Themes and Meanings

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Isolation and anonymity, as part of the city experience, are the central issues in “Manhattan, 1975.” Rakosi, who was a dedicated social worker, shows a great concern for the well-being of others, and at one point in the poem he questions his own personal accomplishments. As Diane Wakoski has said, Rakosi reminds the reader “that to live intelligently is never to relax or to leave unnoticed any slightly foolish thing.”

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“Manhattan, 1975” contrasts the American reality, of which Manhattan is the quintessential experience, with medieval and Renaissance England. The language of the poem and its form, reminiscent of Ezra Pound’s headless lines, are American. Rakosi undoubtedly stands in the American tradition, as he points out in the poem himself: “I among them/ (impossible to keep Whitman out of this).” Walt Whitman (1819-1892) is the American poet par excellence, and he also lived in New York. Therefore, the poem portrays an American experience in an American narrative style.

In addition, Rakosi pays tribute to the American novelist Ernest Hemingway. The quotation “(I could imagine lion cubs at play/ bumping awkwardly against each other)” comes from Hemingway’s novel The Old Man and the Sea (1952).

An allusion to T. S. Eliot, an American who became a British subject, bridging British and American elements, is given by the parrot that speaks Sanskrit, a language used in T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land (1922). The line “And irrelevance,/ where was its sting,” which is essentially a Biblical quotation, also alludes to the poetry of John Donne.

The sensual character of “Manhattan, 1975,” combined with its fondness for rituals, reminds one of the poet Robert Herrick. While in Herrick’s May poems the Queen of May is in the center of the fertility rites, “insouciance is King/ of the May” in the city experience of America, where intercourse, as an expression of love leading to fertility, has become a mechanical act to be purchased on any corner.

The message of Puck, a spirit in English folklore, along with images from nature, becomes a paradox in Manhattan. Reality and ideal are separated like Ireland and Britain, as indicated by the line “From outside the pale,” which is the dividing line between Catholic Ireland and Protestant Northern Ireland.

Rakosi’s frustration with the city is also illustrated in the anonymous English “Cuckoo Song” (c. 1250). Rakosi adds to the Middle English “sumer is i-cumin in/ lhude sing cuckoo” an American “Yay.” Furthermore, he changes the word “cuckoo,” with which spring is associated, to the word “city.” The city has replaced nature, as the alliteration of city and cuckoo indicates. Yet the poem offers comfort, implying that there is salvation after death, “He is safe with Noah now”; and the ending of the poem moves away from the anonymous, impersonal treatment of people living in New York to a more respectful and hopeful “Lady, be comforted!”

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