Friday, October 14, 2011

Frank O'Hara's Lunch Poems

Rewarding though it is, poetry is not always welcoming. Emily Dickinson is rather staid. Robert Frost is so somber. Muriel Rukeyser is frequently esoteric. Even Shakespeare’s sonnets can be at times as overwhelmingly florid as the lace cushions on your grandmother’s couch.

Frank O’Hara has seen a resurgence of interest lately. His Meditations in an Emergency popped up in Mad Men and friends keep bringing him up. O’Hara achieves the neat trick of placing within a taut form a spontaneous eye for his world.

Form was to him a necessary foundation, "As for measure and other technical apparatus, that's just common sense: if you're going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you. There's nothing metaphysical about it." 

The content of the poems is a grab-bag of New York life in the fifties and sixties. Parties, restaurants, celebrities, artists, run-down apartment buildings and noisy streets all filter through a kaleidoscopic embrace. O’Hara is particularly adept at capturing the scope of this environment in his Lunch Poems.

“The Day Lady Died” is characteristic of what O’Hara does best, an extremely personal reaction to a public event, but with an ironically self-aware eye holding him back from over-seriousness, couched in the midst of a deceptively scattered whirlwind of products, places, and friends referred to with inviting familiarity, drawing out the individual located within the objects of modern commerce.

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton   
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun   
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets   
in Ghana are doing these days
                                           I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)   
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life   
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine   
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do   
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or   
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and   
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue   
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and   
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

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


Lauren said...

Oh I love Frank O'Hara. That collection is fantastic, and, in the most intricate yet simple way, really represents NY.

Deana Deere said...

Texas is pushing poetry so I'll be interested to see how this book can be incorporated into my classroom.