A Poem For Saturday

Dish poetry editor Alice Quinn writes:

There is no one I would rather read on the subject of Frank O’Hara than John Ashbery. He introduced the Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, which Alfred A. Knopf originally published in 1971, edited by Donald Allen. And now he’s written a short introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of Lunch Poems, which debuted as Number Nineteen in the legendary City Lights Pocket Poets series, and is now reissued with facsimiles of previously unpublished letters between O’Hara and his editor, Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

On the outside, though, the book looks exactly as it always has, and we learn in one of the O’Hara letters that the familiar—and to so many of us cherished—cover was the choice of the poet, “What color is lunch? Maybe some sort of lipsticky red? (My favorite colors are actually orange and blue.)” We also learn that he didn’t care about the chronological arrangement of the poems in his first major book but did want the date of composition listed after each poem “as it is in Allen’s [Ginsberg’s] Reality Sandwiches.”

“No other poetry collection of the ‘60s did more to shatter the congealed surface of contemporary academic poetry,” Ashbery writes. “Freed from his Museum of Modern Art desk job for an hour or so at lunchtime, O’Hara wanders the streets of midtown, free-associating about trips he has taken, including a recent one to Spain on MoMA business, on which I accompanied him, and to Paris, where he has many friends. . . .Frank’s disabused enthusiasm carries the reader to a marvelous half-fictive universe where we bump elbows with Lana Turner, Billie Holiday, Rachmaninoff, and the Mothers of America, whom he urges: ‘let your kids go to the movies! . . .They may even be grateful to you/ for their first sexual experience.’ Horrors! To compound this unthinkable suggestion, O’Hara even gets away with using the word ‘fuck’ more than once, and yet he’s no macho spewer of hard truths, but a kind, inquiring, deeply curious and attractive youngish man, passing a few minutes of speculative rumination before heading back to the office, like all of us.”

“Song (Is it dirty)” by Frank O’Hara:

Is it dirty
does it look dirty
that’s what you think of in the city

does it just seem dirty
that’s what you think of in the city
you don’t refuse to breathe do you

someone comes along with a very bad character
he seems attractive. is he really. yes. very
he’s attractive as his character is bad. is it. yes

that’s what you think of in the city
run your finger along your no-moss mind
that’s not a thought that’s soot

and you take a lot of dirt off someone
is the character less bad. no. it improves constantly
you don’t refuse to breathe do you

– 1959

(From Lunch Poems, Expanded 50th Anniversary Edition © 1964, 2014 by Maureen Granville-Smith, Administratrix of the Estate of Frank O’Hara. Used by permission of City Lights Books, San Francisco)