Reading Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems After Fifty Years
The year 1964 was an important one for American poetry: Robert Lowell published For the Union Dead, John Berryman 77 Dream Songs (both Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and Denise Levertov O Taste and See (New Directions). Adrienne Rich’s Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (Harper) had been published the previous year, and in 1965 Sylvia Plath’s Ariel (Faber & Faber) exploded on the scene. I can still remember the excitement of reading the arresting opening of Plath’s “Lesbos” — “Viciousness in the kitchen! / The potatoes hiss” — or Berryman’s lines, “Filling her compact & delicious body / with chicken páprika, she glanced at me / twice” (“Dream Song #4”). In graduate seminars, we took pains to understand the symbolic substructure behind this seemingly natural discourse. For, however casual the “new” vernacular, the poets in question adhered to poetic decorum, as we had been taught to understand it: a poem like Levertov’s “Merritt Parkway,” for example, keeps its eye on the object, tracking closely the movement of the speeding cars and the emotional charge of the image, even as Lowell’s “For the Union Dead” moves step by step from the elegiac description of the “old South Boston Aquarium” to the story of Colonel Shaw’s Civil War regiment, to the culminating insight that now “giant finned cars nose forward like fish; / a savage servility / slides by on grease.”
No one in my immediate circle had yet heard of another volume published in 1964 — a small orange and blue book published in City Lights’s Pocket Poet Series called Lunch Poems. City Lights, the legendary San Francisco bookshop, was known for its publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems (1956), Gregory Corso’s Gasoline (1958), and the work of Lawrence Ferlinghetti (to this date, City Lights’s proprietor), but Frank O’Hara wasn’t exactly a Beat, even though he was quite friendly with Ginsberg and Corso. Lunch Poems (like O’Hara’s earlier Meditations in an Emergency from Grove Press), quickly became a cult favorite, especially on the queer scene in New York and San Francisco, but establishment critics had reservations as to what they regarded as O’Hara’s frivolity and triviality. In the New Statesman, Francis Hope referred to O’Hara’s “puppyish charm”; in The New York Review of Books, Marius Bewley remarked that the poet’s “long invertebrate verse lines can be amiable and gay, like streamers of crepe paper fluttering before an electric fan,” and even the radical poet-critic Gilbert Sorrentino defined O’Hara’s world as one of “wry elegance, of gesture,” quickly adding that “it most certainly is not my world.” In 1977, when I published Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters, the Times Literary Supplement reviewer Thomas Byrom cautioned that O’Hara’s “late Victorian camp” was the style of an intriguing but minor poet.
The underestimation of O’Hara, like the underestimation of John Ashbery in the early sixties, is itself a phenomenon that deserves careful study. Gay-bashing, conscious or unconscious, was clearly involved, even when, as in the case of Marius Bewley, the critic was himself gay. With the advent of AIDS in the early eighties, the countercurrent set in, and today, O’Hara and Ashbery are at the very heart of the poetry canon, even as the New York School, now encompassing three generations, has become a prominent fixture on the global poetry scene.
Still, nothing had quite prepared me for the thrill of rereading Lunch Poems after fifty years. So much of the poetry of the sixties is dated; O’Hara’s, especially in this book, seems curiously up-to-date. Ferlinghetti, in his editor’s note for the fiftieth anniversary edition, remarks that the poems “established a certain tone, a certain turn of phrase, a certain urbane wit, at once gay and straight, that came to identify the New York School of poets in the 1960s and ’70s.” Fair enough. But in the next sentence he adds that O’Hara “articulated a consciousness that was unique among the poetic sensibilities around the world.” At once representative — the voice of a particular community — and unique: how does that work?
We get some clues in the marvelous selection of the O’Hara-Ferlinghetti correspondence appended here. First, the self-deprecating humor: “Yes suh,” Frank writes in December 1959, in response to Lawrence’s request for the promised manuscript,
lunch is on the stove and lordy, I surely hope you don’t think I forgot to put the fire under the greens, I am even flavoring same with cholesterol and hormones so we will all live for ever (in health’s despite, as John Wieners said).
And on September 25, 1963, when the project is finally ready to go,
If you are coming to New York give me a ring at Canal 8-2522 or the museum and come by for a drink in my new loft which is a great improvement on the place you saw last time. (Bigger and colder.)
Shouldn’t it be bigger and warmer? Bigger and better? Not in O’Hara’s contradictory universe.
