Mickle Street Review Issue 17/18: Walt Whitman and Place

Where’s Walt? Situating the Poet-Speaker in his Nation
Denise Dawn Hubert The University of British Columbia

“I stand in my place with my own day here” (Whitman 62). This is a puzzling phrase for a student of linguistic pragmatics, raising numerous questions: who is the speaker, what is his place, what day is his own, from where and when is he speaking? The phrase is deictic – that is, it gestures outside the text to a reality of which we need to be aware to fully grasp the meaning of this statement.

In fact, this line is from Walt Whitman’s “Starting from Paumanok,” which first appeared as the introductory poem in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, under the title “Proto-Leaf.” It is commonly described as a poem that introduces the work as a whole. This is largely because it identifies several of the themes that are taken up throughout the work and describes a poetic program of “chants” to be undertaken. It takes its title from the native name for Long Island, NY, Walt Whitman’s birthplace; moreover, this birthplace provides a starting point from which the poem’s speaker sets out to encompass all of America. Through a stylistic analysis of Whitman’s “Starting from Paumanok,” I intend to prove that his verse refuses to situate the speaker-consciousness in a specific physical or temporal space. Rather, the speaker is constantly working to compress physical and temporal aspects to bind his States ever closer together, and ever closer to himself.

In his book, Discourse, Consciousness, and Time, Wallace Chafe notes that “consciousness enters into the production of language in two ways: it provides the ideas that are represented, but it is also responsible for representing them. On that basis, we can speak of a represented consciousness and a representing consciousness” (198). Chafe asks readers to think about the ways in which a speaker’s dual consciousness can use language to represent itself to others. He calls attention to the fact that a speaker can recount past events, portraying a past version of the self – a distal, represented self – but can also portray the self in the current present moment and place – the immediate mode. For the purposes of literary analysis, it is helpful to imagine a storyteller in theatre seats with us, his audience, but he holds the spotlight. His interaction with the audience, in the present, takes place with the house lights on. When his story begins, he can shine the spotlight on the things he wants the audience to see on stage. We might see past events involving him – we will see him portrayed onstage. This is what Chafe refers to as the represented consciousness. We are no longer watching the storyteller, the representing consciousness, but watching the action unfold on stage. Sometimes, we become so enthralled in the action that we forget the storyteller next to us, and when he suddenly interrupts his tale to address us in the immediate mode, it can be jarring. Because of this enthralling function, the representing consciousness can be difficult to locate in literature. Nevertheless, Chafe points to the tools of tense and pronoun to help identify where the representing consciousness is in relation to the represented consciousness.

For my analysis of “Starting from Paumanok,” I intend to focus specifically on the relation between the representing consciousness (the narrative voice, the poet-speaker) and the represented consciousness (the Walt we see moving through the United States), attempting to locate both. Also important to this analysis is textual cohesion. According to M.A.K. Halliday, “it is important to be able to think of text dynamically, as an ongoing process of meaning; and of textual cohesion as an aspect of this process, whereby the flow of meaning is channeled along the speaker’s purposive courses instead of spilling out aimlessly in every possible direction” (290). If Chafe encourages readers to locate the speaker within the text, Halliday offers through cohesion analysis a means “to make explicit the external relationship between one clause complex and another, and to do so in a way which is not dependent on grammatical structure” (287), that is, to identify the links of continuity that are working beneath the apparent sense of the text readers follow.

In this paper, I’m using cohesion analysis to support some of the conclusions I draw about represented and representing consciousness. Cohesion analysis is limited, however, to elements of text that point to other elements of text. It functions within the text, and therefore ignores diectic elements which point out of the text and must “be interpreted by reference to the situation here and now” (Halliday 291), like the line we began with, “I stand in my place with my own day here” (Whitman 62). Halliday points out that “the first and second persons, ‘I’ and ‘you’ naturally retain this diectic sense; their meaning is defined in the act of speaking” (291). In conversation, where the participants are within view of an over-hearer, it is easy to identify the “I” and “you.” However, writing presents a more difficult challenge, that which Chafe takes up in following the discourse for indications of where consciousness lies.

