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THE DAY LADY DIED INTRODUCTION

In A Nutshell
The jazz singer Billie Holiday died of liver disease in a New York hospital early in the day on July 17,
1959. The early editions newspapers carried the news and printed picture. Holiday, nicknamed "Lady
Day," was the singer of such hits as "Strange Fruit." She is one of the most important figures in the
history of jazz music. Her life, however, held many hardships. She was involved in abusive
relationships and grappled with a serious drug problem. Even as she lay dying in the hospital, she was
arrested for drug possession.

On July 17, Frank O'Hara was walking around New York, running some errands, when he happened
to see a newspaper with Holiday's face on it, from which he learned of her death. A huge admirer of
jazz and of Holiday in particular, O'Hara had been to several of her performances. He once saw her
perform in an old movie theater – an unusual venue made necessary by the fact that Holiday had been
arrested for possession of heroin and was not allowed to enter a normal club. The last time he had
seen her was at a New York club called "The Five Spot," backed by the piano player Mal Waldron
(source). You might compare the reaction of serious jazz fans to her death to the reaction of serious
grunge fans to the death of Kurt Cobain. It was a huge blow.

Hearing of her death, O'Hara quickly wrote up the poem "The Day Lady Died" – on his lunch-break
(source). Yes, you read that right. This classic American poem was probably written in one shot, in
less than an hour. Actually, the conditions under which the poem was written are pretty much par for
the course for O'Hara. He had one of the most unique styles in contemporary poetry. He wrote piles
and piles of poetry, and many of them remain unpublished. He wasn't one of those tortured geniuses
who sat for hours laboring over a line. He wrote in a very fast, breathless, rambling style,
incorporating bits of tabloid news and snatches of telephone conversations. He never intended many
of the things he wrote to be published. An extremely social guy, he preferred reading his poems to
friends over drinks or dinner.

He worked at the front desk of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for much of his life, selling postcards
and such, and he scribbled down many of his poems during lull periods in his job. This approach
seems to resemble throwing spaghetti at a wall and hoping something sticks. Sometimes, as in this
poem, the spaghetti did stick. The result is one of the most interesting, innovative, and accessible
American poems of the second half of the 20th century.

Frank O'Hara was a major figure in the so-called New York School of poetry, along with fellow New
Yorkers like John Ashbery. His two most famous collections are Meditations in an
Emergency (1957), and Lunch Poems (1964), in which "The Day Lady Died" was published.

WHY SHOULD I CARE?


Have you ever been taken by surprise with the news that someone you care deeply about has died?
Maybe you've been fortunate and haven't experienced this yet, but it happens to almost everyone
eventually. That's the feeling that Frank O'Hara captures – oh, excuse us, hold on a minute, phone
call. ("Yes? Uh-huh. What time? What's the address? 278 Oak Street. OK. Great. Bu-bye.")

Anyway, what we were saying? Yes, unexpected death. That's the experience O'Hara captures in "The
Day Lady Died." Here's a normal guy, just walking around New York City, picking up some gifts for
friends and peering into newsstands. He has a lot on his mind, and this death just imposes itself in the
middle of everything. (Vibrate). One sec, let us just fire off this text message. (Lol, later.) Like, when
you have a lot of stuff to do, you can't really process the news of someone's death. The world goes on,
even if you feel like you're about to suffocate.

If you've ever thought that poetry is just too darned philosophical and nothing like real life, then you
have to check out O'Hara's work. (Yes, I'll have the double Americano. Low-fat milk, please.) Without
going into drama mode he conveys a deep, almost frantic sense of grief over Holiday's death in a way
that pretty much anyone can identify with. And he never loses touch with the everyday world. Notice
for example how he capitalizes the names of certain brands, so they seem to leap off the page like
concrete things.

In the real world, insignificant things are constantly interrupting our best efforts to think. We're
bombarded with advertisements and products. (Half price on toilet plungers!) O'Hara's hip, haphazard
style is true to modern life. He didn't spend a lot of time reflecting on the meaning of life. In
"Meditations in an Emergency" he wrote, "I can't even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there's a
subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life." In other
words, this guy sounds awesome.

Many of his poems read like bullet-point lists of stuff he did during the day. They are frequently
hilarious. When reading O'Hara's work, you can't help but ask: this is supposed to be poetry? Where
are the flowers, the deep thoughts, the obscure literary references? Maybe "The Day Lady Died" will
lead you to reconsider what poetry is. Or maybe...Oops! We're late for a meeting. We recommend you
just read the poem. Talk later! Promise.
The poem begins with a glance at the speaker's watch. What time is it? 12:20. Where are he? New
York. What day is it? Three days after Bastille Day, so July 17. What year is it? 1959. What should he
do now? Get a shoeshine. After that? Take the train out of the city to meet friends for dinner in East
Hampton. Which friends? (He has a lot of friends in East Hampton). He'll worry about that later.

Having recounted his general plan for the day, the speaker starts walking up the street. He eats lunch
and buys a literary journal. He goes to the bank and is surprised when the teller does not look up his
balance. He goes to a bookstore to buy gifts for some friends. He goes to the liquor store to buy a
bottle of fancy booze for another friend. He retraces his steps and goes to buy cigarettes at a tobacco
shop. While in the tobacco shop, he sees a copy of a newspaper with Billie Holiday's face on the
cover. He's a big fan, and – no! What? Billie Holiday has died. The speaker buys the newspaper along
with his cigarettes.

As he tries to process the news, he starts sweating with grief. Or maybe just from the heat. He
remembers the time he heard Holiday sing at a club called the "5 Spot." He was leaning against the
bathroom door as she "whispered a song along the keyboard." All the people in the club, including the
speaker and Holiday's pianist, held their breaths.

Lines 1-2
It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes

 The poem begins like a police report, with the time and date.
 The speaker drops the setting in our lap and says, "Here's the setting. This is when and where
the poem is set." Thanks, Frank.
 O'Hara wrote this poem on his lunch break, and it's already 12:20pm, so the speaker is
narrating the time literally right before the poem was written. It's Friday, so he might be
looking forward to the weekend and not too worried about getting back to work immediately.
 The speaker provides the date in an off-hand manner: it's three days after Bastille Day.
 Being total Francophiles, we know that Bastille Day is like the French version of
Independence Day. It celebrates the liberation of the Bastille prison in Paris in 1789, a pivotal
event at the beginning of the French Revolution.
 We learn two things from the casual mention of Bastille Day. First, it must be July 17,
because Bastille Day is always July 14. Second, our speaker seems to be a hip intellectual
type, since he's keeping track of French holidays.
 The last word of line two is "yes." It's as if the speaker is thinking fast and going back to
review what he just said. "Is that right? Three days? Yes."
 It also sounds like a flashy celebrity news reporter trying to drum up excitement. "We're here
outside Mann's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, and, yes, the stars have come out tonight!"

Lines 3-5
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner

 Line 3 has something resembling traditional poetry, an internal rhyme.


 Nonetheless, everything else about these lines is completely unconventional. Why? Because
it's so darned conventional.
 The speaker says he's going to get a shoeshine because he wants to look good when he meets
his swanky friends in "Easthampton," by which he means "East Hampton," but he's talking so
fast he crunches the name into one word.
 As a favor to potential O'Hara stalkers across the world, he even provides the train schedule.
Departure from New York City: 4:19pm Arrival in East Hampton: 7:15pm.
 East Hampton is a very wealthy area of Long Island. Currently, a lot of celebrities have
houses there, including Jerry Seinfeld and Martha Stewart. Even back in the late 50s, it was
the kind of place where you'd better show up with your shoes polished to avoid having people
look at you funny.
 Biographical side note: Not only did O'Hara take the 4:19 train after writing this poem, but
when he arrived in East Hampton, his friend was waiting for him with "a thermos of martinis"
(source)!
 Martinis from a thermos? Wow. The speaker's super-cool social status is an important part of
this poem.

