Frank O’Hara: Poems

Frank O’Hara (1926-1966) was of the New York School of poets, along with Schuyler, Koch, and Ashbery. Born in Baltimore, he moved to New York in 1951, where the city became for him “what the pastoral or rural worlds were for other writers, a source of refreshment and fantasy.” He explores the richness of locality, extinguishing the need for Old World symbols and charms and settling instead on the pleasures of the body. His poetry is notable for its insistence on joy and consumerism alongside loss and skepticism. In Lunch Poems, O’Hara explored the consumer’s midday break time as an innocent, rejuvenating participation in the city, including its capitalist delights. Unlike the nights of the Confessional poets, O’Hara’s poetry is distinctly a daytime voice. His campy humor (overperforming and neither affirming nor denying, but seeking a “3rd position”) is sometimes viewed as an important precursor to the work of poet laureate Billy Collins. He is also interesting to compare with Isherwood, especially A Single Man. O’Hara was killed in a beach-buggy accident on Fire Island at 41.

“WHY I AM NOT A PAINTER,” 1957

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.

Considers the medium of language via the medium of language, whereas the painting juxtaposes language and paint – a different project. The painting is concise and masks its inspiration because it needs to simplify; the poem is prolix and can never arrive at its topic.

LUNCH POEMS, 1964

“A STEP AWAY FROM THEM”

It’s my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-colored
cabs. First, down the sidewalk
where laborers feed their dirty
glistening torsos sandwiches
and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets
on. They protect them from falling
bricks, I guess. Then onto the
avenue where skirts are flipping
above heels and blow up over
grates. The sun is hot, but the
cabs stir up the air. I look
at bargains in wristwatches. There
are cats playing in sawdust.
                                          On
to Times Square, where the sign
blows smoke over my head, and higher
the waterfall pours lightly. A
Negro stands in a doorway with a
toothpick, languorously agitating.
A blonde chorus girl clicks: he
smiles and rubs his chin. Everything
suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of
a Thursday.
                Neon in daylight is a
great pleasure, as Edwin Denby would
write, as are light bulbs in daylight.
I stop for a cheeseburger at JULIET’S   
CORNER. Giulietta Masina, wife of
Federico Fellini, è bell’ attrice.
And chocolate malted. A lady in
foxes on such a day puts her poodle
in a cab.
             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?
And one has eaten and one walks,
past the magazines with nudes
and the posters for BULLFIGHT and
the Manhattan Storage Warehouse,
which they’ll soon tear down. I
used to think they had the Armory
Show there.
                A glass of papaya juice
and back to work. My heart is in my
pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.
This poem juxtaposes death and the quotidian details of everyday life, the personal (“I,” the timestamp, the particulars) and impersonality (“One,” life, etc.). It emphasizes the vitality of the dead, as well as a delicious joie de vivre, a comfort that Puerto Ricans in the street can create happiness and one can carry one’s heart in one’s pocket as a book of poems.

“THE DAY LADY DIED”

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
Billie Holliday, the topic of the poem, is never mentioned. Rather, the poem explores how she lives and exists in collective memory, as well as in the atomized experience of the individual. The speaker obsessively timestamps the day and how he moves through it. At the end he feels a personal sadness and rage, remembering the night “everyone and I stopped breathing” at the sound of her voice – an ironic phrase that captures the suspense in terms of her actual death, but also maintains the personal/social dichotomy that characterizes so many of O’Hara’s poems.

“AVE MARIA”

Mothers of America
                                     let your kids go to the movies!
get them out of the house so they won’t know what you’re up to
it’s true that fresh air is good for the body
                                                                             but what about the soul
that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images
and when you grow old as grow old you must
                                                                            they won’t hate you
they won’t criticize you they won’t know
                                                                            they’ll be in some glamorous country
they first saw on a Saturday afternoon or playing hookey
they may even be grateful to you
                                                            for their first sexual experience
which only cost you a quarter
                                                       and didn’t upset the peaceful home
they will know where candy bars come from
                                                                                 and gratuitous bags of popcorn
as gratuitous as leaving the movie before it’s over
with a pleasant stranger whose apartment is in the Heaven on Earth Bldg
near the Williamsburg Bridge
                                                       oh mothers you will have made the little tykes
so happy because if nobody does pick them up in the movies
they won’t know the difference
                                                         and if somebody does it’ll be sheer gravy
and they’ll have been truly entertained either way
instead of hanging around the yard
                                                                 or up in their room
                                                                                                     hating you
prematurely since you won’t have done anything horribly mean yet
except keeping them from the darker joys
                                                                             it’s unforgivable the latter
so don’t blame me if you won’t take this advice
                                                                                      and the family breaks up
and your children grow old and blind in front of a TV set
                                                                                                        seeing
movies you wouldn’t let them see when they were young
This poem is an ode to the movies, a lighthearted delight in the sex kids will find there that I’d like to contrast with Larkin’s darker, more depressing aesthetic in “High Windows,” which almost feels like a grungy attempted ripoff of O’Hara’s style. Also interesting to think about in terms of Vivian Sobchack and Linda Williams.

“STEPS”

How funny you are today New York
like Ginger Rogers in Swingtime
and St. Bridget’s steeple leaning a little to the left

here I have just jumped out of a bed full of V-days
(I got tired of D-days) and blue you there still
accepts me foolish and free
all I want is a room up there
and you in it
and even the traffic halt so thick is a way
for people to rub up against each other
and when their surgical appliances lock
they stay together
for the rest of the day (what a day)
I go by to check a slide and I say
that painting’s not so blue

where’s Lana Turner
she’s out eating
and Garbo’s backstage at the Met
everyone’s taking their coat off
so they can show a rib-cage to the rib-watchers
and the park’s full of dancers with their tights and shoes
in little bags
who are often mistaken for worker-outers at the West Side Y
why not
the Pittsburgh Pirates shout because they won
and in a sense we’re all winning
we’re alive

the apartment was vacated by a gay couple
who moved to the country for fun
they moved a day too soon
even the stabbings are helping the population explosion
though in the wrong country
and all those liars have left the UN
the Seagram Building’s no longer rivalled in interest
not that we need liquor (we just like it)

and the little box is out on the sidewalk
next to the delicatessen
so the old man can sit on it and drink beer
and get knocked off it by his wife later in the day
while the sun is still shining

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

The rushed, passionate, run-on sense of the poem is explained by its ending, where the speaker has overconsumed on all the stuff of life. The montage of pop and politics, personal and social is a whirlwind tour of O’Hara’s stylistic devices.

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