Thursday Poem: A Step Away From Them by Frank O’Hara

Recently, while speaking to a friend, I was asked to describe New York, and how I’ve found it so far. As if I could synthesise the enormity of what I’ve experienced so far, could take this world and its endless vastness and reproduce it quickly in conversation. I can’t. Even now, even writing about it with some time and space to reflect (a reflection bound to be flawed as I’m currently still here, still enmeshed in it, body and soul), I can’t. I expect the repercussions from the explosions occurring in my chest and behind my eyes will continue to wreak changes on my internal landscape from now until the day I die; as such, I’ll never fully be able to chart the contours of this experience.

But I can show you glimmers; I can pull out shards. So, this is what I said:

New York. This fucking city. It’s magic, you know that? The best way I can think to categorise the glory of this place is that all the people I see seem like major characters. Let me explain what I mean: everywhere you go, great swathes of humanity will not register on your radar. People walk by with hunched shoulders, eyes downcast. They murmur, and shuffle to the side. Or maybe they just sit there, posture normal, faces blank. I’m talking about the forgettable ones, the extras in this thing we call life.

Not here though. Not in New York.

There is a vibrancy and diversity on display in this city and it has nothing to do with the buildings, with the famed skyline, with the great stores or comedy clubs or films – it has everything to do with the people. They just pop. They sizzle. The crowds here are a dizzying carousel of colour, and people stride about with purpose, or the kind of swagger movie stars would kill to have; to mimic, if never own. They’re always talking, shouting, laughing, engaged in a conversation not just with their friends but with everyone around them; words pour out of these people and with every one of them that I meet, I think, you’re a major character. A protagonist.¬†Somehow, I feel like this story is about you.

And then I meet another, and another, and another. It’s endless.

So, am I writing? Am I walking around? Yes, and yes. I think I’ve walked everywhere, and yet conversely, feel like I’ve still got everywhere to go. I’ve written a short story, but that’s about all, since getting here. I’ve only had stable accommodation and writing space since Monday, so I’m okay with that, but even outside of the actual putting words down on paper, I feel like I’ve been writing every minute of every day since I landed. Just by living here, just by absorbing these experiences, meeting these people, I feel like I’m charging my body with stories. My mind and heart and soul with poetry.


That’s just a taste of what I’m thinking and feeling right now, the merest hint of flavour on the tongue. And it’s not at all satisfactory, not at all close to the full colour and range of what’s happening here. But enough about that for now — I’m sure some of you noticed the absence of a poem last week, and I’m sorry for that; I was on the verge of homelessness in this great city, and I’ve only now recently found a place, if through the strangest possible way, but that’s a story for another day.

This week, I think it’s only right to celebrate a poem about New York, and so I’ve chosen one of the more famous poems by Frank O’Hara, ‘A Step Away From Them.‘ It’s a wonderful evocation of the city, all the more so for its plain language and emphasis on the mundane, the everyday workers and ‘hum-colored’ taxi cabs, the Coca-Cola and stray cats; in short, shining a light on the things we see but don’t see, the things we are practiced at ignoring.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, and to make up for last week, here is a short, sweet little poem by Evelyn Scott, ‘Midnight Worship: Brooklyn Bridge‘, which is unabashedly lyrical. It takes a famous feature of the city and with light brushstrokes renders it holy, transfiguring the ordinary into the sacred. It is, in a word, beautiful.

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  1. currankentucky I think New York has a pulse of its own and those encapsulated within its heart valves begin to pulse too!

    October 3, 2014 at 4:14 am · Reply

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