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Frank O'Hara and the Love of the City

Updated on August 27, 2016

Frank O'Hara: For the Love of the City

Frank O'Hara (March 27, 1926 – July 25, 1966) was an American poet and art critic associated with the New York School, a poetic movement that began in the 50s and 60s. Along with a coterie including poets such as John Ashbery, Barbara Guest and Ken Koch, he wrote poems for and about the city and its culture. His poems were inspired by jazz, abstract expressionism, action painting and surrealism, among other contemporary art movements at the forefront of a thriving art culture in New York City.

While he worked at as curator at the Museum of Modern Art, O'Hara would take walks around the city during his lunch hour and write poems that would later become known as his "lunch poems." These poems captured the spirit and culture of New York City, amidst a whirlwind of contemporary brands, scenes and images. These poems were something that came out of the exterior, that involved looking around, and perhaps one could imagine O'Hara jotting down notes furiously in an attempt to capture in language everything around him and endlessly as busy as the city around him. Because O’Hara uses so much content from his surroundings, he opens up poetry as a space where one can find inspiration just by looking around. His poetry inspires us to become more attentive to our surroundings and find the poetry that is around us.

Photograph of Frank O'Hara

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"A Step Away From Them"

“A Step Away From Them” is a poem from Frank O'Hara's collection of lunch poems. The poem captures the vibe of the city, its images which are laced with diversity, chaos and its underlying socioeconomic, racial and consumerism issues

It is O’Hara’s lunch hour in New York City, and he walks around keeping tabs of his surroundings, which are constantly under flux. There is the flipping of skirts above the heels, the hum-colored cabs packed in traffic, the cats playing in sawdust, the honking of cars and the blinking of neon lights in broad daylight. There are images of people, a diverse cross-section of New Yorkers of various socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. O’Hara makes note of the laborers on the sidewalk with their exposed sweating bodies, the brief flirting between a black man and a white girl, the Puerto Ricans on the avenue, and the lady wearing foxes putting her poodle in a cab. In his brief snapshots of people, he manages to capture a range of qualities and portrayals: the sexual innuendos represented by the “dirty glistening torsos” and the encounter between the black man and white girl: “A Negro stands in a doorway with a toothpick, languorously agitating. A blonde chorus girl clicks: he smiles and rubs his chin.”

The poem is also packed with images of mass consumerism and references to pop culture. First, there are the workers consuming sandwiches and Coca-Cola, a literal take on the consumerism culture. O’Hara stops to look at bargain wristwatches in the window. A sign in Times Square blows smoke and neon lights shine brightly in broad daylight, a display of extravagance and luxurious consumerism. O’Hara stops for a cheeseburger at a local shop when something makes him think of Giulietta Masina, an Italian actress, who makes him think of her husband and film director Federico Fellini. He consumes chocolate malted and spies a lady wearing foxes, fashionable in the day but redundant in the day’s heat. He makes references to John La Touche and Jackson Pollock, famous contemporaries in the arts and passes magazine stands depicting nudes, a poster for BULLFIGHT and the warehouse that was formerly used for an art show. Lastly, O’Hara downs a glass of papaya juice, an exotic drink that summarizes the exoticism of the city and with a sheet of Poems by Pierre Reverdy in his pocket, ends his lunch break.

Every sentence is laced with key references to the city, the people, the activity, the food and the culture. The details work toward creating a diverse, chaotic and apt portraiture of New York, bringing to the forefront its characteristic consumerism, diversity, summer heat and busy streets. Exotic, sexual and culturally refined tones of the city are all blended into one, the sexuality of the bare-torsoed workers, the street flirtation and the nude magazines happening not far from refined culture, the warehouse formerly housing an art show and O’Hara’s references to John La Touche and Jackson Pollock, artists who have contributed to the New York art scene. In juxtaposing a variety of tones and levels of refinement, O’Hara may be suggesting that the street-level activity and the unrefined have a place in the broader culture of New York. To capture New York is to capture all of its levels of refinements, and O’Hara in creating his poem, associates apparently disparate activities with each other and creates a poem that bubbles with activity and chaos in the sheer enormity that it tries to capture.

Ease of Accessibility

O’Hara’s poem inspires because of the enormity it captures and because of its continuous applicability in our lives. Especially for those living in cities, each and every one of the details presented in the poem is easily replaceable by fresher contemporary images fitted to the reader’s imagination. A window display of the latest electronic devices, neon lights advertising Wing Stop and a dilapidated building once a performance venue may find their way easily into this poem. His poetry shows how poetry can come to life in the minor quotidian details that are seemingly random but can be organized to create notions and patterns about the city life.

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