What are Frank O'Hara's attitudes towards consumerism--does he both embrace it and criticise it?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Frank O'Hara's attitudes toward consumerism seem complex, as do his attitudes toward most things.  It would, of course, take an entire book to discuss consumerism as a theme in all his poems, but one representative work worth examining is titled “A Step Away from Them.” Here the speaker basically describes a stroll through the streets of New York City and the sights he sees along the way. In this poem as in much of his work, O’Hara juxtaposes “highbrow” references with references to everyday life, including the impulse to consume.

Line 1 makes clear that the speaker is not wealthy; he has to work for a living, and he has only an hour for lunch. The first clear references to consumerism occur in lines 4-6, which describe laborers who

. . . feed their dirty
glistening torsos sandwiches
and Coca-Cola . . .

Perhaps no other brand name or product is more symbolic of American consumerism than “Coca-Cola.” The Coca-Cola company is one of the richest in the world because it satisfies the desire to drink a flavored beverage – hardly a necessity, after all. The speaker of the poem does not, however, seem to mock the laborers for spending their hard-earned money on Cokes. By including a reference to Coke in a “serious” poem, in fact, O’Hara shows that one impulse of his poetry is to blend the high and the low, elite tastes and popular tastes. In this respect he was a “postmodern” poet before that term had really come into fashion.

Other references in this poem to consumers, consumption, and consumerism also tend to be neutral rather than obviously satiric. The speaker himself looks “at bargains in wristwatches” (13); elaborate advertisements are described with some appreciation rather than being merely mocked (15-18); “Neon in daylight” is described as “a great pleasure” (25-26); and the speaker stops to buy and eat a “cheeseburger” (28) and a “chocolate malted” (31). He then walks

past the magazines with nudes
and the posters for BULLFIGHT and
the Manhatten Storage Warehouse  . . .   (41-43)

before buying “a glass of papaya juice” (47) and then returning to work.

In a sense, then, this poem is almost entirely concerned with consumption, just as the speaker’s luch hour has been spent almost entirely focused on consuming.

Yet the key word here is “almost,” for the speaker takes an interest in other concerns than merely consuming. Thus, literally in passing, he mentions his familiarity with Edwin Denby, the ballet critic and poet (26) and his familiarity with Federico Fellini, the great Italian avant-garde film director (30). Later he refers to Bunny Lang, a conceptual artist; John Latouche (a composer); and Jackson Pollock (37-38).  Finally, the poem concludes with a reference to “Poems by Pierre Reverdy,” which the speaker literally carries next to his heart, thereby suggesting the special importance that such art and such artists hold in his life. He is a consumer, as everyone must be to some extent, but his life is not dominated by consumerism. He values “higher” things, especially beauty. He eats cheeseburgers, but he loves poetry. In this poem and others, O’Hara seems to imply that there need by no contradiction between enjoying both the material and the spiritual pleasures that life can offer.

The poem's references to art imply that this speaker, at least, cannot be satisfied with material consumption alone. (Yet sly satire may be implied in lines 31-33.)