“It's Cooking”

The work behind Frank O’Hara’s seemingly light Lunch Poems, now 50 years old.

Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, first published in 1964 as number 19 in City Lights’ Pocket Poets Series, features an unsigned blurb on the collection’s back cover.

Often this poet, strolling through the noisy splintered glare of a Manhattan noon, has paused at a sample Olivetti to type up thirty or forty lines of ruminations, or pondering more deeply has withdrawn to a darkened ware- or firehouse to limn his computed misunderstandings of the eternal questions of life, co-existence and depth, while never forgetting to eat Lunch his favorite meal….

City Lights has recently published a new 50th-anniversary edition of Lunch Poems that includes a selection of correspondence between O’Hara and his editor, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. As one of the included O’Hara letters brings to light, it was the poet himself who wrote the blurb (or “blurp,” as he referred to it). Five decades later, it is the first of the two poets he describes—the one who strolls and types, not withdraws and limns—that we associate not only with Lunch Poems but with O’Hara’s poetry as a whole.  

Why did he bother creating a serious alter ego? Perhaps because his writing is far more premeditated than he would have us believe. “… I was in such a hurry / to meet you but the traffic / was acting exactly like the sky / and suddenly I see a headline / LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!” The irony of “Poem [Lana Turner has collapsed!],” which O’Hara himself famously characterized as an “I do this, I do that” poem, is that its spontaneity is predetermined. Even the traffic and the sky—static and expressionless—seem to portend the actress’s accident. Together, they are the perfect foil for O’Hara, who will not be weighed down. Fast and slow, wry and earnest, pithy and oblique, O’Hara’s poetry is always juggling two modes at once, and making it look easy.

And so it seems likely he created the reclusive, pensive O’Hara to draw even further attention to the one who types on the go. But it is also possible that he wanted to give us a deeper glimpse into the complexity of his craft. A closer look at Lunch Poems, for which O’Hara is still well-known 48 years after his death, reveals how the collection marked a turning point for the poet, inaugurating his signature voice, one whose conversational tone and ease of expression obscure his masterful technique.

It took O’Hara more than five years to compile the collection, and the poems span more than a decade (the first is dated 1953; the last, 1964). “How about lunch?” Ferlinghetti recalls writing to O’Hara while waiting for the manuscript. “He wrote back, ‘It’s cooking.’” But it was during this time, when the Beat Generation and the Confessionalists were changing the landscape of poetry, that O’Hara alighted on his own trademark style. As John Ashbery wrote in his introduction to O’Hara’s Collected Poems, O’Hara found a “vernacular corresponding to the creatively messy New York environment … shaping his already considerable gifts toward a remarkable new poetry—both modest and monumental.”

O’Hara did not withdraw into darkened firehouses, but he did withdraw into his own mind and raise “eternal questions of life, co-existence and depth.” In his contemplative elegy “A Step Away from Them,” one of the early poems in the collection, O’Hara’s climactic question goes down as easy as the glass of papaya juice he drinks at the end:

There are several Puerto
Ricans on the avenue today, which
makes it beautiful and warm. First
Bunny Died, then John Latouche,
then Jackson Pollock. But is the
earth as full as life was full, of them?

In his best poems, O’Hara’s straightforwardness makes us pause over everyday language and glide past proper nouns and jargon. Here, it is the word “beautiful” that startles, not “Latouche.” The assonance in “avenue” and “beautiful” unites the only two words that are more than two syllables (not including “several”), making them sound unusually decadent.

This repetition of sound foreshadows the repetition of “then,” “as,” and “full” in the following lines, which join and distinguish the poem’s three subjects. The order and acceleration of O’Hara’s final question makes poignant the shift from present to past tense and from “earth” to “them.” And yet we are not bogged down by structure and pacing. Reading the poem, we feel as weightless as O’Hara, who closes: “My heart is in my / pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.”

Later in the collection, in “Personal Poem,” it is the way O’Hara expresses his taste for some writers and his distaste for others that makes us feel already acquainted with them, even if we’re not:  

we go eat some fish and some ale it’s
cool but crowded we don’t like Lionel Trilling
we decide, we like Don Allen we don’t like
Henry James so much we like Herman Melville

These lines show O’Hara at his most natural and most cunning. It is possible that the names, which all contain double l’s, were selected for their sonic effect. “Trill-,” “All-,” and “-ville” each resonate with the ale O’Hara begins by drinking. Lines that might otherwise jar the senses are therefore given a homophonous quality. What could have been merely a list is mediated through O’Hara’s singular way of speaking—and thinking—so that it becomes a sound, an outlook, and an attitude.

