Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Step Away From Them (Frank O'Hara, 1956)

The view up Broadway, Manhattan, Summer 1956

It's my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-colored
cabs. First, down the sidewalk
where laborers feed their dirty
glistening torsos sandwiches
Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets
on. They protect them from falling
bricks, I guess. Then onto the
avenue where skirts are flipping
above heels and blow up over
grates. The sun is hot, but the
cabs stir up the air. I look
at bargains in wristwatches. There
are cats playing in sawdust.

Times Square, where the sign
blows smoke over my head, and higher
the waterfall pours lightly. A
Negro stands in a doorway with a
toothpick, languorously agitating.
A blonde chorus girl clicks: he
smiles and rubs his chin. Everything
suddenly honks: it is
12:40 of
a Thursday

                   Neon in daylight is a
great pleasure, as
Edwin Denby would
write, as are light bulbs in daylight.
I stop for a cheeseburger at
CORNER. Giulietta Masina
, wife of
Federico Fellini, e bell' attrice.
And chocolate malted. A lady in
foxes on such a day puts her poodle
in a cab.

              There are several Puerto
Ricans on the avenue today, which
makes it beautiful and warm. First
Bunny died, then John Latouche,
Jackson Pollack. But is the
earth as full as life was full, of them?
And one has eaten and one walks,
past the magazines with nudes
and the posters for
Manhattan Storage Warehouse,
which they'll soon tear down. I
used to think they had the Armory
Show there.

                    A glass of papaya juice
and back to work. My heart is in my
pocket, it is
Poems by Pierre Reverdy.

Note:  I woke up and soon started thinking about this poem this morning.  It often crosses my mind, especially as the weather warms and I recall many hot summers in New York City from my teenage and early worker years, spending lots of time walking the streets Frank O’Hara describes so perfectly.  It was then that I formed most of the interests that continue to guide me today, which resemble some of O’Hara’s, so the poem continues to inspire, resonate and as I’ve gotten older, reveal more of itself while staying eternally young and sadly hopeful.  

Every detail here reminds me of a particular street corner – amazing – and I’m glad that this New York is still alive in my mind.  I’m not much of a literary scholar, so I was surprised when researching A Step Away From Them to find that it has affected so many other people as much as it has me.  One hundred years from now I don’t think anyone will understand a word of the poem, except for the killer last line, which says just about everything.

Frank O’Hara pictured with James Schuyler, 1956

Same view as above taken a couple of blocks below in Times Square, New Year’s Eve, 1956


  1. It sounds as if you have reached a kind of accomodation with these memories. When I see the pictures all I can feel is a kind of helpless longing for the '50s, when we lived years at 1 University Place. A lady in foxes. Checker cabs. I have no idea what to do with these things that mean so much to me.

    1. What to do with memories? Something I think a great deal about. I must admit I don't have much of a longing for the '50s. At least my experience of them. I find some comfort in bringing some of my cherished memories into the present. I have no intention of letting them go. I must admit that my present is infinitely better than my past, and I have high hopes for the future.

  2. Frank O'Hara's Lunch Poems had an immediate and lasting effect on me and that collection is completely bound up in my memories of that time and space, although I had experienced that geography (which I see as bounded by the Museum of Modern Art at the northeast and parts of the Garment District at the southwest) before reading the book. These memories are really vivid, physical and central to me, so I hope I've accommodated them. I went for my annual physical today and had to engage in conversation with the doctor, a stranger, which seemed much more personal than the talks I tend to have with people I know much better than I know her. I find that difficult to accommodate, actually. Curtis

    1. Perhaps precisely because she was a stranger. Getting too personal with people you know can feel much too dangerous, with unknown and unpredictable repercussions.

  3. I did have a fondness for New York at one time. Very early on. Unfortunately, as I grew older, and my father grew sicker, that changed. When I think of the city, I think of him asking me to read the huge rolling ticker-tape that ran high above in huge letters because he couldn't see by that time. I was with him because he needed me to take him to work. I was his eyes. It was the summer of '65. The summer he died. He was still going to work every day.

    In analysis today, I referred to something you had written. (I don't know if you'll be pleased to hear that.) You had responded to my birthday greetings and, I think, information you had learned from your conversation with Jonny. Your words had a profound impact when I read them originally, but I didn't respond. After all, it was your Birthday!! I didn't want to mar your day in any way.

    You wrote, "there really are things they never tell you when you're a kid." I thought to myself, "Oh no, there aren't." Perhaps nobody told me, but I grew up prepared. For anything. But I discovered something today. I am a warrior, and I think I got that from my father. Nell

  4. I was taught some things as a kid at home that ultimately proved to be valid, but the information was given in a way that I naturally rejected it for a long time, probably past the point when it might have proved useful. Most of my valuable life lessons and life training came in boarding school, a place where things like that just happen because it's a lot like going into business early. Through combinations of luck, if you have any, and perseverance, you survive and survival equals flourishing. I'm honestly not sure day-to-day whether I'm optimistic or not, but I do try to see the glass as half-full, count my blessings and be happy. I'm a big believer in rational analysis and, planning, executing against plan as they say in business, and making mid-course corrections. I think it's nice you mentioned what I said during your analysis. Curtis