An Analysis of Frank O’hara’s “A Step Away From Them” At the turn of the 20th century, the movement of modern art began to distinguish itself by moving away from traditional and classical forms. Artists like Pablo Picasso were deconstructing their formal techniques by abstracting forms of conceptual art. We began to question and criticize: “Is that art? ” By mid-20th century, the schools of the modern movement already began to echo into literature, dance, and music. Abstract Expressionist literature emphasizes spontaneity of motions and their fleetingness.
Once a detail is mentioned, it disappears but resurfaces in the subconscious in the form of a daydream. Frank O’Hara’s “A Step Away From Them” adapts his unique style of free verse with arbitrary line breaks and enjambment. There is a relay of split-second action followed by spontaneous thought. Overall, the poem ventures into synapses of the mind in an urban space. O’Hara is the observer, self-satisfied, and content. In the first line, there is a felt quality of impulsive action. “So I go” gives a sense of urgency that we experience the moment our lunch hour hits. The meter of each word can be equal stressed.
The I is a soft vowel, therefore, there is emphasize is on so and go. O’Hara combines two senses of visual and sound with “hum-colored. ” Both senses capture dynamic movements like when someone takes a still photo of a moving object. The image of a cab smears across the photo. There is a distinction of the way space moves. Hum-colored can resonate sound that an engine makes. When we walk out the door into the city, the pace is already set. By line 3, the mind quickly wanders to the next visual moment. “Down the sidewalk” tells our awareness to focus on lunch hour of laborers.
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We are walking and capturing still photos. “Dirty glistening torsos” signifies the way construction workers eat shirtless. Another interpretation can perceive oil rubbed on their shirt hence the term, blue collar workers. At this moment, O’Hara draws an unconscious connection with the “yellow” colored helmets from the previous visual of hum-colored cabs. Yellow was missed due to the motion and sound. The color resurfaces from our short-term memory. He interjects nonchalant irony and inner wit with “I guess”. Despite stuffing themselves, they must protect themselves from falling objects.
We have a sense of O’Hara’s humor and his eye for function. As your visual context moves upward to falling bricks, O’Hara draws the attention of the movement around ground floor, “heels” and “grates”. He does not add a space between lines. He follows each line with heavy enjambment. “Then onto the avenue” has a progression of walking around the corner to the next street. There is a new scene, new spatter of paint. He refers to a movie scene in pop culture by stating: ……Then onto the avenue where skirts are flipping above heels and blow up over grates. (lines 9-11)
In 1955, Marilyn Monroe filmed The Seven Year Itch in New York City. The scene of her skirt being blown up had caused a spectacle making Marilyn a movie sex icon. Motion of upward movement is describe with gestures like “flipping above”, “up over”, and “stir up. ” The city is hot. According to O’Hara, “cabs stir up the air” (line 12). In the city, there is always a cab in sight. How they motion around the city block without air conditioning. There is no escape from the heated engine but O’Hara is indifferent and aloof by the motion around him because “[he looks] at bargains in wristwatches” (line 13-14).
He is still to himself, an observer. In line 14, “sawdust” draws back to previous space, down the street of laborers construction site. He allows the reader’s thoughts to dilate at each new scene. At the end of each moment of space, he draws inward almost as if he constricts his pupils to see an off detail. “There/ are cats playing in sawdust. ” (line 13-14) It is as if he has seen them playing from the corner of his eye. He ends line 14 with a period and finally begins a new sentence on line 15. The poem opens up “On to Time Square,” O’Hara bring our attention to the skyline. …and higher/ the waterfalls pours lightly” (lines 16-17). There is a use of abstract imagery in comparing the sky to waterfalls. When scanning the space in between the building, it narrows down further as if we look further down Broadway. The blue image may look like water pouring out. The poem takes place in the summer heat. Waterfalls have a feeling of cool air and openness but nature is contrasted by the “… sign / blows smoke over head” (lines 15-16). To blow smoke is an idiom that describes someone telling falsehood or lie. Advertising in Time Square is saturated with hype of consumerism and billboard marketing.
The same interaction of hype is exchanged by the people of Time Square, the poem follows: . …A Negro stands in a doorway with a toothpick, languorously agitating A blonde chorus girl clicks: he smiles and rubs his chin…. (lines 17-21) In the previous space, onto the Avenue, O’Hara makes a reference to Marilyn Monroe. She is idolized again in Time Square as the “blonde chorus girl”, a character she plays in most of her movies. An African-American male easily talks as if he is hounding around lazily.
In an urban space, interracial lines are not separated or set by bounds. “Clicks” can describe how someone talks with gum in their mouth. The click can be an interpreted as the tapping sound of high heels walking by. “Everything/ suddenly honks” (line 21-22). Our attention is drawn to pause again to gridlock on Broadway. We may think it is the blonde who causes everyone to honk. O’Hara reverts back to time and day, “…. 12:40 / of a Thursday” (lines 22-23). We are reminded that the hour is coming to a close. O’Hara is consumed by time, like the bargain wristwatch on the avenue.
