Life

Frank O'Hara's: A Step Away From Them

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....

A Step Away From Them

"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.

William H. Pritchard: On "The Road Not Taken"

On December 16, 1916, he received a warm letter from Meiklejohn, looking forward to his presence at Amherst and saying that that morning in chapel he had read aloud "The Road Not Taken," "and then told the boys about your coming. They applauded vigorously and were evidently much delighted by the prospect."

Alexander Meiklejohn was an exceptionally high-minded educator whose principles and whose moral tone toward things may be illustrated most briefly and clearly by some statements from his essay "What the College Is." This, his inaugural address as president of Amherst, was printed for a time as an introduction to the college catalogue. What the college was, or should be -what Meiklejohn hoped to make Amherst into - was a place to be thought of as "liberal," that is, "essentially intellectual": "The college is primarily not a place of the body, nor of the feelings, nor even of the will; it is, first of all, a place of the mind." Introducing "the boys" to the intellectual life led for its own sake, would save them from pettiness and dullness, would save them from being one of what Meiklejohn referred to as "the others":

There are those among us who will find so much satisfaction in the countless trivial and vulgar amusements of a crude people that they have no time for the joys of the mind. There are those who are so closely shut up within a little round of petty pleasures they that have never dreamed of the fun of reading and conversing and investigating and reflecting.

A liberal education would rescue boys from stupidity, its purpose being to draw from that "reality-loving American boy" something like "an intellectual enthusiasm." But this result could not be achieved, Meiklejohn added, without a thorough reversal of the curriculum: "I should like to see every freshman at once plunged into the problems of philosophy," he said with enthusiasm.

Now, five years after his address, he was bringing to Amherst someone outside the usual academic orbit, a poet who lacked even a college degree. But despite - or perhaps because of - this lack, the poet had escaped triviality, was an original mind who knew about living by ideas. For he had written among other poems "The Road Not Taken," given pride of place in the just-published Mountain Interval as not only its first poem but also printed in italics, as though to make it also a preface to and motto for the poems which followed. It was perfect for Meiklejohn's purposes because it was no idle reverie, no escape through lovely language into a soothing dream world, but a poem rather which announced itself to be "about" important issues in life: about the nature of choice, of decision, of how to go in one direction rather than another and how to feel about the direction you took and didn't take. For President Meiklejohn and for the assembled students at compulsory chapel, it might have been heard as a stirring instance of what the "liberal college" was all about, since it showed how, instead of acceding to the petty pleasures, the "countless trivial and vulgar amusements" offered by the world or the money-god or the values of the marketplace, an individual could go his own way, live his own life, read his own books, take the less traveled road:

I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence; Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -- I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.

The poem ended, the boys "applauded vigorously," and surely Meiklejohn congratulated himself just a bit on making the right choice, taking the less traveled road and inviting a poet to join the Amherst College faculty.

What the president could hardly have imagined, committed as he was in high seriousness to making the life of the college truly an intellectual one, was the unruliness of Frost's spirit and its unwillingness to be confined within the formulas - for Meiklejohn, they were the truths - of the "liberal college." On the first day of the new year, 1917, just preparatory to moving his family down from the Franconia farm into a house in Amherst, Frost wrote Untermeyer about where the fun lay in what he, Frost, thought of as "intellectual activity":

You get more credit for thinking if you restate formulae or cite cases that fall in easily under formulae, but all the fun is outside saying things that suggest formulae that won't formulate - that almost but don't quite formulate. I should like to be so subtle at this game as to seem to the casual person altogether obvious. The casual person would assume I meant nothing or else I came near enough meaning something he was familiar with to mean it for all practical purposes. Well, well, well.

The "fun" is "outside," and lies in doing something like teasing, suggesting formulae that don't formulate, or not quite. The fun is not in being "essentially intellectual" or in manifesting "intellectual enthusiasm" in Meiklejohn's sense of the phrase, but in being "subtle," and not just subtle but so much so as to fool "the casual person" into thinking that what you said was obvious. If we juxtapose these remarks with his earlier determination to reach out as a poet to all sorts and kinds of people, and if we think of "The Road Not Taken" as a prime example of a poem which succeeded in reaching out and taking hold, then something interesting emerges about the kind of relation to other people, to readers - or to students and college presidents - Frost was willing to live with, indeed to cultivate.

For the large moral meaning which "The Road Not Taken" seems to endorse - go, as I did, your own way, take the road less traveled by, and it will make "all the difference"-does not maintain itself when the poem is looked at more carefully. Then one notices how insistent is the speaker on admitting, at the time of his choice, that the two roads were in appearance "really about the same," that they "equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black," and that choosing one rather than the other was a matter of impulse, impossible to speak about any more clearly than to say that the road taken had "perhaps the better claim." But in the final stanza, as the tense changes to future, we hear a different story, one that will be told "with a sigh" and "ages and ages hence." At that imagined time and unspecified place, the voice will have nobly simplified and exalted the whole impulsive matter into a deliberate one of taking the "less traveled" road:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -- I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.

Is it not the high tone of poignant annunciation that really makes all the difference? An earlier version of the poem had no dash after "I"; presumably Frost added it to make the whole thing more expressive and heartfelt. And it was this heartfelt quality which touched Meiklejohn and the students.

Yet Frost had written Untermeyer two years previously that "I'll bet not half a dozen people can tell you who was hit and where he was hit in my Road Not Taken," and he characterized himself in that poem particularly as "fooling my way along." He also said that it was really about his friend Edward Thomas, who when they walked together always castigated himself for not having taken another path than the one they took. When Frost sent "The Road Not Taken" to Thomas he was disappointed that Thomas failed to understand it as a poem about himself, but Thomas in return insisted to Frost that "I doubt if you can get anybody to see the fun of the thing without showing them and advising them which kind of laugh they are to turn on." And though this sort of advice went exactly contrary to Frost's notion of how poetry should work, he did on occasion warn his audiences and other readers that it was a tricky poem. Yet it became a popular poem for very different reasons than what Thomas referred to as "the fun of the thing." It was taken to be an inspiring poem rather, a courageous credo stated by the farmer-poet of New Hampshire. In fact, it is an especially notable instance in Frost's work of a poem which sounds noble and is really mischievous. One of his notebooks contains the following four-line thought:

Nothing ever so sincere That unless it's out of sheer Mischief and a little queer It wont prove a bore to hear.

The mischievous aspect of "The Road Not Taken" is what makes it something un-boring, for there is little in its language or form which signals an interesting poem. But that mischief also makes it something other than a "sincere" poem, in the way so many readers have taken Frost to be sincere. Its fun is outside the formulae it seems almost but not quite to formulate.

 

From Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. Copyright © 1984 by William Pritchard.