Lines 5-6
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don't know the people who will feed me

 The speaker continues to plot out the rest of his day.


 Remember that, except for the shoeshine, none of this has happened yet.
 When he gets off the train, it's straight to dinner, except he doesn't know where yet.
 The speaker sounds like a highly sought after person, maybe because he's an artist; so he gets
free meals and housing pretty much whenever he wants.

Lines 7-10
I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days

 New stanza. The speaker has been thinking about the rest of the day, but now he returns to the
present moment. Presumably, after the shoeshine.
 He walks up the street, eats a hamburger and a "malted" milk shake, and buys a literary
journal called "NEW WORLD WRITING." We're not sure why he puts the title in caps.
 It's July, remember, so no surprise that the street would be "muggy." The speaker is even
"beginning to sun" – he's got a little tan going.
 New World Writing was a literary magazine published during the 1950s. It was an
"anthology," meaning it contained samples of work by many different writers. Many of the
"big names" in Western literature published their work in it, including Joseph Heller, Jack
Keruoac, and Samuel Beckett.
 Notice, though, how our speaker seems distinctly unimpressed by the magazine. He makes
fun of its "ugly" color and cracks a joke about seeing "what the poets in Ghana are doing
these days." In addition to big-name Americans and Europeans, New World Writingpublished
authors from around the world, and the 1950s were the time when African writers became
popular in progressive intellectual circles.
 You could interpret the speaker's attitude as skeptical ("Why is everybody suddenly so
interested in these poets from Ghana when nobody cared before?") or as merely curious
("Ghana, huh? Small world").
 Either way, he's not amazed. This is a guy who has seen literary fads come and go.

Lines 11-13
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn't even look up my balance for once in her life

 There's a weird break between stanzas II and III. The last line of stanza II ends in the middle,
and the first line of stanza III begins in the middle.
 There's no clear reason why O'Hara chooses to divide things in this way, except that he seems
to be breaking off in the middle of one thought (about New World Writing) and returning to
the middle of another (what he is doing at the moment).
 The speaker goes to the bank and interacts with a teller named "Miss Stillwagon."
 Now, come on, that name has to be made up. Well, maybe. You could certainly come up with
all kinds of fancy-pants "symbolic" interpretations of this name ("The 'wagon' of life has been
halted and now lies 'still'!"), or you could just go with it.
 We know that the speaker goes to this bank regularly, because he knows that the teller's first
name is Linda from a separate trip.
 Linda doesn't look up his balance, "for once in her life." Holy smokes, Batman!
 Notice the conversational tone, which doesn't make perfect grammatical sense. Is he
suggesting that she has spent her entire life looking up his balance? Obviously not. He is
saying that she usually looks up her balance but doesn't this time. You might even think he
sounds annoyed at how often she looks up his balance.
 This tiny, insignificant little detail about the Case of the Missing Bank Balance is the first
sign that perhaps this day is different from other days. Is Linda absent-minded for a particular
reason? Perhaps she has heard some distressing news? Now we're getting way ahead of
ourselves, though.

Line 14-15
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do

 The speaker goes into someplace called the "GOLDEN GRIFFIN" and buys some books.
We're going to go out on a limb here and say that the Golden Griffin is a bookstore. Once
again, O'Hara capitalizes the name, which is curious.
 The first purchase he makes is a "little" book of poems by Paul Verlaine, a 19th century
French Symbolist poet. Does it matter that Verlaine suffered from drug and alcohol addiction,
like a certain 20th century female jazz singer? You didn't hear it from us.
 Verlaine isn't exactly a household name, so our speaker clearly knows something about
poetry. He has taste.
 He's also a thoughtful friend. He buys the book for "Patsy." Now if he could only find a
greeting card store with a section for "Happy Belated Bastille Day." The illustrations in the
book are done by Pierre Bonnard, a French artist who liked to paint domestic scenes of
women going about their daily lives.
 In fact, O'Hara knew a lot about art because he worked at the Museum of Modern Art, which
happens to own several paintings by Bonnard. The plot thickens!

Lines 16-19
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan's new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don't, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

 Our speaker is really starting to drag his feet here at the bookstore; he mentions all the books
he was planning to buy, but didn't.
 He first rejects a book by the Greek writer Hesiod, whose principle works are The Works and
Days, Theogony, and The Shield of Herakles. The Theogony, in case you're interested, is a
mythical creation story that features a scene in which the Greek god of time, Kronos, cuts off
his father's testicles and throws them into the ocean. Sorry to gross you out.
 And, yes, Richard Lattimore really was a translator of Hesiod.
 The speaker also considers the "new play" by the Irish playwright Brendan Behan, and two
plays by the French playwright Jean Genet, Le Balcon (The Balcony) and Les Nègres (The
Blacks).
 Our speaker eventually decides to buy the Verlaine. He says that it was such a tough decision
– such a "quandary" – that he almost put himself to sleep.
 The takeaway message is that our speaker follows that art scene in America and Europe very
closely, not just literature, but painting and theater as well. He has a particular fondness for
French literature. You'll have to trust us on this one: for a guy living in the 1950s, our speaker
is unbearably hip.
 Also, he seems to have liberal political views, or else he probably wouldn't be interested in
difficult works about race relations like Genet's Les Nègres. Billie Holiday, we hasten to
mention, was an African-American vocalist in the pre-dawn of the Civil Rights Movement.

Lines 20-21
and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and

 Patsy got a gift, why shouldn't Mike get one, too? Patsy gets a book, Mike gets a bottle of
Italian liquor called "Strega."
 In contrast to the bookstore quandary, the speaker knows right from the start that he's going to
buy Mike alcohol. He doesn't have to put himself to sleep debating whether to get Jack
Daniels or Grey Goose. He "strolls" into the Park Lane liquor store, buys the booze, and
leaves. Easy.
 Who are Patsy and Mike? Do they know each other? We'd guess they are a couple, maybe the
couple that the speaker is going to see in East Hampton.

Lines 22-25
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

 Reading this poem is like watching a game of PAC-MAN. The speaker is popping in and out
of stores, picking up and putting down books, and retracing his steps.
 He walks back where he came from and goes into a tobacco shop inside a Broadway theater
called the Ziegfeld. He "casually" buys not one, but two different kinds of cigarettes, as well
as a New York Post newspaper.
 Oh, and by the way, the newspaper has "her face on it."
 Whose face? "Lady's." That is, Billie Holiday's. The newspaper, evidently, is reporting the
news of her death.
 This is the moment when the speaker learns that, in fact, Lady Day has died, and his reaction
is…nothing. Zilch.
 In fact, the speaker does everything he can to sound cool and nonchalant, down to "casually"
asking for the cigarettes. He slips her death into the poem like a minor detail, just another part
of the day. This is ironic, because it's clearly not just another day. One of his artistic heroes
has just died.
 Can we just note that the speaker must be a big smoker – he buys cigarettes by the carton and
not by the pack. He also buys Gauloises, an extremely potent cigarette brand associated with
French intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre, who made them into one of his trademarks.
 Finally, why isn't the name of the theater capitalized, like all the other places in the poem?
Curious.

Lines 26-27
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT

 The speaker is sweating and thinking about the time he was leaning against the bathroom door
in a nightclub called the 5 Spot.
 The poem leads us to believe that his sweating is related to learning of Holiday's death, but
you could read it another way: it's July, summer in New York City. Couldn't he just be
sweating from the heat? In this poem, any hints of grief are masked in uncertainty.
 The sweating detail is also significant because it makes the image of the nightclub more
powerful. We don't know about you, but most of the music clubs we have been to have been
hot, sweaty affairs.
 The 5 Spot was a real club, and O'Hara saw Holiday perform there. He was sitting by the
bathroom.

