Life is Art: A Look at O’Hara’s “A Step Away From Them”

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]

[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.

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