Humor goes hand in hand with unusual modesty. It took five years for Frank to put the manuscript together and even then he had real qualms about doing so. In the letter of 1963 cited above, he writes, “if you or [Don Allen] find anything you don’t like I’d rather not print it, excepting Rhapsody and Naphtha which I really like a lot for personal reasons.” And again,
If you don’t like these you can also mail them back there collect, I think.... At any rate, I went over them carefully while here and thought I’d mail them off before I developed any more qualms.
And in 1964, when Ferlinghetti does prune the manuscript, sending back a few poems, Frank writes,
I am perfectly content with the ones you sent back, with the possible exception of Personal Poem which I am sending back for your consideration, if that’s okay. I’m not insisting on it at all, and if you find it weak by all means leave it out, because my feeling for it may be entirely sentimental and may also have vanished by the time the book comes out.
Surely few poets are so deferential to their editors: Frank goes along with the title, even though he is wondering if Lunch Poems sounds too much like Ginsberg’s Reality Sandwiches or (Frank camping it up) like Michael McClure’s Meat Science Essays. And he is hesitant about writing his own “blurp” as he calls it, even though in the end he does write the anti-blurb on the back cover:
Often this poet, strolling through the noisy splintered glare of a Manhattan noontide, 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, coexistence, and depth, while never forgetting to eat lunch his favorite meal....
It’s not that O’Hara doesn’t believe in his own talent, but he refuses, here as in the poetry itself, to take himself too seriously. Self-importance is his bugbear. Consider one of the most famous lyrics in Lunch Poems: “Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!)”:
Lana Turner has collapsed!I was trotting along and suddenlyit started raining and snowingand you said it was hailingbut hailing hits you on the headhard so it was really snowing andraining and I was in such a hurryto meet you but the trafficwas acting exactly like the skyand suddenly I see a headlineLANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!there is no snow in Hollywoodthere is no rain in CaliforniaI have been to lots of partiesand acted perfectly disgracefulbut I never actually collapsedoh Lana Turner we love you get up
This poem first became notorious because of the circumstances of its composition: as Joe LeSueur tells it, O’Hara informed the audience at Wagner College on Staten Island that he had written “Lana Turner” on the ferry coming over from Manhattan. Robert Lowell, with whom O’Hara was reading, responded with a thinly veiled snub: “Well, I’m sorry I didn’t write a poem on the way over here.” The story has come down to us in various versions, but over the years it served to underscore the charges of triviality and “mere camp” leveled against the O’Hara of Lunch Poems. How clever to read a poem just composed on the Staten Island Ferry crossing from Manhattan! Clever but also suspect. Obviously, neither Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” nor Hart Crane’s The Bridge — those foundational poems for Lowell as for O’Hara — were composed that way!
And yet, instantaneous or not, “Lana Turner” is, to my mind, a great poem. First of all, it has what Ezra Pound called “constatation of fact” — the grace of accuracy. By 1962, Lana Turner, the glamorous “Sweater Girl” of the forties and femme fatale of such film noirs as The Postman Always Rings Twice, was a has-been; her career had been badly damaged by her affair with mobster Johnny Stompanato, who was killed in 1958 when Lana’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Cheryl Crane, caught the two fighting and killed Stompanato with a kitchen knife. It was like a scene from a B movie.
The tabloid headline is thus wonderfully absurd, “collapsed” being a curiously empty verb. One can, after all, collapse from heat stroke as easily as from a heart attack. The silly announcement becomes the occasion for the poet’s account of his stressful morning — an account made surprisingly immediate by its address to a nameless you. “Trotting” in line two is an odd word choice — animals trot, people don’t — making the poet look silly as he confronts the rain, snow, and possible hail: “you said it was hailing / but hailing hits you on the head / hard.” The line break and alliteration of h’s gives the account an off-tune note. Rain and snow are bad enough, snarling the traffic, and Frank always seems to be late for a lunch date. But, so, and, and ... we can see the “I” getting more and more exasperated when — lo and behold — he sees that headline, “LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!” It acts like a tonic, making the bad weather suddenly palatable. After all, “there is no snow in Hollywood / there is no rain in California” (at least not in the poster version). The logic of these statements is wholly absurd, suggesting as they do that if Lana Turner has collapsed, even in good weather, the poet trotting about in hail and snow is somehow above the fray: “I have been to lots of parties / and acted perfectly disgraceful / but I never actually collapsed.” Maybe things aren’t so bad after all! And so it’s time for the grand gesture: “oh Lana Turner we love you get up.”