To him, with whatever is going on, time marks the next. The poem changes momentum when O’Hara sits down to eat. He quickly writes in a style like Edwin Denby, a critic and poet of modern dance. Comparing “neon in the daylight is a / great pleasure” with “light bulb” we associate neon with bright color and light bulbs being plain white. Time Square is synonymous for its light and color at night. This is the place O’Hara has lunch. He finds the daylight enjoyable and adds texture by juxtaposing words that provide a mixture of different culture and art. He sets more periods and commons like he is itemizing a list.
He spells out names as though he is thinking about them in association of. There is less action or verbs and more inward thinking. He has an American “cheeseburger” and “chocolate malt” in an Italian Actress’s restaurant, JULIET’S CORNER. I think about when people migrated to United States and how they take on the American tradition. Comparing “Juliet” with “Giuletta Masina”, it is typical to change name spelling to English form. Giuletta Masina’s husband, “Federico Fellini” writes and directs movie. His signature style is bizarre, foreign, and surreal.
O’Hara writes in Italian “e bell’ attrice” which translates to beautiful actress. I imagine when O’Hara watched foreign movies they had English subtitle. So far, names mentioned are all artists who have an influence in the arts. O’Hara is an elitist. It is who he knows that allows him to separates himself from mainstream. He watches foreign films, speaks Italian, and wonders about the function of clothing. He loves all forms of art. Still, the humble, ubiquitous cab captures his eye, O’Hara states: A lady in foxes on such a day puts her poodle in a cab. (lines30-32) In line 31, “on such a day” reminds us about the heat.
There is a surreal moment about a lady wearing fur carrying a dog while he drinks a cold drink. She is out of place by wearing something out of season. He does not linger in the thought. He moves on to the avenue, on an upbeat, pointing out that it is the Puerto Ricans that “makes it beautiful and warm. ” The poem makes another iconic turn. He mentions the deaths of three friends, a writer, a musician, and a painter. O’Hara poses a question: “But is the / earth as full of life was full, of them? ” (lines 33-34) Lang Bunny, John Latouche, Jackson Pollack were able to capture life through their art.
When they passed away was the world done with them? Puerto Ricans, in the avenue, were carrying on. Everything around still was beating and alive. It was through life moved on, O’Hara writes: 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. (lines 40-46) It makes me think about how the modern art movement started. The impressionist painting of Manet’s Le Dejeuner Dur L'herbe had shocked the art world because clothed men were painted having a Luncheon with a nude woman.
Goya’s realist painting of Bullfighting spoke about humanity. He was the first to paint blood during the Spanish Revolution. However, where mass production of magazine and poster were sold, people ate and walk pass, the world was full of life. The world keeps moving. It feels like an end of an era when the poem mentioned “Manhattan Storage Warehouse” was being torn down. The “Armory Show” is also known as the International Exhibition of Modern Art which was formed in New York. O’Hara thought that exhibition was here. There is a feeling that the exhibition is held somewhere else.
O’Hara ends on a brighter note. He is self-satified. Before he heads back to work, he has papaya juice. “My heart is in my / pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy. ”(lines 49-50) The heart symbolizes love and affection. To have it in your pocket means that it is carried close to him. Pierre Reverdy is a critic, writer, poet of Cubism, Pablo Picasso. O’Hara love for the art will always be with him. Imitation of “Step Away From Them” I’m waking up from my first nap of day, the phone rings underneath a noise of pigeons. The angular sun peeks through lace curtains while dust particles slowly attempt to move.
After the 10th ring, I’m wondering if it was important mostly likely, not. I’m out the door; down the three flights of winding stairs, let the kid from Apartment K through the security gate. K collects bright colored cans around the neighborhood. I refused to make eye contact. Someone is still buzzing him in, speaking inaudible sounds through a muffled rattling speaker. A van drives by. How many rings does it take? On Mission Street, the 14 runs every 5 minutes. Stores are tagged but stocked with novelty items of Golden Gates, painted ladies, and cable cars. Whoever wears these shirts, might as well, give up their wallets.
A bootleg VHS copy of Natural Born Killers is being sold by a street vendor. Tiny feet hurry up the second floor. The Haitian drums resonated across the wooden floors, bouncing off high ceiling. It’s a Wednesday; another day same as the others. We are warming up for the next class. It’s was only a year ago that they decided to robbed Muddy’s. Ran, Rich, and Joker were in jail now. I’m swinging my arm trying to break the chain. Were they ever free? Was it the squeak in their voice that gave it away? Swinging and stomping. I am raising my machete to cut through sugar cane fields. My heart is in-sync with the drums.
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