Psychogeography and the American Literary Tradition

“Once I pass’d through a populous city imprinting my brain for future use with its shows, architecture, customs, traditions...”

Walt Whitman’s prerequisite for poetic allusions embracing the American landscape, highlights the impact it has on the poet’s psyche for infiltration into their verse. The American landscape, being an organic cornucopia constructed through its diversity in cultures, activities and minds. Its history can be traced through the evolution of this abundant range which emulates the development of American literary tradition. Like the literary form, landscape is composed of the amalgamation of visible, natural formations, the metaphysics of life forces and social transience. All these components can be related to poetic versification. Stephen F. Mills, an American Studies academic, reinforces landscape’s interchangeability with its artistic inhabitants. Both offer a layering of realms for the reader to penetrate as it offers experiences and inspirations from a synthesis of offerings. A unique part of America that incapsulates this fusion, is the populous city of New York; while former inhabitants, poets Allen Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara compose part of its lyrical discourse. Ginsberg and O’Hara extract parts of New York’s landscape and transform them into idiosyncratic approaches to poetry. The whole body of Frank O’Hara’s work has been described as a labyrinthine hyperspace while Ginsberg is deft in at detecting the physical and psychological panorama of things present in a particular location.’

The reason for their conflicting similarities is the rigidity of New York’s architecture and grid pattern which controls and congests its dwellers. As the poets are conflicted with this intransigent space alongside their psychological and transient inspirations, their poetry remain to be mediated. The thesis of this essay is to discover the perspective layering of how the New York landscape is a living synthesis of people and place and how it is expressed in Ginsberg and O’Hara’s versification and themes. The key poems used for analysis will be O’Hara’s Lunch poems, A Step Away From Them and The Day Lady Died alongside Ginsberg’s seminal poem Howl: Part I and My Sad Self ; a poem of stylistic mediation between himself and Frank O’Hara. Their poetry can be used as self-definition and as a mirror of the union between psychology and surroundings. An exploration on the psychological effects of the landscape will be demonstrated in the poets’ methodological approaches and manipulation of and economics of the 1950s.

As the freedoms and limitations of New York City are undeniable, this essay will abstain in exclude a complex social and economic history. However, biographical details of the poets will be included to support ideas. Furthermore, the assertion of this essay regards the city’s history being unequivocal in the poetic content. While, Frank O’Hara is commonly regarded a flaneur, as his poetic method to writing is influenced by his lunchtime walks, he personally classified his poetry as ‘I do this, I do that.’

Through this thesis, I will be exploring these ideas further yet only for to support the hypothesis that the principles that lead up these methods that inspire both poets to utilize their surroundings in exploring and developing their own self identity. Thus, they reciprocate New York landscape’s abundance of elements by employing them in the individual poetic discourse; hence the polarity of their styles. Ginsberg’s poetic license encapsulates the universality of New York, his amalgamation of experience and external stimulus. In contrast to O’Hara’s corporeal liberation of walking is constricted by the socioeconomic captivity, and tyrannical environment of the city. His constriction is shown through the rigidity and banality of his poetic style; yet it exposes his solace in the city. Therefore, through the theory of Psychogeography particularly the theories of Michel de Certeau andfurthering existing landscape research on both poets and their influences would a discovery of the union between the poet and their landscape be distinguished. The act of writing poetry mirrors the union between people and place. This illustrates that the affinity to react to one’s surroundings, either stifles or triggers an emotional response. Frank O’Hara’s A Step Away From Them signifies the antagonism of being within the New York humidity and his impulsive creativity.

It’s my lunch hour, so I go

for a walk among the hum-colored

cabs. First, 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. Then onto the

avenue where skirts are flipping

above heels and blow up over

grates. The sun is hot, but the

cabs stir up the air.