Nothing about this seventeen-line poem with its breathless, run-on lines capturing the tempo of midtown Manhattan, is dated. Lana Turner remains a potent Hollywood legend — witness Calvin Bedient’s literary magazine by that name — and the moment of everyday life represented, the way an unexpected external stimulus can suddenly break a mood, is made so real we can see and feel it. The feat of such writing is not saying too much. Information is kept to a minimum — think how the poem would be spoiled by the details of the Stompanato story — and generalization is avoided. A lesser poet would tell us what he or she has learned from contemplating the headline or would pontificate about the hollowness of Hollywood glamour. A lesser poet would explain how and why he “acted perfectly disgraceful.” Perhaps someone insulted him? Perhaps he was involved in a lovers’ quarrel? Who knows? O’Hara knows better than to dwell on such disclosures: his aim is to portray a situation with which anyone can identify. The poet sees himself as faintly ridiculous, trotting rather than walking or running and not even being able to identify hail. It’s all quite absurd, as he lets “you” know, and yet quite accurate in its relation of inside to outside, traffic on the ground to natural traffic in the sky, Hollywood to O’Hara’s uptown Manhattan.
Almost all of O’Hara’s Lunch Poems have a comparable lightness of being, but their seemingly casual diction and immediacy belie their very careful construction. Consider the poem O’Hara himself calls, along with “Rhapsody,” his favorite: “Naphtha,” which dates from 1959 — O’Hara’s annus mirabilis when he wrote “The Day Lady Died,” “Personal Poem,” “Poem (Khrushchev is coming on the right day!),” and “Adieu to Norman, Bon Jour to Joan and Jean-Paul,” as well as such great poems, not included in Lunch Poems for one reason or another, like “Joe’s Jacket” and “You are gorgeous and I’m coming!” “Naphtha” — the title refers to a flammable liquid mixture of hydrocarbons, rather like gasoline — has a charmingly absurd opening:
Ah Jean Dubuffetwhen you think of himdoing his military service in the Eiffel Toweras a meteorologistin 1922you know how wonderful the 20th Centurycan be
In 1959 MOMA was staging a large Dubuffet exhibition, curated by the august Peter Selz. O’Hara’s response to the work was mixed: he seems to have understood right away that there was something very odd about this successful painter. Imagine doing one’s military service as a meteorologist in the Eiffel Tower! Such absurdities remind us “how wonderful the 20th Century / can be.” And indeed, Dubuffet was a wonder. In his WWI incarnation he was part of the modernist cénacle that included Fernand Léger and Juan Gris. But in 1924 (after his post in the Eiffel Tower) he abruptly gave up painting and spent the next two decades as a wine merchant. When he reemerged as a painter after WWII, it was as the founder of art brut or outsider art. Line thirty-seven of “Naphtha” — “and Jean Dubuffet painting his cows” — refers to such works as MOMA’s own “primitivist” Cyclist with Five Cows.
Outsider art: Dubuffet provided O’Hara with the occasion to consider what it meant, in our “wonderful” century, to be an outsider, whether a Native American, as in the absurdist Iroquois section of the poem, or a black composer/performer like Duke Ellington, or an avant-garde woman artist (Sonia Delaunay) in a world of powerful male ones, and, as a gay man, “made in the image of a sissy truck-driver.” But — and this is what makes O’Hara’s poems so unique — the poet refuses to play victim: his Iroquois (a reference to construction workers in Manhattan at the time of the building of the great skyscrapers, who were mostly drawn from a Mohawk tribe in upstate New York; the men were known for not having a fear of heights) are presented not as exploited laborers but as “fierce and unflinching-footed” figures out of a Hollywood film “with their horses / and their fragile backs / which are dark.” Indeed, O’Hara reads “the parable of speed” — the speed trumpeted by the avant-garde — as coming somehow from “behind the Indians’ eyes.” These fantasy Iroquois, “nude as they should be,” thus become enshrined in the mythology of the Eiffel Tower, the symbol of the New Century. Or again, perhaps they are the “savages” of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, that avant-garde classic.
