Representations of urban America in three poems by Bob Kaufman, Amiri Baraka and Frank O’Hara

In his study of representation and meanings of cities in American literature, Gerd Hurm claims that urban topography, society and life function as a metonymy for the whole American culture and, even more broadly, analysis of the urban “pertains to Western civilization as a whole.”1 Therefore, it is often the case in both fiction and poetry that a depiction of an urban environment can be read not only in relation to a particular geographical location, but as a representation of the writer’s current socio-political situation in general. Another claim made in Hurm’s study is that of an impossibility of reading the city as a whole, as it is a mosaic of countless (and often contradictory) political, economic and social factors which no individual would be able to perceive as a totality. In other words, the modern city is necessarily fragmented. The poems presented in this paper depict different fragments of city life grasped by different poets. Of the three poets whose works are examined in this paper, only one is normally associated with “his” city – that relation would be between Frank O’Hara and the New York City, to which many of his poems are devoted. The other two were never ascribed to a single urban location, even if for purely biographical reasons. However, the city as a metonymy for America in general was frequently present in their poems. The purpose of this essay is to analyze and compare three different representations of urban America; namely, downtown New York in Frank O’Hara’s “A Step Away From Them”, the most famous district of Los Angeles in Bob Kaufman’s “Hollywood” and a nameless suburban area in Amiri Baraka’s “Das Kapital”. According to Michael Cowan, three different authorial viewpoints, or perspectives, can be distinguished in descriptions of a city. These include the view from above, the vista from below and the perception from the street level. The city viewed “from above” implies judgmental contemplation on behalf of the author (or speaker in the poem), who criticizes the urban reality he sees and feels in a way superior to it. Whenever urban areas are seen “from below,” the attitude of the speaker tends to be subversive or even revolutionary, as he is the voice of the underground, exposing those aspects which most of the city dwellers would like
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Hurm, Gerd. Fragmented Urban Images: The American City in Modern Fiction from Stephen Crane to Thomas Pynchon. Verlag Peter Lang GmbH. Frankfurt am Main, 1991. p. 1.

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to ignore or forget about. Finally, the view from the city ground level, from among city streets, is often the view of a walker strolling around the city in which he usually feels familiar and at home; the voice of such an observer is rarely judgmental. Each of the poems discussed in this paper falls into one of the aforementioned categories of city perception. The views of and attitudes towards the city represented by the speakers in those poems vary, and their analysis here is based on juxtaposition, pointing out those differences. The first poem to be discussed here is “Hollywood” by Bob Kaufman, from the first published collection of his poems entitled “Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness”. The speaker in this poem presents Cowan’s vista from above: Five square miles of ultra-contemporary nymphomania Two dozen homos, to every sapiens, at last countdown, Ugly Plymouths, swapping exhaust with red convertible Buicks, Twelve-year-old mothers suing for child support, Secondhand radios making it with wide-screen TV sets, Unhustling junkies shooting mothball fixes, insect junk, Unemployed pimps living on neon backs of Unemployed whores. The speaker first describes the city from the bird’s eye view, and then his gaze focuses on the more detailed, dirty aspects of the life of particular social groups within the city. California, and Hollywood in particular, is usually thought of in American culture as the utopian promised land; the final frontier which crowns the search for paradise. It is the land in which dreams come true; after all, Hollywood filmmakers produce those dreams. To use Nietzsche’s terms from “The Birth of Tragedy,” Hollywood is the land of Apollo – illusion and appearance are celebrated there and the most cherished values are individualism, creativity, artistic self-control, the “fully calm wisdom of the god of images.”2 However, the imagery in Kaufman’s poem shatters this myth of Hollywood as the perfect, wholly man-made and thus wholly man-controlled Eden. His vision turns the Apollonian dream factory into a Dionysian factory of nightmares, whose inhabitants live a chaotic, intoxicated and destructive lives and their individuality becomes dissolved – they can only be perceived as faceless groups or masses. Kaufman’s Hollywood, instead of by successful entrepreneurs, beautiful actors and creative film directors, is inhabited by teenage mothers, drug addicts and prostitutes. When screen writers appear in the poem, they are “drinking down unsuccessful screams,” and actors are unemployed and “look stupid.” There is no calmness and no wisdom; the images of the

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Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy. Plain Label Books, 2000. p. 37.

