If I’m ever stranded on a desert island, I’d be fine – as long as I’d have a copy of Lunch Poems by queer poet Frank O’Hara. This pocket-size, energy-infused poetry collection, just out in a 50th anniversary edition from City Lights Books, would provide all the fuel, caffeine, camp, love, and fun that I’d need to sustain myself.
I’m far from unique in my love and affection for O’Hara and his work. Few poets, gay or straight, have so influenced our culture. Don Draper on “Mad Men” reads O’Hara. Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell and other painters hung out with O’Hara and painted him.
It’s tempting to think that LGBT artists and writers were closeted before Stonewall. Yet O’Hara, who was born in Baltimore in 1926 and died in an accident on Fire Island in 1966, lived as an openly gay man in New York City. “I live above a dyke bar and I’m happy,” he wrote in one poem. “You Are Gorgeous And I’m Coming” was the title of one of his love poems.
O’Hara embraced sexuality. “Mothers of America/…Let your kids go to the movies!” he writes in his beautiful poem “Ave Maria.”
“They’ll be in some glamourous country/they first saw on a Saturday afternoon or playing hookey/they may even be grateful to you/for their first sexual experience.”
On re-reading Lunch Poems, “I remembered how conservative and formal most contemporary American poetry was at the time,” writes poet John Ashbery in the forward to the book’s 50th anniversary edition, “No other poetry collection of the `60s did more to shatter the congealed surface of contemporary academic poetry.”
O’Hara even “gets away with” using the word “fuck” occasionally in his poetry, writes Ashbery, who is gay, “and yet he’s no macho spewer of hard truths, but a kind…deeply curious and attractive younger man, passing a few minutes of speculative rumination before heading back to the office, like all of us.”
In large part, O’Hara was responsible for the energy that changed American letters from its 1950s “gloves and veils” poetry to everyday speech “with natural cadence, and a ‘lay it like you say it’ colloquialism,” Grace Cavalieri, producer of the radio show “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress,” emailed the Blade.
He taught us to be authentic, Cavalieri wrote. “So many imitated him because he knew who he was; and wanted to know themselves and speak of it.”
O’Hara, who worked as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, and wrote many of his poems on his lunch hour, famously called his work “I do this I do that” poetry. But don’t be fooled by this. Because his poems are conversational in tone, and frequently refer to his friends (such as the poet Kenneth Koch); his lover Joseph LeSueur; and Bette Davis, Lana Turner and other stars, you might think you could successfully channel his style. If you attempt this, as I have, you’re likely to find that you’ll fall on your poetic butt, trying to be the next Frank O’Hara.
He earned a bachelor’s in English from Harvard in 1950 and a master’s in English from the University of Michigan in 1951. “O’Hara was a first-class intellectual,” Cavalieri wrote. “He just wanted lunch at the foot of Mount Olympus where the party was.”
You don’t have to be a smoker or a New Yorker to love his poem called “Steps.” Reading it, like hearing a fab song, makes you want to dance.
“How funny you are today New York/like Ginger Rogers in Swingtime/…” writes O’Hara in “Steps,” “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.”
Don’t miss out. With your fave libation in hand, celebrate Lunch Poems — the little book that’s still the life of the party.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.