Baltimore City Paper

'Lunch Poems' by Baltimore-born Frank O'Hara turns 50

Frank O'Hara wrote that his theory of poetry—a theory that he dubbed "Personism" in a mock manifesto by the same name—places the poem "squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified." If you're unfamiliar with the term, a quick Google search will show that a "Lucky Pierre" is 1940s slang referring to the man in the middle of two fellow partners during a threesome.

There is perhaps no better or more fitting way of rendering the immediacy of feeling produced by Frank O’Hara’s refined, inventive, and intensely personal poetry than by comparing the poem itself to the middleman sandwiched between two individuals during a most intimate interaction. O’Hara believed that “the poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of O’Hara’s renowned poetry collection “Lunch Poems,” first published by City Lights in 1964. City Lights has recently reissued the collection as a limited 50th-anniversary edition, complete with a new preface by John Ashbery, an editor’s note written by City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and selected correspondence between Ferlinghetti and O’Hara.

O'Hara himself was born in Baltimore on March 27, 1926 at Maryland General Hospital, though his parents always held that he had been born in June to prevent him from finding out he was conceived before they were officially married.  Although he only lived in Baltimore for a year and a half before relocating to Grafton, Massachusetts, O'Hara harbored a love of city life (particularly New York City in his adulthood) that saturated nearly all of his poems. Of his love of the city, O'Hara wrote, "I have never clogged myself with the praises of pastoral life . . . I can't even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there's a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life." In a poem entitled 'Ode to Michael Goldberg's (Birth and Other Births),' O'Hara touches on his early days in Baltimore as he reflects on his own birth:


On the heels of the 50th anniversary of "Lunch Poems," O'Hara's work has been the subject of renewed interest. This past June, The Poetry Project organized a group marathon-reading of the collection in New York City, in which various city-based poets and writers celebrated its reissue by reading the book aloud from cover to cover. That same month, The Poetry Project also teamed up with the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation to unveil a new bronze plaque at O'Hara's old East Village home. This past October, UC Berkeley's "Lunch Poems: A Noontime Poetry Series" also hosted a poetry reading and celebration of "Lunch Poems'" 50th anniversary, paying homage to the man behind the name of their series.

New York City's art scene served as fodder for much of O'Hara's collection. In his preface, Ashbery recalls O'Hara's rather casual process of gathering inspiration and composing his poems: "Freed from his MoMA desk job for an hour or so at lunchtime, O'Hara wanders the streets of midtown, free-associating about trips he has taken." After moving to the city in 1951, O'Hara got a job selling postcards at the Museum of Modern Art, and in spite of the fact he had no formal training, eventually ascended to the position of curator. Often referred to as a "poet among painters," O'Hara was deeply interested in the arts, penning well-received critical essays in publications such as ARTNews and surrounding himself with a variety of painters and other visual artists. His New York Times obituary headline read: "Exhibitions Aide at Modern Art Dies — Also a Poet," speaking volumes of his influence in the art world—and growing reputation as a poet.


O'Hara died in July 1966, two years after the initial publication of "Lunch Poems," after being struck by a dune buggy on Fire Island. His final poem, entitled 'Biotherm,' written as a birthday poem for friend and poet Bill Berkson, encapsulates the kind of breezy-yet-personal tone that pervades his earlier collection: "the world of thrills! 7 Lively Arts! Week-in-Review! Whew/ if you lie there asleep on the floor after lunch/ what else is there for me to do but adore you." In this last long poem, O'Hara's passion for visual art blends with his characteristically casual poetic voice, taking great care in the unusual spacing, line length, and indentation of the poem.

Timeless and still treasured, "Lunch Poems" has become emblematic of mid-20th-century post-war poetry. In one poem of the collection entitled 'Personal Poem,' O'Hara writes, "I wonder if one person out of 8,000,000 is thinking of me." Fifty years later, there is no need to wonder—O'Hara and his work have proven an enduring and remarkably influential poetic institution.