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city life are chaotic and random, painting a hellish picture when put together. All creativity has died, there are only “recreated Jimmy Deans” and “unlit starlets.” The speaker looks at this sad, rotting cityscape as if from above; he can see everything that is happening there and judge. He feels superior to the pathetic, nameless masses of people he describes; positioning himself outside of or above the city, making it clear that he neither belongs there nor comes from there, he is in the position to ruthlessly criticize its inhabitants. The tone of the poem is full of contempt; the choice of words, such as “death-faced agents,” “sick comedians, a lot sicker than their comedy, REAL SICK,” and “plastic beatniks in pubic beards” shows the speaker’s disgust with the Hollywood milieu. The choice of Hollywood as the location for the poem seems important not only because it is embedded in American imagination as the paradise found – a myth deconstructed and shattered by Kaufman – but also because of the special social function of the place. Hollywood is the place which molds American imagination; as the center of cinematic and television production it produces and disseminates visions which are later adopted across the entire nation. In this sense, Kaufman’s critique of the city may be read as the critique of the entire culture of the United States, as whatever takes place in Hollywood will eventually be exported and incorporated into the American lifestyle. In the words of Barbara Christian, “[i]n this Babylon of modern world, language becomes lies; grotesque nightmares are transformed into soft dreams, dreams sent out as ambassadors to whet the peasant’s desire and compel his respect for an illusionary America.”3 The poem, which is written in the form of a litany pointing out all diseases poisoning Hollywood, ends with the words: Lonely old De Mille-divorced God, seeking a new producer With a couple of rebuilt commandments... Hollywood I salute you, artistic cancer of the universe! The speaker abruptly ceases to list the things he despises in Hollywood and stops to exclaim his praise for the city. This praise is, on the one hand, ironic, for later he calls the city a “cancer.” On the other hand, however, it may express the speaker’s real awe for the fact that a place that rotten and unable to keep itself together has such a powerful influence on the entire country. Thus, Kaufman’s loathing for Hollywood is mixed with a kind of frightened respect; just like cancer, this dystopian land eats the American civilization from the inside. In “Hollywood”, Kaufman destroys the myth of the modern paradise, exposing the appalling truth hidden beyond the veil of the fulfillment of the American dream.
Christian, Barbara. „Whatever Happened to Bob Kaufman?” in Black World / Negro Digest, Vol. 21, No. 11. Johnson Publishing Company, September 1972. p. 24.
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Amiri Baraka aims at achieving a similar effect in his poem “Das Kapital”, although the speaker’s point of perception is inverted. Whereas Kaufman viewed Hollywood from above, the speaker in “Das Kapital” sees the city from below, the hidden in the underground like Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” noticing the elements of the city life which others prefer to forget about or overlook. The poem begins with the words: Strangling women in the suburban bush they bodies laid around rotting while martinis are drunk the commuters looking for their new yorkers feel a draft & can get even drunker watching the teevee later on the Ford replay. There will be streams of them coming, getting off near where the girls got killed. Two of them strangled by the maniac. Baraka presents a disillusioned vision of the American suburbs, Arcadian perhaps when seen from a distance, but dark and dangerous when investigated closely. According to Hurm, “the suburban ideal [...] perfectly united the moral profit of the country and the economic advantages of the city.”4 In Baraka’s poem, the morality is only a facade. Suburban dwellers go to and back from work, watch television, go to parties and to church. However, all of those simple, carefree everyday activities are underpinned with a sense of danger lurking from around the corner. In order to preserve the Arcadian myth, inhabitants of the suburbs pretend that the “maniac,” the omnipresent danger which may attack anyone at any given moment, simply does not exist. Most of us know there’s a maniac loose. Our lives a jumble of frustrations and unfilled capacities. The dead girls, the rats noise, the flashing somber lights, the dead voice on television, was that blood and hair beneath the preacher’s fingernails? A few other clues we mull them over as we go to sleep [...] What can you do? It’s time to finally go to bed. Only at night, when they are alone, Baraka’s citizens begin to ponder their suburban lives, wondering whether the “paradise” they had been promised to live in is not, in fact, hell. The speaker in the poem offers a voyeuristic insight into those people’s bedrooms and backyards; he is the voice of reason trying to open their eyes to the dangerous, oppressive reality they live in (“There are maniacs hidden everywhere cant you see?”); the voice which they prefer to

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Hurm, Gerd. Op. cit. p. 84.

