Excerpted Criticism

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Susan Schweik: On "(To be a Jew in the Twentieth Century)"

"To Be a Jew in the Twentieth Century" enacts most powerfully the struggle of the body and for belief:

To be a Jew in the twentieth century Is to be offered a gift. If you refuse, Wishing to be invisible, you choose Death of the spirit, the stone insanity. Accepting, take full life. Full agonies: Your evening deep in labyrinthine blood Of those who resist, fail, and resist: and God Reduced to a hostage among hostages.

The gift is torment. Not alone the still Torture, isolation; or torture of the flesh. That may come also. But the accepting wish, The whole and fertile spirit as guarantee For every human freedom, suffering to be free, Daring to live for the impossible.

The significance of this poem’s representation of Jewish experience at a time when the great majority of American volumes of war poems ignored the Holocaust cannot, I think, be overemphasized. "To Be a Jew in the Twentieth Century offers a profound extension and reformulation of the terms of the other poems in the "Letter [to the Front]" sequence and of the terms of Western war poetry and dominant American home-front culture. Stressing the active work of Judaism, it reworks the traditional rhetoric of election: Jews are people who must choose to be the chosen people. Giving new substance to the word "belief" which has cropped up so frequently in "Letter [to the Front]," it represents that belief as rooted and exemplified in Jewish cultural and spiritual tradition. Its figure of the gift which is also torment refigures conventional imagery of war’s exchanges; external battles and written, distant correspondences are replaced by an inward, invisible offering, an internal struggle to acknowledge and live by one’s identity and one’s principles. Finally, not least, "To Be a Jew" adds another dimension to the front which this "Letter to the Front" redefines, reminding us that in 1944 not only soldiers bore marks, scars, and wounds or capacities of vision and resistance.

There is a body at the center of "Letter to the Front." It is a Jew’s body. And, in this war poem . . . it is a woman’s body. "Letter to the Front"’s strongest revision of the tradition of war poetry and war letters lies here: the great questions of that tradition -- if, why, how the body should be or will be put to use, put in danger, for the sake of belief -- are claimed as questions, necessary and inevitable, for supposed "non-combatants."

[Susan Schweik, A Gulf So Deeply Cut: American Women’s Poetry of the Second World War (Madison: U of Wisconsin Press, 1991), 169-170.]

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

While some of O'Hara's poems are more pop camp and others more abstract, poems like 'Rhapsody' (O'Hara 1977a, p. 325) combine the two. This mixture of Pop Camp and Abstract Expressionism is also to be found in the work of Larry Rivers. Rivers worked on the edges of the New York School of painters who included Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, Alfred Leslie, Michael Goldberg, Norman Bluhm and Jane Freilicher. The close relationship between Rivers and O'Hara, and the way in which Rivers's work—like O'Hara's—combines abstract and representational modes, has already been well discussed by Marjorie Perloff (Perloff 1979). I want to argue that Rivers's work is in a similar relationship of 'complementary antagonism' to Abstract Expressionism and Pop Camp as O'Hara's. Rivers often used commercial images in his painting and was an important forerunner of Pop Art. However, like O'Hara, Rivers's work deviated from Pop Art. Hefen Harrison argues that Rivers differs from Pop Art, which 'comments on the social implications of standardization, mass dissemination of information, and the dehumanizing effects of modern culture'. What Rivers does have in common with the Pop Artists, Harrison argues, is to employ 'traditionally unacceptable raw material' (Harrison 1984, p. 48). Similarly, Libby suggests that 'While pop art flattens . . . Rivers discovers the radiance of ordinary things, imaginatively transforming them in ways that Williams would admire but Warhol might consider perversely romantic' (Libby 1990, p.134). Although these comparisons make a useful distinction, again they tend to underestimate the aestheticisation of the image within Pop Art.

In fact, 'pop camp' is also an important ingredient of Rivers's work, and this is shown not only in his inclusion of consumer goods but also in his parodic revisions of historical representations which are deeply ingrained in American popular culture. A good example of this kind of work is 'Washington Crossing the Delaware' (1953), an important 'repainting' of a traditional American icon, Leutze's painting of 'Washington Crossing The Delaware', which undermined the heroism, masculinity and patriotism of the original. The painting appeared the year after the Leutze was in the public eye in the celebrations for the 175th anniversary of the river crossing. At that time the Cold War and McCarthyism were at their height, and patriotism had become a national obsession. Rivers's painting undercuts the heroic Napoleonic stance of Washington in the Leutze and humanises it. Washington becomes only one of many going about their business; he seems isolated and his stance is much less heroic and purposeful than in the original. While seeming to buy into the sentiments of nationalism and patriotism, Rivers subverts them by taking Washington off his heroic pedestal. Rivers said of the painting:

The last painting that dealt with George and the rebels is hanging at 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 could have inspired him I’ll never know. 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. (Davidson 1983, p. 74).

Conflicting readings, however, inhabit the painting, and it seems to be more ambiguous than critics sometimes allow. Does Washington really look as 'uncertain' as critics say? The deconstruction is all the more effective because the attitudes which are being questioned still have a presence within the painting, in the same way that they do within O'Hara's poems.

