Literature Study GuidesLeaves Of GrassStarting From Paumanok Summary

Leaves of Grass | Study Guide

Walt Whitman

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Leaves of Grass | Starting from Paumanok | Summary



Whitman was born in Paumanok (Algonquin for Long Island), and despite the many places he has seen and been, he considers Paumanok his home. While in Paumanok, his speaker reflects on the progression of time and the contributions of generations of people, all of them "with eyes retrospective towards [him]." Whitman's speaker calls to all people in America to take his "leaves" (his pages of poems) and immerse themselves. He catalogs places and types of people in America and declares himself the poet of them all, even those who do not read. Whitman is truly a democratic poet, speaking to everyone, even as he speaks to the individual.


"Starting from Paumanok" is one of Whitman's many manifestos about what kind of poet he is. He is able to speak for America because he was born in America and experienced many parts of it—from the "populous pavements" of Manhattan to "southern savannas." He hears the chants of everyone and seeks to respond to them with his democratic poetry born of his age.

Whitman's speaker "will make the poems of materials," the poems of "body and of mortality." This was a profound break from the traditional view of poetry as something universal and immortal. But Whitman sought immortality by getting to the heart of what it means to be mortal and specifically the nitty-gritty details of what it means to be American and have "an American point of view."

Whitman identifies with the common American man but he also exalts himself above others, claiming he has the unique insight to write the kind of soul-searching poetry America needs. At the end of the sixth stanza, he declares, "For who but I should understand love with all its sorrow and joy? And who but I should be the poet of comrades?" In this poem he also suggests his separateness in other ways, when he says, in section 5, "I stand in my place with my own day here," (i.e., he is asserting his poetic greatness but he is also saying he does not encompass everything), and in section 15, "I may have to be persuaded many times before I consent to give myself really to you, but what of that?" This latter statement ties in to the theme of unity vs. individualism. The speaker of these poems asserts an identity that encompasses yet withholds.

Although Whitman eschews strict meter and rhyme in favor of free verse, there is a sensual rhythm to his words that makes his poetry seem intimate. In the last stanza, he calls out to his "camerado" (a word Whitman made up to mean comrade) to join him in "music wild" and "wholesome pleasure." His call to "haste on with me" speaks to the individual in a collective society.

His imagery is vibrant and uniquely his. He compares seeing a bird sing to how he speaks his poems: "a throat is now inflating itself and joyfully singing," for democracy's sake. His speaker promises "the true poem of riches," a poem that shows "all things of the universe are perfect miracles, each as profound as any."

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