The staccato and abrupt tone of ‘the sun is hot’ emphasizes New York’s fervency, yet this is followed by the elongated lull of stir and air reflect the carefreeness and mediative nature of his walks. The eye rhyme of these words symbolizes the literary connection of O’Hara’s visual experience with the sensations of the city. However, the line’s enjambement, signifies how the city’s hurried pace works disharmoniously alongside O’Hara’s leisurely walking pace. This exposes O’Hara’s endeavor to incorporate the city’s essence with his lunchtime walk episodes. However, O’Hara’s confused state of mind amongst the ‘hum-colored cabs’ is suggested through shift in architectural states. First he observes the ‘laborers feed their dirty/glistening torsos sandwiches’ to inner contemplation of ‘falling bricks’. Within a short space of time, O’Hara reflects on the idea of construction and of destruction. As Hazel Smith would describe as ‘a city in flux, constantly inventing and reinventing itself’

The sensual imagery of their ‘dirty glistening torsos’ implies a homosexual desire but this diminishes along with the ‘falling bricks’ as he then pictures ‘skirts [are] flipping/above heels and blow up over/grates.’ O’Hara asserts anxiety over his homosexuality, at a time when homosexuality was considered a taboo, feminine and anti-nationalist. Thus, this line inverts his sexuality by alluding to the infamous Seven Year Itch scene of 1950s sex symbol Marilyn Monroe’s skirt blowing up over grates. However, this is purely a glamorization of O’Hara’s New York. His love of film and movie stars, as noted with the reference to Fellini and his e’belle actrice of a wife, Guilietta later on, infiltrates into the poetic vision of his landscape. Even though the New York ‘sun is hot’, it cannot stifle the homosexual desire which ‘stirs’ within him. Susan Rosenbaum suggests that O’Hara ‘does not move inwards, to protect the “natural” or authentic body from urban landscape in all its artifice. […] he represents the surface of his body literally blending into parts of the city.” The cabs within O’Hara’s landscape can be seen as an embodiment of the repressive nature of his homosexuality. As he walks among the ‘hum-colored cabs’, he unifies himself with the landscape while driving the ‘hum’ or sensual throb of his sexuality away. We are exposed to his repressed inner thoughts within his walk poems, as he incarnates repression amongst the visuals. O’Hara’s psychological thought process as triggered by walking is summarized by Michel de Certeau. ‘Walking is a way of subverting the city-concept, the all-controlling rationalized city which must repress all the physical, mental and political pollutions that would compromise it.’ Hence, O’Hara uses the act of walking as a rebellion against the constraints of the city, yet he cannot complete rebel against his subconscious mind as shown through the complex duality of his poetic voice.

In Howl, Ginsberg uses also the landscape as a detection for his frame of mind as opposed to that of his ‘generation.’ ‘His generation’ as presumptuous as this may appear, it refers to his kinship with his fellow members of the Beat Generation and other writers and visionaries who share his perspective. Disregarding Howl’s ‘ashcan rantings’ and stream of consciousness nature, each small stanza of Howl reflects a triggered recollection of Ginsberg’s. From isolating the stanzas that reference New York, he subconsciously tries to conjoin the reader with New York landscape, yet, they remain heavy with connotations of psychosis and instability. The following stanza attempts to lyrically illustrate the New York’s oppressive atmosphere categorized with Ginsberg preoccupation with morality.

Who sank all night in submarine light of Bickford’s

floated out and sat through the stale beer after-

noon in desolate Fugazzi’s, listening to the crack

of doom on the hydrogen jukebox […]

However, its emphasis lies on the cliche words related to depression. ‘Sank’,‘night, ‘submarine’,‘stale’,‘desolate’, ‘crack’, ‘doom’ and even ‘hydrogen’ connote allusions of despair but implies an illusion of false depth. The uncanny juxtaposing of these words with ‘light’,‘floated’,‘noon’,‘jukebox’, ‘listening to’ and ‘sat through’ represent a nonchalance and tolerance for the moment, representing a transitory nature of New York. Hence, the binary oppositions of float/sank, night/light adhere to the bipolarity of his senses in New York and while constructing this poem in California. His mocking tone signified by the trite, jaunty rhyming of ‘night’ and ‘light’ with the abruptness in rhythm with ‘of Bickford’s’ towards the end of the line. This represents a dissonance of a bond with New York, yet the connotations of the juxtaposing words suggest an inner turmoil, albeit cliched, resonating through these memories. Ginsberg’s biographical locations instantly forces the reader to adhere to his version of New York. The significance of this narrative isolation emphasizes the stress on ‘who’ which transforms the stanza into a rhetorical question of Who?, obviously Ginsberg. Thus, while he tried to promote universality in Howl, this stanza reveals his ghostlike presence within the poem’s narrative. The use of his New York experience suggest the transient quality of the city. The idea of moving from one place to the next in the space of a day reflects that his submersion in New York, was unfulfilling and devoid of humanity. The use of the phrase, ‘hydrogen jukebox’ suggests the shallowness of New York City pop culture and the vacuousness of this novelty.

