The Poem

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 685

“Manhattan, 1975,” a narrative poem in free verse, deals with various aspects of city life. The nature of New York life is reflected in the form of the poem; half-lines that begin at the left margin alternate with headless lines that begin where the half-lines that precede them end, giving the poem a broken, fragmented appearance. The traditional stanza form is replaced by five syntactical and semantic units. The title refers to Manhattan in particular, but in its criticism “Manhattan, 1975” describes any city experience.

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The poem alternates between the description of street scenes and reflective passages. The first of the five units begins with a hypothetical dialogue, indicated by the conjunction “if” in the first line, between an imaginary female “you” and a male “I.” The topic of the conversation is sexual. The youth of the woman is implied by the freshness of the earth and the upcoming buds, symbolizing the breasts of the young woman. Once fully matured, she will lose her virginity in the city. This thought is expressed by mentioning her hymen and by associating purity, which is her presexual but also pre-Manhattan stage, with the whiteness of buds. While the female “you” is introduced by the mention of her hymen, the first unit of the poem ends with the male “I,” stating his sex in the double entendre of the line “P. S. Nuts to reason.”

Summer is coming, and nature is awakening; so is the girl’s sexuality. The male “I” is excited by her sexual awakening, as is indicated in the line “the tiniest nerve-endings trembling.” At the same time, his feeling is repressed because it is “within its chest-walls”—a comparison of his feelings to people living within city walls. Dodo, the man’s nickname, both suggests his puckish spirit and alludes to the dodo bird, or a fool, making fun of his feelings.

Beginning with the question “Who’s that in the light/ cotton dress,” the second unit deals with a grown-up woman who, driven by the desire for sex, follows a call from the earth, waiting for a lover. This idea is expressed by her dress, her behavior, and the biblical quotation from the book of Ruth (1:16). The part ends with a promise that the man reads in a smile and with his “down to earth” sexual failure.

The third unit is introduced by a song praising summer and implying opportunities for men to have sex. Suddenly, the poem shifts, and the joyful, lusty tone of the sexual allusions in the first unit is now replaced by references to death. Whereas the male repressed his emotions in the first part of the poem, now his feelings seem to be dead, “close, mortal musk,” and intercourse becomes a mechanical act without love—“sexual, befuddling . . ./ a whiff of dead breaths/ intermittently crossing.”

The lyrical “I” at the beginning of the fourth unit is a reflection of Carl Rakosi himself: “I could imagine lion cubs.” The male-female relationship, expressed by the pronoun pair “I-you” in the first part of the poem, is connected to the fourth part by the word “progenitor”; both words suggest reproduction. The “progenitor” can also be associated with God through the references to the Old Testament in this passage, such as “And irrelevance, where was its sting” (a revision of 1 Corinthians 15:55-56). The anonymity of the city leads to a disillusioned confession by the poet: “O my radical past,/ I am not embarrassed,/ but is this all that remains?”

The poem closes with street scenes, expressing the negative influence of the city by means of the fading colors of the parrot’s feathers. The anonymity of the city leads to a reduction of the human being to particular parts. Thus all one sees or hears from the woman at the opening of this fifth unit is her voice; furthermore, making love becomes a lucrative business, and the hustler is “cast in sandstone” like the saints of European cathedrals. The city experience has created a new species, the “hominid Americanus.” The poem ends on a note of hope—“Lady, be comforted!”—despite all the misunderstandings and disputes.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 265

“Manhattan, 1975” is written in the tradition of a group of poets, including Carl Rakosi, who called themselves “Objectivists.” Objectivism claims that the poem is an object and has to be dealt with as such, apart from its meaning. Therefore, special consideration is given to form.

The form of the poem is eye-catching, because the lines are broken up. Each half-line, beginning at the left margin, is continued in the following line by a headless line that is set off from the left margin. “Manhattan, 1975” is a dialogue in which voices are separated by the half-lines and headless lines.

The form of this poem is a new, American one, appropriate for depicting American life. The traditional poetic devices of European literatures—such as rhyme, meter, even line and stanza—have been abandoned and replaced by dialogues. The poem has become narrative.

The dialogues that take place in this poem include the imaginary dialogue between a man and a woman in the first part of the poem, the actual dialogue between a woman and the parrot man, and the failure of dialogue between the two senators from North and South Carolina.

A further device of this poetic form is the use of quotations and intertextuality; that is, different parts of other texts are interwoven into the poem, such as references to the Old Testament. Rakosi uses biblical imagery, direct quotations from the Old Testament, and allusions to the Bible, in which a biblical quotation is changed: “And irrelevance,/ where was its sting?” Furthermore, he chooses biblical names, such as Ruth and Noah, reflecting his own Jewish heritage.

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