godless chants in a divine world (2 of 3)

Starting from Paumanok consists of three phases. At the heart of the poem lies the grandeur of a new religion. For its content, this religion takes the bewildering variety of life. Its ritual aspect is defined by songs, chants, and poetic riffs that celebrate the divinity of a godless world. If this thought seems contradictory to you or makes you uncomfortable, Whitman isn’t for you. (Actually, he is entirely for you. But you may not accept his revelation on the basis of his authority, at your own loss. In which case, he’s still for you. He’s very good that way. He doesn’t divide up the world into the saved and the incorrigibly damned.)

The first phase (1-6) of the poem describes the birth of the poet, the birth of time, mystery, and the cosmos, as well as the birth of life on earth, including “people, arts, institutions.” All told, they give Whitman “an audience interminable” to receive the gift of his poetic naturalism and mysticism. In addition, Whitman acknowledges his debt to the past but boldly announces his intention to dismiss them entire: “I stand in my place with my own day here.” A new prophet has arrived; a new religion is dawning.

The second phase (7-15) introduces the glories of this new religion. In a big, booming voice, Whitman addresses himself to men and women, and to the generations of men and women. He offers a stunning array of godless-mystical chants: songs of riches, of egotism, of personality, of sex and sexuality, of prairies and cities, and of every conceivable trade,
and more.

The third phase (16-19) is a call to active and energetic participation in the mystery and wonder of life. Whitman cautions readers that, yes, he’s a difficult angel to interpret. But he reassures us pilgrim souls (our bodies really are souls) that his poems, which are a secular scripture most profound, contain everything. His poetry is All, yet he, Walt, has come here today for you. You.

The second phase—praise Whitman!—is where it’s at, if like me you’re interested in religion/spirituality/transcendence/significance but without a central god-concept as its pole star.

In an oracular mode, Whitman propounds a new religion.

Alright, then, what is it? Next…


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