The lines state opinions clearly, and yet they have several permutations. Careful but unusual enjambment and a lack of punctuation allow for O’Hara to both like and not like Don Allen, the editor of O’Hara’s Collected Poems. The addition of “so much” after “Henry James” leaves Lionel Trilling in a group of his own: definitively un-liked. The final decision to like Herman Melville feels like a rushed afterthought, and is therefore even funnier than if O’Hara had started with Melville. O’Hara’s syntactical choices make his opinions seem as if they are still in the process of formation.

Not every critic appreciated these lines. In a review for Poetry in February 1966, Raymond Roseliep specifically objected to them in his negative (and prudish) review of Lunch Poems:

The failure to make love all-embracing is not uncommon in modern literature where the writer employs the image which he either shares primarily with a dedicatee or so reserves for himself that the onlooker becomes trespasser. “Personal Poem,” typically, possesses the fault….

It’s no surprise that Roseliep, a Catholic priest and an avid writer of haiku, goes on to dismiss O’Hara’s “naughty-little-boy-sayings” as well as his use of “the Deity and bowel activity for a sick joke,” but his observation that the reader is reduced to “trespasser” and “onlooker” to the “wearisome cataloguing of personalia” can’t be ignored. O’Hara’s poems tend to have this effect on their readers, or the exact opposite: allowing them to feel as if they are the ones being addressed: “Yes you are foolish smoking,” “You don’t get crabs that way,” “Didn’t I have you once for my self?” “How do you like the music of Adolph Deutsch?”

“Few poets arouse such extreme responses as devotion or disdain as O’Hara,” Ira Sadoff wrote in his 2006 essay about the poet. “Attachment to O’Hara’s sensibility depends to some extent on a reader’s feelings about irony and tone.” But in the 1960s, it also depended on a reader’s feeling about what critics began identifying as “camp.” In his 1966 review of Lunch Poems, Gilbert Sorrentino credits O’Hara with being a “camp poet long before that word had its present commercial overtones,” but he concludes by saying that “his camping is saved by his intelligence.”

In The Poem in Its Skin, from 1968, Paul Carroll summarizes other critics’ complaints that “The Day Lady Died” is an “early and perverse Camp poem” that “refuses to take seriously the tragic death of Lady Day; instead lines and whole stanzas are frittered away documenting mundane and ho-hum events.” He goes on to quote another critic who says the poem is “just plain ugly,” before scanning several lines to illustrate their “clodhopper sound.” Like Sorrentino, however, Carroll is ultimately convinced by O’Hara and the poem: “My strong feeling is that ‘The Day Lady Died’ is excellent because of its trivia and ugliness.”

With the earliest extended reading of “The Day Lady Died,” Carroll laid the groundwork for the poem to be praised for what it does and what it lacks: “‘props’ customary in most traditional elegies.” O’Hara’s particular genius is that he foreshadows Billie Holiday’s death without figurative language. Instead of conjuring a lifetime, he merely relays the exact time. The poem begins “It is 12:20 in New York a Friday / three days after Bastille day, yes / it is 1959,” but each detail signals a sense of ending: the end of the workweek, the monarchy, the decade.

He concludes the first stanza by anticipating the end of his day: he will “get off the 4:19 in Easthampton / at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner,” but the poem does not end with him boarding the train. What interrupts the chronology of the poem is a newspaper: the “NEW YORK POST with her face on it.” By identifying the Post as the one with “her face on it” instead of by its date, O’Hara artfully transitions from a poem dictated by chronology to one driven by emotion. Building up a sequence of events in order to break from them, he exerts control over the material he could not control in life.

The way O’Hara absorbs the news and mediates headlines recalls Ashbery’s view that O’Hara’s poetry “goes back to . . . the collages of Picasso and Braque with their perishable newspaper clippings.” Like “Poem [Lana Turner],” “The Day Lady Died” repositions the news, which is not the occasion for the poem but its texture and material. The poem’s mention of picking up “a little Verlaine for Patsy / with drawings by Bonnard” as well as the New York Post serves to meld the literary with the quotidian, shedding light on the relationship between O’Hara’s form and content. In many ways, “lunch poems” are like rare books wrapped in newspaper.

