“I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love.” ~ Frank O’Hara
Lunch hour! Let’s step into Frank O’Hara’s shoes as he scurries around Manhattan.
STEPS by Frank O'Hara How funny you are today New York like Ginger Rogers in Swingtime and St. Bridget’s steeple leaning a little to the left here I have just jumped out of a bed full of V-days (I got tired of D-days) and blue you there still accepts me foolish and free all I want is a room up there and you in it and even the traffic halt so thick is a way for people to rub up against each other and when their surgical appliances lock they stay together for the rest of the day (what a day) I go by to check a slide and I say that painting’s not so blue where’s Lana Turner she’s out eating and Garbo’s backstage at the Met everyone’s taking their coat off so they can show a rib-cage to the rib-watchers and the park’s full of dancers with their tights and shoes in little bags who are often mistaken for worker-outers at the West Side Y why not the Pittsburgh Pirates shout because they won and in a sense we’re all winning we’re alive the apartment was vacated by a gay couple who moved to the country for fun they moved a day too soon even the stabbings are helping the population explosion though in the wrong country and all those liars have left the UN the Seagram Building’s no longer rivalled in interest not that we need liquor (we just like it) and the little box is out on the sidewalk next to the delicatessen so the old man can sit on it and drink beer and get knocked off it by his wife later in the day while the sun is still shining 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 ~ from Lunch Poems (City Lights Books, 1964)
No one does ‘New York joie de vivre’ better than Frank O’Hara. Witty, urbane, chatty and endlessly charming, he breezes through his poems with an endearing, off-the-cuff casualness that steals your heart.
While working as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in NYC, he spent his lunch hours wandering around Midtown, chronicling sights, sounds, impressions, whatever was happening in the moment — writing what he called his “I do this, I do that” poems. Packed with pop-culture references, places, friends’ names, and infused with his own brand of humor, these spontaneous, improvisational gems riding on free association read more like spirited chitchat than Poems with a capital P. And that’s precisely what makes them so irresistible.
You move through “Steps” with a fascinated breathlessness; he’s got your full attention from the opening line. What’s this about? Where’s he going next? You may not understand all the specifics, but you’re caught up in his energy and exuberance, and before you know it, there’s Lana and Greta and the Pittsburgh Pirates, and yes, “we’re alive”!
By the time you reach the iconic final stanza, you’re totally disarmed by his direct, earnest declaration of love — simple words without an iota of pretension or sentimentality.
Some say O’Hara had ballet dancer and teacher Vincent Warren in mind when writing “Steps.” He was thought to be the love of O’Hara’s life, a muse who inspired the poet’s finest work.
In this context, the poem’s title, with its opening reference to Ginger Rogers and mention of the dancers in the park with “their tights and shoes in little bags” takes on added meaning.
“Steps” is also a love poem to New York itself, its quick-step rhythm replicating the bustle of the city, its “I can hardly wait to tell you” format an open hearted embrace of the “I’m in love with you, so I love the entire world” euphoria we all covet.
O’Hara broadened poetry’s possibilities with Lunch Poems, widely considered to be his freshest and most accomplished collection. His dazzling tally of reality feels just as immediate and up-to-date now as it did when it was first published 57 years ago.
Step out with me, Frank says, and live.
The chocolate-cake-baking, fly fishing educator, author, and high stepping poet Mary Lee Hahn is hosting the Roundup at A(nother) Year of Reading. Tap tap tap and cha cha cha over there to check out the full menu of poetic goodness being shared around the blogosphere this week. Happy November!
Now, enjoy some of Fred and Ginger’s high stepping in “Swing Time”:
*Copyright © 2021 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.