Excerpted Criticism

Explicit permission given

Marjorie Perloff: On "On Seeing Larry Rivers' Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art"

In certain cases, when O'Hara worked very closely with a particular painter, the poem absorbed the spirit of the painting thoroughly enough to become independent. This is true, I think, of "On Seeing Larry Rivers' Washington Crossing The Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art." Rivers explains what he was trying to do in this particular painting in an interview with O'Hara forHorizon (1959):

... what could be dopier than a painting dedicated to a national cliché--Washington Crossing the Delaware. The last painting that dealt with George and the rebels is hanging in the Met and was painted by a coarse German nineteenth-century academician who really loved Napoleon more than anyone and thought crossing a river on a late December afternoon was just another excuse for a general to assume a heroic, slightly tragic pose.... What I saw in the crossing was quite different. I saw the moment as nerve-wracking and uncomfortable. I couldn't picture anyone getting into a chilly river around Christmas time with anything resembling hand-on-chest heroics.

"What was the reaction when George was shown?" O'Hara asks. "About the same reaction," Rivers replies, "as when the Dadaists introduced a toilet seat as a piece of sculpture in a Dada show in Zurich. Except that the public wasn't upset--the painters were. One painter, Gandy Brodie, who was quite forceful, called me a phony. In the bar where I can usually be found, a lot of painters laughed."

O'Hara himself, however, understood the Rivers painting perfectly. His poem, written in 1955, treats Washington's Crossing of the Delaware with similar irreverence and amused contempt:

Now that our hero has come back to us in his white pants and we know his nose trembling like a flag under fire,  we see the calm cold river is supporting  our forces, the beautiful history.

The next four stanzas continue to stress the absurdity of what O'Hara, like Rivers, presumably regards as a nonevent, the "crossing by water in winter to a shore / other than that the bridge reaches for." Here the silly rhyme underscores the bathos of what is meant by our "beautiful history" (note that the crossing takes place in a "misty glare"); and the poem ends with a satiric address to George, culminating in the pun on "general":

Don't shoot until, the white of freedom glinting on your gun barrel, you see the general fear.

Although O'Hara's poem is especially witty if read in conjunction with Rivers's painting, it can be read quite independently as a pastiche on a Major Event in American History, an ironic vision of the "Dear father of our country," with "his nose / trembling like a flag under fire."

O'Hara's poetic response to the painting of Larry Rivers, like his lyric celebrations of Grace Hartigan, suggests that he was really more at home with painting that retains at least some figuration than with pure abstraction.

From Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters. Copyright © 1977 by Marjorie Perloff.

Brad Gooch: On "On Seeing Larry Rivers' Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art"

O'Hara and Rivers were both obsessed that season with the Russians. O'Hara's obsession was with Mayakovsky, who had so stridently declared that "The poet himself is the theme of his poetry" and "The city must take the place of nature," and from whom O'Hara had picked up what James Schuyler has described as "the intimate yell." (In a nasty swipe of a poem, "Answer to Voznesensky & Evtushenko," in 1963 O'Hara accused the Soviet poets of being "Mayakovsky's hat worn by a horse.") Rivers was busily reading War and Peace, about which John Myers grudgingly asked in a memoir: "And who got him to read War and Peace? Not Frank." Between Mayakovsky's "The Cloud in Trousers," O'Hara's "Second Avenue" and Tolstoy's War and Peace, the epic was in the air. So Rivers decided to make his own attempt at a large scale epic painting, George Washington Crossing the Delaware, which he has described as "like getting into the ring with Tolstoy." It was based on the original work by the nineteenth-century academic painter Emmanuel Leutze, a German-American sentimental realist known for the stage-set heroics in this tableau as well as in his mural decorations for the Capitol. O'Hara found the notion of updating this historic figure "hopelessly corny" until he saw the painting finished, his coming around later recorded in his 1955 poem "On Seeing Larry Rivers' Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art." Among the painters, however, the work--with its parodistic figure drawing--was a battle cry, thumbing its nose at Abstract Expressionism and pointing the way toward what would later become Pop Art. It was also quite revolutionary in dispensing with the lush brushwork of de Kooning in favor of thin, soaked washes. Rivers was sneered at in the Cedar, where Gandy Brodie, an abstract painter who had studied dance with Martha Graham, described him as a "phony" and one persnickety woman painter dubbed the new canvas Pascin Crossing the Delaware. The painting was a breakthrough for Rivers in finding his own breathing space in the increasingly claustrophobic crowd of young painters.

Meanwhile his relationship with O'Hara was becoming more difficult. O'Hara was making demands that Rivers felt were unreasonable. "He thought he wasn't putting pressure on me but he actually was," remembers Rivers of O'Hara's wanting to go home with him after a party "Like we'd be somewhere and I'd be enjoying myself. And he says, "Well, are we going?' Like meaning, 'Well is anything going to happen?' I wasn't in love in that sense."

