Lunching with Frank O’Hara

“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.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in “Swing Time” (1936)
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)
“Dancers in Central Park” by Leonard McCombe (1961)

*

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.

“Double Portrait of Frank O’Hara” by Larry Rivers (1955)

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.

“Frank O’Hara” by Alice Neel (1960)

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. 

These words greet visitors at MoMA’s “Frank O’Hara-Lunchtime Poet” exhibit.

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.

Vincent Warren and Frank O’Hara photo by George Montgomery

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.

“Frank O’Hara” by Elaine de Kooning (1962)

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.

34 thoughts on “Lunching with Frank O’Hara

  1. S’wonderful, full of life post Jama, so lively and full of energy. Yes—to O’Hara’s matter of fact casualty! Love the 💃 in Central Park, all the paintings of O’Hara by Elaine de Kooning, Alice Neel, and Larry Rivers, First and last straight out of “Ninth Street Women, “ the 700 + pager I’m still reading… And what fun to see Ginger and Fred fly around the small dance floor, over the gates and out! With smiles and thanks! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for joining in on the fun, Michelle. Ninth Street Women sounds fascinating. I’m always open to learning more about female artists, esp. those who never got the credit they deserved.

      Like

  2. “Steps” is a step just far enough…”and in a sense we’re all winning
    we’re alive” – Yes! Thank you for putting O’Hara’s joie de vivre in my day, Jama! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh, Wow, Jama! This post ending with Fred and Ginger dancing lifted my spirits so much! I love New York and to read O’Hara’s poem if to feel a bit more alive. Wonderful! I have to get his book “Lunch Poems.” Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you, Jama! Such movement and joy for Poetry Friday. I wasn’t introduced to O’Hara’s poetry until a few years ago and wondered why I hadn’t read any before. ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He’s one poet you never forget once you’ve read his work. I’ve featured a couple of other O’Hara poems here on the blog before and love them all. 🙂

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  5. Thank you for affirming my experience reading this poem. I did “not understand all the specifics, but you’re [I definitely got] caught up in his energy and exuberance.” And that ending! Yes, yes, YES! (except substitute “eat too much leftover Halloween candy” for “smoke too many cigarettes.”) And now I’m off to read more Frank O’Hara!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The fact that he includes specifics I’m not familiar with doesn’t deter me from enjoying his poetry. In fact, I’ve learned a lot from looking up some of those references and seeing how all the pieces fit together. 🙂

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  6. I love going back and finding poets I’d kind of forgotten. There’s always so much new, but it’s a lovely revisit and I love the details you bring out in your explanations. There’s just a pulse and a brightness to any city, and he just burnishes his NY experience and makes it shine.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, pulse and brightness and burnishing!! It also feels comforting to read his work in some ways because it makes me remember a time before our country was truly falling apart. And yet, I’m sure he faced many challenges being a gay man in the 50’s and 60s.

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  7. So much to love in this post! Thank you, Jama for being the researcher and story teller you are. My goodness, how do you do it? Your post last week led to my sillies with Hamish. I couldn’t help it!

    Made with Padlet

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Jama, thanks for taking the time to express some of what I adore about Frank O’Hara–the person, the figure, the poet. From Frank I learned that the exclamation mark is not to be eschewed by the serious poet, that bits through accumulation form an emotional whole. Delighted!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Your fascinating post led me to do some O’Hara digging. Did you know his roommate at Harvard was Edward Gorey? What interesting conversations they may have had once upon a time! Thanks Jama.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I agree with Frank O’Hara – all I want is boundless love, too! I love his wry humor – “even the stabbings” – and the way he embraces city life and the hurry and bustle of it. Thank you for this! Ruth, thereisnosuchthingasagodforsakentown.blogspot.com

    Liked by 1 person

  11. “…in a sense we’re all winning/we’re alive” — oh, yes. And the exuberance of that final stanza. Gotta love a Frank O’Hara poem for all its frankness and Frankness. Thanks, Jama, for a wonderful way to start my Monday. (Feeling glad that I’m running behind on Poetry Friday posts.) 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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