With these tools together, here is the task at hand: to follow the speaker of “Starting from Paumanok” until we can identify the location of his represented consciousness, if not his representing consciousness. As a beginning to the rest of Leaves of Grass, the final version of “Starting from Paumanok,” from the 1891-92 edition, is split into thematic sections. Each of these incorporates specific stylistic elements, some of which recur throughout the text of the poem. Section one focuses on a spatial situation of the narrative voice, or what Chafe would call the representing consciousness. This first section also displays some of the characteristic traits of the representing consciousness working to portray a represented consciousness, a “Walt” figure that shifts rapidly through space.

The poet-speaker begins by identifying his birthplace and his beginning-place, Paumanok. Yet his use of the place reference conjunction and the past tense, “where I was born” (Whitman 1), indicates that as a representing consciousness, he is likely no longer there. Were he still present, as a representing consciousness, he might have written, “Here I was born.” Before we find out where he is speaking from, he shines his spotlight on a variety of places he has been, on his represented consciousness.

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 (Whitman 4-8) 

It is important to remember that he is working both to identify himself as a represented consciousness, and to situate himself spatially. His identifications as “lover” and “dweller” are simple modifiers. However, he also identifies himself as “a soldier” and as “a miner.” It is common to think of the use of an indefinite article to introduce a noun as signalling brand new information, which is true in this case. However, Whitman uses articles and pronouns in surprising ways. Normally the indefinite article will become definite, with the second reference to its noun, as it becomes known and familiar. There is a general trend toward rendering new ideas increasingly familiar in text and speech, and as readers, we are familiar with this sort of shift. However, Whitman makes a very sudden shift, in moving from an indefinite article, “a soldier,” to a first-person possessive pronoun, “my knapsack.” This renders the indefinite “soldier” suddenly intimately familiar with the first-person speaker of the poem. It can be helpful in analysis to consider how else he might have worded this so it would not be so striking. To write, “a soldier carrying his knapsack and gun,” would have distanced the voice of the representing consciousness too much from the represented self he is working to portray. To continue with the use of the indefinite, writing, “a soldier carrying a knapsack and gun,” would also remain impersonal. If we accept then, that he is working to convey his represented consciousness, as he suggests in his first line, “Starting from fish-shape Paumanok where I was born” (Whitman 1), we must keep the first-person possessive pronouns. Indeed, “my” is an anaphoric reference, according to cohesion analysis; that is, it points back in the text to prior information. It this case it draws a tie to the “I” of the first line, which, as we noted before, points outside the text diectically. Clearly, the speaker is working to link the new information of “soldier” to himself. He presents a willingness to be identified in the use of these pronouns. However, throughout the lines that follow, he persists in shifting from place to place and role to role, avoiding the act of defining who he is – he could be any number of these people, or none of them. He complements this tenuous willingness to be identified with an unwillingness to be situated.

In the first lines of “Starting from Paumanok,” the poet-speaker identifies one city and two additional states by name, and associates himself both with crowds through “populous pavements” and with solitude, “far from the clank of crowds.” At first glance, then, his presence seems to hop across the United States, stopping in urban and rural landscapes and in undefined locations, like “some deep recess,” somewhere, as well as in particular locations, such as “the spring” in Dakota’s woods. One must ask, has he got a specific spring in mind? Or is this an instance of the generic “the,” the definite article that accompanies known terms like “the phone book” or “the bus”? Indeed this latter seems more likely, given that “stream” lexically collocates with “woods” – the chances of “spring” appearing in conjunction with “woods” are fairly high – meaning that readers are likely to accept “stream” as generic because they already view it as likely to exist within the cohesive context of “woods.”