Lines 28-29
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

 The poem has been very noisy so far, filled with the bustle and commotion of New York. But
at the end things get quiet, as we strain to hear how Billie Holiday "whispered a song along
the keyboard" to her pianist, Mal Waldron.
 The performance is so subtle and mesmerizing that everyone in the club holds his breath,
afraid to miss a single note. Or as the speaker dramatically puts it, "everyone and I stopped
breathing."
 The poem ends on this phrase, as if it, too, has "stopped breathing."
 After hearing all about the trivialities of the speaker's day, we're left with a breathless memory
of a great performer holding her audience captive.
BILLIE HOLIDAY

Symbol Analysis
Holiday was an African-American jazz singer, and one of the most acclaimed singers of the 20th
century. Her nickname, "Lady Day," is meant to suggest that she is jazz royalty. "The Day Lady
Died" elegizes Billie Holiday without ever mentioning her by name. We catch only small glimpses of
her, and of the effect of her death on the speaker. Paradoxically, by hiding her death behind a blizzard
of names and places, we notice the yawning gap in the poem created the absence of the figure
mentioned in the title.

 Title: An allusion to Billie Holiday's nickname "Lady Day."


 Line 25: "Her face" is an oblique reference to Holiday, but the speaker is unwilling or unable
to say her name. He sounds more casual than we would expect, as if the poem were trying to
keep her death from us.
 Lines 28-29: The poem ends on the powerful image of Holiday standing next to a piano and
"whispering" along the keyboard to pianist Mal Waldron.

BRANDS, NAMES, AND PLACES

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Symbol Analysis
"The Day Lady Died" is remarkable for its lack of some kinds of figurative language normally found
in poetry, particularly similes and metaphors. Instead, we get a lot of names and places, some of
which are strangely capitalized. Whereas many elegies portray the person who has died as "timeless"
or "eternal" in some way, O'Hara integrates Holiday into a very specific time, place, and cultural
background. He shows how difficult it is to focus on someone's death amid the sound and fury of a
modern big city.

 Lines 9, 14, 20, 25, and 27: O'Hara uses capital letters to refer to some of the brands and
places in the poem. Why does he capitalize these names and not "Gauloises" or "Ziegfeld
Theatre"? The capitals leap off the page and highlight the symbolic nature of language.
The New York Post is a daily newspaper, but the words "NEW YORK POST" are a symbol
used to represent a daily newspaper.
 Line 12: Don't hate us, but "Miss Stillwagon" sets our alarm bells ringing. Is a "still wagon"
some kind of symbol for death? Or is a name just a name?
 Lines 14-18: These lines contain a bunch of allusions to literary works popular with
intellectuals in the 1950s. Writers like the French poet Paul Verlaine, the playwrights Brendan
Behan and Jean Genet, and the Greek poet Hesiod have seemingly nothing to do with Billie
Holiday, but they root the poem in a particular intellectual moment of which Holiday was a
part.

HYPERBOLE
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 NEXT

Symbol Analysis
Lacking similes and metaphors to chew on, we're left to focus on the few, small examples of poetic
language in the poem. Hyperbole means "exaggeration," like when you talk about eating "tons" of
food. It's very frequent in everyday conversation, and the speaker of this poem uses several examples
of hyperbole as he rambles on about his day. It's ironic that "exaggeration" should be so common in
this poem. The opposite of hyperbole is understatement, and "The Day Lady Died" is extremely
understated when it comes to its actual subject, the death of Billie Holiday.

 Line 13: The speaker notes that the teller doesn't check his balance "for once in her life." It
sounds, on a literal level, as though she has spent her entire life looking up his balance. We're
sure Miss Stillwagon has a life apart from the speaker's balance.
 Line 19: Did he really fall asleep while standing in a bookstore? Or did he even come close to
it? We think not. The phrase "practically going to sleep" is just a way of expressing the
difficulty of his gift dilemma.
 Line 29: Not to be too snarky, but you can't "stop breathing" and still, you know, live. The
speaker probably means he held his breath for a few moments while Holiday was singing.

Elegy in (Very) Free Verse


"The Day Lady Died" is an elegy to Billie Holiday. An elegy is a poem of mourning and lament for
someone who has died. Some of the most famous elegies in the English language are Thomas Gray's
"Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" and Walt Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard
Bloom'd." O'Hara's elegy, though, departs radically from tradition, because the poem on the face of it
doesn't seem to be about Holiday at all. It never mentions her by name, and she is described only
briefly in the final lines.

The thing about writing a poem during your lunch hour is that you don't really have time to plan for
some elaborate formal scheme. You write the words that come to you. That's what O'Hara has done
here. Except for its division into twenty-nine lines and five stanzas, "The Day Lady Died" has none of
the familiar markers to let us know we are reading poetry. No rhyme scheme or regular meter. There's
an internal rhyme in line 3 between "1959" and "shoeshine," but it sounds unintentional. The poem
has no punctuation and almost all of the lines are enjambed, meaning they are clauses that carry over
to the next line.

You could think of the poem as consisting of three separate sentences with periods to divide them.
The first stanza is a sentence, the second stanza is a sentence, and the last three stanzas form a long
sentence. These are all run-on sentences that your English teacher would never let you get away with.
They are cobbled together with the help of frequent uses of the word "and," making the speaker look
busy, rushed, and possibly stressed-out. The most notable "literary" device is the capitalization of
brand names. Check out "Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay" for more on that.

ANALYSIS: SETTING

Where It All Goes Down


When you were a kid, did you ever watch one of those educational cartoons where words seem to be
real, physical objects? We're thinking Sesame Street or Schoolhouse Rock here. You know, a character
is walking down the street, and suddenly a word seems to fly out of the sky or appear in the middle of
the street like a roadblock. Kind of like the trains in "Conjunction Junction."

The setting of "The Day Lady Died" looks like regular old Manhattan, but it's really an obstacle
course with words and names popping up all over the place like some kind of literary Whack-A-Mole.
The speaker is just trying to run his errands before he heads to East Hampton. First, though, he has to
make it past the obstacles, some of which are capitalized; it's almost as if he has to physically climb
over them. "NEW WORLD WRITING...Richard Lattimore...PARK LANE." All these brands and
authors swarm around him like the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz. Taken together, they give
a very concrete idea of the intellectual scene in the 1950s.

This scene is both exciting and overwhelming. By the middle of the poem, the various images have
put the speaker in a state of "quandariness," or intense confusion (line 19). They crowd the poem and
stick to our clothes like the "muggy" summer air (line 6).

However, when the speaker sees a copy of the New York Post with Billie Holiday's face on it, the
setting suddenly shifts to a nightclub called the "5 SPOT." It's as if he has entered a literary teleport
machine (also known as his memory). Like the street, the club is hot and muggy, but suddenly the
crowded confusion seems pleasant. We're swaying back and forth to Holiday's mesmerizing voice.
We've made it through the obstacle course, and this is our reward.

ANALYSIS: WHAT'S UP WITH THE TITLE?

"The Day Lady Died" is a simple description of the poem, which gives a blow-by-blow account of the
speaker's activities on the day Billie Holiday died. "Here's where he went. Here's what he did." But
wait, there must be something more, right? The title contains Holiday's nickname – "Lady Day" –
backwards. It's like a secret code. But the connection only works if the reader knows that Holiday's
nickname was "Lady Day." Otherwise you wouldn't even know that the poem is about Holiday. You
might think it was about Lady and the Tramp or something.

O'Hara liked to write poems he could read aloud to his friends, and he knew his friends were cool cats
who knew and followed the jazz scene (source). We can imagine a modern reader getting a bit
irritated at his assumption of such cultural knowledge, but that's just how O'Hara rolls. By reading the
poem, you become a member of the club.

