Some poets shape how we speak. Others use an idiom that, through some combination of chance and insight, anticipates changes in a language. Frank O’Hara is in the second group: When O’Hara’s Lunch Poems was published 50 years ago, novelist Gilbert Sorrentino wrote that it had a “strictly New York joie de vivre: slightly down at heels and rumpled, but with the kind of style always a step above current ‘style’.”
With its references to Park Avenue, Times Square, Pennsylvania Station, liver sausage sandwiches, the Five Spot, the Seagram Building, the opening of the American Folk Art Museum, and much more, it is a very New York book. O’Hara walks around the buzzing city, buys “a chocolate malted” or “a little Verlaine,” remembers a friend’s birthday, and talks to the Puerto Rican cabbies before rushing back to his desk at the MoMA with a copy of Reverdy’s poems in his pocket. Born in Baltimore and raised in Grafton, Massachusetts, O'Hara moved to New York in 1951 and stayed until his untimely death in 1966. The city offered freedom, possibility, movement, all of which O’Hara associated with life. “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass,” he once wrote, “unless I know there’s a subway handy.” It also offered him a community of fellow outcasts, poets, and artists who became, as Lytle Shaw notes, a surrogate family.
Lunch Poems is still popular with New Yorkers today: In 2012, when the Leonard Lopate Show asked listeners to vote on 10 objects that “best tell New York's story,” it came in at number six—just above the Brooklyn Bridge.
But the book has an appeal that reaches beyond the time and place it was written in, as the 50th anniversary edition of the City Lights volume shows. Casual, sardonic, funny, and full of pop-culture references, Lunch Poems has all the brevity, informality, irony, and at times chatty pointlessness of modern discourse without having been influenced by it. The volume has never gone out of print, in part because O’Hara expresses himself in the same way modern Americans do: Like many of us, he tries to overcome the absurdity and loneliness of modern life by addressing an audience of anonymous others.
O’Hara’s Lunch Poems—like Facebook posts or tweets—shares, saves, and re-creates the poet’s experience of the world. He addresses others in order to combat a sense of loneliness, sharing his gossipy, sometimes snarky take of modern life, his unfiltered enthusiasm, and his boredom in a direct, conversational tone. In short, Lunch Poems, while 50 years old, is very a 21st-century book.
In “Personism: A Manifesto,” O’Hara compares his poems to a decidedly 20th-century communication medium: a telephone call. Much of “Personism” is tongue-in-cheek, but O’Hara was often at his most serious when being ironic, and this is true of the second part of “Personism”: O’Hara writes that his poems are like telephone calls because they are addressed to someone else. The difference is that the address in the poem is indirect—“thus,” O’Hara writes, they evoke “overtones of love without destroying love’s life-giving vulgarity.”
And “Poem (Khrushchev is coming on the right day!)” is less about Khrushchev than about a beautiful New York day, an evening at the movies, and the difference between an “official” America (which Khrushchev experiences) and an alternative one that is messier, more vibrant and more international:
last night we went to a movie and came out,
Ionesco is greater
than Beckett, Vincent said, that’s what I think,
and Khrushchev was probably being carped at
in Washington, no
Vincent tells me about his mother’s trip to Sweden
Hans tells us
about his father’s life in Sweden, it sounds like
The mixing of high and low culture, the sharing of preferences, and the free association of names and ideas are used here to capture and prolong a heady weekend. And as a result, the poem reads today almost like a series of tweets that both share and perform the poet’s “inexorable” joy, as O’Hara put it. In “Adieu to Norman, Bon Jour to Joan and Jean-Paul,” meanwhile, his exuberance is on display again: O’Hara writes that “we are all happy and young and toothless,” and in “Ave Maria” he praises the movies and sex. In “Naphtha,” O’Hara thinks of Jean Dubuffet “doing his military service in the Eiffel Tower / as a meteorologist / in 1922,” and is reminded of “how wonderful the 20th Century / can be.”