Excerpted Criticism

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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.

Mark K. Anderson: An Interview with Martín Espada

MARK ANDERSON: Tell me about the connections for you between the law and poetry.

What's your legal background?

You write of legal language often being used "not to clarify but to control." That would be, from most people's perspective, the definition of all legal language. Look at President Clinton's recent testimony: the epitome of evasion.

What are the problems and issues raised when you bring in a second language--in this case, Spanish? How does that complicate matters both in regards to poetry as law and law as poetry?

From Z Magazine. (December 1998).

Sarah Browning: Interview with Martín Espada

DSS Dream

I dreamed the Department of Social Services came to the door and said: "We understand you have a baby, a goat, and a pig living here in a two-room apartment. This is illegal. We have to take the baby away, unless you eat the goat."

"The pig's OK?" I asked. "The pig's OK," they said.

-- Martín Espada

from Valley Advocate   (Nov. 18, 1993). Copyright © 1998 by New Media, Inc. Online Source

Steven Ratiner: Interview with Martín Espada

Hunched over the podium, Martin Espada is an imposing presence, a grizzly bear of a man with dark eyes that devour the page. His poems are, by turns, ferocious, tender, ardently political, or touchingly biographical. But in between the poems, when he tells stories about his writing and his life, the audience is caught off-guard by his playful and self-deprecating humor. There is a largeness of feeling in the man, and we are willingly snared in the net of his words.

Copyright © 2000 The Christian Science Publishing Society. Reprinted with permission of Martìn Espada.

Katie Bolick: Interview with Mark Doty

Bolick: In the book [Firebird] you write about your "education in beauty," beginning with your sister's tantalizing drawer of shiny trinkets: crepe and tulle, glittery ribbons, "scraps of sheer and sparkled treasure." Could you talk about what beauty meant to you as a child  How has your relationship to beauty and artifice changed over time?

from "Fallen Beauty" in Atlantic Unbound -- http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/interviews/ba991110.htm

Mark Wunderlich: Interview with Mark Doty

Mark Wunderlich: In an article you published in the Hungry Mind Review about your experience as a judge for the Lenore Marshall Prize, you discussed your hopes for the future of American Poetry. I'm wondering if you could talk a little more about that. Also, and this may be impossible to answer, but I'm curious to know what vision you have for the future of your own work? What are your current ambitions?

from The Cortland Review (December 1998). Online Source: http://www.cortlandreview.com/features/dec98/index2.html