Steps- Frank O’Hara

Frank O’Hara was intuitively keen on the benefits of waking up, getting out, and seeing the world. In
his series of poems, Lunch Poems, we know that he enjoys his time spent outside walking and basking
in the ambiance of his city. This is evident in his poem, Steps, where he speaks about taking a walk
through New York City, and describes all the wonderful sights he had encountered on his adventure.
He begins talking about some simple landmarks such as “St.Bridget’s steeple”(56). He probably does
this just to give a reader a general area in which he stays, considering the size of the city. From here,
he goes on to speak of jumping out of bed extremely quick, because he is “tired of D-days”(56).
When reading this, at first it just looks like he is saying he got tired of days in bed, but upon closer
examination, it seems as if he is trying to make a reference to WWII. D-day was the day they invaded
normandy as the beginning of the end to the war. This seems like he is saying its the beginning of the
the end of his bad days, and he is willing to embrace the city life in his upcoming morning.
O’Hara throughout the poem takes time to make remarks on very minute details of his walk. For
instance, he says, “the Pittsburgh Pirates shout because they won and in a sense we’re all winning
we’re alive”(57). He says this because this poem was written after the Pirates won the world series in
1960, and it was a monumental win. He’s comparing just being alive to winning something as epic as
the world series because he genuinely believes that people should shout from the rooftops just because
they have life.

The stanza after this is more of a commentary on social issues. He begins making political references
to “all those liars (who) have left the UN”(57). By saying this, O’Hara is saying that although the
world has its problem, at least little good things can come like fixing a corrupt government. He also
finds a positive light by speaking of a whiskey company no longer having problems, so he is able to
enjoy it.This attributes to his overall theme of the poem, which is enjoying the little things in life.
To end the poem, he gives a summation of what he has been conveying the entire time which is “oh
god its wonderful to get out of bed and drink too much coffee and smoke to many cigarettes”(58).
This is basically saying that life is a beautiful thing, the ups and downs are there, but every down has
its up like a rollercoaster. And sometimes going down is even more fun than getting up.

POEM [LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!] INTRODUCTION

In A Nutshell
X
Frank O'Hara was not your stereotypical poet (if there is such a thing). Sure, some poets write by
candlelight late into the night. And sure, some poets work on a sonnet for years and years, perfecting
every syllable, every word, every rhyme. Some poets agonize over imagery and symbolism, over
every little metaphor and simile. Frank O'Hara was not one of those poets.
O'Hara wrote "Poem [Lana Turner has collapsed!]" while riding the Staten Island Ferry on his way to
a poetry reading. Just hours after writing the poem, he performed it in front of an audience at Wagner
College. The audience went wild.
Frank O'Hara's poems are filled with the stuff of everyday 1950s and '60s life: newspapers, cans of
Coke, phone conversations, and, of course, celebrities. O'Hara was a little obsessed with movies and
celebrity culture. He famously said that only three American poets (Walt Whitman, Hart Crane,
and William Carlos Williams) were better than going to the movies (source). And the guy just loved a
good celebrity scandal.
In "Poem," O'Hara writes about the collapse of Lana Turner, who was a big-deal movie star back in
the day. She was a glamorous platinum blonde actress who starred in some of the biggest movies of
her time (including The Postman Always Rings Twice and Imitation of Life). She was also famous for
her tumultuous personal life: she was married eight times to seven men (that's right, she married one
of them twice).
O'Hara's "Poem" may seem, well, a little strange to you, especially if you're used to reading serious
poems about stuff like love, death, and the moon. O'Hara was part of the New York School of Poetry,
and he and his fellow poets were known for writing playful and seemingly lighthearted poems about
everyday life in the city. And what's more seemingly lighthearted than some good celebrity gossip?

WHY SHOULD I CARE?


Do you linger over tabloids at the supermarket checkout counter? Do you read People magazine at the
doctor's office? Do you check in with perezhilton.com or TMZ more than you'd care to admit? If so,
this is the poem for you.
Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears were not the first celebrities to suffer public embarrassment. Lana
Turner was one of the godmothers of the Hollywood scandal. And O'Hara's "Poem" is not even just
about Lana Turner per se. It's about living in a world where we're all a little obsessed by what the rich,
famous, and beautiful are up to in Hollywood.
It's a strange world we live in. Even though most of us have never met the Lindsays and Britneys and
Lanas, we know what's happening in their relationships, we know about their struggles with addiction
and mental health issues – we even know where they like to go for their morning coffee. "Poem" is
about what it's like to have this kind of intimate knowledge of a beautiful stranger, decades before
Perez Hilton or the Internet hit the scene.

POEM [LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!] SUMMARY


The poem begins with the announcement that the movie star Lana Turner has collapsed. The speaker
then tells us that the weather is bad – it's one of those slushy gray New York winter days. He recounts
a small disagreement with the "you" of the poem – maybe a friend, maybe a lover – over the weather.
The "you" thinks it's hailing, but the speaker insists that it's snowing and raining. The speaker tells us
that he was in a rush "to meet you," but that the traffic was as bad as the weather. Suddenly, the
speaker sees the headline of a newspaper: LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!
The speaker then starts thinking about the differences between New York and Hollywood in terms of
the weather – it doesn't rain or snow there. He then compares himself to Lana Turner. He says he's
acted as poorly as she has, but hey, he's never actually collapsed at a party. The poem then ends with
the speaker's direct address to Lana Turner: he says "we love you" and commands her to "get up"
from her collapse.

Line 1
Lana Turner has collapsed!

 The poem begins with a bang – Lana Turner has collapsed!


 And just who was Lana Turner? Well, she was a major Hollywood actress who was as famous
for her scandalous personal life as she was for her work on the silver screen. (For more on
Lana Turner, see what we have to say about her in our "Symbolism" and "Best of the Web"
sections.)
 This line raises tons of questions, mostly about the word "collapsed." It's a powerful and
evocative word. Has Lana Turner had a heart attack? Is she lying in the street somewhere?
Has she had some kind of a mental breakdown? Is she in a mental institution? And more
important, why has she collapsed? The poem doesn't give much information yet, so the nature
of the collapse is a little ambiguous.
 Also, we have to ask, who is speaking here? And where is this information coming from?
Again, we don't know too much just yet.

Lines 2-3
I was trotting along and suddenly
it started raining and snowing

 Okay, so now we know a bit more. We have the introduction of an "I," a speaker.
 The speaker tells us that he's "trotting." Not walking, but "trotting." By using this word, he
compares himself to a horse. (That's right, a horse.) The speaker seems like a happy guy,
maybe a guy who moves quickly down the street and through life.
 But then it starts "raining and snowing." Now we know that the speaker is outside, and that
it's one of those gross kind of days. Something is falling from the sky, but it's not quite snow,
not quite rain. It's kind of a slushy mixture of the two. Not exactly the best day for an outside
trot.
 But this snowy/rainy mix comes on "suddenly." The speaker is surprised; he wasn't expecting
bad weather.

Lines 4-7
and you said it was hailing
but hailing hits you on the head
hard so it was really snowing and
raining […]

 Oh, hey! We find out in these lines that the speaker is not alone; he introduces a "you" into
the poem.
 Who is this "you"? Well, we don't quite know. We know the speaker isn't talking to us,
because he goes on to recount a little argument that he has with the "you." So the "you" could
be the speaker's friend, or maybe even his lover. The "you" could be male or female; there's
no indication of gender by the speaker.
 One thing we do know is that the "you" knows the speaker well enough for them to have a
silly argument the weather. You don't have silly arguments about this kind of stuff with
strangers, do you? Probably not.
 And one more thing about this "you": we call the "you" of the poem the addressee. The
addressee is the person to whom the poem is addressed. Easy.
 So the speaker and the addressee have a little argument. The addressee thinks it's hailing, but
the speaker says it's actually snowing and raining. How does he know this? Because hail "hits
you on the head / hard." The speaker suggests that whatever is falling from the sky is softer –
more of a snowy/rainy mix.
 It's a pretty ridiculous fight to be having, right? Does it really matter whether it's snowing,
raining, or hailing? The important thing is that there's some tension between the speaker and
the addressee. Their argument may be silly, and they may even know that it's silly, but they're
still arguing.

