawthorn recognized in The Scarlet Letter,the first things that were built were churches, cemeteries and prisons, because you can’t escape humanity. Whitman lost faith later in his poetry about “American exceptionalism”, but Ginsberg inherited the myth from him in a way. He wanted to answer Whitman’s call and become a modern Whitman, open, naked etc. But he too became aware of “the fall” of America. I guess I have very roughly tried to make explicit ideas that are more nuanced and implicit then I am conveying.

    But when I came to Whitman and read those first lines from “Song for Myself”; to a nineteen year old, unschooled in American history, they seemed (dare I say it), rather indulgent and narcissistic. I wasn’t reading the bigger picture. I guess that is what I mean about not having context. They didn’t resonate as being about universal values or a blighted ideal. Only though reading Ginsberg and seeing the good grey poet through his eyes, did I start to appreciate just how significant Whitman’s poems were.

    And of course Australia and America do have a significant shared cultural history, esp. post-colonially. I am currently reading “Reading Across the Pacific: Australia- United States Intellectual Histories” that examines literary and cultural engagement between Australia and the US.

    So have I elucidated at all upon my previous remarks?

  4. Hi Fiona, a wonderfully thoughtful reply. Thank you.

    You write, “Whitman lost faith later in his poetry about ‘American exceptionalism….'”

    Where do you mark this transition?

    “…to a nineteen year old, unschooled in American history, they seemed (dare I say it), rather indulgent and narcissistic.”

    The “I” of Song of Myself is perplexing, amazing, and resistant to simplication, isn’t it. I’ve marked at least a half dozen different incarnations of “I.” How Whitman “enfolds” them into a unified voice is a large part of my fascination with him.


  5. Fiona Bell says:

    Hi Kevin,

    I am not Whitman scholar enough to possibly mark a transition point from idealist Whitman to disillusioned Whitman. David S. Reynolds’ “Walt Whitman’s America: A Critical Biography” charts Whitman’s varying dissatisfication throughout. Even in the first chapter he points to a celebration held for Whitman’s 70th, after the party he told his close friend Horace Traubel that he may have been an American institution, but he was not popular.

    Whitman said, “The people: the crowd — I have had no way of reaching them. I needed to reach the people: … but it is too late now.”

    Reynolds does also distinguish from the self-deprecating Whitman who liked to appear unpopular, so as to better gain support. But the bio does give an sense of his achievements and his disappointments. In the end, you get the feeling that his poetry wasn’t the revolutionary force that he hoped it would be. The changes that he hoped he would be instrumental in bringing about didn’t occur and his is the blighted project that I feel Ginsberg inherited. He too wanted to change America with his poetry.


    PS. I love Whitman’s declarative statements now… just needed to grow up a little.

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