O’hara and Whitman–Overlooking the Hudson Together

On the harbor side railing of the World Financial Center Plaza in Lower Manhattan, two of our favorite poets share a view of the Hudson River together. The plaza, designed by artists Siah Armajani and Scott Burton contains two inscriptions from both poets bound to the railing in big bronze letters, “City of the Sea!…City of wharves and stores-city of tall facades of marble and iron! Proud and passionate city!” (City of Ships, Whitman) and “One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes-I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a radio store or some other sign that people do no totally regret life” (Meditations in an Emergency, O’hara). I thought the fact that they choice these two men to be the representatives of New York to be very interesting.

O’hara himself did not hide how much Whitman had influenced h;im his works are constantly scattered with references to Leaves of Grass, even in the quote that was chosen for the railing. The mentioning of grass (always a HUGE red flag screaming Whitman!) I think provides an important insight to how O’hara viewed Walt’s work in general- he can not fully appreciate it unless he is looking at it through the bigger picture, with contradictions and contrasts, with both nature and urban life, all of the many Whitman’s instead of just focusing on just one. However it could be said that O’hara was himself a fan of the urban Manhattan Whitman, for he has a tendency to undermine and attack the pastoral imagery that was a favorite tool of Whitman as we see in the following passage from his poem Poem, “the sound is that of a bulldozer in heat stuck in the mud where a lilac still scrawnily blooms and cries out ‘Walt!’so they repair the street in the middle of the night.”

I also couldn’t help but make a connection to this plaza design and Whitman’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry. Here are his words, fused next to the words of someone who was born over a hundred years after him-looking pleasantly at the river and giving his company for who ever may be there and need it. It’s a very comforting image. And I think it is safe to say that O’hara would be pretty thrilled to know that his words are enjoying the same view right beside him!

Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refreshed by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refreshed,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried,
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemmed pipes of steamboats, I looked.

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2 Responses to O’hara and Whitman–Overlooking the Hudson Together

  1. Katie Lastrapes says:

    This is cool! Thank you for posting this!

  2. Jen Green says:

    I completely agree with you on the strong influence Whitman has on O’Hara’s poetry. It seems that O’Hara often imitates Whitman’s listing of urban life in an attempt to make his descriptions breathe in the way the city does. In his poem “A Step Away From Them” O’Hara writes of the city life he encounters on a walk he takes during his lunch break:

    “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.”

    Multiple times in “Song of Myself” Whitman also describes city life;

    “sounds of the city and sounds out of the city, sounds of the day and night,
    talkative young ones to those that like them, the loud laugh of work people at their meals…
    the ring of alarm-bells, the cry of fire, the whirr of swift streaking-engines and horse-carts with premonitory tinkles and color’d lights.”

    The variances between the two descriptions leave the reader with two very different conclusions. Whitman’s narration of the city is undoubtedly less critical than O’Hara’s. Although he includes “I hear all the sounds,” his objective listing of the world around him allows the reader to forget who’s eyes they are seeing it through. O’Hara on the other hand interjects “I” into the poem even when it doesn’t seem necessary, for example:

    “..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.”

    The “I guess” added at the end reminds the reader that this is O’Hara’s point of view not the common man. Similarly, O’Hara writes, “there are several Puerto Ricans on the avenue today, which makes it beautiful and warm” which appears to be a positive observation but his classification of the people as “Puerto Ricans” in contrast with the reference to a lady as simple a “lady” in line that comes before it (“A lady in foxes on such a day puts her poodle in a cab”) makes the classification stick out. Whitman can often be subversive in his poetry, but I think that O’Hara attempted to get even more gritty in his poems, especially those on urban life, and therefore many of his descriptions have a harsh element about them.

    One of example of O’Hara imitating Whitman with a twist is from one of the poems we weren’t assigned to read for class, in which O’Hara writes:

    “I am a Hittite in love with a horse
    I don’t know what blood’s in me I feel like an African prince I am a girl walking downstairs in a red pleated dress with heels I am a champion taking a fall
    I am a jockey with a sprained ass-hole I am the light mist
    in which a face appears
    and it is another face of blonde I am a baboon eating a banana
    I am a dictator looking at his wife I am a doctor eating a child
    and the child’s mother smiling I am a Chinaman climbing a mountain
    I am a child smelling his father’s underwear I am an Indian
    sleeping on a scalp…”

    I one of the most well-known sections of “Song of Myself” Whitman also claims he is many different and diverse people. Yet even though Whitman claims he is both the slave and the master, the roles O’Hara claims are even more upsetting; “I am a jockey with a sprained ass-hole,” “I am a child smelling his father’s underwear”…etc.

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