The ambiguity of his identity and location as a represented consciousness is further complicated by his use of the conjunction “or,” which, according to Halliday, signals an alternative. Imagine this same passage with “and” – it would read like a list of the places he’s been and the jobs he’s had. However, the use of “or” suggests these roles and locations are all equivalent and alternative to each other. In some ways, this is not problematic, as he can well imagine himself in “Mannahatta my city” or in “my home in Dakota’s woods,” as “a soldier” or “a miner” – each of these locations and identities could be as much his and his experience as the next. However, considered from the perspective of a reader looking for the location of the represented consciousness (not to mention the representing consciousness), the use of “or” signals an avoidance on the part of the speaker. He avoids situating either his represented or representing consciousness in any of these places or identities as he shifts from one alternative to the next. Indeed, the only place we are certain he has been is Paumanok, where he was born, and he is no longer there.

In the last line of the section we arrive at some indication of where he is and what he is doing: “Solitary, singing in the West, I strike up for a New World” (Whitman 14). In the present tense, this could be a proximal moment, where the representing and represented consciousnesses merge and are present with the reader, like when the lights come up in the theatre and we recognize the actors in the room with us, conveying a story from the stage. It could also function as a representing consciousness shining his light on himself as a represented consciousness in the present moment of writing, the historical present. It is self-reflexive in the same way that days or weeks after the event, an individual might recount to a friend, “so I come in and find the dog rooting through the trash.” Either way, the speaker once again refuses to situate even his represented consciousness in providing only a vague location. He is in the West, and sings for “a New World” – not the New World, identifiable as the United States. Again the use of the indefinite prohibits any definite location, but it could certainly be argued that this encourages the singing of America as an idea, rather than as a place.

The representing consciousness also takes an ambiguous temporal stance. For instance, in section five, the speaker establishes a relationship to the past, to a literary and intellectual heritage. He writes:

Dead poets, philosophs, priests,

Martyrs, artists, inventors, governments long since,

Language-shapers on other shores,

Nations once powerful, now reduced, withdrawn, or desolate,

I dare not proceed till I respectfully credit what you have left waited hither,

I have perused it, own it is admirable, (moving awhile among it,)

Think nothing can ever be greater, nothing can ever deserve more than it deserves. (Whitman 54-60) 

Just when readers think he is about to tell us when he is speaking from, when he is looking at, he demolishes this relationship with the lines that follow, insisting, “Regarding it all intently a long while, then dismissing it” (Whitman 61). Moreover, this is where the representing consciousness again shifts to the indefinable present with the marvellously diectic statement, “I stand in my place with my own day here” (Whitman 62). One might argue that the representing consciousness works in this way to establish the represented consciousness in the eternal present moment – it certainly forges no permanent ties with any present or past moment.

We noted earlier that the use of the “or” conjunction signalled an alternative, and was used to avoid situating the poet-speaker spatially or temporally. However, the use of the alternative form does afford the speaker the opportunity to establish a system of equivalency. Any of the identities or locations he refers to is as good as the next for the roaming represented consciousness. If the “or” conjunction produces “O such themes – equalities!” (Whitman 144), the “and” conjunction, an additive term, serves to encompass:

I will make a song for these States that no one State may under any circumstances be subjected to another State,

And I will make a song that there shall be comity by day and by night between all the States, and between any two of them,

And I will make a song for the ears of the President, full of weapons with menacing points,

And behind the weapons countless dissatisfied faces;

And a song make I of the One form'd out of all. (Whitman 74-78)

The speaker begins this passage (from section 6) with a premise of equivalency – all states are equal and none shall subject another. However, he adds to this using the “and” conjunction to include additional criteria and detail to his poetic project. He excludes nothing, nor admits any alternatives – his poetry shall encompass all the required elements. Here we have an instance where the poet-speaker representing consciousness is listing off all the things he intends – both the verb “will” and the pronoun “I” indicate that this is the voice of the representing consciousness. However, although the poet-speaker is making these songs, implicitly connecting them to himself, the use of the indefinite article once again renders them strange and apart from him. Clearly, he is looking ahead at a represented consciousness of the future that has not yet arrived, hence the implicit distance.