From City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara. Copyright © 1993 by Brad Gooch.

Robert von Hallberg: On "The Day Lady Died"

Hamburger indeed. The contours seem to have been shaved off the experience the poem reports. Poetry from New York or Ghana, Verlaine, Hesiod, Brendan Behan, or Genet (lines 14-18): the time, the place (trains named after "points in time," as they say), even the language matters little. The whole world and all of history is right there in Manhattan, on 17 July 1959, for the buying, piece by piece, of Strega, Gauloises, Picayunes (lines 21-25). Distance is reduced by the pulp press, which is dominated by the lower-middle class (the New York Post, not the Times); poetry, modernism, these international zones of experience have no special force here. AU art is brought close not by tradition, as Eliot had said, but by mass production, cheapness.

All principles for arraying emphasis and registering discriminations have been flattened. The rhyme in the third fine is only a chance thing, and the first of the poem's nineteen "and"s (in the same line) makes an arbitrary connection. And as syntax and prosody go, so does social order: O'Hara says that he will be the dinner guest of strangers that night and then recounts his efforts to find suitable gifts for Patsy and Mike, who are made to seem his hosts." This easy familiarity, O'Hara suggests--Patsy, Mike, Linda--should not be too easily sniffed at; the reference to the well-known translator of Homer invokes an ancient sanction for gift giving and the entertaining of strangers and for paratactic syntax. The power of the poem is in its inadvertent, banal approach to an earnest genre: the subject of the elegy does not even emerge until the poem is nearly complete, as though the great theme (death) can now only be talked around:

... a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of  leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT  while she whispered a song along the keyboard  to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.

Beside the example of Billie Holiday, well eroded by the time she worked with Mal Waldron (1957-1959), Partisan Review complaints about the difficulty of making art in a culture so leveled by mass culture as America was in 1959 sound disingenuous. For most of her career, her audiences were small and sometimes difficult of access. In 1947 the New York Police Department denied her a cabaret licence, as many other jazz musicians were similarly punished for drug offenses. (During her final illness, she was arrested in her New York hospital room for illegal possession of drugs.) She was a singer who knew well how difficult reaching a fit audience might be, but even in her decline, O'Hara says, she took one's breath away and this elegy is literally directed at the renovation of that cliché of mass-culture advertising, the "breath-taking performance." The poem ends with much more than the apparent universal swoon for a great torch singer. "Everyone," he says in the last line, suggesting that a poet might well take pleasure in 1959 from the fact that some art can directly reach us all, and that nearly all art, African, French, and Irish, can be had now for the asking. The Bastille had been stormed, and if it turned out to be emptier than expected only the expectations deserve criticism. New York, even the New York Post, was moving still.

From American poetry and Culture, 1945-1980. Copyright © 1985 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Hazel Smith: On "Why I Am Not A Painter"

'Why I am not a Painter' at first appears to be about the differences between painting and poetry, but by the end of the poem seems to be about the similarities. In fact, the poem is aboutthe shared differences within both poetry and painting. The painting mainly hinges round a word, while the starting point of the poem is an image. The painter can represent sardines, while the poet can only begin by talking about orange. But the poem plays on the ambiguities between word and image, since the word SARDINES is also image, while orange is an image which becomes words. In both cases the poet and painter combine representation and abstraction. They each start with the concept of an object, but the painter needs to abstract the word into 'just letters', while the poet writes for days but never mentions orange. And both poet and painter have to negotiate between the formal aspects of the work and the subject matter. When the painter is asked about the painting he responds in terms of formal arrangement, structure, 'it needed something there'. Similarly, the poet concentrates on the medium of language—words, not lines, pages of words and finally prose—to convey 'how terrible orange is/and life'. Both poet and painter, therefore, move between the depiction of an object and the structural arrangement of their material. And in both cases the initial subject matter is very different from the resulting content.

Crucial here is the creative process, which is not one of working towards known ends. Although both poet and painter have a starting point, nothing about the resultant poem or painting is predetermined; the process is improvisatory in the sense outlined in Chapter 5. The poem and painting keeps changing and the product is found in the process. To arrive at the final product may involve a process of extraction or obliqueness. Mike has to take things out of the painting ('It was too much'), while the poet can only write the poem by not talking directly about orange. Furthermore, the development of the poem and painting are interdependent: the artistic and social interaction between the two artists promotes semiotic exchange. The poem stresses the highly intertextual, collaborative nature of the creative process.

