Starting From Washington: Whitman and the Soul of America

“Starting From Paumanok”


The soul,
Forever and forever—longer than soil is brown and solid—longer
than water ebbs and flows.

I will make the poems of materials, for I think they are to be the most spiritual poems,
And I will make the poems of my body and of mortality,
For I think I shall then supply myself with the poems of my soul and of immortality.

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,
The fang’d and glittering One whose head is over all,
Resolute warlike One including and over all,
(However high the head of any else that head is over all.)

I will acknowledge contemporary lands,
I will trail the whole geography of the globe and salute courteously every city large and small,
And employments! I will put in my poems that with you is heroism upon land and sea,
And I will report all heroism from an American point of view.

I will sing the song of companionship,
I will show what alone must finally compact these,
I believe these are to found their own ideal of manly love, indicating it in me,
I will therefore let flame from me the burning fires that were threatening to consume me,
I will lift what has too long kept down those smouldering fires,
I will give them complete abandonment,
I will write the evangel-poem of comrades and of love,
For who but I should understand love with all its sorrow and joy?
And who but I should be the poet of comrades?

Trying to make sense of the recent events in Washington yesterday, I turn to Whitman, that incomparable soul, who has the uncanny effect of sounding more than just relevant or timely. His words are not only relevant or timely, though they are that; he did serve as a nurse during the Civil War.

Whitman is timeless, and immanent, because he speaks directly to you. He has anticipated that you would find him here, in this predicament. It is this very premise that drove the entire work of his life. Because he lived through the Civil War, and understood the nature of it, he devoted his life to the purpose of throwing his voice into the future, to speak to us.

Of course plenty of people do this. Plenty of people write for posterity. But how many of them come to the same conclusions as Whitman, having lived through what he lived through?

Whitman worked in the infirmaries at Virginia and New York and DC. He was there in the battle of Fredericksburg. He tended to his own wounded brother. He had seen what we only imagine and fear now.

And yet here is his declaration of the soul persisting in love, of the soul bent on comity and the well-being of all. Even the perpetrators. He makes no distinction in his book. In fact the opposite. And that in spite of everything.

We have amassed a hundred hundred reasons to distrust and resent each other. We have endless proofs that we recite daily. We read them in the papers. We see them on the news. Each person, in his heart, builds up his case. Yesterday was just another example.

So how can one be conditioned, beyond all animal and rational sense, to regard the world with infinite mercy? Yet I read Whitman, and I am made to believe such a thing is possible.

To Will As One Wills


The impulse to satisfy an urge has become something different for me as I’ve gotten older.

Aside from your typical teenage proclivity to question authority, growing up I was bookish, timid, apprehensive. I was skeptical of the majority, uneasy towards what was expedient, and always suspicious of the possibility of being sold snake oil. As such, I’ve had a sense of myself as someone who’s selective and cautious about where he puts his attention and his efforts. Something had to really grab me, and keep my interest, and prove itself to me, before I warmed up to it, before I gave it a chance.

Nowadays I find myself indulging more easily, more quickly, in everything new. New experiences, new activities, new people, new ideas. My inhibitions have receded, and in every dimension of my life I find myself wanting to expand outwards in all directions. I’m ripe for the spoils of advertising, ready to throw away money, time, inclination, for anything that piques my interest. Do I want to try that new bar? Do I want to pick up this new hobby? Why not try being friends with this person, or why not date someone I wouldn’t normally date? What do I think about X? Why is it not the same way I think about Y? And what about Z?

I assume this has something to do with getting older, with feeling like one’s time is finite, and if that’s true why not follow my impulses wherever they lead me, even if I don’t end up following them for very long? (As it turns out I don’t like that new bar, I didn’t stick with that new hobby, I couldn’t find that person attractive. They are, after all, impulses.)

I believe I’ve remained healthily skeptical throughout, willing to examine my decisions even as I’ve grown more capricious in making them. What I find most interesting is that, as my apprehensions wane, my tastes become more refined. I become more discerning, more particular, pickier, than I already thought I was. And while I’ve certainly overturned old assumptions and discovered new interests, I’ve also found some assumptions to be more resilient, and some interests even more interesting.

The more people I meet, the more I find my close friends to be good people. The more music I listen to, the more beautiful I find classical and jazz to be. The more books I read, the more thankful I am for those few writers who do inspire me.

The more I open wide my aperture, the more narrow my depth of field becomes. I find that less is truly valuable, and what is valuable becomes practically invaluable.

It’s fascinating that, by making a conscious decision not to limit oneself, one discovers in the process a limited way of being. It reminds me of that quote by Schopenhauer: “A man can do as he wills, but not will as he wills.”

R. Charboneau


Artwork: Sattar Bahlulzade – The Desire of the Land (1963)