Frank O’Hara is one of those American poets who hovers on the edge of what we are pleased to call “greatness.” Perhaps he hovers there because there is something tongue-in cheek about O’Hara’s work — and, one suspects, about his attitude toward life — which means that we can’t possibly take him as seriously as that. I suspect there is some logical fallacy there. As O’Hara himself wrote, “Pain always produces logic, which is very bad for you.”
Lunch Poems is a small collection in “The Pocket Poets” series published by City Lights Books of San Francisco. Originally published in 1964, two years before O’Hara’s death, it provides a succinct view of one of the freshest and most irreverent poets America has ever produced. Perhaps his association with the Abstract Expressionists and the early Pop artists proved influential — O’Hara worked for many years for the Museum of Modern Art in New York and, quite aside from his personal acquaintances with many of the important artists of his time, wrote monographs on Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and David Smith; the art dealer Tibor de Nagy published his Love Poems in 1965.
One finds oneself at a loss in attempting to describe O’Hara’s poetry: he is perhaps what Gertrude Stein would have been if she had believed in punctuation. There is that breathless, wide-eyed quality to his writing, a lively, if sometimes seemingly disjointed monologue in which every sight, every sound makes its way into a coherent picture:
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. . . .
from “A Step Away from Them”
O’Hara had no taste for rhyme or rhythm, his structure is strictly free-form, his diction down-to-earth, his view insouciant and pungent. There are strong strands of surreality in O’Hara’s poems, and a kind of bemused acidity that shakes its head resignedly at life — but there’s always a grin lurking underneath, a kind of energy that says “Let’s go dancing!” O’Hara says it best:
If I rest for a moment near The Equestrian
pausing for a liver sausage sandwich in the Mayflower Shoppe,
that angel seems to be leading the horse into Bergdorf’s
and I am naked as a table cloth, my nerves humming.
This is a fun book – not as imposing as the Complete Poems or even the Selected Poems, both ably edited by Donald Allen. It’s poetry that fits in your pocket – you could even take it with you to the park on your lunch hour.
(City Lights, 2001)