The poem is divided into stanzas that range from one line up to twelve. This creates a scattered appearance to the poem, mimicking the chaotic images (and jumps between images) that O’Hara makes in the text. One moment readers are inside an apartment building hearing about the poet getting out of bed, and the next, they are hearing about Lana Turner, Greta Garbo, and a man who spends all day drinking.
‘Steps’ by Frank O’Hara is a complicated poem that celebrates New York City and the joy of being alive.
The poem walks the reader through various scenes in New York City and alludes to a wide variety of places and people. The poet begins by describing waking up and getting out of bed. This is followed by references to Lana Turner, Greta Garbo, and the Seagram Building. O’Hara makes jumps between images that are sometimes hard to understand but that work to help readers interpret the ever-moving chaos of New York City that the poet cared so deeply for. The poem ends with the poet using anaphora to emphasize how grateful he is to be alive.
Structure and Form
‘Steps’ by Frank O’Hara is a forty-six-line free verse poem that’s divided into six stanzas and that is written in O’Hara’s characteristic style. O’Hara uses lines of very different lengths, numerous contemporary allusions, and an interesting first-person perspective that makes the poem engaging to read. Free verse refers to the poet’s choice to structure the poem without a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The words at the ends of lines use very different sounds that do not correspond in a specific pattern, and the poet does not use a consistent meter (or arrangement of syllables).
Most readers are likely to walk away from this poem feeling somewhat lost regarding the many jumps between images O’Hara makes and the way the syntax makes his intentions hard to understand. This line from early on in the poem is a good example: “here I have just jumped out of a bed full of V-days.”
Throughout this poem, the poet uses a variety of literary devices. For example:
- Anaphora: the repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “and” in the final stanza.
- Apostrophe: occurs when the poet’s speaker talks to something or someone that cannot hear or respond to them. For example, the poet addresses New York in the first line.
- Allusion: this poem is filled with allusions to life in New York, actresses, and specific city landmarks.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines two and three.
How funny you are today New York
like Ginger Rogers in Swingtime
and St. Bridget’s steeple leaning a little to the left
In the first lines of this poem, the poet begins by addressing New York. This is an example of an apostrophe as well as personification. The poet addresses something that cannot hear or understand him while also referring to New York as “funny,” a strictly human characteristic. The poet compares the city to “Ginger Rogers in Swingtime” and the curious way that the steeple of St. Bridgets, a church in the city, is leaning a little to the left. Both of these allusions evoke the city itself. The poet uses the New York imagery to depict how “funny” (in a positive, uplifting way) the city feels today.
here I have just jumped out of a bed full of V-days
that painting’s not so blue
The “funny” feeling is furthered through the poet’s description of his speaker getting out of bed “full of V-days.” This is an allusion to the way that “Victory” days after WWII were described. For example, “V-P Day” refers to Victory in the Pacific. By comparing jumping out of bed to one of these immense moments in war, the poet is suggesting that his speaker is filled with energy and love for the city. He’s propelled out of bed as if celebrating one of these victories. This sets the tone for the poem, which is mainly focused on a celebration of New York City and what one can see there.
In the next lines, the poet uses more references to war-time events. He writes that his speaker got “tired of D-days.” This is a reference to the invasion of Normandy, France, in 1944. It suggests that the speaker is tired of fighting, struggling, or negative experiences generally and is instead looking for something more positive. But the “blue” (a color commonly used to describe depression) is still there. This evokes a feeling that’s continued throughout the poem as O’Hara goes back and forth between celebrating the city and also speaking about it with a certain cynicism.
The poet’s speaker addresses “you.” It’s not entirely clear who they’re talking to, but it is possible they’re thinking of a specific person or are using “you” in the abstract, considering the feelings the city evokes. (The poet could also still be talking to New York City itself.)
The poet goes on to say that the congestion in the streets is created in order to bring people together. It’s an excuse for people (who don’t want to admit it) to be close to one another. There is a comradeship in the city, the poet suggests, that is hard for people to express.
There is a strange reference to surgical appliances in this stanza as well. He could perhaps be referencing sex since the previous lines mention the act of rubbing together. The surgical appliances could be a metaphor for the various sex organs these people “lock” together when they meet. They don’t stay together forever, though, just for a “day” or a short space of time before unlocking and going their separate ways.
