A New York State Of Rhyme

by Matthew Sitman

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, which Micah Mattix lauds as a love letter to New York City:

With its references to Park Avenue, Times Square, Pennsylvania Station, liver sausage sandwiches, the Five Spot, the Seagram Building, the opening of the American Folk Art Museum, and much more, it is a very New York book. O’Hara walks around the buzzing city, buys “a chocolate malted” or “a little Verlaine,” remembers a friend’s birthday, and talks to the Puerto Rican cabbies before rushing back to his desk at the MoMA with a copy of Reverdy’s poems in his pocket. Born in Baltimore and raised in Grafton, Massachusetts, O’Hara moved to New York in 1951 and stayed until his untimely death in 1966. The city offered freedom, possibility, movement, all of which O’Hara associated with life. “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass,” he once wrote, “unless I know there’s a subway handy.” It also offered him a community of fellow outcasts, poets, and artists who became, as Lytle Shaw notes, a surrogate family.

Lunch Poems is still popular with New Yorkers today: In 2012, when the Leonard Lopate Show asked listeners to vote on 10 objects that “best tell New York’s story,” it came in at number six—just above the Brooklyn Bridge.

Even more, Mattix finds the collection has “an appeal that reaches beyond the time and place it was written,” remaining popular, in part, because of the way O’Hara’s language resonates with our own:

Casual, sardonic, funny, and full of pop-culture references, Lunch Poems has all the brevity, informality, irony, and at times chatty pointlessness of modern discourse without having been influenced by it. The volume has never gone out of print, in part because O’Hara expresses himself in the same way modern Americans do: Like many of us, he tries to overcome the absurdity and loneliness of modern life by addressing an audience of anonymous others.

O’Hara’s Lunch Poems—like Facebook posts or tweets—shares, saves, and re-creates the poet’s experience of the world. He addresses others in order to combat a sense of loneliness, sharing his gossipy, sometimes snarky take of modern life, his unfiltered enthusiasm, and his boredom in a direct, conversational tone. In short, Lunch Poems, while 50 years old, is very a 21st-century book.

Last spring the Dish featured one of O’Hara’s poems here.