The poem also demonstrates how any poem or painting is created from, and can fall back into, difference. Paradoxically, building up a poem or painting may mean breaking down or subverting its individual constituents. In the painting, the word becomes letters, while the poet's poem becomes prose. The relationship here is between parts and wholes and their shifting relationship. Another way of putting this is that both painter and poet work in a way which is metonymic.

The poem itself demonstrates the interdependence of abstract and representational modes. It hinges on real names, characters and events (Michael Goldberg was a painter and a friend of O'Hara's and did paint a picture called Sardines [see note at end of excerpt]). It also represents the incident through social conversation and colloquialisms in a way which is actually quite filmic and also humorous and informal. At the same time, the poem fails to close off its meaning, which is constantly deferred, making it more abstract. For example, the initial statement, 'I am not a painter, I am a poet', which seems to be quite definite, is immediately modified by a statement which neither completely follows on from the first, nor completely negates it: 'Why? I think I would rather be/a painter, but I am not.’ The whole poem hinges on a not-quite-parallelism which makes it difficult to capture. It is also largely circular in structure; its only conclusion is to send us back to the beginning again. In fact, its organisation is highly spatial: the second and third stanzas could be laid out opposite each other on the page, since the effect of the poem will be to move us backwards and forwards between them, to make us view them simultaneously rather than to progress through them. In this way the poem deconstructs its temporal dimension through simultaneity.

The reader, therefore, participates in the structural arrangement of the poem which moves us in and out of difference and similarity. This movement between difference and similarity is a form of 'push and pull', a term used by teacher and abstract painter Hans Hofmann, who was very influential on the New York School of painters. Hofmann's theory of push and pull is that the structure of a painting arises from the way strong colours compete with each other. But push and pull, in a verbal form, is a very prominent technique in O'Hara’s poetry. In some respects it is even more effective in poetry than it is in painting, due to poetry’s temporal, quasi-narrative dimension which allows for each pull to be followed by a push sequentially: it was an important aspect of the poem 'Chez Jane’ analyzed in Chapter 2, created by 'narratives' which conflict but do not exclude each other. Readers experience push and pull in O'Hara’s poetry in the almost physical sensation of being unable to keep the poem in one position. As they start to interpret the poem in one way, it 'springs back' in another. Push and pull, then, is a major factor in the poem's openness to multiple interpretations, and its accessibility to writerly intervention by the reader.

In this respect it is pertinent to compare O’Hara's work to that of Ashbery which, as we have seen, tends further to the pole of abstraction. This is thematically registered in a comparison between 'Why I Am Not a Painter' and Ashbery's poem 'The Painter’. In 'Why I Am Not a Painter' the subject matter (oranges and sardines) of both poet and painter is elided and abstracted creating a push and pull between representation and abstraction. But in 'The Painter' the subject matter disappears altogether:

Finally all indications of a subject Began to fade, leaving the canvas Perfectly white.

Here the utopian artistic ideal is a complete erasure of the difference between the representation and what is being represented:

he expected his subject To rush up the sand, and, seizing a brush, Plaster its own portrait on the canvas.                                             (Ashbery 1987, pp. 20-21)

While 'Why I Am Not a Painter' raises issues about the alliance between poetry and painting, it also probes the relationship between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, usually regarded as highly polarised opposites. The methods which both poet and painter use are those of action painting (O'Hara creates an action poem), but the subject matter is that of commodities, sardines and oranges. The poem and the painting are the result of an implicit and subtle negotiation between these two art movements. So I now want to contextualise and historicise the relationship between poetry and painting in O'Hara's work with reference to the contemporaneous art movements Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art.

[Note: Michael Goldberg's painting ‘Sardines' is the subject of ‘Why I am not a Painter'. It dislocates the image of a room (with possibly table and chairs and a figure-like shape in it) and includes the words SARDINES and EXIT. The words both add to the representational element of the picture (they hint at what is represented in the painting) and at the same time, because they are fractured and overlaid with paint, participate in the painting as structural arrangement.]


from Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O'Hara: Difference/Homosexuality/Topography. Liverpool UP, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by Hazel Smith.

Hazel Smith: On "A Step Away from Them"

. . . they represent a New York which hovers between modernism and postmodernism, a city in flux, constantly inventing and renewing itself, 'throwing away its previous accomplishments and challenging the future' (de Certeau 1984, p. 91). This is epitomised in the rise and fall of buildings. In 'A Step Away From Them' (O'Hara 1979, pp. 257-58), the poet begins his walk alongside a building site. But as the poem draws to a close he passes the Manhattan Storage Warehouse, just down the road from the construction site. This will soon be demolished, erasing both real and imagined histories. It is worth quoting this poem in full:

