Whitman's Paumanok Poems and the Value of Being "Faithful to Things"

Ann E. Michael


Walt Whitman defies ontology: he strives to be eternal, to journey ever in the now, and thus to forswear beginnings. And there is a great deal of “place” in Whitman, space both concrete and metaphorical, Alabama and Maine, body and “kosmos.” But Whitman the man was born in Huntington, Long Island, which is a good a place to start exploring how place and space shaped the poet. If we agree that Whitman is, among many other possibilities, a namer of things, it seems logical that the objects he names may give us keys to “place” and that their usefulness as objects within the poem not only anchors his imagery in the specifics of place, but can mediate a kind of trust between reader and poem. This trust (faithfulness) is essential to establish, especially poet’s larger purpose is one of transcendence. With this in mind, the poems that featurePaumanok provide both a concrete borough or geography—an indication as to how Whitman “studied out the land” in his work—and a starting point from which contemporary readers can believe in a physical place well enough to trust Whitman when he journeys into larger, more encompassing, and often more abstract notions of place.

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