Lines 7-9
[…] and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the traffic
was acting exactly like the sky

 Here the speaker adds to the tension by telling us that he was in a hurry to meet the addressee.
Now we know why he was "trotting along": he was in a rush.
 Then he tells us that the traffic was "acting exactly like the sky." The weather is bad, the
traffic is bad – not the best day ever.
 It sounds here like the speaker is making excuses. Is this the best way to end a fight? He
might actually be making the argument worse.

Lines 10-11
and suddenly I see a headline
LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!

 The speaker doesn't provide us with too much information here. He sees a headline
(presumably on a newspaper) announcing Lana Turner's collapse. He doesn't narrate the
moment in much detail.
 The news of Lana Turner's collapse hits him hard, though. Perhaps this is why O'Hara has
capitalized the headline. (Or maybe he's just mimicking the newspaper's style.)
 There's also another "suddenly" in these lines. Our speaker is apparently easily surprised. This
is strange, because...
 Line 11 is a repetition of the first line of the poem. At first we didn't know who was speaking
or why. But when the line appears the second time, it seems more meaningful, because we
know a little bit more about our speaker and his life. It's also part of the story the speaker is
telling. The words appear as a headline; they're not just thrown at us without context, as they
are at the beginning of the poem.
 The words in a headline are a strange kind of speech. Unlike the beginning of the poem,
which seems to be addressed to a single person, the newspaper headline is addressed to the
world. So the newspaper headline is a kind of public, impersonal speech, as opposed to the
private, personal speech between the speaker and the addressee.

Lines 12-13
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California

 The headline has jarred the speaker out of his little tiff with the addressee, and he now starts
thinking about the differences between his life in New York (we're guessing it's New York
because that's where O'Hara was living when he wrote this poem) and Lana Turner's in
Hollywood. It's raining and snowing in New York, which never happens in Hollywood
(according to the speaker).
 Is the speaker being accurate? Well, it's true that it hardly ever snows in Hollywood (only in
the mountains of California). But it certainly does rain throughout California. So the speaker
is being hyperbolic here; he's exaggerating to point out the differences between New York
and California. (Check out our poetry glossary for more on hyperbole.)
 O'Hara's parallel phrases "there is no snow..." and "there is no rain...", which both begin the
same way, add to the exaggerated feeling of the lines.

Lines 14-16
I have been to tons of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
But I never actually collapsed

 In the previous lines the speaker compared his locale with Lana Turner's. Here he takes a step
further and compares himself to Lana Turner.
 The speaker sounds like a fun-loving guy. He's been to "tons of parties," and it even seems
like he's bragging a bit here. This dude knows he's the life of the party, and he's done some
"disgraceful" things. Tell us more, Frank!
 But despite these "disgraceful" moments, the speaker says he at least had the decency not to
collapse at a party. Still, doesn't it sound like maybe he's a little bit jealous? Like maybe he
wishes he could get as much attention as Lana?
 Just one other thing to think about here: where has the addressee of the poem gone? He or she
was an important part of the beginning of the poem, but the speaker seems to have become
distracted by the headline. Who is the speaker talking to in these lines? It's not clear; he may
be talking to the "you" of the beginning of the poem, or he may be addressing a larger
audience. Maybe he's even addressing the reader.

Line 17
oh Lana Turner we love you get up

 This final line of the poem begins with an "oh," as if the speaker is sighing. It's like he's
getting tired of Lana's shenanigans. We get the sense that this is not the first time Lana Turner
has collapsed.
 The speaker also addresses Lana Turner directly, for the first and only time in the poem.
When the speaker of a poem talks to someone or something absent as if they were present,
this is called an apostrophe. (Check out our poetry glossary for more on the apostrophe.)
 And what does he tell her? "We love you get up." Is this grammatically correct? No.
Shouldn't there be some punctuation after the "you"? Probably. When combined with the sigh
at the beginning of the line, it sounds like the speaker is a bit exasperated with Lana. He just
wants her to get up already! That doesn't sound so hard, does it, Lana?
 The speaker also mentions a "we." Is the "we" the speaker and the addressee from the
beginning of the poem? Is the "we" the poet and his reader? Is the "we" the entire movie-
going, celebrity-loving culture? We can probably answer each of these questions with a big ol'
yes. This "we" includes a whole lot of people.
 In the end, despite his exasperation, the speaker is a willing participant in the celebrity culture
madness. Yes, it's a bit annoying that Hollywood starlets are collapsing all the time, but
O'Hara seems to love them anyway (or at least Lana).

There’s more to a poem than meets the eye.


Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know
that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out
our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.

Lana Turner
Lana Turner was an actress who was first "discovered" at the age of 16 while hanging out in a
Hollywood soda shop after school. She was blonde and beautiful, and her movie career lasted for over
50 years (though most of her major films were made in the '30s, '40s, and '50s). She starred in films
such as The Postman Always Rings Twice and Imitation of Life.
Turner was often cast as a femme fatale – a beautiful, seductive woman who usually has a secret. She
was also famous for her personal life. She had many affairs and married eight times. In 1958 her
daughter Cheryl stabbed Lana's boyfriend to death, resulting in a sensational trial that grabbed
national attention. Lana Turner was always making headlines, and in his poem O'Hara turns her into a
figure of celebrity culture.

 Line 1: The poem begins by letting us know what's important to the speaker: the famous
actress has collapsed! Then she disappears from the poem for a bit.
 Line 11: Lana Turner comes back, this time in all caps. It's like the newspaper headline is
screaming the news at the speaker.
 Lines 14-16: The speaker compares himself to Lana here. Maybe he's misbehaved, but not as
badly as she has. Celebrities are so much more scandalous than your average fun-loving poet.
 Line 17: The speaker jokingly addresses Lana herself. He expresses his love for her and
commands her to "get up." It's a funny moment – it's as if he's saying to all of Hollywood: get
it together, people!

Apostrophe
An apostrophe is a direct address to someone or something that's not there. Some poets apostrophize
the moon. Some poets apostrophize abstract concepts, like death or love. O'Hara apostrophizes a
celebrity – someone he will probably never know in life. While the speaker starts off by talking to his
friend or lover (an intimate addressee), this shifts at the end of the poem. He speaks directly to Lana
Turner – and this was way before you could tweet your love to a celebrity on twitter.

 Line 17: The speaker talks directly to Lana Turner, who, of course, will never hear him. (It's
unlikely she had much time for poets in between movies, parties, and murder trials.) He is
creating a kind of intimacy with her in his poem that can never exist in real life. His
relationship with Lana is all in his head, and while he seems to acknowledge this with his
joking tone, his care and affection for her still seem real.

The Weather
Half of this poem is about the weather. Real exciting, we know – but it sets the scene of the poem and
actually provides a little conflict too. It's a gray kind of day, the kind of day when you almost expect
to read some bad news.

 Lines 2-7: The speaker thinks it's raining and snowing, but the addressee of the poem thinks
it's hailing. It's kind of a silly, pointless argument to be having, but it's a way to show the
closeness of the speaker and the addressee. Bickering about the weather is something you do
only with someone you're close to.
 Lines 8-9: The sky is personified a bit here (and so is the traffic). By using the word "acting,"
the speaker makes it sound like both the sky and the traffic have some control over what they
do – like maybe they both decided to "act" badly.
 Lines 12-13: Here the weather takes on more meaning. The speaker, at first, used the weather
as the basis for a silly argument. Now he uses it to draw distinctions between his life in New
York and Lana Turner's in Hollywood. He exaggerates (this is called hyperbolethe
differences between East Coast and West Coast weather to show just how different his life is
from Lana's. (And how different a regular person's life is from a celebrity's in general.)

