When I first stumbled across Frank O’Hara in my apartment kitchen last year, his “Selected Poems” stuffed onto an overfilled row of shelves my roommate and I had converted into a makeshift library, the moment didn’t strike me as notable. I would soon prove radically wrong.
The poem I read that day — perhaps his most famous — titled “Having A Coke With You,” became the idling anthem in my head for the remainder of the semester. I read it again, then again, then memorized it. The poem floated in and out of life’s in-between moments: in dining hall lines, riding to class, while folding my laundry.
As last school year came to a close, his poetry started to fade from the forefront of my mind, but as this semester began to ramp up, I returned to it. I once again slid his book of “Selected Poems” off the shelf and laid it on my desk, reading a few poems every day. They became little windows of levity amid the bustle and rush of a typical school day — brief but poignant reminders to really look, to see the oddities and joys that accompany even the most regular of days and relish them.
His poetry is not grand; it does not deal in historical triumphs or metaphors of Greek mythology. It captures a smaller, far more real vision of life, connecting with readers on an intimate level, as regular humans navigating the timeless joys and struggles of living.
His most famous collection of poetry, simply titled “Lunch Poems,” is exactly that — an assortment of poems O’Hara dashed off during his lunch break, wandering the streets of New York in search of a hamburger and a malted milkshake before heading back to the museum.
“It’s 12:10 in New York and I am wondering / if I will finish this in time to meet Norman for lunch / ah lunch! I think I am going crazy / what with my terrible hangover and the weekend coming up… Allen is back talking about god a lot / and Peter is back not talking very much / and Joe has a cold and is not coming to Kenneth’s / although he is coming to lunch with Norman / I suspect he is making a distinction / well, who isn’t…”
His distinctive style, which flew in the face of the 1950s staid, “literary” vision of poetry á la Keats, was fresh and honest and irreverent. The various strands of a single poem flow together wildly, winding and taking sudden turns onto small, seemingly unrelated roads before curving back onto themselves — a little window into a life and a mind.
In an interview, Frank O’Hara noted that, in fact, “the only people who were interested in our poetry were painters or sculptors, they were enthusiastic about the different ideas and more inquisitive.”
From this unexpected union of poets and painters, working on the respective margin of their crafts, the New York School was born. Brought together by a rebellious streak and a fire for experimentation, the group, in many cases brought together by O’Hara himself, created one of the most inventive artistic movements in recent history. The joyfully quotidian poems of writers like O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch and Barbara Guest met the emerging abstract expressionist style of artists like Willem, Elaine de Kooning and Larry Rivers.
As an associate curator at the Museum of Modern Art, O’Hara deftly moved between the two worlds, bringing them closer together — he “want[ed] to be everything to everybody everywhere,” and he was. They went to parties at each other’s apartments, they lived together and they pushed each other artistically, demonstrating the incredible power of creative community.
In an interview about his friendship with O’Hara, writer Edwin Denby recalled that “he was everybody’s catalyst.” I cannot think of higher praise.
It is in this way that O’Hara leaves his most enduring mark as a trailblazer and muse, fostering a creative environment where everyone was able to freely experiment and thrive.
While the New York School has now dissolved into the annals of art history, O’Hara’s legacy of inspiration lives on through his poetry. Reading his words every day has pushed me not only to write and experiment more, but also to live with eyes open, to appreciate life’s funny little moments and its flashes of breathtaking quiet beauty.
“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”
Ryan Lillestrand PZ ’23 is a book columnist for TSL. He recommends “Having a Coke With You,” “Adieu to Norman, Bon Jour to Joan and Jean-Paul” and “Poem (Lana Turner has Collapsed!)” from Frank O’Hara’s “Selected Poems.”