Whitman the Person(al)ist: Looking at Leaves of Grass through O’Hara and Polanyi, Part 1

“But that’s not why you fell in love in the first place, just to hang on to life, so you have to take your chances and try to avoid being logical.”

Frank O’Hara, Personism: A Manifesto

We’ll get to O’Hara in a bit; let’s talk about Michael Polanyi for a second. First, the boring stuff: Polanyi was a mid-century philosopher of science, among other things. His thinking (or the part of it I’m interested in, anyway) trades mostly in epistemologies, looking at how we come to know and how we can know better. I’m of the belief that an epistemology is, at best, incomplete (and, at worst, completely useless) if it doesn’t work across human experience. And, as it happens, poetry is part of human experience, so let’s have a go.

Tacit Knowing

For this post, I’ll take just a small part of Polanyi’s epistemological thought, his idea of “tacit knowing.” First, Polanyi recognizes that we, as people, “know more than we can tell.” He called this pre-articulate knowledge “tacit knowledge.” The counterpart of tacit knowledge is “focal knowledge,” which is about the object we focus on. Another way to look at this process is in terms of two levels of awareness: our focal awareness (a nail, say), and our subsidiary awareness (a hammer, in relation to our nail). So we wield our subsidiary awareness like a hammer, as a tacit extension of ourself, in order to understand and manipulate what is in our focal awareness. If we do it right, we hit the nail on the head. It is important that these awarenesses are mutually exclusive: if we focus on the hammer, it becomes extraordinarily difficult to hit the nail.

Now, a person’s subsidiary awareness is comprised of what Polanyi calls their “framework”–that’s everything in a person’s experience, their past and present circumstances, everything. It’s the sum total of a person’s knowledge and experience, and it dictates how we see the world, in the same way the hammer dictates how we hit the nail.

So what does this mean for poetry?

If art is about communication (and I think Whitman would say it is), Polanyi’s idea of frameworks becomes very important in thinking about how information travels from one person (with one distinct framework) to another (with a different framework). Somehow the poem must accommodate the poet’s framework and the reader’s. I would argue that a successful poem is one that, by virtue of existing (that is, being written and then being read), necessitates a change or expansion in the poet’s and the reader’s frameworks, but that’s for another post.

But how can a poem successfully facilitate communication between unpredictably disparate frameworks when it is, after all, static–only words on a page? Let’s see how Whitman does it. This is from section twenty-six of Leaves of Grass:

I hear bravuras of birds, bustle of growing wheat, gossip of flames, clack of sticks cooking my meals,
I hear the sound I love, the sound of the human voice,
I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused or following,
Sounds of the city and sounds out of the city, sounds of the day and night,
Talkative young ones to those that like them, the loud laugh of work-people at their meals,
The angry base of disjointed friendship, the faint tones of the sick,
The judge with hands tight to the desk, his pallid lips pronouncing a death-sentence,
The heave’e’yo of stevedores unlading ships by the wharves, the refrain of the anchor-lifters,
The ring of alarm-bells, the cry of fire, the whirr of swift-streaking engines and hose-carts with premonitory tinkles and color’d lights,
The steam whistle, the solid roll of the train of approaching cars,
The slow march play’d at the head of the association marching two and two,

I apologize for the excessiveness of the quotation, but it’s important. What Whitman is doing here, in my estimation, is building a hammer. That is, he’s establishing a shared subsidiary awareness for the epiphany of the poem to live in. (My normal example, Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room,” is a clearer example of this, but this isn’t a Bishop class). I’d imagine that this is readily apparent in reading the poem: as one goes along for the ride, the framework of the poem gradually takes over, and eventually swallows you whole.

The situation gets a little stickier when one tries to pin-point the epiphany of the poem. Much of the trouble comes from the fact of Song of Myself being a long-form poem, much from the fact of Whitman being Whitman. The end of section twenty-six has a kind of pseudo-epiphany, where the speaker is whipped into a frenzy of sound, and then he says, “And that we call Being.” I’d argue, however, that this passage serves a larger purpose, in the context of the poem as a whole, than is present in that last line of the section.

This has been, by necessity, much more basic than I’d have liked. NEXT WEEK we’ll look at this concept in terms of Frank O’Hara’s concept of Personism. We might even get to talk a bit about Owen Barfield and/or Heidegger. We shall see.

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One Response to Whitman the Person(al)ist: Looking at Leaves of Grass through O’Hara and Polanyi, Part 1

  1. AVZ says:

    It’s late at night (for me). So we’re the nails, and Whitman is hitting us with his hammer, but he’s not focusing on the hammer, he’s focusing on us, which mean his poem is a bit of tacit knowledge reaching out to our focal knowledge (a small target indeed). But when reading poems, we have to be as open as possible to our own possible knowledge (tacit knowledge) in order to receive the poem adequately. We have to be bigger nails when we read. Even if that makes sense, I’m still confused.

    I like this idea that we know more than we know. But what I like even better is that when we think and–even more so–when we create art–we exceed even tacit knowing. We move into an area where concepts are not yet determined by overarching structures, where there is some freedom to invent and make anew.

    Where “tacit knowing” seems to sink further into ourselves (our accumulated past experiences) I like to think of a poetic knowing as a transcendence of that framework, and the promise if peeking outside any framework. In this sense, poetic knowledge happens not when we know more than we know, but when we know more than can be or has been known. But I’m a mystic at heart.

    In other news, your post reminded me of golf. I read an article where someone wondered why, when putting, do golfers always look at the putter and not the hole? When we hit a baseball we don’t look at a bat; when we shoot a basket we don’t look at the basketball. Apparently studies show that people putt best when the keep their eyes on the prize.

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