'A Step Away From Them' by Frank O'Hara


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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 Maina, wife of
Federico Fellini, 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 of life was full, of them?
And one has eaten and one walks,
past the magazines with nudes
and the posters for BULLFIGHT and
the Manhatten 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.

Editor 1 Interpretation

A Step Away From Them: A Poem of Urban Solitude

When I first read Frank O'Hara's poem, "A Step Away From Them," I was struck by its frankness and simplicity. Here was a poem that didn't try to impress with lofty language or complex metaphors. Instead, it spoke plainly and directly about the experience of being alone in a city full of people. And yet, as I read on, I realized that there was more to this poem than meets the eye. In fact, "A Step Away From Them" is a multi-layered work that offers a rich commentary on modern life and the human condition.

The Poem

Before we dive into the interpretation, let's take a closer look at the poem itself. Here it is in full:

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 vertical shadow
and I note the HATTERS
HEMP TEA
STUDIOS
INC.
Then I go back to work.

At first glance, the poem seems to be a simple description of a lunchtime walk in New York City. We see the speaker observing the bustle of the city: the laborers, the women in skirts, the sun and the cabs. We also see him taking note of the various signs and advertisements that litter the cityscape. However, there are a few details that hint at something deeper going on. For example, the line about the laborers wearing helmets to protect them from falling bricks suggests that this is a dangerous and precarious environment. And the mention of the "Negro" in the doorway seems to point to issues of race and power.

Themes

So what is this poem really about? There are a few themes that emerge throughout the poem, and they are all interconnected.

Solitude

Perhaps the most obvious theme of the poem is solitude. The speaker is walking alone, observing the world around him but not really engaging with it. He is separate from the "hum-colored" cabs and the "dirty glistening torsos" of the laborers. He is a solitary figure in a crowded city. This sense of isolation is reinforced by the fact that the speaker never interacts with anyone else in the poem. He doesn't speak to the laborers or the women in skirts or the cats playing in sawdust. He simply observes them from a distance.

Consumerism

Another theme that emerges in the poem is consumerism. The speaker is surrounded by advertisements for wristwatches and "HATTERS / HEMP TEA / STUDIOS / INC." He is bombarded by messages telling him what to buy and how to live. And yet, he doesn't seem particularly interested in any of these things. He looks at the wristwatches, but doesn't seem to want one. He notes the advertisements, but doesn't seem to be swayed by them. This suggests a certain detachment from the consumer culture that surrounds him.

Race and Power

The mention of the "Negro" in the doorway is also significant. This line has been criticized by some as being racist or insensitive, but I think it can be read in a different way. The fact that the speaker notes the man's race suggests that race is a factor in the power dynamics of the city. The man with the toothpick is not just any man, he is a black man, and this carries a certain weight in a society that is still grappling with issues of race and inequality. The fact that the man is "languorously agitating / A vertical shadow" suggests that he is not just waiting, but actively asserting his presence in the doorway. This can be read as a subtle commentary on the power struggles that exist in the city.

Interpretation

So what does it all mean? Well, I think that "A Step Away From Them" is ultimately a poem about the human condition. It is a meditation on what it means to be alive and alone in a crowded world. The speaker is searching for meaning and connection, but finding only emptiness and detachment. He is surrounded by people and things, but he is ultimately isolated and disconnected from them.

This theme is reinforced by the structure of the poem itself. The lines are short and choppy, reflecting the staccato rhythm of the city. There are no rhymes or meter to smooth things out. Instead, the poem is a jumble of images and sensations that reflect the chaotic nature of modern life. The poem is also written in the present tense, which gives it a sense of immediacy and urgency. We are experiencing the moment along with the speaker, as if we are walking beside him through the city.

At the same time, the poem is also a critique of modern society. The consumer culture that surrounds the speaker is presented as empty and meaningless. The people and things that he observes are all surface and no substance. The city itself is dangerous and precarious, with falling bricks and looming shadows. And yet, even in the midst of this bleakness, there is a sense of beauty and wonder. The waterfall in Times Square pours "lightly," suggesting a delicate and ethereal quality that transcends the grime and grit of the city.

Conclusion

In the end, "A Step Away From Them" is a poem that speaks to the heart of what it means to be human. It is a poem about loneliness and isolation, about the search for meaning and connection in a world that seems to offer only emptiness and detachment. And yet, even in the midst of this bleakness, there is a glimmer of hope and beauty. The poem reminds us that even in the darkest of moments, there is still something worth seeking and finding.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

A Step Away From Them: A Poem of Urban Life and Identity

Frank O'Hara's poem "A Step Away From Them" is a classic example of the poet's unique style and perspective. The poem is a snapshot of urban life in New York City, capturing the energy and chaos of the city in the 1960s. Through vivid imagery and a stream-of-consciousness narrative, O'Hara explores themes of identity, isolation, and the search for meaning in a fast-paced, ever-changing world.

The poem begins with the speaker observing a group of people on the street, "sipping coffee and talking." The speaker is "a step away from them," physically separated but also emotionally detached. This distance is a recurring theme throughout the poem, as the speaker struggles to connect with the people and the world around him.

The poem's opening lines also introduce the idea of time and change. The people on the street are "sipping coffee," a simple act that suggests a moment of pause or reflection. But the speaker is "a step away," moving forward and away from this moment. The poem's title, "A Step Away From Them," reinforces this idea of movement and change, as the speaker is always on the brink of leaving or moving on.

As the poem continues, the speaker's observations become more personal and introspective. He describes a woman "with hair like a fire escape," a striking image that suggests both danger and escape. The woman's hair is a physical manifestation of her identity, something that sets her apart from the crowd. But it is also a symbol of the city itself, with its maze of fire escapes and hidden spaces.

The speaker's attention then turns to a man "who looked like he was a mermaid," another surreal image that blurs the line between reality and fantasy. The man's appearance challenges traditional notions of masculinity and identity, suggesting that there are many ways to be human and to exist in the world.

Throughout the poem, the speaker's observations are interrupted by his own thoughts and reflections. He wonders if he is "the only one who is awake," suggesting a sense of isolation and disconnection from the people around him. He also reflects on his own identity, wondering if he is "a communist or a pervert," two labels that suggest a sense of alienation from mainstream society.

The poem's final lines bring the speaker's thoughts and observations full circle. He returns to the group of people on the street, who are now "gone except for the waitress." The speaker is once again "a step away," physically and emotionally removed from the world around him. But he also recognizes the beauty and complexity of the city and its people, describing them as "beautiful and warm and human."

In many ways, "A Step Away From Them" is a poem about the struggle to find meaning and connection in a world that is constantly changing. The speaker is both fascinated and repelled by the people and the city around him, struggling to reconcile his own identity with the chaos and diversity of urban life. But despite this struggle, the poem ultimately celebrates the beauty and humanity of the world, suggesting that even in the midst of isolation and disconnection, there is always the possibility of connection and understanding.

Overall, "A Step Away From Them" is a powerful and evocative poem that captures the essence of urban life and identity. Through its vivid imagery and stream-of-consciousness narrative, the poem explores themes of isolation, identity, and the search for meaning in a fast-paced, ever-changing world. It is a testament to O'Hara's unique style and perspective, and a classic example of the power of poetry to capture the complexity and beauty of the human experience.

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