Free Verse
Almost all of Frank O'Hara's poems are written in free verse, meaning that they have no rhyme
scheme and no formal meter. So, what makes an O'Hara poem an O'Hara poem?
Poetry critics have come up with a great formal categorization for "Poem [Lana Turner has
collapsed!]" and others like it. They call these poems O'Hara's "I do this, I do that" poems. (Really.
That's what they're called.)
Why, you ask? Well, a lot of O'Hara's poems, including this one, are seemingly casual narratives of
his day. His speakers walk down the street, have a Coke, look at the newsstand, stop by to see some
friends, buy some poetry, and so on. They do this. They do that. The speaker of "Poem [Lana Turner
has collapsed!]" is no different.
While it has no formal pattern, the "I do this, I do that" style is signature O'Hara. His poems may not
be held together by iambic pentameter or rhyme, but they are often organized by a loose narrative of
personal experience that usually begins with the speaker walking down the streets of New York –
doing this, doing that.

here It All Goes Down


While the poem doesn't ever reference New York explicitly, we're pretty sure it takes place on the
streets of Manhattan. O'Hara was a mostly autobiographical poet, and he wrote a lot about his daily
life in New York. This poem comes from his collection called Lunch Poems, many of which he wrote
during his lunch break from his job at the Museum of Modern Art. O'Hara wrote "Poem [Lana Turner
has collapsed!]" while on the Staten Island Ferry, and we feel pretty comfortable assuming that it
takes place in his beloved city too. (For more on the writing of the poem, check out what we have to
say in our "In a Nutshell" section.)

Collapsed-She’s fallen down and can’t get up. Ways in which she is on the floor:
1) Literally. Too many cocktails? She’s collapsing (sounds sexual, no?) scandalously like an ingenue
in one of her movies.
2) Reputation. She’s in between her fifth and sixth husbands (out of an eventual eight) when the poem
was written (1964).
3) Career. She’s aging and her last major roles Love Has Many Faces and Madame X will come next
year and the year after.

AVE MARIA

Prayer for a people. Usually when I think of prayer, I think of the more internal that's told by a group
of people. Especially when this poem is titled, "Ave Maria" or "Hail Mary." What this poem does is
focus it's prayer outward and to the personal. Who is the speaker addressing? "Mothers of America,"
and "kids."

The disjointed lines add a sense of free-form connection between mother and kids and the speaker's
perspective in both. In the first half of the poem is the impact of having kids search the world on their
own, and the speaker makes good claims, "it's true that fresh air is good for the body / but what about
the soul / that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images." Go outside or the soul will fall. How
about these lines, "when you grow old as grow old you must / they won't hate you/ they won't criticize
you they won't know." If you give your child freedom they'll be grateful.

The further the poem progresses, the experiences the kids will be thanking their mother for become
slightly serious and slightly funnier, "they may even be grateful to you / for their first sexual
experience / which cost you a quarter / and didn't upset the peaceful home." Past me wrote, "break of
the mundane." But to elaborate on this point, the speaker qualifiers this experience with "may" so
there's a chance of not being grateful or being grateful; however, the speaker sets up a sort of
expose. That kids and mothers want is a "peaceful home," and in order to do so ignorance has to be
played by both parties to each other "mother" and "kid" Why is this important?

"If nobody does pick them up in the movies / they won't know the difference" This is the reference
focusing on relationships based on movies and real life. So the poem goes to a sort of critique that
kids need to experience and hold secrets to know the difference between fabrication and reality --
under a guise of a poem that's fabricating a "prayer" to a presumed sheltered audience.

Then the speaker states the consequences of kids staying home, "hanging around the yard / or up in
their room / hating you / prematurely since you won't have done anything mean yet / except keeping
them from the darker joys." Now there's a sense that this poem "propagates" sin actually -- the
speaker is more enlightening the mothers. If the home is overly peaceful -- too much like a movie, the
kids will only see the mother as only a saint. There is premature (meaning there will be hatred later
on) hatred because "you" haven't done anything horribly mean (you arent' human [yes human beings
do horribly mean things]) and keep them from darker joys.

Note how the dark is also defined here be the usage of darkness in the previous line "The soul that
grows in darkness." So on top of the whole sin thing (which is too prominent of an allusion to let go
of), the poem also qualifies the darkness to the soul which, if it cannot experience "joy" can surely
have "premature hate."

The speaker then intrudes in the poem, "so don't blame me if you won't take this advice / and the
family breaks up." This is the result.

However, the afterword focuses back to the core of the poem, "your children grow old and blind in
front of a TV set / seeing / movies you wouldn't let them see when they were young" The mind
continues and regresses to the idealistic view of things. It's like a continuous media affirmation of a
life that could've happened.

This Frank O’ Hara poem struck me, obviously, because of the strange way its written. The subject
matter coupled with the strange style made it a very interesting poem. O’Hara is talking about why
parents should allow their children to enter the outside world rather than stay cooped at home being
sheltered from real life. He wants children to experience being a human rather than being trapped in
an idealistic world. This kind of reminds me of Adam and Eve. They get kicked out of the idyllic
Garden of Eden but in the process they become human.

Personally, I agree with what O’Hara is saying. Don’t shelter your kids because your afraid of what
they might see in the world. Experience is the best thing for a person to have and you can’t
experience anything if you can’t leave your house. My parents were always pretty good with letting
me watch movies and other things that some parents might freak out about and I think I’ve become
better because of it.

On "A Step Away from Them"

Neal Bowers

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.

Kevin Stein

Borrowing a line from the poem itself, one could easily call this an example of O'Hara's "I look"
poems. His ostensible intention for the poem and its impetus, at least initially, are identical, and both
seem purely visual. Still, amidst the glow of "neon in daylight" and the smoke of a sign, the "blonde
chorus girl" and the "lady in foxes," time suddenly and sullenly rears its ugly head: O'Hara, dead
center in "Times Square," becomes aware it is "12:40 of / a Thursday" (and he dates the poem 1956).
He is made fitfully aware that time imposes limits. On the most mundane level, it brackets the
exhilarating hour of his lunch, and in a larger way, brackets his own lifetime as it already has those of
his deceased friends Bunny Lang and Jackson Pollock, of whom he thinks while walking on the
"beautiful and warm" avenue before heading "back to work." Quickly, though his "heart" is in his
"pocket," O'Hara moves from the death of his friends to safer, more objective matters such as
"BULLFIGHT" posters and "papaya juice."

From "Everything the Opposite" in Jim Elledge, ed. Frank O’Hara: To Be True to a City. University
of Michigan Press, 1990.
Brad Gooch

"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.

Marjorie Perloff (1973)

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).

Marjorie Perloff (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.

John Lowney

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.

Hazel Smith

. . . 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"

You are here: Home » 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.