Here we can see that the poet re-presents and mobilises the city by means of the route he takes through it, and the walk and text are almost synchronous. Roger Gilbert—who classifies the walk poem as a genre—designates it as transcriptive rather than descriptive. He argues that while Coleridge tends to view the landscape as an organic analogue, or more simply as metaphor for some inner condition, the walk poem approaches the external world metonymically rather than metaphorically (Gilbert 1991, pp. 8-9). However, transcription suggests reproduction and does not fully capture the sense of creative renewal which the walk brings in O'Hara's poems. I prefer, therefore, to construct the term performative-inscriptive, using Austin's definition of a performative as an illocutionary act which achieves what it says, while it says it. Seen in this light, the walk poem has a performative, improvised and creative aspect which is closely allied to the poem as generative speech act, to be discussed in detail in Chapter 5. This link between walking and linguistic creativity is also made by de Certeau, who describes walking as 'a space of enunciation' (de Certeau 1984, p. 98). Relevant here is also the notion of topographical writing. This is used by Bolter to describe hypertextual writing, but he also concedes that much pre-hypertextual writing is also similar: 'Whenever we divide our text into unitary topics and organise those units into a connected structure and whenever we conceive of this textual structure spatially as well as verbally, we are writing topographically' (quoted in Snyder 1996, p. 36).

The walk, then, shakes up the static 'map' into what de Certeau calls the 'tour', the dynamic realisation of the map: 'First, down the sidewalk . . . Then onto the/avenue'. For de Certeau, walking mobilises paths in the city which he describes in terms rather like those of the hypertext, 'networks . . . of these moving, intersecting writings' which 'compose a manifold story that has neither author nor spectator' (de Certeau 1984, p. 93). Walking therefore creates associative links which forge new spaces and relocates mapped space. Yet the paradox is that 'to walk is to lack a place' (de Certeau 1984, p. 103), in other words, walking is associative rather than stabilising.

For to walk from place to place is to subjectively recast the city in ways which both intensify and disrupt it. Roger Gilbert argues that walking and thinking are closely related in the Western tradition, and walking induces certain types of mental process which 'cease to be wholly cognitive' and 'become instead a process of wandering as wayward and impulsive as the walk itself' (Gilbert 1991, p. 11). Gilbert's argument lacks a psychoanalytic dimension, but in fact the walk is propelled by the contrary motions of desire and lack. Steve Pile argues that de Certeau is constantly drawing on Lacanian notions of language and the real, and that the real city is for him lost, hidden, unreadable and therefore unconscious (Pile 1996, p. 226). It is this unconscious life of the city which walking can trigger and which 'carries out a guerrilla warfare with attempts to repress it' (Pile 1996, p. 227). In the poem 'A Step Away From Them' the surfaces of the city—the 'dirty/glistening torsos' of the workers and the skirts 'flipping/above heels'—become aestheticised and eroticised sites of meaning. But they also make the poet question the density and presence of the city as he thinks of his absent, dead friends: 'But is the /earth as full as life was full, of them?'

Furthermore, the 'long poem of walking' (de Certeau 1984, p. 101) carries its own particular brand of personalised politics which mobilises resistant meanings beneath the city's smooth surface. Walking is a way of subverting the city-concept, the all-controlling rationalised city which must 'repress all the physical, mental and political pollutions that would compromise it' (de Certeau 1984, p. 94). The walk poems register, though often indirectly, exclusions from, or alternatives to, the power structures of the city, even though superficially they might seem to acquiesce to them. In 'A Step Away From Them' it is the Puerto Ricans who make the street ‘beautiful and warm'.

from Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O'Hara: Difference/Homosexuality/Topography. Liverpool UP, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by Hazel Smith.

John Lowney: On "A Step Away from Them"

Another poem that conveys its preoccupation with time and death through the transience of the lunch break is "A Step Away From Them." Whereas "Personal Poem" is more concerned with the interplay of the political with the personal in the contemporary "avant-garde," "A Step Away From Them" affiliates 1950s "vanguard" art with the historical avant-garde. The preoccupation with time opens the poem, with the announcement, "It's my lunch hour." It reappears soon after, when the poet looks at "bargains in wristwatches," is ironically suggested in the reference to Times Square, and explicitly signals the transition from present impressions to reflection on darkness and death, which takes place exactly at "12:40" (CP, 257). The images and actions described in the opening two verse paragraphs—shirtless laborers eating sandwiches, skirts "flipping / above heels," cats "playing in sawdust," a "Negro" smiling at a "chorus girl" (ibid.)—counteract the concern with time with their sensual vitality; they occur in rapid succession, in short enjambed sentences. The details of the urban scene draw the poet away from self-consciousness; "I" appears only in the references to time in the opening verse paragraphs.