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chase away and ignore so as to keep their false sense of security. The seemingly peaceful suburban life is underpinned with a sense of paranoia, but the suburban citizens try as hard as they can to stifle it. However, there is more to Baraka’s poem than the deconstruction of the suburban myth. The poem was written during Baraka’s so-called Marxist-Leninist period, and so it also criticizes the free enterprise, capitalist system. In his treatise entitled “Das Kapital,” Karl Marx identifies exploitation of labor as the driving force behind capitalism. The suburbia in Baraka’s poem and the miserable lives of its inhabitants are metonymies for America, with its capitalist economy, and workers oppressed by it. “Who is the maniac, and why everywhere at the same time...” wonders the speaker at the end of the poem, suggesting that the maniac is not a single individual, but a powerful, omnipresent force. If the figure of the maniac is read as the dark side of capitalism, the strangled women in the poem become metaphors for the laborers drained and destroyed by the exploitation on behalf of the system, and the suburban dwellers which choose not to see the “blood and hair beneath the preacher’s fingernails” become the owning class, blind to the misery of the workers for the sake of their own undisturbed conscience. It is usually women who fall victims to serial killers, and it is the workers who fall victims to the ruthless capitalist exploitation. The speaker literally sees the world in the poem from below, as he speaks on behalf of the lowest social layer of the working class: “they terrorize us uniformly,” he says, implying he belongs to the oppressed. He announces his objection and remonstrance against the system: [...] The baldhead man on the television set goes on in a wooden way his unappetizing ignorance can not be stood, or understood. There is no suburban ideal anymore in Baraka’s “Das Kapital.” The “moral profit of the country” has been replaced by the sense of danger and oppression on the one hand, and collective immunity to the suffering of others on the other. The “economic advantages of the city” have turned out to be extremely disadvantageous for those who work for the prosperity of that city. In this poem, a fragment of a metropolis – in this case, the suburbs – represents the economic and social situation of the entire nation. In Baraka’s own words, this poem results from “an approach which combines poetry with revolutionary observation.”5 The speaker in this poem is the revolutionary, observing the system from its bottom and noticing the elements of it which are usually swept under the carpet.

Miller, James A. “’I Investigate the Sun’: Amiri Baraka in the 1980s” in Callaloo, No. 26. The John Hopkins University Press, 1986. p. 187.

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The last poem in this analysis is Frank O’Hara’s “A Step Away From Them”. Contrary to the speakers in both Kaufman’s and Baraka’s poems, the speaker in this piece is not at all judgmental towards the city or the society for which it is the focusing lens. He does not look at the city from above nor below, but he is as if an integral part of it, seeing it from the street level. It is one of O’Hara’s “I do this I do that” poems, which is made clear from the very beginning: 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 and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets on. [...] The form of the poem represents what Michael de Certau called the “rhetoric of walking,” the “discourse of the city, written on by its inhabitants and transcribed in texts.”6 The speaker, most probably an inhabitant of the New York City presented in the poem, strolls around its downtown and simply described the random and transient images, constituting fragments of the city life. He records the sights (“dirty glistening torsos” of construction workers) and sounds (the humming cabs) typical of a metropolis. In this “walking poem,” the reader is taken on a walk through the city along with the speaker in the poem, and accompanies him in his everyday activities, such as eating a cheeseburger in a diner. His observations of the city are objective; he reports on images of the big city life, expresses his sensations, but does not assess. O’Hara’s city is not disgusting or dangerous, unlike Kaufman’s or Baraka’s urban surroundings; however, it is not breath-taking or extremely beautiful either – it just is. Paraphrasing Allen Ginsberg’s exclamation from “Footnote to Howl,” “who digs New York IS New York” – the speaker in this poem is an integral part of the city he lives in; describing his environment seems as natural to him as the very act of walking. However, similarly to the two previously discussed poems, “A Step Away From Them” also carries more meaning in it than a simple rendering of a couple of moments taken from the city life. At one point, the speaker begins to reminisce his dead friends: [...] First Bunny died, then John Latouche,
Burke, Nancy. “The Individual in Urban Space: Some Perspectives of American and Canadian Fiction” in Paryż, Marek and Preis-Smith, Agata, eds. The Poetics of America: Explorations in the Literature and Culture of the United States. University of Warsaw. Warsaw, 2004. p. 67.
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then Jason Pollock. But is the earth as full of life was full, of them? At this moment it becomes obvious that the poem is an elegy. The speaker’s sudden turning of the thought process toward his deceased friends may result from the fact that “walking and thinking are closely related in the Western tradition, and walking induces certain types of mental process which ‘ceases to be wholly cognitive.’”7 In other words, walking triggered in the speaker certain emotions, which made his more receptive to the less conscious aspects of the city. Perhaps the fact that he was passing “the Manhattan Storage Warehouse / which they’ll soon tear down” made the speaker aware of the omnipresence of death and inevitability of change, and thus directed his thoughts towards his friends. However, right after mentioning his companions, the speaker resumes his report on the city images which he witnesses: And one has eaten and one walks, past the magazines with nudes and the posters of BULLFIGHT [...] The very shift from the personal “I” to the impersonal “one” suggests a shift in the speaker’s perspective, from his personal perception of the city around him to the general point of view. This, and also the quick return from the digression on those who have passed away to the description of what is currently happening, suggests a sad, although natural general conclusion: death of three people is insignificant in a big city, which is still full of life and its inhabitants carry on with their typical activities. Therefore, the city in this poem is not only a catalyst, which allows the speaker to express his cogitations, but also a metonymy for the human condition as seen from a somewhat existentialist point of view – death is an inevitable element of life, and disappearance of an individual does not affect the course of events on a global scale. However, as Neal Bowers observes, “[the speaker’s] rumination [lead] neither to sadness nor happiness but to an affirmation of his place in the teeming city-world.”8 The speaker in O’Hara’s poem is immersed in the stream of life; he observes his surroundings with attention, seizes moments, quickly forgetting (or trying to forget) about the fact that