Where does O’Hara’s own circle come in? “It is our tribe’s custom / to beguile,” remarks the poet and indeed his cénacle has its own tribalisms, even as “we were waiting to become part of our century.” After WWII, New York replaced Paris as art capital, even if “we don’t do much ourselves / but fuck and think / of the haunting Métro / and the one who didn’t show up there.” “We” know that “you can’t make a hat out of steel / and still wear it,” but “who wears hats anyway.” A newly demotic age looks back quizzically on the heroic avant-garde. Personal life, in any case, goes on:
how are you feeling in ancient SeptemberI am feeling like a truck on a wet highwayhow can youyou were made in the image of godI was notI was made in the image of a sissy truck-driverand Jean Dubuffet painting his cows“with a likeness burst in the memory”apart from love (don’t say it)I am ashamed of my centuryfor being so entertainingbut I have to smile
The tone is complex. It’s one of those moments where the poet admits being very low — skidding along like a truck on a wet highway. His friend remonstrates, “how can you / you were made in the image of god.” On first reading, we are likely to think the words are “you made in the image of a god” — the usual cliché. But “image of god” is part of Catholic theology: we are all made in the image of God. So the would-be compliment is deflated and leads to the “I was not / I was made in the image of a sissy-truck driver.”
Better to laugh than to cry. Especially when Frank remembers those foolish cow paintings. For Dubuffet, successful proponent of art brut that he was, what with his thick impasto reductionist paintings, was in fact a sophisticated writer, producing catalogue commentaries like the MOMA one which contains the phrase “with a likeness burst in the memory.” It is the contradiction between self-styled outsider and comfortable bourgeois that makes Dubuffet — and by extension “my century” — “so entertaining.” Dubuffet playing the childlike innocent. Somehow “I have to smile.”
The humor of “Naphtha” is complex and delicate, not the least of O’Hara’s jokes being the disparity between French and American modernisms, between the Eiffel Tower and Manhattan skyscrapers, the “primitivism” of Dubuffet’s painting and the “primitive” Iroquois, the “haunting Métro” made famous in such films as Zazie dans le métro (someone is always left behind!), and the “truck on a wet highway.” But so subtle is the relation of present to past, of American poet/curator to French painter, that, gently satiric as the poem is, Dubuffet himself evidently took “all that gas” as a compliment. “The most exciting thing that has happened to me recently,” O’Hara wrote John Ashbery on Feb 1, 1961,
is that Big Table [where “Naphtha” was first published] forwarded me an envelope the other day and in it was a drawing from Dubuffet. It is in India ink on his stationery ... the head of a man, and around it is written, so it fills out the rest of the space — “Salut Frank O’Hara ... de Paris ... le jour de Noël 1960 ... à vous ... un bon jour ... d’un ami ... j’ai lu le poème ... dans Big Table ... bonne année ... Jean Dubuffet.”
No doubt Dubuffet appreciated the “smile” with which “Naphtha” concludes. But why is the poet “ashamed of [his] century / for being so entertaining”? One expects him to be proud or pleased, what with all that entertainment value. But O’Hara never opts for the easy response. Throughout “Naphtha,” the references have been to violence — of WWI, of the “fierce and unflinching-footed” Iroquois, whose “backs” have been rendered “fragile,” of the need for steel hats, and evidently of the abuse that makes him feel “like a truck on a wet highway.” To find our century so “entertaining” requires discipline. And then of course a smile!
I am always reciting those last lines to my friends, relishing the mix of pathos and humor that I take to be uniquely Frank O’Hara’s. When, in the poem that precedes “Naphtha,” I read the wonderfully absurd exclamation, “Khrushchev is coming on the right day!” it being the right day for the always scowling, fist-thumping Soviet dictator for no better reason than that Frank is in love and it happens to be a gorgeous windy day in New York, I always smile. The arc of feeling is so perfectly rendered. O’Hara’s wholly unpretentious and delightful little book is full of such moments — moments as immediate in 2015 as they were fifty years ago. Surely, Lunch Poems is a twentieth-century classic. Which is to say that all those currently taboo poetic terms — authenticity, sincerity, immediacy, voice — may be coming back to haunt us. And I have to smile.
One of the foremost critics of contemporary, modern, and avant-garde poetry and poetics now writing in English, Marjorie Perloff has published numerous books, articles, and essays on issues ranging from digital poetics to philosophy, and her work has been translated into many languages, including Portuguese, Spanish, Slovenian, German, and French....