The shift from the Lunch Poems' "strolling" poet who pauses at a "sample Olivetti" to the poet who "ponders" over the "eternal questions of life, co-existence and depth" occurs immediately after the announcement of the exact time in "A Step Away From Them." The artificial light of "neon" in daylight accentuates a darkness present even at noontime, as awareness of the transience of the lunch break initiates the reflection on mortality. This shift from natural light to neon is repeated with the association of "JULIET'S CORNER" with "Giulietta Masina," the Italian actress married to Federico Fellini (CP, 258). The movies provide the nighttime light with their "heavenly dimensions and reverberations and iconoclasms" ("To the Film Industry in Crisis," in CP, 232) to escape from the darkness of self-consciousness, especially from the consciousness of mortality. This preoccupation with death embedded in the structure of the lunch break becomes most apparent in the subsequent transition from present impressions to memory. Reflecting on the deaths of friends who were also public figures—Bunny Lang, John Latouche, Jackson Pollock—O'Hara fuses private memory with commemoration of artists, especially Pollock, who were commonly portrayed as tragic "victims" of the cold-war demands placed on artists. O'Hara momentarily takes a "step away" from his own autobiographical stance, replacing "I" with an impersonal, typical "one":

And one has eaten and one walks,  past the magazines with nudes  and the posters for BULLFIGHT and  the Manhattan Storage Warehouse,  which they'll soon tear down. I  used to think they had the Armory  Show there.

(CP, 258)

In replacing "I" with a reified self as past other, O 'Hara situates his own act of commemorating avant-gardist figures in an irretrievable past. This act of momentary self-destruction replicates the response to imminent apocalypse that O'Hara saw animating Pollock's painting, but it also evokes Pollock's violent death. The violence of Pollock's painting reflects a repressed subtext of postwar American culture, and the poem questions how the act of internalizing this violence can be an effective mode for counteracting it. The poem then proceeds to implicate this sense of imminent destruction as an ongoing condition of American modernization; the "Manhattan Storage Warehouse / which they'll soon tear down" is associated with images linking the reified body with ritual violence, "the magazines with nudes / and the posters for BULLFIGHT" (CP, 258). Finally, the release from morbid self-consciousness, from the reflection on mortality, occurs through the poet's oblique affiliation with the historical avant-garde. This act of affiliation stresses the role of memory for reading the present, as the isolated "I" misconstrues the location of the event that marked the arrival of the European avant-garde in New York: the Armory Show. As in "Memorial Day 1950," "A Step Away From Them" appropriates historical narratives to structure personal memory, but personal memory in turn capriciously subverts the authority of historical narratives. And as in "The Day Lady Died" and "Personal Poem," the "post-anti-esthetic" surface of "A Step Away From Them" steps away from morbid self-consciousness not only through immersion in the overdetermined present but through reflection and reconstruction of the cultural and historical patterns that inform the moment.

from The American Avant-Garde Tradition: William Carlos Williams, Postmodern Poetry, and the Politics of Cultural Memory. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Associated University Presses.

Marjorie Perloff: On "A Step Away from Them" (1998)

In this famous "lunch poem," public events, political or otherwise, obviously play much less of a role than in Ginsberg's "America." Indeed, the poem's oppositionality would seem to be all on the level of rhetoric. For Wilbur's highly crafted stanzas, O'Hara substitutes a nervous, short, tautly suspended free-verse line; for Wilbur's studied impersonality, O'Hara substitutes the intimate address, whether to a friend or to himself, he describes in "Personism"; and for Wilbur's elaborately contrived metaphor, his "I" substitutes persons, places, and objects that are palpable, real, and closely observed.

The poet's lunch-hour walk, presumably from his workplace, the Museum of Modern Art on 53rd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues in the direction of Times Square, is full of enticing sights and sounds: cabs hum, laborers in hard hats (whose "dirty / glistening torsos" the gay poet subliminally desires) are eating sandwiches and drinking Coca-Cola, the skirts of girls in high heels (the then proverbial office uniform) "flip" and "blow up over / grates," the myriad cut-rate jewelry shops on 6th Avenue try to outdo each other with "bargains in wristwatches," the huge Chesterfield ad above Times Square blows smoke at the cigarette-friendly pedestrian, a black man, hanging out in a doorway makes eyes at a blonde chorus girl walking by, and the Puerto Ricans on the Avenue are enough to make it, by the poet's dadaesque reasoning, "beautiful and warm." Pleasurable, too, are the absurd contradictions representative of New York life: the "Negro ... with a toothpick, langorously agitating," the "neon in daylight" and "lightbulbs in daylight," the lunchspots with incongruous names like "Juliet's Corner" that serve cheeseburgers and chocolate malteds, the ladies with poodles who wear fox furs even on the hottest summer day, and so on.

