Frank O’Hara

3 posts

Lunch with Frank O’Hara

blue angel

What will you have for lunch? The filling and beautifully-messy pastrami and rye? The “who-am-I-kidding?” rabbit-food special of salad and soup? The send-me-back-to-the-60s special of three martinis?

For Frank O’Hara, I’m seeing on my reread of Lunch Poems, it’s a deceiving mix of prepared nonchalance with a dash of oxymoronic condiment. Seemingly off-the-cuff, many of these poems likely took more time and revision than first glance might indicate.

A good example is his poem called (exotically enough) “Five Poems,” which looks suspiciously like one poem divided into a 5-layer cake by dividers. In the first, O’Hara alludes to a “white night,” which brings Russia’s white nights and Dostoevsky to mind for this reader. It also contains two wonderful similes: “calm as a rug or a bottle of pills.” Valley of the Dolls, anyone?

Stanza (er, Poem) #2 has a line in all caps, showing that O’Hara would be a natural in the Age of the Internet (pass the emoticons, please). What I love here is how he draws a lesson from his lack of money. The guy has 16 cents and a package of yogurt (spelled the British way, yet: yoghurt) and what does it bring to mind? A leaf falling in Chinese poetry. But of course! Li Po in Central Park!

Poem #3 really hits it out of the park. O’Hara struts his learned ignorance big-time, playing casual while casually dropping names: Cadoret, Varése, and Adolph Gottlieb. Cadoret is a name recognized by connoisseurs of oysters and fine wines, Monsieur (which is why I didn’t recognize it). Et Edgar Varése was a French composer (who is now decomposing, no doubt). Gottlieb? An American abstract painter. How’s that for an unlikely holy trinity at noon? O’Hara ends this poem sleeping on the British yoghurt and dreaming of the Persian Gulf (pre-Revolutionary Guards, I take it).

In Poem #4 we get the lines “I knew why I love taxis, yes / subways are only fun when you’re felling sexy / and who feels sexy after The Blue Angel / well maybe a little bit.” Funny, but esoteric, too. More “prepared nonchalance” for the reader, thank you, The Blue Angel being a 1930 German film starring the lovely Marlene Dietrich.

What I like is the prophetic final poem, the one-liner: “I seem to be defying fate, or am I avoiding it?” Poor guy. Given his tragic end, being run down by a beach taxi only a few years after this collection came out, I’d say he was only avoiding it, as fate–greedy as it is–will not be denied. Fate and fatal are not second cousins twice removed for nothing!

Here is the poem in full, con brio!


“Five Poems” by Frank O’Hara

Well now, hold on
maybe I won’t go to sleep at all
and it’ll be a beautiful white night
or else I’ll collapse
completely from nerves and be calm
as a rug or a bottle of pills
or suddenly I’ll be off Montauk
swimming and loving it and not caring where

an invitation to lunch
when I only have 16 cents and 2
packages of yoghurt
there’s a lesson in that, isn’t there
like in Chinese poetry when a leaf falls?
hold off on the yoghurt till the very
last, when everything may improve

at the Rond-Point they were eating
an oyster, but here
we were dropping by sculptures
and seeing some paintings
and the smasheroo-grates of Cadoret
and music by Varese, too
well Adolph Gottlieb I guess you
are the hero of this day
along with venison and Bill

I’ll sleep on the yoghurt and dream of the Persian Gulf

which I did it was wonderful
to be in bed again and the knock
on my door for once signified “hi there”
and on the deafening walk
through the ghettos where bombs have gone off lately
left by subway violators
I knew why I love taxis, yes
subways are only fun when you’re feeling sexy
and who feels sexy after The Blue Angel
well maybe a little bit

I seem to be defying fate, or am I avoiding it?

Writing About Not Being Able to Write About Frank O’Hara

For the record, non-fiction writer Ada Calhoun is *not* “also a poet.” Her book wanted to be a biography of Frank O’Hara but it’s not that, either. It almost wound up being a memoir, but alas, it’s not quite that, either.

Honestly, her book had no choice in the matter. Her father Peter Schjeldahl had collected all manner of taped interviews of people who knew Frank O’Hara, intending to write a biography of the New York School poet, but it all came to naught, partly because of his make-up and mostly because of the recalcitrance of O’Hara’s sister Maureen Granville-Smith, who is the literary executor of Frank’s estate.

Upon discovery of the tapes, daughter Ada decides to fill Dad’s big shoes by writing Frank’s bio herself, picking up where he left off. Only there’s this problem called Maureen Granville-Smith, still alive and well, still recalcitrant, and every bit as stubborn about blocking a bio by Ada as she was a bio by her dad.

This leaves Ada with little choice but to write a semi-biographical O’Hara book and a semi-memoir of herself book — the story of her attempt to write an O’Hara biography, how it brought to a head some lifelong issues she’d had with her dad, and how the manuscript wrestled on the floor, two genres fighting it out to a draw.

