Ron Padgett reads and discusses Frank O'Hara's "A Step Away From Them"
A Step Away From Them
It’s my lunch hour, so I go for a walk among the hum-colored cabs. First, down the sidewalk where laborers feed their dirty glistening torsos sandwiches and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets on. They protect them from falling bricks, I guess. Then onto the avenue where skirts are flipping above heels and blow up over grates. The sun is hot, but the cabs stir up the air. I look at bargains in wristwatches. There are cats playing in sawdust. On to Times Square, where the sign blows smoke over my head, and higher the waterfall pours lightly. A Negro stands in a doorway with a toothpick, languorously agitating. A blonde chorus girl clicks: he smiles and rubs his chin. Everything suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of a Thursday. Neon in daylight is a great pleasure, as Edwin Denby would write, as are light bulbs in daylight. I stop for a cheeseburger at JULIET’S CORNER. Giulietta Masina, wife of Federico Fellini, è bell’ attrice. And chocolate malted. A lady in foxes on such a day puts her poodle in a cab. There are several Puerto Ricans on the avenue today, which makes it beautiful and warm. First Bunny died, then John Latouche, then Jackson Pollock. But is the earth as full as life was full, of them? 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. A glass of papaya juice and back to work. My heart is in my pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.
"A Step Away from Them"
From LUNCH POEMS, Copyright © 1964 by Frank O'Hara published by City Lights Books. Permission by Maureen Granville-Smith.
Hi, my name is Ron Padgett. I’m an American poet, and I’ve been invited by the Library of Congress to read a poem that somehow deals with the idea of the “American identity.” I chose a poem by the poet Frank O’Hara, an American who was born in 1926 and died in 1966, called “A Step Away from Them.” I chose this poem not because Frank O’Hara in it talks about the American identity or discusses this concept, but because the poem itself is, I think, an embodiment of a particular kind of American identity; that is to say, the identity of Frank O’Hara, who was extremely American. And it’s just such a perfect example of a poem that, I think, well, I was going to say couldn’t be written anywhere else, but that’s an assumption I can’t make. I’ll say, though, that it wasn’t written anywhere else up until the time Frank O’Hara wrote it.
Frank O’Hara wrote this poem in 1956 at a time when, well, a lot of people knew who Jackson Pollock was, but not a lot of people knew who Bunny was, or John Latouche, or Edwin Denby, or even in America, Pierre Reverdy. But Frank O’Hara knew who they were, and he put them in this poem because they were either friends or someone he felt close to in some way. And it’s that closeness that I want to talk about here. That this poem, to me, sounds almost like a letter to a friend: it has a personal tone, it’s conversational, it’s very open and unguarded. So it’s kind of vulnerable in a way that European poetry, for example, at the time wasn’t, and, in fact, still isn’t often. So it’s particularly American in its willingness to be open to people and places and of course he’s totally open to his lunch hour [laughs]. That is to say, he has a lot of experiences during this lunch hour, and he puts them all in to let you know what they are. So, other things that make this poem “American” in particular are, well, first of all, the idea of the “lunch hour,” and then the product such as Coca-Cola, and a location such as Times Square, and then the sort of melting pot that America is supposed to be, and sometimes even is. In this poem there’s several Puerto Ricans, there’s a black guy, there’s a blonde girl, there are construction workers with no shirts on, there’s a woman wearing foxes. So there’s really a tremendous mix of people, which, again, in a lot of other countries at that time you didn’t find such an obvious international, multi-cultural setting.
Other things about this poem that make it particularly American are these: for instance, he doesn’t use any rhyme in this poem; he doesn’t use any set, metrical, or rhythmical patterns; he doesn’t use any metaphors; he doesn’t use any so-called “poetic” language; he doesn’t try to compress the issue down to this very fine, dense, cryptic, sort of “diamond-like” that people often describe poetry as having. And on the other hand, it goes the other way: it’s quite open and expansive, and a little bit influenced, I guess, by Walt Whitman. But I think also, maybe, it was influenced by the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who wrote a poem called “Zone,” which is kind of an account of Apollinaire’s walking across Paris. I think that might have been an influence on this poem.
But also it has some nice bits of humor in it that are particularly American, and are kind of subtle. For instance, when he talks about the
. . . laborers feed their dirty
glistening torsos sandwiches
and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets
on . . .
The word “on” there—I don’t know why it strikes me as funny, but it is, and also you kind of for a moment think the yellow helmets are on the Coca-Cola or the sandwiches—of course they aren’t, but . . . And then later, there’s another sort of delayed bit of information where he stops for a cheeseburger at—well, talk about an American thing, wow—:
I stopped for a cheeseburger at JULIET’S
CORNER. Giulietta Masina, wife of
Federico Fellini, è bell’ attrice.