But, as James E. B. Breslin noted in his excellent essay on O'Hara, the poet seems to be "a step away," not only from the dead friends (Bunny Lang, John Latouche, Jackson Pollock) he will memorialize later in the poem, but from all the persons and objects in his field of vision. "Sensations," writes Breslin, "disappear almost as soon as they are presented. Objects and people ... remain alien to a poet who can never fully possess them." For Breslin, the poet's malaise, his inability to hold on to things, to move toward any kind of transcendence beyond the fleeting, evanescent moment is largely a function of O'Hara's unique psychological make-up. But since, as Breslin himself suggests, O'Hara's fabled "openness is an admitted act of contrivance and duplicity," we might consider the role culture plays in its formation.

Consider, to begin with, the repeated metonymic displacements of specific metaphors. New York's yellow cabs are compared to bees ("hum-colored"), but their color relates them to the laborers' "yellow helmets," worn to "protect them from failing / bricks, I guess." Yellow helmets, yellow jackets: the poem's brilliance is to connect these disparate items and yet to leave the import of the connection hanging. Is the tentative explanation ("I guess") about "falling bricks" tongue-in-cheek or serious? In the same vein, "skirts" are no sooner seen "flipping / above heels" in the hot air than they are described as "blow[ing] up over / grates," (perhaps an allusion to Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch), even as the sign high up in Times Square "blows smoke over my head." "Blow," for O'Hara, always has sexual connotations, but "blow up," soon to be the title of Antonioni's great film, also points to the vocabulary of nuclear crisis omnipresent in the public discourse of these years. The muted and intermittent sounds of skirts flipping, smoke blowing, cabs stirring up the air, and cats playing in the sawdust give way to the moment when "Everything / suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of / a Thursday." Here sound is illogically related to time: gridlock in the streets, an absolutely ordinary event in midtown Manhattan, somehow makes the poet look up at the big clock above Times Square and have the surreal sense that time is coming to a stop. The connection is momentary (rather like an air-raid siren going off), but it changes the pedestrian's mood. At 12:40, at any rate, lunch hour has passed the halfway point, and now thoughts of the dead come to the fore--or were they already there in the reference to the "sawdust" in which the cats play? The pronoun "I" shifts to the impersonal "one"; "neon in daylight" is no longer such a pleasure, revealing as it does the "magazines with nudes / and the posters for BULLFIGHT," and the mortuary-like "Manhattan Storage Warehouse / which they'll soon tear down," the reference to the armory in the next line linking death with war.

By this time, the "great pleasure" of the poet's lunch hour has been occluded by anxiety. Not the fear of anything in particular: O'Hara's New York is still a long way from the crime and drug-ridden Manhattan of the nineties. On the contrary, the poet's anxiety seems to stem from the sheer glut of sensation: so many new and colorful things to see--new movies starring Giulietta Masina, new Balanchine ballets for Edwin Denby to write about, new editions of Reverdy poems, new buildings going up all over town. Colorful, moreover, is now. associated with persons of color: the poet, exoticizing the Other, takes pleasure in the "click" between the "langurously agitating Negro" and "blonde chorus girl" (a sly parody of the scare question being asked with regularity in the wake of the Desegregation Act of 1954, "Would you want your daughter to marry a Nigra?"), and he observes playfully that "There are several Puerto Ricans on the avenue today, which / makes it beautiful and warm." Yet--and here the contrast replicates the juxtapositions found in Look or Colliers--for every exotic sight and delightful sensation, there are falling bricks, bullfights, blow outs, armories, mortuaries, and, as the name Juliet's Corner suggests, tombs. In this context, ironically, the actual death references in the poem ("First / Bunny died") function almost as overkill.

The "glass of papaya juice" of the penultimate lines sums it up nicely. Papaya, now sold in every large city supermarket, was a new commodity in the fifties; the recent Puerto Rican émigrés (who, for O'Hara, make it "beautiful and warm") were opening juice bars all over Manhattan. Papaya juice was considered not only exotic but healthful, the idea of drinking fruit and vegetable drinks that are good for you being itself a novelty in this period. The juice bar O'Hara frequents on the way "back to work" makes a wonderful contrast to the hamburger joint where he had lunch. Cheeseburger & malted: this all-American meal, soon to be marketed around the globe by McDonald's, gives way to the glass of papaya juice--a new "foreign" import. But the juice the poet ingests is also contrasted to the heart which is in "my pocket" and which is "Poems by Pierre Reverdy." The heart is not in the body where it belongs but in a book, placed externally, in the poet's pocket. And again it is a foreign vintage.

