Poet and translator Keith Payne on a favourite book, Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems
(City Lights Books. The Pocket Poets Series: Number 19)
The idea is really simple. Every day on your lunch hour, if a lunch hour you take, make a note of what you see as you go from work to lunch and back. Construction workers in yellow helmets ‘that protect them from falling bricks,’ lianas elevator cables, a woman whistling her ‘filthy hope that it will rain tonight.’ You watch the shops for bargains in wristwatches; you buy a copy of ‘New World Writing to see what the poets in Ghana are doing.’ This could be any day. This could be every day: 12:40 of a Thursday, 12:20 on a Friday or for that matter 16th June. You think about what you will bring for that night’s dinner with friends, though you may not know the person who is cooking for you; a carton of Gauloises, a copy of Verlaine for Patsy, a bottle of Strega for Mike. Then ‘a glass of papaya juice, and back to work.’ On the way back you catch the front page of the Post with ‘her face on it.’ This is the city, where perhaps you’d like to ‘be an angel (if there were any), and go / straight up into the sky and look around and then come down.’ This is the city, where you ‘run your finger across your no-moss mind’ and realize ‘that’s not a thought, that’s soot.’ This is the city immediate, the city that hums and bustles, the intimate city. Oh, for the hum and intimacy right now of a busy Henry St. shouldering through the shoppers with no more on your mind than whether it’ll be a bagel, a burrito or a bacon sandwich for lunch. ‘Strawberries, 5 euro the punnet.’
But this is not Dublin, this is Frank O’Hara’s New York. The time is 1953 to 1964, the eleven years of Lunch Poems, Number 19 in the Pocket Poet Series edited by the City Lights Bookstore and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. A poetry series spanning over sixty years that published collections by Ginsberg, Levertov, Ferlinghetti himself, Cortázar, the great Ernesto Cardenal, recently departed and Mayakovsky to name a few.
The collection opens with the poem ‘music’ and closes with the line ‘never argue with the movies.’ And at 24 frames per second we reel through NYC as O’Hara shows not for him the slow, Sisyphean drudge of re-writing, cleaving lines, taking a word out, putting a word back in again, pushing on for another verse till you realise the poem will never be finished but what you’ve got will do. Or at least it appears that way. O’Hara was reputed to have run up poems in minutes and often did so as a challenge, on one occasion going into his bedroom and coming out 3 minutes later with the poem ‘Sleeping on the Wing:
‘Perhaps it is to avoid some great sadness,
as in a Restoration tragedy the hero cries ‘Sleep!
O for a long sound sleep and so forget it! ‘
that one flies, soaring above the shoreless city,
veering upward from the pavement as a pigeon
does when a car honks or a door slams, […]’
Is it so unlikely that a poem could land fully formed onto the scrip of paper closest to hand? It has happened to all of us before. I hope it will happen again. Is it so hard to believe that O’Hara was such a poet as to leave himself open at all and any hours of the day and night for poems, fully formed, to land onto his page? ‘Yes, I don’t believe in reworking,’ he tells us ‘–too much. And what really makes me happy is when something just falls into place as if were a conversation.’ There are several poems in Lunch Poems and elsewhere that would suggest he didn’t rewrite, that instead he continued the conversation elsewhere in another poem. Though there are enough drafts and re-workings in his own hand to know that this wasn’t always the case. Of course he worked his poems. Why always the myth of rapid composition?
O’Hara’s poems may seem frivolous, all about the ‘I’ in the city lights. But that’s to miss the point. In what Kenneth Koch calls his ‘I-do-this-I-do-that’ poems we see O’Hara allow everything slip into the poems, as it would into a conversation. And by admitting everything into his poetry, he shows us that there’s poetry in everything; if you’re willing to address it, as O’Hara does, directly addressing the ‘Mothers of America,’ Rachmaninoff, swans swimming in the park, Lana Turner after she has collapsed: ‘Oh Lana Turner we love you get up,’ the reader, always the reader who is party to the endless chatter that is a conversation with Frank O’Hara covering every subject under the sun: ‘The seismograph / at Fordham University registered, for once, / a spiritual note.’ And not content with ushering everything under the sun into his poems, O’Hara ushers the sun itself in for a conversation in a poem written at the same time as the Lunch Poems though eventually not included:
‘The Sun woke me this morning loud
and clear, saying: Hey! I’ve been
trying to wake you up for fifteen
minutes. Don’t be so rude, you are
only the second poet I’ve ever chosen
to speak to personally.’
(from ‘A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island’.)
The other poet was Mayakovsky, one of O’Hara’s touchstone poets and who also had a poem addressing the sun. It is the sun who reassures O’Hara that all is ok, to trust what he is doing, to trust the poems, to trust that ‘you’re making your own days.’ That rare and reassuring phrase that covers so much of what we do: Making our own days. O’Hara was making his days from the streets of New York in conversation with all the buildings, street corners, delis, tobacconists, bookshops, hamburger joints, bars, clubs, jazz joints, every sound, sigh and taxi cab squeal. But most of all, while making his own days he was with friends. His poems align themselves with the intimacy of conversations with his friends. For such a necessarily solitary observer of his own days, O’Hara, in his poems, as in his life, was a most gregarious man. For all his walking alone down the avenues thinking about ‘instant coffee with slightly sour cream,’ or the ‘Muzak in the Schubert Theatre,’ he inevitably ends up thinking about his friends who he’ll see later; friends who me meet along the same lines as Beckett, Verlaine, Miles Davis, Grace Hartigan or Ginger Rogers. Friends who are so important first names only are needed: Mike, Patsy, Vincent, Hans, John, Bunny, LeRoi (LeRoi Jones, who would become in 1965, the poet Amiri Baraka), Kenneth, Norman, Sally and of course Allen and Peter. All through these poems, and throughout his short but impressive and impactful oeuvre, we read Frank O’Hara making his own days in the city, conversing with the pigeons and cabs yes, with the cats and poodles too, but always and most of all with his friends:
‘I wonder if one person out of the 8,000,000 is
thinking of me as I shake hands with LeRoi
and buy a strap for my wristwatch and go
back to work at the thought possibly so.’
For as the sun says to O’Hara in their conversation:
always embrace things, people earth
sky stars, as I do, freely and with
the appropriate sense of space. That
is your inclination, known in the heavens
and you should follow it to hell, if
necessary, which I doubt.’
And yes, this is indeed a ‘True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island,’ and yes, it’s a reminder that we’re all making our own days, together.’
– Keith Payne
(Full text of ‘True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island’ may be found online at https://www.frankohara.org/writing/
Gooch, Brad. City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara, Alfred A. Knopf, NY, 1993
O’Hara, Frank. Lunch Poems, City Lights Books, San Francisco, 1964. Collected Poems, Alfred A. Knopf, NY, 1971.
Koch, Kenneth. Making Your Own Days, Scribner, NY, 1998.