The visual function of the jukebox is to create a snapshot of his memory, thus Ginsberg can be considered a verse photographer. The iconography of the 1950s jukebox conjures imagery similar to that of a Robert Frank’s The Americans of a quintessential American city diner. Each stanza represents a ‘photograph’ of an episode in Ginsberg’s life, hence the biographical element inserted with the chronicling of New York places frequented by the Beats. George P. Castellitto says, of Ginsberg use of Whitmanian cataloging of location, ‘Ginsberg is fundamentally a verse photographer of images, a cataloguer of objects and places, and his method, as he states in the interview, ‘its not so much impulse’ but rather “a method which is very specific”, a combination of observation and ‘being a stenographer of [his] own mind’ Thus, by giving the reader a visualized representation of landscape it is tainted by the unconscious and is not a true, realistic approach to experience. It places the reader below and outside the poem. However, the trancelike rhythm of Howl entices into his visions emphasized further with his noted performances of the poem. The stenographic element of Ginsberg’s Howl, is shown through alliteration, onomatopoeia and chanting which signify the phonetic and arbitrariness of his free verse poetry. O’Hara has given the reader an individual visualization of landscape through his precision in literary illustrations of his surroundings that he sees at the exact moment that the poem is written. Ginsberg refuses to be regarded as a purely aesthetic poet, thus he transforms the visual into visionary. He keeps the reader afloat by his deceptive regularity of form shown through the repetition of who, elaborate stanzaic structure and controversial poetic voice. Thus, remarking on the superficiality that masks the erratic New York landscape with the malleability of poetics. By sinking oneself in the superficiality of it, they are inevitably waiting to be judged. This is an intuitive allusion to Ginsberg’s 1971 poem My Sad Self which was dedicated to O’Hara, thus contending his claim as a visionary. O’Hara’s frivolous, conversational tone with an emphasis on surface rather than depth was the victim of poetic mimicry. Ginsberg referred to O’Hara as the ‘gaudy poet’ (FN) in his elegy, City Midnight Junk StrainsO’Hara is probably the one ‘who talked continuously seventy hours from park to/pad to bar to Bellevue to museum to the Brook-/lyn Bridge.’ Following the premise of the rhetorical who, to the now characterized who, the “who did this, who did that”, there is shift in identity from the previous line. Here, Ginsberg suggests the inconstancy of the self mirrored within the New York’s landscape. The impersonality of its places fails to concrete a sense of identity, until a personal or historical landmark is reached. Here, Howl reveals the duality of individual and collective space while exposing the whole New York landscape in just one line. The jerking, sharp rhythm shown assonance of park, pad, bar, illustrates the regulated yet transient existence that Ginsberg felt in this time in New York. The rhythm also emulates the short jerks of a car in traffic, typically a taxi. Thus, once Ginsberg figuratively arrives at ‘Brooklyn Bridge’ to leave, the rhythm alleviates and the poem’s mood shifts.

The reference of the French ‘Bellevue’ correlates with the disparity in landscape use between himself and O’Hara. Allusions to French culture routinely appear in O’Hara’s poetry he even poses the question “Or religious as if I were French?’. For Ginsberg, his relationship with landscape remains faithfully to conditions of the mind, Bellevue being an infamous psychiatric hospital on Fifth Avenue. As O’Hara widens his scope beyond the city’s offerings, however the casual asking the tobacconist for a carton of Galulsoies and a carton of Picayunes’ exoticizes the humdrum of his everyday life. Merlin Coverley describes this as ‘familiar outline of how the city must be rebuilt upon new principles that replace our mundane and sterile experiences with a magical awareness of the wonder that surrounds us’ The frivolous and ephemeral nature of O’Hara’s everyday life is explored within the sequential mapping of his movements ‘the day Lady died.’ The impersonal wristwatch accuracy of his day’s progression tries to mimic a travelogue, however localized O’Hara’s reality is, he embarks upon a journey to France (“Bastille Day”, “Verlaine”, “Gauloises”), Ghana, Greece (“Hesiod”), Ireland (“Brendan Behan”) and Italy (“Stega”) with entering a limited selection of stores. The worldly, pseudo-intellectualism of his choices, evoke to the reader to contraction and expansion of New York’s cultivated landscape. His worldliness leads him to buy ‘Gaulioises’ and ‘Picayunes’ thus broadening his localized landscape, yet the image of Holiday’s face on the tabloid New York Post shrinks the poem back to ’12:20 in New York on a Friday’; the moment when he knew she had died. The devoid of a full stop at the close of the poem restores the poem back to the title. The final line would read ‘to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing [...]The Day Lady Died.’ This cyclical finality satisfies the reader, however the drawback is the endurance of the tiresome quandaries of O’Hara’s life. This is also representative of the ‘city in flux, constantly reinventing itself’ He persuades the reader of the ‘quandariness’ of New York’s consumerism, the act of buying as momentary deferral. Yet, the inclusion of namedropping within this poem suggests that O’Hara is still searching to define himself amongst Patsy, Mike, the crowd of people ‘who will feed him’ in East Hampton. As he embarks on his quest for that moment, which was the original stimuli for the poem, his purchase potential guides him to a recollection of watching Holiday sing at the ‘5 Spot.’