O'Hara responded to the painting with the poem, 'On Seeing Larry Rivers' Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art'. This poem characterises Washington as afraid, gun-happy and a liar. He is the father of debatable notions about freedom which honour individualism rather than community. 'See how free we are! as a nation of persons.' In other words, the poem narrativises the painting further, implying, but not determining, trajectories of plot, character and past history.

 
 

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

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

It is a paradox worth savoring that the painters closest in mood and temperament to the New York poets were not the makers of the abstract revolution but such "second generation" figures as Larry Rivers, Jane Freilicher, and Fairheld Porter, not one of them an abstract artist. To understand how the New York School of poets assimilated the influence of their painterly namesakes, we might linger for a moment over the differing ways in which a Rivers or a Porter responded to the avant-garde imperatives of the day. The example of Rivers was particularly crucial for O'Hara and Koch. Porter's example had a corresponding importance for Schuyler and Ashbery.

Born Yitzroch Grossberg in the Bronx, Rivers was an uninhibited, grass-smoking, sex-obsessed jazz saxophonist in his early twenties when he took up painting in 1945. His Bonnard-inspired early works made Clement Greenberg sit up and take notice. Though he would later modify his praise and then with- draw it altogether, Greenberg declared in 1949 that Rivers was already "a better composer of pictures than was Bonnard himself in many instances"—and this on the basis of Rivers's first one- man show. Rivers—who can, as I write this, still be heard playing the saxophone at the Knickerbocker Bar in New York City some Sunday nights—always retained the improvisatory ideal of jazz. The make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is evident in even his most monumental constructions—such as The History of the Russian Revotution (1965) in Washington's Hirshhorn Museum— which have a fresh air of spontaneity about them, as if they had just been assembled a few minutes ago.

Rivers relied on "charcoal drawing and rag wiping" for the deliberately unfinished look of his pictures. Also distinctive was his prankish sense of humor. In 1964 he painted a spoof of Jacques-Louis David's famous Napoleon in His Study (1812), the portrait of the emperor in the classic hand-in-jacket pose. Rivers's version, full of smudges and erasures, manages to be iconoclastic and idolatrous at once. The finishing touch is the painting's title: Rivers called it The Greatest Homosexual. A visitor to Rivers's Fourteenth Street studio in 1994, seeing a picture on the wall with the Napoleon motif in it, asked him why he had given the original painting its unusual title. "In those days I was carrying on with people in the gay bathhouse world," Rivers said. "Napoleon's pose was like, 'Get her!' Also, it was a kind of joke, since the art world at the time was primarily homosexual. And I had just read that Napoleon was a little peculiar. In St. Helena he used to be surrounded by an entourage of officers and he would take a bath in front of them, nude."

There is a strand of Rivers's work that can only be understood if you take into account the homosexual aestheticism that he found embodied in the poems and person of O'Hara. In the early 1950s, "queerdom was a country in which there was more fun," Rivers has said. "There was something about homosexuality that seemed too much, too gorgeous, too ripe. I later came to realize that there was something marvelous about it because it seemed to be pushing everything to its fullest point."

If one condition of avant-garde art is that it is ahead of its time, and another is that it proceeds from a maverick impulse and a contrary disposition, Rivers's vanguard status was assured from the moment when, in open apostasy, he audaciously made representational paintings. glorifying nostalgia and sentiment, while undercutting them with metropolitan irony. His paintings of brand labels, found objects, and pop icons—Camel cigarettes, Dutch Masters cigars, the menu at the Cedar Tavern in 1959,a French hundred-franc note—preceded Pop Art but eluded the limitations of that movement. And his pastiches of famous paintings of the past—such as his irreverent rendition of Emmanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware (1953)—anticipated the breezy ironies of postmodernism without forfeiting the painterly touches of Abstract Expressionism. The painting, Rivers told O’Hara, "was just a way for me to stick my thumb out at other people. I suddenly carved a little corner for myself. Luckily for me I didn’t give a crap about what was going on at the time in New York painting. In fact, I was energetic and egomaniacal and, what is even more important, cocky and angry enough to want to do something that no one in the New York art world could doubt was disgusting, dead, and absurd. So, what could be dopier than a painting dedicated to a national cliché?"

Rivers denied that his Washington Crossing the Delaware was specifically a parody of Emmanuel Leutze’s painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He maintained that his true inspiration derived from the patriotic grade school plays he had acted in or watched as a boy. This explanation made the picture no less heretical in an art world that had given up on representation and was bound to consider a patriotic theme as either hopelessly corny or retrograde. But for Rivers’s poet friends, the painting- -which the Museum of Modern Art purchased in 1955—was an electric charge. Kenneth Koch wrote a play, George Washington Crossing the Delaware, in which the father of our country is glorified with ironic hyperbole. And Frank O'Hara. in his poem "On Seeing Larry Rivers.s Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art," used the opportunity to state a "revolutionary" credo:

To be more revolutionary than a nun  is our desire, to be secular and intimate  as, when sighting a redcoat, you smile  and pull the trigger.

It is conceivable that the "redcoat" O'Hara envisioned here coat of red paint. The gun in Rivers's hands, or in his own, the promise of freedom from dogma or domination:

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

 

from The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets. Copyright © 1998 by Doubleday, Inc.

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.

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