Frank O'Hara's “Lunch Poems” (City Lights: 86 pp., $14.95) — which has just been reissued in a 50th anniversary hardcover edition — recalls a world of pop art, political and cultural upheaval and (in its own way) a surprising innocence.
Wide-eyed, curious, off-the-cuff, O'Hara drops names and jots down the most mundane experiences: buying a hamburger or a malted, wandering through Times Square. “Everything / suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of / a Thursday,” he writes in “A Step Away From Them.” A line like this, and its attendant sensibility, first made me, made many of us, want to write poetry.
And yet, it’s a mistake, I think, to believe O’Hara tossed off the poems in this collection, despite their stunning, offhand grace. How else do we account for the formalism of pieces such as “Alma” and “On the Way to the San Remo,” poems that are anything but improvised?
This is among the most vivid charms of the book, that it moves back and forth between styles, points-of-view, that it encapsulates the range of O’Hara’s mind, which moves fluidly between the abstract and the heartbreakingly concrete.
To highlight that, the new “Lunch Poems” comes with a selection of letters between O’Hara and City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti. They’re instructive — both because they illustrate the interplay, the collaboration, between the two and because of what they say of O’Hara’s own intentions and aspirations for the book.
Among other things, it took years to put “Lunch Poems” together; “Dear Lawrence,” O’Hara writes in December 1961, two years into their correspondence, “… I am very happy that you have stayed hungry — Lunch is in toaster and I hope you like it when it gets there very soon — don’t eat too much turkey or goose.”
The book did not come out for three more years.
In the interim, there is an extended back and forth over what to put in and what to leave out, over the order of the poems (which O’Hara appears to have left, largely, to Ferlinghetti), as well as an endless fretting about quality.
As late as the summer of 1964, with “Lunch Poems” due to go into production, O’Hara was sending Ferlinghetti more poems, “40 from which you can make a final choice depending on space and your taste.”
A similar tension, between (let’s say) intent and detachment, resides at the center of “Lunch Poems”; it’s what, even 50 years after its original publication, gives the book its vibrancy.
“Now when I walk around at lunchtime,” O’Hara writes in “Personal Poem,” “I have only two charms in my pocket / an old Roman coin Mike Kanemitsu gave me / and a bolt-head that broke off a packing case / when I was in Madrid the others never / brought me too much luck though they did / help keep me in New York against coercion / but now I’m happy for a time and interested.”
The movement there, from interior to exterior, from memory to (yes) even a kind of resolution, is reminiscent of the stunning “The Day Lady Died,” which begins with the poet meandering through the heat of a July Friday in Manhattan, thinking about his weekend in Easthampton, only to crystallize when he sees Billie Holiday’s picture on the front page of the New York Post.
“And I am sweating a lot by now,” he tells us, “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.” The implication, of course, is that what has happened to Billie will one day happen to all of us.
What O'Hara is getting at is a sense of the evanescence, and the power, of great art, that inextricable contradiction — that what makes it moving and transcendent is precisely our knowledge that it will pass away.
This is the ethos at the center of “Lunch Poems”: not the informal or the conversational for their own sake but rather in the service of something more intentional, more connective, more engaged.