Smith, Hazel. Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara: Difference / Homosexuality / Topography. Liverpool University Press, 2000. p. 62. 8 Bowers, Neal. „The City Limits” in Elledge, Jim, ed. Frank O’Hara: To Be True to a City. University of Michigan Press, 1990. p. 331.

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“death [...] is always in the background.”9 He is an active participant of the city life; does not ponder for too long, but reports on the urban reality. All three poems analyzed in this paper – Bob Kaufman’s “Hollywood”, Amiri Baraka’s “Das Kapital” and Frank O’Hara’s “A Step Away From Them” – contain descriptions of city life, and all of them use the figure of the urban to break through to more general conclusions. In these poems, the city is never just the city, but it is used as a representation of the whole urban America. Kaufman presents the dirty, rotting and appalling Hollywood as the ground zero of the decay of American culture. Baraka wrecks the myth of suburban Arcadia on his way to shatter the illusion of capitalist prosperity and welfare. O’Hara uses the images of the vibrant and busy metropolis and juxtaposes them against the death of individual persons, showing how minor and insignificant – although, at the same time, natural – is the latter. The speakers in these poems also represent various perspectives of the urban areas, as distinguished by Michael Cowan. Kaufman’s speaker looks down at Hollywood with contempt and judges it heavily; Baraka’s lyrical voice is subversive, and the speaker sees the city as if from the underground; and, finally, O’Hara’s city wanderer is in the very center of the city, naturally becoming a part of it. Although the approach of each of these poets is different, what makes them similar is the figurative use of the urban landscape in their poems as a filter through which they give voice to their attitudes towards various aspects of life – cultural decline, social and economic inequality or inevitability of death.

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Perloff, Marjorie, from Contemporary Literature (1973). Modern American Poetry website. Accessed on February 1, 2009. http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/m_r/ohara/stepaway.htm

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Bibliography: Baraka, Amiri. “Das Kapital” in Harris, William J., ed. The LeRoi Jones / Amiri Baraka Reader. Thunder’s Mouth Press. New York, 1991. Bowers, Neal. „The City Limits” in Elledge, Jim, ed. Frank O’Hara: To Be True to a City. University of Michigan Press, 1990. Burke, Nancy. “The Individual in Urban Space: Some Perspectives of American and Canadian Fiction” in Pary , Marek and Preis-Smith, Agata, eds. The Poetics of America: Explorations in the Literature and Culture of the United States. University of Warsaw. Warsaw, 2004. Christian, Barbara. „Whatever Happened to Bob Kaufman?” in Black World / Negro Digest, Vol. 21, No. 11. Johnson Publishing Company, September 1972 Cowan, Michael. “Walkers in the Street: American Writers and the Modern City," in Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies, 6 (1981) Hurm, Gerd. Fragmented Urban Images: The American City in Modern Fiction from Stephen Crane to Thomas Pynchon. Verlag Peter Lang GmbH. Frankfurt am Main, 1991. Kaufman, Bob. “Hollywood” in Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness. New Directions Publishing, 1965. Miller, James A. “’I Investigate the Sun’: Amiri Baraka in the 1980s” in Callaloo, No. 26. The John Hopkins University Press, 1986. Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy. Plain Label Books, 2000. O’Hara, Frank. “A Step Away From Them” in Vendler Helen, ed. The Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry. I.B. Tauris, 2003. Perloff, Marjorie, from Contemporary Literature (1973). Modern American Poetry website. http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/m_r/ohara/stepaway.htm Smith, Hazel. Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara: Difference / Homosexuality / Topography. Liverpool University Press, 2000.

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