Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Yonnondio" (1887)
Author:
Folsom, Ed
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"Yonnondio" is a brief late poem, originally published in the Critic in 1887 and then included in "Sands at Seventy," a cluster of poems first published in November Boughs (1888) and added as an annex to the 1891–1892 edition of Leaves of Grass. The poem demonstrates Whitman's lifelong love of Native American words, evident earlier in his insistence on calling Long Island "Paumanok" and New York City "Mannahatta." He liked the native edge that such names gave to the American version of the English language, and, just as he was anxious to absorb Native American words into American English, so was he determined to absorb a Native American presence into American poetry. These desires are evident in "Yonnondio," where he seeks to embed Native Americans in the evolving poem of America even while he laments what he sees as their inevitable disappearance from the American future.

The word "lament" sets the tone for this poem, for, as Whitman explains in a headnote, the word "Yonnondio" is an Iroquois term suggesting "lament for the aborigines." In mourning the loss of the natives, then, Whitman employs a native term for that mourning—a linguistic act that demonstrates his respect for Native American self-determination and self-definition even while it reenacts the American usurpation of Native American cultures. Whitman indicated to Horace Traubel that experts in native languages had contested his definition of "Yonnondio," but he stood firm: "I am sure of my correctness. There never yet was an Indian name that did not mean so much, then more, and more, and more" (Traubel 470).

Whatever the meaning of the word, its dirgelike sounding in the poem occasions a kind of magical, momentary reversal of American frontier history, as "cities, farms, factories fade," and a "misty, strange tableaux" appears, populated with "swarms of stalwart chieftains, medicine-men, and warriors." This retro-vision quickly fades, and Whitman fears that the "Race of the woods" is now "utterly lost"—that is, not only erased from the land, but also lost to utterance, erased from American memory. Whitman believed that one job of the poet, then, was to give Native Americans lines in the evolving American poem. That way, they could at least be kept alive via their names, words, and deeds, for otherwise "unlimn'd they disappear."

This twelve-line poem has often been cited by twentieth-century writers. Tillie Olsen's novel Yonnondio (1974) echoes the poem, and Allen Ginsberg has read it as "an odd little political poem . . . warning us of Black Mesa, of the Four Corners, of the civilization's destruction of the land and the original natives there" (251).

Bibliography

Ginsberg, Allen. "Allen Ginsberg on Walt Whitman: Composed on the Tongue." Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song. Ed. Jim Perlman, Ed Folsom, and Dan Campion. Minneapolis: Holy Cow!, 1981. 231–254.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Ed. Gertrude Traubel. Vol. 5. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1964.


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