In the postwar economy of the late fifties, such new foreign imports created an enticing world of jouissance. But what is behind all those pleasurable "neon in daylight" surfaces and desirable "dirty/ glistening torsos" that attract the poet? For O'Hara, there is no anchor, even as the heart is no longer the anchor of the self. If, as a slightly later poem begins, "Khrushchev is coming on the right day!", "right" refers absurdly, not to any possible political rationale, but, with wonderfully absurd logic, to the fact that the September weather is so invigorating, with its "cool graced light" and gusty winds, and the poet so ecstatic in his new love affair with Vincent Warren, that surely it must be a good day for Khrushchev's visit! The public sphere thus becomes a cartoon backdrop against which the poet's "real" life unfolds. And yet that life, as we see in "Khrushchev" as in "A Step Away from Them," is everywhere imbricated with race and gender politics, with thoughts of dispersal ("New York seems blinding and my tie is blowing up the street / I wish it would blow off ") and death. Apolitical? Intentionally, yes, but very much itself a construction of the postwar moment.

From Poetry On & Off the Page: Essays for Emergent Occasions. Copyright © 1998 by Marjorie Perloff.

Marjorie Perloff: On "A Step Away from Them"

The structure of this poem may look random, the details--Coca-Cola signs, hours of the day, objects seen in store windows--are seemingly trivial, but in O'Hara's imaginative reconstruction of New York City, everything is there for a purpose. We might note, to begin with, that the speaker's thought processes constantly return to images of life, vitality, animation, motion. From the "hum-colored / cabs" to the skirts "flipping / above heels," everything is in motion. Even the sign above Times Square "blows smoke over my head, and higher / the waterfall pours lightly."

But what particularly delights the poet is the paradox of heat and motion: no matter how hot the New York streets, their life force remains intact:

                                            . . .A  Negro stands in a doorway with a  toothpick, languorously agitating.  A blonde chorus girl clicks: he  smiles and rubs his chin....

At this point, "everything suddenly honks," and the moment ("12:40 of / a Thursday") is endowed with radiance.

Just as the Negro's languorous agitation forces the observer to pay special attention, so he finds "great pleasure" in the conjunction of opposites of "neon in daylight" or in the absurd tableau of the lady unseasonably wearing foxes, who "puts her poodle / in a cab." Such unexpected juxtapositions are pleasurable because they allow the poet, who remains essentially "A Step Away from Them," from the blondes, Puerto Ricans, and laborers on the Avenue, to create new patterns in space, new compositions of color, texture, and light.

But the vibrancy of the lunch hour would not seem special if the poet did not remember, near the end of the poem, those of his friends--Bunny, John Latouche, and Jackson Pollock--who can no longer perceive it. The faint undertone of death, captured in the final image of the Manhattan Storage Warehouse, soon to be torn down, qualifies the poet's response and heightens his awareness of being alive. The poem has, in short, been moving all along to the central recognition of the affinity of life and death, to the perception that death is, as it was for Wallace Stevens, the mother of beauty. The poet's knowledge that he is only "A Step Away from Them," from the fate his artist friends have met, makes the final glass of papaya juice and the awareness that his "heart"--a book of Reverdy's poems--is in his pocket especially precious and poignant. Death, in short, is always in the background, but the trick is to keep oneself on top of it, to counter despair by participating as fully as possible in the stream of life.

Of course "A Step Away from Them" would be spoiled if it included any statement as bald, abstract, and pretentious as the one I have just made, and indeed the only place in the poem where O'Hara is perhaps guilty of such a lapse is in the question, "But is the / earth as full as life was full, of them?," a question which did not need to be asked because its answer was already implicit in the poem's network of images....

From Contemporary Literature (1973).

Brad Gooch: On "A Step Away from Them"

"A Step Away from Them" follows O'Hara in handheld camera fashion, wearing his trademark seersucker Brooks Brothers jacket with a volume of poems by Pierre Reverdy stuck in its pocket, as he heads on his lunch hour west and then downtown from the Museum, past construction sites on Sixth Avenue, through Times Square where he stops for a cheeseburger and a glass of papaya juice beneath the Chesterfield billboard with blowing smoke, and then back uptown to work. In the writing of the poem O'Hara left a record for history of the sensations of a sensitive and sophisticated man in the middle of the twentieth century walking through what was considered by some the capital of the globe. Using a deceptively flat pedestrian voice-"it's my lunch hour, so I go for a walk among the hum-colored / cabs"--O'Hara discovered a new kind of pleasure in writing a more public poetry. As Allen Ginsberg later told an interviewer, "He integrated purely personal life into the high art of composition, marking the return of all authority back to the person. His style is actually in line with the tradition that begins with Independence and runs through Thoreau and Whitman, here composed in a metropolitan spaceage architecture environment. He taught me to really see New York for the first time, by making of the giant style of Midtown his intimate cocktail environment. It's like having Catullus change your view of the Forum in Rome."