Thus you get word-for-word excerpts from Peter’s tapes of people who knew Frank O’Hara because Dad gave Ada permission to try where he failed. She fails, too, and provides a transcript of her phone conversation with Frank’s sister, who comes across as a termagant sure that no one can do her boy Frank justice.


But the book itself is weirdly wonderful. It leans more frankly in a biography kind of way in the first half, then in a decisive memoir kind of way in the second. What is it about these artistic fathers who don’t know how to love their children, even when their children enter the same trade, in this case, the trade of writing? Rhetorical question.

Interesting? Firstly the excerpts from the tapes. Then, as the story builds, the dynamic between father and daughter. And trivia. Lots of trivia and odd bits, like Ada sharing her favorite O’Hara poem, which led me to my copy of The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara edited by Donald Allen. For the curious, here it is:


To the Harbormaster

I wanted to be sure to reach you;
though my ship was on the way it got caught
in some moorings. I am always tying up
and then deciding to depart. In storms and
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide
around my fathomless arms, I am unable
to understand the forms of my vanity
or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder
in my hand and the sun sinking. To
you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage
of my will. The terrible channels where
the wind drives me against the brown lips
of the reeds are not all behind me. Yet
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks, it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.


No, not O’Hara’s most famous poem by any means, but probably one that speaks to Ada Calhoun because she reads “father-daughter” into it (whereas O’Hara had some other relationship in mind).

Another oddity: one of O’Hara’s (who worked at the MoMA) favorite paintings is Rembrandt’s The Polish Rider. Again, not something that comes to mind when one thinks of the Dutch Master smoking cigars while New York poets originally from Grafton, MA, (of all nearby places!) might choose one of his works as “great,” but Frank kind of liked the looks of the horseman. You can find him riding online. The Pole, not Frank.

OK, wrap-up time.

Who would like this unaligned genre of a book? Certainly peeps interested in poetry in general and O’Hara in particular. Or fans of the anything-goes NYC scene in the 50s and 60s (even were he never struck and killed in July of ’66 by a dune buggy at the beach on Fire Island, I fear O’Hara’s liver would have taken him down soon enough). Or readers with a particular interest in problematic family relationships— in this case, a daughter who must forge a separate peace because the daddy she so wants to impress is who he is, as imperfect as any Y-chromosome can be.

If you fit one of those descriptions, you should pick it up. If not and you’re curious, pick it up as well. Over, out, and also a poet,

Ken C.

“I Am Naked as a Table Cloth”

One of the great things about being a feral poet–one that wouldn’t know M, F, or A if he fell over them–is discovering poets that everyone else in the poetry world (hint: it’s precious small) has known forever. This week I met Frank O’Hara for the first time via his seminal work, Lunch Poems.

When I reviewed the book, I said I read the poems through the hair of my eyebrows. By that I meant I was frowning, not so much in disapproval as in wonder, at what I was reading. This guy was joyfully off the New York wall. Other people told me, with a bit of ennui built over time, “Oh, yes. He’s of the wonderful New York School.” Me, I missed the boat (not to mention the school), growing up in Connecticut, a few precincts over.

Anyway, here’s the first thing that hit me this week–the first poem in O’Hara’s collection of Manhattan lunches, written in 1953 before I was me:


“Music” by Frank O’Hara

If I rest for a moment near The Equestrian
pausing for a liver sausage sandwich in the Mayflower Shoppe,
that angel seems to be leading the horse into Bergdorf’s
and I am naked as a table cloth, my nerves humming.
Close to the fear of war and the stars which have disappeared.
I have in my hands only 35c, it’s so meaningless to eat!
and gusts of water spray over the basins of leaves
like the hammers of a glass pianoforte. If I seem to you
to have lavender lips under the leaves of the world,
I must tighten my belt.
It’s like a locomotive on the march, the season
of distress and clarity
and my door is open to the evenings of midwinter’s
lightly falling snow over the newspapers.
Clasp me in your handkerchief like a tear, trumpet
of early afternoon! in the foggy autumn.
As they’re putting up the Christmas trees on Park Avenue
I shall see my daydreams walking by with dogs in blankets,
put to some use before all those coloured lights come on!
But no more fountains and no more rain,
and the stores stay open terribly late.


Doing a bit of research on O’Hara, I see he died a bizarre death but a few years after the publication of this book, getting hit by a beach taxi (whatever that is) on Fire Island and dying at the tender age of 40. Granted, not as bad as Keats dying at 25, but still a loss, considering  what fun might remain in the non sequiturs-to-be that was his poetry.

In case you missed it, here’s the New York Times tribute to Lunch Poems on its 50th birthday. Meanwhile, I’ll do some rereading and un-frowning. When it comes to poetry, there’s nothing quite like “What the–?” rereading to smooth the brow.