O’Hara deceives the reader through the stream of consciousness narrative distinctly in the third and forth stanzas. The climax in these stanzas suggests O’Hara’s uneasiness amongst the in-crowd of the Easy Hampton as pressure increases he begins to start ‘sweating a lot by now’.  O’Hara’s apprehensiveness over his position within New York briskness of his literary walk. He weaves in out of stores, leaving himself exhausted and sweating as emulated by enjambement and sudden stanza stops that leaves the reader breathless before embarking on the next predicament. At the end just when the reader believes they finally ‘stop breathing’, the poem loops around. O’Hara ensures the reader that life does go on and the poem’s cyclical form reinforces the regularity of O’Hara’s; of the 24/7 New York environment, always on the go. Paradoxically, O’Hara’s poetry managed to become a stimuli for one of Ginsberg’s poems. Timothy Gray remarks that he ‘was crucial to New York precisely because he refused to remain fixed.’ O’Hara’s omnipresence throughout New York has allowed himself to become part of its landscape; thus, metaphorically crossing paths with Ginsberg. The mocking tone of the poem is suggestive of the privilege in which O’Hara has acquired, not from walking but as a ‘white middle-class poet’ using poetry as a way to turn ‘the days encounters into humorous anecdotes to relate to his equally privileged friends’ The repressions of his homosexuality and institutionalized art curator job remain hidden beneath the facade of how the others of his wider environment may perceive him. Just as Ginsberg wanted to make us of his poetry to emote and inspire ‘the best minds of his generation’, he perceived it was fallacious for O’Hara to exploit poetry as ‘a little supper-club conversation for the mill of the gods’.

However, Ginsberg to possess much affection for O’Hara which can be demonstrated in the poem’s dedication. The use of to instead of for which he had used for Carl Solomon in Howl suggests a conversational tone and the opening of communication between himself and O’Hara. Here, the poems sets itself up as a response and a celebration of the effectiveness of O’Hara’s style in using the city of New York as one’s own psychological map. Ginsberg’s ‘Sad Self’ can be tracked through his excursion through New York starting from the ‘top of the RCA Building’ to ‘deathbed or mountain’ This binary opposition connotes the uncertainty of whether New York is Heaven or Hell, a place ‘once seen’ and ‘never regained or desired’. Through the staggered form, inconsistent syntax and punctuation, Ginsberg desires and fails to regain control of [his] Manhattan where he had ‘done feats in’, where his ‘history summed up and where he had ‘greater loves.’ However, for the solemn context of this poem, Ginsberg reverses O’Hara’s approach of being a ‘cheerful type who pretends to/be hurt to get a little depth into/ things that interest me’ Ginsberg uses punctuation to mock the depressive tone and of O’Hara’s presumptuousness in creating poetry for surface rather than depth. Thus, visually My Sad Self is an array of dashes, ellipses and ampersands amongst short and long sentences cleverly placed for archetypal poetic emotion. The use of an em dashes in the lines, ‘and gaze at my world, Manhattan-’, ‘faraway-’, ‘in my last eternity-’ evokes to the reader that the poem’s speaker is too emotional to speak. Yet, there is comic relief in the line ‘where I have no desire-/for bonbons-or to own the dresses or Japanese/lampshades...’ This ridicules O’Hara’s frivolousness and the way in which he manipulates the landscape as a means of window shopping for is poetry. Evidence of Ginsberg’s conflicting yet mediating presence alongside O’Hara in New York is conveyed in the first stanza.

