It was slightly surprising that Frank O’Hara’s 1964 collection Lunch Poems came in at number six on our list, but it turns out to be a very good way of looking at New York City. As NYU professor Lytle Shaw, author of the book Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterieexplains “Lunch Poems is a condensed and highly accessible book that is smaller than a subway map.” That feature makes it easy to take the book anywhere. Shaw described it as having the potential to “acclimatize you to the things New York has to offer.” (continue reading)
O'Hara is unlike many mid-century poets, not only in how he structured his work, but what he chose to include in it. "He was happy to welcome Ginger Rogers and Lana Turner onto the same pages as Picasso and Beckett,” Shaw said. Listen to Frank O’Hara reading the poem “Lana Turner has Collapsed!” here.
The collection contains poems written over the course of 11 years, starting in 1953, and is filled with references to New York, from Times Square and Bergdorf’s to places that do not even exist anymore. It’s a period in New York history that seems increasingly unrecognizable to us (despite mention of O’Hara in TV shows like "Mad Men"). “This is a time when most artists can afford to live in Manhattan,” Shaw said. “It’s a more intimate and workable New York for the arts community in which you can go to a particular bar and expect to see a range of painters you know. I can’t think of a place like that now.”
The collection also places New York as a global cultural center. “It’s a map of the possibilities of the city,” Shaw said. “It’s also a map of New York’s relationship to the rest of the world.” Take this excerpt from “The Day Lady Died”:
I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
Lunch Poems also contains references to the Soviet Union, Spain, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. “Culture from all around the world is washing up here, being appropriated and being Americanized,” Shaw said. “O’Hara is always emphasizing how these cultural objects are coming into New York City— to this mixing center where all great things move through—rather than to his mind or his apartment.” The action, it seems, is always in the streets.
In another poem, O’Hara imagines that a visiting Nikita Khrushchev would avoid nuking New York because he would be so overcome by its beauty. While we can never know if the Soviet Premier fell in love with the city's skyline, we do know that much of the writing of this period did help draw others to New York. “A lot of us were attracted to New York through representations that can be found in Lunch Poems,” Shaw said. That fact has helped transform the city into what it is today. “Of course, all the people who were seduced by the writing of that period and who’ve come here are now forced to live seven stops out on the subway.”