(I wrote this poem at age 16, in the Fall of 1963, shortly before the assassination of JFK.
I couldn’t possibly say what each of the images means. I was far too impressed with creating images to care whether anyone — including me — understood them or not.
But I remember that in a general way, it was about the anxiety and insecurity I ordinarily felt, although I wouldn’t have been able to explain it then at all, compared with those rare moments when I felt perfectly calm and sure of myself and what I was doing.
Those rare moments sometimes came when I was playing music. There must have been other times, but I don’t remember them now.
“O’Flaherty” — the man driving the train — represents me at those moments.
In those days, the overwhelming majority of transit workers in NYC were Irish.
I wondered then — rather intensely — how to get to that level of calmness and confidence permanently. Other than will power, I hadn’t the beginning of an idea, but I wondered if some kind of spiritual practice, like yoga, might produce that. It was several years before I actually began to look into it. I instinctively didn’t want to depend on drugs for that experience. I thought psychotherapy might give it to me.
Now, some 53 years after I wrote the poem, they seem most like my experiences in prayer or faith: an indescribable calmness and confidence that I can always access.)
(to be recited in an Irish brogue)
A hundred to the tenth around the sun
Twice as many more and my work’s not done.
The seventeenth wonder is five o’clock
the sand of Cape Cod is amassed on a dock
and each one says “My time in the sun,”
and O’Flaherty makes the old “A” train run.
Twenty-four times around the pole
work past dawn ’til the sun-chimes toll,
work too late and pole too small
and O’Flaherty makes that old whistle call.
Once around the girdle, dearie,
gives the thought, though thick and bleary,
a touch of something not quite mine
and O’Flaherty makes the air-brakes whine.
Twenty-eight times around you and me,
what comes while interim is yet to see,
the thought of six less-liked than seven
and O’Flaherty runs the train ’til eleven.
Twenty-two-and-a half I feel
while three-and-a-half billion do the “Terra Reel,”
while wading knee-deep in four-eyed guise,
and O’Flaherty smiles and shuts his eyes.
At twenty-nine, a piece of cloth,
together to share the last loaf and broth,
For now and ever the always is past,
and O’Flaherty ends the run at last.
A hundred to the tenth around the sun,
twice as many more and my work’s not done.
(OK. Reluctant literary analysis by the adult me:
Utterly unlike “Howl,” there’s really no social commentary in this, despite the times and sort-of-Beat environment in which I thought of myself as a participant.
At the time, I might have thought that I was writing about things in the world that I might believe were upsetting me. I didn’t yet understand that I had choice over my reactions. Looking at this now, I’m actually surprised at how little it has to do with the external world.
The images are really all about my feelings.
“Come and I will show you
snapshots of my thoughts”
— as I wrote later in another poem.
The images generally convey rushing, overcrowding, pressure, competition, things being out-of-control, adolescent pessimism, and a lack of enjoyment of life, compared with the calmness, control and contentment that O’Flaherty feels. He is separated in his small “cabin” from the craziness of the world. He is so calm and confident that he can “shut his eyes” while driving the train. He is able to completely let go of his own efforts to control.
That’s what I wanted for myself.)