Sometimes when my eyes are red

I go up on top of the RCA Building

and gaze at my world, Manhattan-

my buildings, streets, I’ve done feats in,

lofts, beds, coldwater flats

-on Fifth Ave below, which I also bear in mind,

its ant cars, little yellow taxis, men

walking the size of specks of wool-

Panaroma of the bridges, sunrise over Brooklyn machine,

sun go down over New Jersey where I was boen

& Paterson where I played with ants-

Ginsberg’s places the speaker on top of the RCA Building which was the building used in Ebbets’ iconic photograph ‘Lunchtime Atop a Skyscraper’ Thus, the I within the poem is O’Hara himself, as it refers to his methodological approach of writing poetry on his lunch break. However, the stillness and immobility of the speaker’s movement suggests that Ginsberg is informing O’Hara that if he were to go atop a skyscraper and sit and gaze down below, he would have had a greater emotional response from his readers. From above, the speaker views the ‘men/ walking the size of specks of wool’, which could shift the perspective if O’Hara was the speaker, he is essentially gazing at himself. The use of ‘wool’ over another fabric implies the insignificant, ‘sheeplike’ nature of the people within the landscape. It also implies pastoral imagery as Timothy Gray describes O’Hara as a ‘semiotic shepherd.’ Ginsberg uses the pastoral imagery to signify O’Hara’s tendency to romanticize and idealize New York. Nevertheless, the pastoral visions and connotations of wool to lamb refers to Ginsberg’s preoccupation with spirituality. Therefore, where O’Hara would focus on the aesthetics and materialization of the wool in the consumerist landscape, Ginsberg cannot forgo his visionary principles to ‘this countryside’ of New York. The elongation of the line and aposiopesis after ‘wool-’ to ‘panorama’ visually indicates the stretch of the cityscape and Ginsberg reflecting back to O’Hara’s aesthetic of presence rather than transcendence. Graham Clarke reinforces the poets’ methodical diversity to the landscape, helpfully verified with Ginsberg’s use of ‘Manhattan,‘New York is a double city. As Manhattan it retains its mythic promise and remains an image at once familiar and inviting. As New York City it becomes part of the urban process: denied its mythic energy, its transcendental base, it moves into a historical reality in which social, political questions are prominent. It becomes, in other words, a city of people rather than images - of social contingencies rather than mythic projections’

Through the development of their individual style, O’Hara and Ginsberg expose the construction of self image with their interconnection with the factors of the land. Like New York City, their poetic expression diverges from each other and from others which is shown through the multitude of their influences. Their susceptibility of their surroundings to reproduce the rhythms and imagery of the landscape and the application of their predecessors and peers in crafting a contemporary take on the existing cultural landscape.  A Step Away From Them celebrates the European and Abstract Expressionist influence over O’Hara and within 1950s New York culture, while Howl exposes Ginsberg as an architect of emotions. He builds his poetry from the mental landscape of himself and others while retaining a metaphysical elevation over the land of America. Fortunately, New York or America is expansive and surplus enough to provide enough fuel for these emotions. Hence, the epic nature of Howl and the structural contraction from city localization in My Sad Self. Howl ‘s poetic quest for clarification of the mind builds up through a hybrid of stream of consciousness, free verse and a succinct flow of word association. His poetry becomes a literary symbol for the heterogeneity of New York’s societal landscape. In contrast, O’Hara maintains his poetic character with the only shifts being of immediacy he epitomizes the architectural iconography. As the Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge and the Empire State Building still stand, the influx of people walking in and around change over time. Timothy Gray exclaims that, ‘O’Hara’s movements read the city as one would read a text, and this text of New York, as he was able to translate it, bespoke a new cultural and artistic capital.’

Both poets achieve mediation with My Sad Self. The poem embodies the agreement, the reconciliation between their differences. While poets, Ginsberg and O’Hara are the ‘two molecules clanking against each other’, the ‘required observer’ is New York City itself. It observes while its individual fragments react to and bond with each other to the New York landscape amalgam. Their poetry becomes a historical chronicle of 1950s New York and the composition of their poetry reflects the diversity and perpetual influx of ingenuity that is eternally on New York streets. To resonate Walt Whitman crossing Brooklyn Ferry, a hundred years prior in 1856, reminds them of his own mediations. As his prophetic voice echoes through, he bridges the gap between the future poets of New York, their influences within and outside the landscape, and of the mind.

Nikki Hall

Also published in Inky Needles Literary & Culture Journal