An Ode to New York City

In 1959, Lawrence Ferlinghetti commissioned Frank O’Hara to write “Lunch Poems.” However, O’Hara’s constant delays meant that the Pocket Poem Series wasn’t published until 1964.  Ferlinghetti would famously badger the poet for the finalized version, asking “how about lunch, I’m hungry.” “Cooking,” O’Hara would always reply. 

In its completion, O’Hara’s “Lunch Poems” is a whimsical and personal volume in which the author’s attention to detail captures the dual excitement and monotony of everyday life in New York City. The title refers to O’Hara’s ability to keep one watchful eye on the bustle of his city and the other on his meal during his lunch hour. The poet evinces his humble nature, observing and analyzing the unobtrusive, unknown members of Manhattan along with its infamous, who practically glimmer on the poet’s pages as they exalt in the flamboyant, rude and exhilarating life of the ’60s. From the pomp of prominent ladies’ avant-garde fashion in “The Day Lady Died” to the habits of anonymous, over-protective American mothers of “Ave Maria,” O’Hara writes with a clarity and composure that enables the reader to devour the set of poems easily during his or her own all-too-short

lunch hour.

O’Hara’s breezy tone compacts the spontaneity of his lunch hour discourses and sights. As the poet writes during a time of solitude – a lonely lunch hour in a bustling city – he represents the only fixated point in an otherwise transient and moving world. However, O’Hara is not intimidated but pleased by the private time afforded to him each day. Moving from Juliet’s Corner to Times Square, he considers his personal connections to others. The poet takes time to think of his deceased friends Jackson Pollock and John Latouche, wondering “is the earth as full as life was full, of them,” in “A Step Away From Them.” O’Hara, however, finds joy and reassurance from humanity as a whole as revealed through his meditations on what famed actresses Lana Turner and Greta Garbo ate each evening. The city, O’Hara believes, is beautiful due to its ability to make its inhabitants feel less alone. 

In “Steps,” the poet cogently writes, “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.”

O’Hara’s message of unity is strengthened by “Lunch Poems'” impressive attention to detail, as seen through the multitude of pop-culture references and historical icons featured in its pages. 

While O’Hara describes the harsh realities of a mother’s worries coming true in “Ave Maria” – “the family breaks up/and your children grow old and blind in front of a TV set/seeing movies you wouldn’t let them see when they were young” – the poem’s over-arching tones of sweet romanticism are also revealed in the lines, “as gratuitous as leaving the movie before it’s over/with a pleasant stranger whose apartment is in the Heaven on Earth Bldg/near the Williamsburg Bridge.” 

While native New Yorkers can better envision the charm and beauty of the affluent Lower East Side’s pre-war apartments, all can understand how the poet’s sweet imagery blurs the rough edges of this mother’s fears.

A true grab bag of New York City life, O’Hara’s “Lunch Poems” holds a place in the poetic canon for its personal and casual approach. It is this pre-eminent poet’s self-awareness that enables him to bind together a kaleidoscope of city images and draw his own individuality from the vibrant center, celebrating his own strong identity within the roaring

whole in. 

In “Steps,” the poet writes, “The Pittsburgh Pirates shout because they won/and in a sense we’re all winning/we’re alive.” 

Here lies the quintessential O’Hara: self-fulfilled and ready to fill himself with an excess of experiences in the stadiums, theatres and alleyways of one of the world’s greatest cities.

Contact Leah Robinson 

at [email protected].