The fact that the Post is perishable makes for a poignant transition to the end of the poem: “and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of / leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT / while she whispered a song along the keyboard / to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.” O’Hara heightens an already transient experience by replacing the vivid details of his physicality—sweating and leaning—with the whispers of Holiday, who remains nameless and leaves the audience breathless.

“The Day Lady Died” stands on its own, but it is best read in the context of its book, where poems end with the return to work, a punch line, or a yes-or-no question. In the “Poem” where Khrushchev is visiting New York, O’Hara ends as the train pulls into the station. He writes that “joy seems to be inexorable / I am foolish enough always to find it in wind.” For O’Hara, wind means fast movement, heavy breathing, boastful talk. The final image of breathlessness in “The Day Lady Died” is even more haunting because it stalls the poet. The result is a union between two artists that is significant given not only their untimely deaths but also their shared sense of music.

O’Hara’s poems are often compared to Abstract Expressionist paintings, but their composition is also akin to jazz. He grew up playing music. In “On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday,” the speaker says he was “miserable, a grope pizzicato,” but O’Hara himself was a classically trained pianist. He studied at the New England Conservatory and entered Harvard as a music major before switching to English. He called writing “playing the typewriter,” but such a phrase downplays the extent to which his poems feel as measured as music. The syncopation that permeates Lunch Poems occurs when the time he marks at a regular rate is juxtaposed with the erratic cadences of his voice.

O’Hara found his own voice by trying others on. James Schuyler said O’Hara inherited his “intimate yell” from the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. French and Surrealist influences included Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and Pasternak. But the fact that O’Hara eventually found his own vernacular—his own way of playing music—is now evident in the many contemporary poets for whom he is a major influence, including Ashbery, Alice Notley, Ann Waldman, and Dean Young, as well as poets of a younger generation, such as Matthew Dickman and Alex Dimitrov (who, at an event a few years ago called O’Hara’s Queer Litter, read a poem titled “This Is Not a Personal Poem”).

Perhaps it was the evolution of O’Hara’s signature voice that made Ferlinghetti decide to organize Lunch Poems chronologically, with the date of each poem appearing at the bottom of the page (per O’Hara’s request). Their correspondence reveals that O’Hara did not decide the order of the collection, though he may have had one in mind: “maybe it should end up with something like ‘Rhapsody’ or maybe something lunchy like ‘Adieu to Norman,’ ‘Bon Jour,’ etc.” But those two poems, written in 1959, precede “Fantasy” by five years. The strict chronology of the collection does not allow for an order other than the one O’Hara inherently created. In this way, the structure of Lunch Poems feels appropriately matter-of-fact.

And yet Ferlinghetti’s decision to follow chronology does not lack artistry. Chronicling more than a decade of O’Hara’s life, Lunch Poems operates on a higher level than the sum of its parts. As in the famous conclusion of “Steps”—“oh god it’s wonderful / to get out of bed / and drink too much coffee / and smoke too many cigarettes / and love you so much”—O’Hara’s personal rituals culminate in love, not only for the poet but also for the reader. In this way, the collection transcends the day-to-day and gives historical and emotional significance to O’Hara’s routines and habits and to the way he lived his life. It even turns lunch, the most hurried of meals, into something lasting and ceremonial.

Originally Published: July 9th, 2014

Callie Siskel lives in Baltimore and teaches creative writing at Johns Hopkins University, where she earned her MFA in poetry in 2013. Her recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the Yale Review32 Poems, and Passage North.

  1. July 22, 2014
     Alan Feldman

    Yes, to all that Callie Siskel has said. When I wrote about O’Hara forty
    years ago I was struck by how few corrections O’Hara ever made to
    his poems, which seemed to give credence to his phrase “playing the
    typewriter.” Every once in a while he’d cross out a word (and perhaps
    substitute its opposite!). Back then Robert Lowell was much honored,
    and as Siskel points out O’Hara was sometimes treated a bit
    dismissively. “Deep gossip,” said Ginsberg in his elegy. Lowell and
    O’Hara (who read together on Staten Island on the day Lana Turner
    collapsed) afford such an interesting contrast: Lowell was an inspired,
    incessant reviser. His pencilled manuscripts show so many erasures.
    And yet both poets reported on what was happening, trying to catch
    time as it passed. Didn’t O’Hara say something like, What has
    happened and is here, a paper rubbed against the heart? And Lowell,
    albeit with a gloomier demeanor, reminded us that “We are poor
    passing facts,/ warned by that to give/ each figure in the photograph/
    his living name.”