The poet writes about this process without much emotion, so it’s hard to tell if this is something he’s criticizing or complimenting.
where’s Lana Turner
she’s out eating
The following lines are complex and serve as a great example of O’Hara’s style of writing. The poet asks for “Lana Turner,” the famed American actress and model known for films like Imitation of Life and The Bad and the Beautiful. O’Hara wrote another famous poem about Turner titled ‘Poem [Lana Turner has collapsed!].’ In this piece, he describes walking through New York and learning that Lana Turner has collapsed.
That poem, like this one, celebrates New York City with notes of criticism and cynicism. He both admires Lana Turner for her time in the spotlight and appears to critique her, asking her at the end of the poem to “get up.”
The answer to “where is Lana Turner” in ‘Steps,’ is answered in the next lines– she’s out eating. The people of New York, many of whom are synonymous with the culture of the time, are living their lives in the city as the speaker is.
The reference to Garbo in the next lines refers to Greta Garbo, a film star who is regarded as one of the greatest early screen actresses. She died in 1990. These beautiful, glamorous, and famous women are in the city, adding to New York’s allure.
There is a clear piece of criticism for New York culture in the next lines when the poet describes rib cages and rib cage checkers. This refers to the desire to stay thin and beautiful and the criticism women (particularly those he already mentioned) would endure if the rib-watchers decided they were gaining weight. New York is not an entirely positive place; there is still a great deal to critique.
The poet goes on to describe dancers and juxtaposes them with Pittsburgh Pirates. These very different groups are also in the city, moving about their lives as the speaker is. The poet notes that they are all winning because they are “alive.” This is one of the major ideas at work in this poem. The previous lines are all part of the poet’s celebration of the city. Even more than that, these lines express his love for life and getting to see New York City in action every day.
the apartment was vacated by a gay couple
The following lines are filled with more references to the ups and downs of New York life. The poet mentions a gay couple moving to the country and leaving behind city life, something that O’Hara certainly wouldn’t have wanted to do. He also mentions other everyday occurrences and sights one might come across in the city (allowing readers a broader understanding of what it’s like in New York); specifically, he describes stabbings, the UN, and the Seagram Building.
The latter is a large skyscraper on Park Avenue in Manhattan that was originally the headquarters to a Canadian distilling company. Today, it’s on the National Register of Historic Places and is an important landmark of the city. It is another major symbol of New York that anyone living there would know well. It’s something O’Hara could’ve seen every day as he walked the streets.
and the little box is out on the sidewalk
while the sun is still shining
The grand descriptions of actresses, buildings, and the city, in general, dissolve into a depiction of a “little box” on the sidewalk with an old man sitting on it. He’s going to be knocked off later by his wife before it even gets too late. He drinks all day, the poet implies, and his wife takes out her anger on him because of it. This is one small scene that plays out among a series of lives in New York.
The poet is trying to suggest the city is complicated. It is filled with people, all of whom want something different. They believe in different things and experience life in unique ways. This is one of the many reasons that the poet loves the city and focuses on it so often in his verse.
oh god it’s wonderful
and love you so much
The final lines are a lovely and interesting conclusion to the poem. The poet writes that he finds it “wonderful” to get out of bed and “drink too much coffee.” He loves being alive, these lines imply, and the pleasures living affords him. The city is, itself, a symbol of life and the various experiences one has on a day-to-day basis. The poet also mentions “you” again in these lines. Depending on one’s interpretation, he could be talking to a lover, every person reading the poem generally, or he could still be speaking to New York City.
The poet uses anaphora in these final lines to emphasize how passionate he feels about his subject. The repetition of “and” adds importance to these final lines and ensures that readers walk away feeling a similar love for life that the poet has.
The tone of ‘Steps’ is one of excitement. The lines move quickly and are filled with passionate descriptions of positive (and negative) features of life in New York.
The theme of this poem is life itself. The poet uses New York City as a symbol of one’s life and the various ups and downs it takes. Not everything O’Hara writes about in this poem is positive, but all of the images culminate in a series of statements that celebrate life.
The poem ‘Steps’ is about walking through New York City and seeing the ups and downs of life. It culminates in the poet expressing gratitude for being alive, getting to experience drinking and smoking too much, and loving “you.”
O’Hara was an American poet who is remembered today for his significant cultural poems that elevated everyday life to a new level. He often wrote about actors, actresses, and the sights and sounds of New York City.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Frank O’Hara poems. For example:
- ‘Easter’ – a surrealistic take on the contrasting elements of life and death and the images these forces can spawn.
- ‘Having a Coke with You’ – a beautifully complex poem about the speaker’s love for the listener.
- ‘Meditations in an Emergency’ – a bitterly humorous piece deals with the theme of unrequited love.