And chocolate malted . . .
So he delays putting the chocolate malted in. I don’t think Frank did that on purpose, I think it’s just the way he thought, that’s the way a lot of people thought, and think—oh yeah, let me add this! And so he does, instead of putting it up with the cheeseburger, and somehow the delay between the cheeseburger and then you get this café, and you get Giulietta Masina the actress, and Federico Fellini the director, and then the chocolate malted comes back. It’s also in a funny spot in which a lady in foxes on such a day puts her poodle in a cab. It’s funny [because] she’s taking such good care of her poodle but she hasn’t taken such good care of the dead foxes that she’s wearing. That juxtaposition, I think, is kind of funny.
Let’s see, what else can I say about this? Maybe I should explain that Edwin Denby was a friend of Frank O’Hara’s and was a wonderful writer. He wrote about dance, especially, but also was a wonderful poet. And Bunny, another person in the poem, one of the people who died, was a woman who was a friend and a writer of Frank O’Hara’s named V.R. Lang, but known as Bunny Lang, and then there’s a reference to John Latouche, who was a wonderful writer of songs and of Broadway plays and of operas. And then Jackson Pollock, the famous painter, but they’re all three grouped here because they all three died in very quick succession, and they were all young. So it was quite a blow to O’Hara.
And, let’s see, what else can I say? Oh, what’s interesting at the end of the poem—[in] all of this poem—I’m perfectly happy to believe that this really happened, that Frank didn’t make up anything. Except at the very end of the poem, the last parts say: “. . . My heart is in my pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.” And Pierre Reverdy was a French poet who actually died four years after this poem was written, but was hardly known at all in the United States. But Frank O’Hara knew his poems and he refers to what seems to be a book by Pierre Reverdy, but Pierre Reverdy never published a book called “Poems.” So Frank did a little inventing right there, but otherwise I think it all sounds like a thing that really happened.
Anyway, the American part is also, as I said, it’s a very full poem for a lunch hour—a lot seems to happen. Partly because it’s happening in New York City, a big city with a lot of activity, and a lot of quick coming and going, and of all the different kinds of things. So it’s a bombardment of the senses, which I associate with New York City, certainly very much, and with the United States, certainly. Not the whole United States, of course. No place in America is as busy as New York. But it makes it a particularly American poem for me.
Let’s see. Actually, one thing I didn’t say is I love this poem and I always have. When I first read it, along with some others in a similar vein by him, it had a big effect on me as a writer. At the time, I was kind of a young poet and very intense and serious and a little bit tight, actually, in the writing. While I tried to improvise and be far out, I really wasn’t, even that felt forced and tense. Reading poems like this by Frank let me realize I could relax. I could just sit back and relax and say anything I wanted. And something nice might happen as a result, so I’ve always loved these poems—these kind of lunch poems of Frank’s. I like other poems by him as well, a lot of them. In fact, trying to pick just one to read by him was kind of difficult. But this one is a sure winner for me. I’ve always loved it.
So, I guess, let’s see, should I say anything else? Maybe I’ve said enough. Anyway, I hope you like this poem, too, and that you’ve read or will read a lot more poems by Frank O’Hara, because he is an American treasure, and if he’s any example of what it’s like to be an American, I’m happy to be one myself.
Walking with Walt
When everyday objects and tasks seem to crowd into the history you live in you can’t breathe so easily you can hardly breathe at all the space is so used up, when yesterday there was nothing but. Ah, expansive America! you must have existed. Otherwise no Whitman. It’s funny that America did not explode when Whitman published Leaves of Grass, explode with amazement and pride, but America was busy being other than what he thought it was and I grew up thinking along his lines and of course now oh well though actually at this very moment the trees are acting exactly the way they did when he walked through and among them, one of the roughs, as he put it, though how rough I don’t know I think he was just carried away as we all are, if we’re lucky enough to have just walking buoy us up a little off the earth to be more on it.
Ron Padgett (1942- ) was born in Oklahoma and educated at Columbia College. He is the author of over 20 poetry collections, numerous prose collections, as well as several essays and translations of French poetry. His many honors include fellowships from the Fulbright Program and the National Endowment for the Arts. Padgett also served as director of the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church. Photo credit: John Sarsgard
Frank O’Hara (1926-1966) was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and was educated at Harvard University and the University of Michigan. His work includes Lunch Poems (1964) and Meditations in an Emergency (1956). O’Hara was a founder of the New York School of poetry and his poems were heavily influenced by his curatorial work for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Photo Credit: Kenward Elmslie