O'Hara was fired by the challenge of finding the good in the bad, the poetic in the mundane, the ancient and divine in modem New York. His tendency, like Whitman's, was to mythologize its daily life. In "A Step Away from Them" even construction workers--staples of the midtown terrain--are made to seem mysterious and glamorous and tropically sexual:

First, down the sidewalk  where laborers feed their dirty  glistening torsos sandwiches  and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets  on. They protect them from falling  bricks, I guess.

Likewise the growing Puerto Rican population of the city was assimilated in the poem--this latest in a series of mass migrations of ethnic groups having just peaked in 1953: "There are several Puerto / Ricans on the avenue today, which / makes it beautiful and warm." O'Hara had first sounded this theme a month earlier when he and John Button sat on a fire escape composing a collaborative letter to Schuyler written in gay slang about the recent fire at Wanamaker's Department Store to which O'Hara contributed the line, "And the Porto Ricans seem to be having such a swell time in the street outside." Kenneth Koch grounds the line to a recent incident of heckling from a group of Puerto Rican boys. "We were walking up Sixth Avenue going to Larré's to lunch," recalls Koch. "It was a really hot day. There were these Puerto Rican guys on the street who made some remarks which made me angry. I said, 'Shit. Damn it.' Frank said, 'Listen. It means they think we're attractive.'" O'Hara's libidinal fantasies and poetic fancies were equal and intertwined enough that he could see what he wanted to see, or needed to see, on the lunch hour streets.

Part of the novelty of O'Hara's poem--published a year later in Evergreen Review--was that nothing seemed made up. Reporting his stop at a greasy spoon, Juliet's Corner, O'Hara follows with "Giulietta Masina, wife of / Federico Fellini, è bell' attrice," The association had surfaced because of his viewing La Strada a few weeks earlier. "John Button and I saw one of the all time great movies the other day, La Strada and man, was it ever!" he reported to John Wieners, then at Black Mountain College. "It has Anthony Quinn, Richard Basehart (what a nice last name) and someone named Giulietta Masina who is a genius, she's the End. Also the director, Federico Fellini, seems to have a few insights into the soul not often granted by the Heavenly Hiders." O'Hara's adoration of Masina reached its peak a few years later when he met her at the home of the Italian countess Camilla McGrath, who translated as O'Hara--his hero worship always to the far side of theatrical--fell to his knees in front of the actress and gushed, "You are not simply a great artist, you are a fact of our lives!"

The true subject of the poem, though--like that of the equally ambulatory "The Day Lady Died" three years later--was revealed in its title. In "A Step Away from Them," written the day after Jackson Pollock's funeral in the Springs, O'Hara was feeling keenly the proximity of the line of death over which his three friends had so recently walked, or slid:

                                            First,  Bunny died, then John Latouche,  then Jackson Pollock. But is the  earth as full as life uses full, of them?

His reactions were not morose or baleful. Rather, the closeness of death, the personal awareness of decay and change, of "the Manhattan Storage Warehouse, / which they'll soon tear down," only made him feel more alert to his surroundings. He began to seize on moments, and street markers, and tiny objects such as wristwatches, with a new intensity in a poetry increasingly celebrating the dailiness of everyday. It was a poetry in which, as he put it in a later essay on Edwin Denby's dance criticism, "attention equals Life."

O'Hara had learned his lesson during his recent stay in Cambridge. New York was the place for his poetry and life. Settling with a newly energized commitment into his job at the Museum, where he would remain until his death, O'Hara also settled more deeply into his poetry. Writing "In Memory of My Feelings" and "A Step Away from Them" during the first six weeks of his return, he laid out the two productive directions of much of his work over the next three years. "In Memory of My Feelings" leads toward the abstract emotion and large scale of the Odes (published in 1960), and "A Step Away from Them" leads toward the smaller, more intimate "I do this I do that" poems, which most directly influenced the "second generation" of New York School poets who began showing up at O'Hara's door in the early sixties.

From City poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara. Copyright © 1993 by Brad Gooch.

Neal Bowers: On "A Step Away from Them"

This is not collage, because the assorted elements are not reduced to static snapshots of the city. Instead, they appear and pass away as O'Hara walks through them. The effect is something like a motion picture, with O'Hara in each frame. Saying what all the details mean is easy--they mean whatever they are, and their importance lies in their randomness and transience. . . .

Everything has equal significance--Puerto Ricans, dead friends, a warehouse--and O'Hara, caught up in the fullness of such a fife, returns to work with a book of poems in his pocket, his ruminations having led neither to sadness nor happiness but to an affirmation of his place in the teeming city-world.

From "The City Limits" in Jim Elledge, ed. Frank O’Hara: To Be True to a City. University of Michigan Press, 1990.