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Notes on Lunch Poems

August 11, 2021

Lunch Poems, by Frank O’Hara, is recommended reading on my course.

  • I can’t recall how many copies of Lunch Poems I’ve bought over the years. Plenty! I buy it as a gift for friends if they haven’t come across it already.It works well as a small minding.
  • (Though recently, Louis McNeice’s Autumn Journal has become my go-to gift).
  • We have two copies of Lunch Poems on the shelf at home. One of them is mine, the other is a copy I bought my wife when we were courting).
  • I re-read Lunch Poems every couple of years. It surprises me every time.
  • I love the form factor of the City Lights books. I love the fact that I can shove it in my pocket when I go out, so if I’m ever stuck for something to read on a train or waiting for someone, I can fish it out.
  • I’ve read it front to back several times. I’ve dipped in to read my favourite poems fifty times more.
  • At its best, Lunch Poems defines the poetry of work-a-day Manhattan. The Lunch Poem poems are very modern, both topically and stylistically. They are city poems, reflecting the working life in mid-town.
  • They are formless and are full of fun. And, though they don’t shy away from grief, they come at it obliquely, as if nothing is wrong, until it becomes clear that something is wrong, (I’m thinking of The Day Lady Died).
  • I love that O’Hara has an active sense of humour within his poems, only to suddenly chuck in death and violence, where needed, to reflected the world around him.
  • The poems that I care for least are his surreal, dadaist poems. I can’t be arsed with them, most times, and skip over them if I’m not in the mood. They don’t add up to much, though the language in them is rich and the ideas can be interesting. O’Hara wrote many few poems that adopted the largesse of surrealism. It’s easy to think that those poems were his nod to the painters and thinkers around him, as if he was trying to create something avant garden in keeping with his drinking partners at the Cedar Lounge, but it’s more likely that he wrote them because he liked writing them. I find them easy to ignore them.
  • O’Hara’s poems that actually discuss lunch are up there with my favourite poems of all time. As I say, very modern. Very urban. Very urbane.
  • My favourite poem of O’Hara’s is Morning, which isn’t in Lunch Poems. I came across it in his Selected Poems that I borrowed from Manchester Polytechnic Library, or maybe at Manchester Central Library when I was working there on a secondment. I copied it out and kept it at the front of my notebook. I’ve probably still got the copy somewhere.

I’ve got to tell you
how I love you always
I think of it on grey
mornings with death

in my mouth…


… do you know how it is

when you are the only
passenger if there is a
place further from me
I beg you do not go

  • I love that poem, (even though I don’t care for anchovies).
  • I love his lyrical poetry. It gets me every time.
  • He uses language very gently, albeit within the honk of New York taxis and builders’ drills.
  • Lunch Poems makes me wonder how openly gay he could be in New York in the 50s. Manhattan back then would have been as open as anywhere in the world, especially for someone who was working in the arts, but still, would his landlord/lady have been understanding? Would he get sneered at in bars? When he went to Fire Island, did the locals turn nasty? (The nearest I can get to imagining this is Sammy Clay’s relationship with Tracy Bacon in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay). Which makes me think, I’ve never seen a biography of Frank O’Hara. Maybe there is one but I missed it. I’m going to check it out.
  • I once read that he thought himself too square for the hips, too hip for the squares. I can see that. I think there are a lot of people who like that, who hold liberal views but still need to hold down regular jobs. I’m probably one of them.
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