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. Life is Art: A Look at O’Hara’s “A Step Away From Them”
Posted on October 13, 2010 by Charles Carmody
Frank O’Hara’s poem, “A Step Away from Them,” is described by Brad Gooch as “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.”[1] This is a very forward
reaction to this poem, and Gooch is absolutely correct. This poem was part of a collection of poems
called Lunch Poems and O’Hara does present a very real image of New York; however, his
representation of New York is interpreted through the prominent view of the narrator. While the
speaker of the poem is certainly presenting the reader with a public view of New York City, I prefer
Allen Ginsberg’s reaction to the poem. Ginsberg states:
“He [O’Hara] 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 [O’Hara] 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.”[2]
Not only is this high praise coming from Ginsberg about O’Hara and this poem, but the real reason I
quote Ginsberg is to show how relevant the ideas of Whitman still were in the poetry of people such
as O’Hara and twentieth century poetry and literature. O’Hara, like Whitman, takes giant images,
ideas, and themes, and turns them into an “intimate cocktail environment.” This simple method
presents an entirely new view of the world these two writers and their narrators are
interpreting. While O’Hara is presenting an urban modern setting, the self that runs through the poem
is very reminiscent of Whitman. Gooch goes on to write:

“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.”[3]
I don’t know if I necessarily agree that these poet’s were ‘mythologizing’ daily life, but they certainly
were “finding the poetic in the mundane,” and “the ancient” in the modern, and “the divine” in the
secular. I never realized it until now, but this aspect is what has always drawn me to Whitman and
now O’Hara. Their ability to take a normal or bland scene that one might encounter every day and
turn this scene into a beautiful work of art is in my opinion true poetry. I love the fact that both of
these poets were presenting ‘public poetry’ that was accessible to the masses, but even more, I love
the way that these poets turn life into art. Art is not just reserved for the highly skilled painters, or
learned scholars in Whitman and O’Hara; art is a single mother raising her three young children;
“even construction workers—staples of the midtown terrain—are made to seem mysterious and
glamorous and tropically sexual,”[4] as O’Hara writes, “where laborers feed their dirty / glistening
torsos sandwiches / and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets / on. They protect them from falling / bricks,
I guess.”
I was going to present a deeper explication of this poem, but I guess I got a little carried away. I
know it might sound like I am merely sucking up to Whitman and O’Hara, but I think the way they
write defines true art and poetry for me; beautiful art and poetry at least. It is important to note that
the deaths of the narrator’s friends in the poem make him more aware of the life around him: the skirts
flipping, the smoke blowing, the neon lights blinking, the negro in the doorway, the woman clicking
her heels, the Puerto Ricans, and the old warehouse that is going to be torn down. In Frank O’Hara’s
“A Step Away From Them,” “attention equals life.”[5]
[1] http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/m_r/ohara/stepaway.htm
The Conversational Style of Frank O’Hara: The Personal Poems of a Man in Love with New
York City.

Frank O’Hara, an openly homosexual American poet in the mid-twentieth century, was a central
figure in one of the last poetic movements to have happened in America; the branching out of poetry
into the avant-garde. O’Hara, along with three other central figures – John Ashbury, Kenneth Koch
and James Schuyler – was at the heart of the New York School of poetry, taking his poetic cues from
Abstract Expressionists, such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning (Lehman 2). O’Hara’s
ceaselessly experimental style is at constant ends with the traditional forms of poetry and, though
O’Hara is not opposed to “poetic tradition” he “had enough respect for the past not to copy it lazily
but to adapt, alter, and adjust the tradition through the application of [his] individual talent” (6).
Through his uninhibited experimentation with form (or formlessness), diction and verse in the 50s,
along with his partners of the New York School, though “they wouldn’t be named that until 1961” (7),
O’Hara eventually invents a new style unique to his own poetry, a personal poetry indistinguishable
from a telephone conversation, or “poetry between two persons instead of two pages” (O’Hara
“Personism”). This style is to be discussed in this essay. Increasingly, O’Hara’s poetry becomes
centralized around three concepts: his poems unashamedly express an intense love for the city and
culture of New York; his poems progressively become conversational – using simple diction and
minimal poetic traditions “like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff” (O’Hara “Personism”), and finally,
his poetry is “almost exclusively autobiographical” (Ashbury x) because everything that he writes
about emerges directly “out of his life” (x).

In a mock manifesto called “Personism” that O’Hara composed in 1959, seven years before his tragic
death at the age of 40 in 1966, he invents a poetic movement that he calls Personism where he
believes that “all art” is meant to “address itself to one person, thus evoking overtones of love without
destroying love’s life-giving vulgarity” (“Personism”). With this in mind, O’Hara deems that poetry
should be indistinguishable from a telephone conversation or an intimate conversation between two
people. This notion applies to much of O’Hara’s poetry for example, “Meditations in an Emergency”
more resembles prose where the stanzas are arranged like paragraphs and without rhyme scheme, and
its use of dialogue, colloquial expressions like “Good Heavens” or “Uh huh” (197), exclamation
marks and contractions. Though “Personism” was intended initially as a parody – it was composed in
about an hour for Donald Allen’s New American Poetry anthology and was subsequently rejected for
being “too frivolous” (Lehman 185) -“Personism” still achieves “the effects of a manifesto” (185) as
it captures this essence, previously uncharacterized, of O’Hara’s poetry. O’Hara’s poetry is not about
the traditional poetic form, or about trying to please and uphold a set of historical standards, but about
turning the real, uncensored life into art – preserving a time, a place and a man in an otherwise
transient world (184).

The fuel behind O’Hara’s artistic career is his influence by the New York City landscape and culture.
O’Hara did not come to New York until 1951; he was born in Maryland, grew up in Massachusetts,
attended Harvard – where he met John Ashbury in the late 1940s – only after serving overseas in
World War II and finally moved into an apartment in New York upon graduating (Poets.org “Frank
O’Hara). When he arrived in New York he was promptly hired by the Museum of Modern Arts, first
as a general assistant, but for the rest of his life O’Hara climbed the MOMA ladder to its top. After
demonstrating his expertise by directing art exhibitions, his career culminated when he was promoted
to Associate Curator in 1965, the year before his sudden death (Feldman 26). While much of his
poetic prompts are influenced by the often cryptic and typically experimental Modern Arts, the topics
of his poems are almost always within one central scope: a man, a poet, living in New York and the
subsequent retelling of everyday experiences that are likely to face such a figure. Reminiscent of the
poetry of Walt Whitman, O’Hara cherished, and glorified in his work, the American city (Feldman
24). O’Hara enthusiastically expresses in his poetry “authentic gestures of love and perceptions of city
pleasures” (24). Of the four main poets in the New York School, O’Hara singularly experienced a
love affair with the city. Where the other three, Ashbury, Koch and Shuyler, spent lengthy periods of
their lives participating in the Modern Arts movements in Europe, Frank never abandoned the city,
writing about it in his poetry almost obsessively (Lehman 19). In his poem “Rhapsody” composed in
1959, O’Hara expresses his love for New York and what he calls its “rancid nourishment” (l.44 326).
In a city so binding, cramped and diverse there is no way to escape the transcendent love “breathing
draftily / like a doorway linking 53rd with 54th” (l.10-11). The poem spends the first four stanzas
describing the city with metaphors as noisy and overwhelming – “a jungle of impossible eagerness”
(l.4) and the individual as “a fly in the stringless labyrinth” (l.24) – but the poem culminates with a
view of the city as ultimately hopeful and seductive: “I cough lightly in the smog of desire” (l. 21).
Similarly, in “Meditations in an Emergency,” the speaker begins by lamenting the heartache of a
spoiling relationship but then intertwines his emotional turmoil with worship to the chaotic city. First
he uses simile to connect himself with nature: “Even trees understand me! Good heavens, I lie under
them, too, don’t I? I’m just like a pile of leaves” (197). Though greenery is not typically a major
characteristic of New York, the speaker goes on to make sure that he is not misunderstood as yearning
for pastoral life: “One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes –
I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some
other sign that people do not totally regret life” (197). The speaker loves the busy, experienced city
and, like a socialite, relies on other people – a human connection – to find peace with himself, console
his losses, and to find his place in the world.