I’d like to point out at this juncture that our guide, the representing consciousness, is consciously and intentionally collapsing space and time. In section 12, two lines point to this. The first, “And I will thread a thread through my poems that time and events are compact” (Whitman 170), points specifically to the notion of compacting. The second, “And I will not sing with reference to a day, but with reference to all days” (Whitman 174), suggests the equalizing effort he also undertakes. As I noted earlier, it plays an important role in the means by which he proceeds to link the United States together and to himself. The representing consciousness also refuses to situate itself within definite spatial and temporal aspects. In section 15, he establishes an ambiguous relationship to the reader. “For your life adhere to me / (I may have to be persuaded many times before I consent to give myself really to you, but what of that? […])” (Whitman 231-232). First he asks us to stay, but then concedes that we cannot really have him.

Appropriately, the resolution emerges only in the last two sections of “Starting from Paumanok.” Every line in section 18 except the last begins with the command “See.” The representing consciousness is directing our attention to new sights in every line – but all of these sights fall within the realm of his poems – we find the phrase “see in my poems” repeated regularly in varying constructions. This also brings reconciliation to the distance the speaker imposed between himself and his intended poetry in section six. Here, in the present tense, the speaker is claiming his poetry, bringing it closer to himself, as he did in section one by attaching “my knapsack” to “a soldier.” This is extremely significant, as all of the American continent is encompassed in his poems when we read, “See, on the one side the Western Sea and on the other the Eastern Sea, how they advance and retreat upon my poems as upon their own shores” (Whitman 257). So is the poet-speaker himself, for that matter. He invites us, “See, lounging through the shops and fields of the States, me well-belov'd, close-held by day and night” (Whitman 265). Having equalized and encompassed, and brought all of America close to him throughout the poem, the poet-speaker changes his command verbs in the final line of the section. Suddenly, readers are confronted with “Hear the loud echoes of my songs there – read the hints come at last” (Whitman 266). Until that moment, readers see America in his poems, and his represented consciousness in America, but then the lights go down on this scene. This switch in verbs at last provides the definite location of the poet-speaker: his representing consciousness tells us his represented consciousness is in his own poems. Readers hear his song and read his hints. Thus, as readers we can indeed hold him close, as he suggests in section 19 “O hand in hand” (Whitman 271) – in situating his represented consciousness in this way his hand (writing), is in the reader’s hand (in the shape of a book).

Nevertheless, this conclusion is vaguely dissatisfying. He casts light upon many images for his readers, all of which seem brightly illuminated and filled with detail, even though they remain spatio-temporally ambiguous. When the lights go down and readers are asked to “hear” and “read,” they are offered “echoes” and “hints” – nothing of substance. Once again, just as we glimpse Walt within America and expect that the ties he has drawn between the nation and his poems will also tie his represented consciousness into his book, he eludes us once more. He leaves us only with echoes of his songs. This elusiveness itself is a theme that carries through Leaves of Grass, re-emerging repeatedly, perhaps most notably in “Song of Myself,” which ends with the line, “I stop somewhere waiting for you” (1345). In stark contrast with its title, Walt is not tied into that poem either, as a represented or representing consciousness.



1.      Chafe, Wallace. Discourse, Consciousness, and Time. Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 1994.

2.      Clark, Herbert H. Arenas of Language Use. Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 1992.

3.      Green, Georgia M. Pragmatics and Natural Language Understanding. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1996.

4.      Halliday, M.A.K. “Around the Clause: Cohesion and Discourse.” An Introduction to Functional Grammar. London; Baltimore, MD: E. Arnold, 1985. 287-318.

5.      Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” (Leaves of Grass. Philadelphia: David McKay, 1891-92.) The Walt Whitman Archive. Ed. Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price. 9 December 2004. <http://www.whitmanarchive.org>

6.      Whitman, Walt. “Starting from Paumanok.” (Leaves of Grass. Philadelphia: David McKay, 1891-92.) The Walt Whitman Archive. Ed. Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price. 9 December 2004. <http://www.whitmanarchive.org>

Mickle Street Review Issue 17/18: Walt Whitman and Place