Before starting Middle School Poetry 180 I was not much of a Whitman fan. I knew a little from his being the muse in “Dead Poets Society”, that he was gay and that his poetry was often banned for being overly sexual. In the anthologies I used to teach from (when I used to use anthologies) they included some benign pieces, which I shared in my early posts.
Mainly, though, his poems were just too long. I think of the line in a Dr. Suess book where the girl says, “Goodbye thing, you sing too long.” Yet, within his repetition are some real gems. He, in my view, really captures America. And the words and images…. For this reason I have included some pieces over the past 105 posts. In many instances he also makes a great read-aloud. But, he’s long. Below are the first two parts of a much longer poem. You can find the entire poem here.
I have included the first part of “Starting from Paumanok” as an American poem. That is, a poem that allows America to jump from the page. Much like “This Land is Your Land” it is a traveling poem, but look at the words used. What images come to mind? Who are these Americans? What do they do? Would you want to hang out with them? Be them? Ah, to be singing in the West!
The second part is just fun to read out loud. Give it to the boisterous students cutting up in the corner, let them practice as a group for five minutes, and then let ’em rip. Whitman’s good for this kind of thing.
While I am on the subject of boisterous students, here is Whitman’s death mask.
Why? Because its cool. Poetry is more than dry words but the poet and the reader and the life and the death and all of it until it connects and instructs and runs through us. Between this and the read-aloud you might get some buy-in.
Starting from Paumanok
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,
Dweller in Mannahatta my city, or on southern savannas,
Or a soldier camp’d or carrying my knapsack and gun, or a miner in California,
Or rude in my home in Dakota’s woods, my diet meat, my drink from the spring,
Or withdrawn to muse and meditate in some deep recess,
Far from the clank of crowds intervals passing rapt and happy,
Aware of the fresh free giver the flowing Missouri, aware of mighty Niagara,
Aware of the buffalo herds grazing the plains, the hirsute and strong-breasted bull,
Of earth, rocks, Fifth-month flowers experienced, stars, rain, snow, my amaze,
Having studied the mocking-bird’s tones and the flight of the mountain-hawk,
And heard at dawn the unrivall’d one, the hermit thrush from the swamp-cedars,
Solitary, singing in the West, I strike up for a New World.
Victory, union, faith, identity, time,
The indissoluble compacts, riches, mystery,
Eternal progress, the kosmos, and the modern reports.
This then is life,
Here is what has come to the surface after so many throes and convulsions.
How curious! how real!
Underfoot the divine soil, overhead the sun.
See revolving the globe,
The ancestor-continents away group’d together,
The present and future continents north and south, with the isthmus between.
See, vast trackless spaces,
As in a dream they change, they swiftly fill,
Countless masses debouch upon them,
They are now cover’d with the foremost people, arts, institutions, known.
See, projected through time,
For me an audience interminable.
With firm and regular step they wend, they never stop,
Successions of men, Americanos, a hundred millions,
One generation playing its part and passing on,
Another generation playing its part and passing on in its turn,
With faces turn’d sideways or backward towards me to listen,
With eyes retrospective towards me.