In John Ashbury’s introduction to The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, he remarks that O’Hara’s
poetry is “anything but literary” (vii). He reminisces how Frank was perpetually experimental with his
poetry, in the vein of anti-literary modernist writing, and how he never seemed to care whether the
result of his experimentation looked like, or even vaguely resembled “a finished poem” (viii). From
Abstract Expressionists like Pollock or de Kooning, O’Hara learned “that it was okay for a poem to
chronicle the history of its own making – that the mind of the poet, rather than the world, could be the
true subject of the poem – and that it was possible for a poem to be (or to perform) a statement
without making a statement” (Lehman 3). In that regard then, poetry was not about the finished
product for O’Hara, but his “engagement with the medium of expression itself” (3). In his poem “My
Heart” composed in May 1954, O’Hara expresses the sentiment of wanting to be formless and
expressive in his poetry: “I want my face to be shaven, and my heart – / you can’t plan on the heart,
but / the better part of it, my poetry, is open” (ll.13-15, 231). He does not want to be characterized by
a style, he wants to be able to experiment; it all comes from his heart and so every style he chooses
becomes his style: “And if / some aficionado of my mess says ‘That’s / not like Frank!’, all to the
good!” (ll.7-9). There is a specific group of O’Hara’s poems, however, that does adopt a peculiar
linear style, where the speaker simply recounts everything that he sees, most often in a New York
cityscape. O’Hara himself called these poems “I do this I do that” poems (Lehman 168). These poems
usually begin with a simple objective narrative – “I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun / and
have a hamburger and a malted” (ll.7-8 “The Day Lady Died” 325) – but culminate in a deep
contemplation that tends to disillusion and distance the speaker from his surroundings. Three leading
examples of this style are in the poems “A Step Away From Them,” “The Day Lady Died,” and
“Personal Poem.” Each of these poems is told in the way that the speaker encounters and engages
with the banality of life and, more importantly, these poems tend to chronicle their own conception
(Lehman 200). This thread of O’Hara’s poems not only relate the feelings an experience evokes in the
speaker – “A Step Away From Them” and “The Day Lady Died” are elegies where he is lamenting
the deaths of friends and artists – but they also suggest the very process where O’Hara came to find
himself composing the poem. Interestingly, in the three poems to be discussed below, the conception
of each poem all seemed to occur while O’Hara was on his lunch break from the museum.

“A Step Away From Them,” a free-verse conversational poem, was composed August 16 1956 in
response to the death of Jackson Pollock, whose funeral was the day before the poem’s composition
(LeSeur 109). The speaker recounts walking down a New York street – “it is 12:40 of / a Thursday”
(ll.23-24 “A Step Away From Them” 257) on his “lunch hour” (l.1) and he recounts everything that
he sees in the process. Joe Leseur, in his book Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara, relates
the meticulousness with which O’Hara reveals the exact moment of the poem’s composition: “12:40”
(l.23), most likely just after he has returned to his office from the events that occur in the poem
(Leseur 110). O’Hara’s imagery is retrieved directly from life – directly from his walk down the
street; he is not concerned with the glamorous, touristy aspects of New York, like the buildings,
billboards and landmarks but instead the “laborers feed[ing] their dirty / glistening torsos” (ll.4-
5 257), or “the cats playing in sawdust” (l.14). What O’Hara is describing should appear banal to the
reader, but the imagery still manages to be astoundingly poetic and altogether surreal; he uses
metonymy to achieve that effect: “the avenue where skirts are flipping / above heels” (ll.9-10). The
fourth stanza shifts from simple objectivity into deep contemplation about some artists the speaker has
known who have died: “First / Bunny died, then John Latouche, / then Jackson Pollock” (ll.36-
38258). This fourth stanza notices the absentness of the speaker, he is experiencing the New York
landscape around him but his mind and his heart are with the dead artists: “My heart is in my pocket,
it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy” (ll.48-49).

Much like the linear path in “A Step Away From Them,” in “The Day Lady Died,” an elegy to the
late Billie Holiday composed on July 17 1959, O’Hara is merely writing the exact experience of
which Holiday’s death was revealed to him. The form is made “directly from experience and not
imposed on experience” (Feldman 79). The speaker is strolling down the New York street, killing
time before he goes to dinner. After stopping for some cigarettes – “a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes” (ll.25-26 325) – he picks up a newspaper with Billie Holiday’s face on it; she has just
died. Immediately, the speaker’s mind drifts from this streetscape to a past experience where he had
seen her playing in the club “5 Spot” (l.28) where “she whispered a song along the keyboard / to Mal
Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing” (ll.29-30). Critic David Lehman discusses how some
critics did not like “The Day Lady Died” because they “misjudged the poet’s conversational ease and
seemingly self-centered stance” (201). He argues, however, that the self-centered nature of O’Hara’s
poem is the very reason why the elegy becomes so moving; it is inviting the reader to share in an
experience that has literally interrupted the life of the poet (201). Essentially, his abrupt and
shamelessly matter-of-fact style is the power behind O’Hara’s “I do this I do that” poetry. He is
inviting the reader to share in an experience that has moved him to preserve it and of which the reader
does not need to decrypt in order to relate to. Conversely, critic Alan Feldman negatively connotes
O’Hara’s poems as being too “inclusive” (48). He writes that often, by including so many names and
trivial details, O’Hara “seems to be making, not poems, but pages in a scrapbook” (48). While it is
true that O’Hara’s poems do disclose names as often as he discloses imagery of New York; there is
something important to what he adds to his poems. The inclusion of names, whether close friends or
acquaintances, adds greatly to the extremely personal nature of his poems; he is preserving exact
moments in a new medium. Rather than photography he uses poetry. His love for the subjects of his
poetry – people or places – is in its centrality confessional and “in a way that quicken[s] the reader’s
interest in the persons, places, or things mentioned” (Lehman 174).

“Personal Poem” was written only one month after “The Day Lady Died” on August 27 1959. This
poem, like the previous two, depicts the speaker walking “around at lunchtime” (l.1 335). However,
rather than an elegy, in “Personal Poem” the speaker has lunch with a friend, LeRoi, and they talk
about poetry. This poem expresses the speaker’s realization that he is, and is happy to be, a renowned
poet: “I wonder if one person out of the 8,000,000 is / thinking of me as I shake hands with LeRoi /
and buy a strap for my wristwatch and go / back to work happy at the thought possibly so” (ll.31-
34 336). This poem is “casual and conversational and spontaneous . . . and committed to the rhythms
of speech” (Lehman 188); the stanzas flow like the conversation that is being described within the
poem without the use of complicated literary techniques, and is reminiscent of a first person narrative.
“Personal Poem” is a leading example of the type of poetry O’Hara had in mind when he composed
“Personism” (185).

Though O’Hara’s prolific life was cut short by a tragic dune buggy accident on Fire Island, there is no
doubt that his contributions to American poetry are remembered. Though the New York School did
not perish after O’Hara’s death in 1966, Lehman argues that “the work the poet’s produced between
1948 and 1966 – when the spirit of collaboration and friendly competition was at its most intense” –
was the work that made their “individual breakthroughs possible” (12). With O’Hara’s keen attention
to the seemingly insignificant details of the vulgar, beautiful city, its typical inhabitants and to the
praise of artists of the day, he incidentally is preserving an era within the lines of his poems. Though
John Ashbury reveals that Frank was never concerned with maintaining or revising his poems (vii) –
often they were thrown out or given away like small insignificant tokens – this is just attests further to
the conversational style that he seemed to strive for. Like the transience of a telephone conversation,
Frank did not feel it necessary for his poems to individually be remembered, though he did delight in
the notion, but wrote poetry simply for the very sake of writing poetry.

Works Cited

Bredbeck, Gregory W. “O’Hara, Frank (1926-1966).” 2002. glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian,
Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture. Ed. Claude J. Summers. Web. 24 Nov 2010.

“Frank O’Hara.” Poets.org: From the Academy of American Poets. n.d. Web. 29 November 2010.

Feldman, Alan. Frank O’Hara. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979. Print.

Lehman, David. The last avante-garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets. New York:
Doubleday, 1998. Print

Lesueur, Joe. Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
2003. Print.

O’Hara, Frank. The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara. Ed. Allen, Donald. New York: Knopf, 1971.
Print.
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