Saturday, August 9, 2014

"Lunch Poems": Frank O'Hara's masterpiece is 50 years old

Frank O’Hara published a poem he wrote in 1964 about where he was and what he was doing when he heard that fabled jazz and blues singer Billie Holiday passed away. There is temptation to scratch your head after you read and offer a dumbfounded groan, wondering what the hell this babbling prattle might be. I had the same response, but repeat readings of the poem gave me a blue, as second and third readings of verse that reveal themselves like opened Christmas gifts often do. The poem isn’t about Holiday, it does sing her praises or moon over the soul and genius that is no longer hours to witness live and suffering for our entertainment. What had been remarked about her was already said, what she had done was well known fact and the stuff of legend; her music was the kind that seeped into the soul and played the over tuned strings of your heart, as was the case with O’Hara. The city poet was going about his business scurrying New York City getting things done, crowding his hours with chats, errands, music, a drink, more chatter, a day like another, indistinguishable until the the latest of worst possible things that could happen , happens:

The Day Lady Died
BY FRANK O'HARAIt is 12:20 in New York a Fridaythree days after Bastille day, yesit is 1959 and I go get a shoeshinebecause I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton   at 7:15 and then go straight to dinnerand I don’t know the people who will feed me I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun   and have a hamburger and a malted and buyan ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets   in Ghana are doing these days                                                        I go on to the bankand Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)   doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life   and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine   for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do   think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or   Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègresof Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaineafter practically going to sleep with quandariness and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANELiquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and   then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue   and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and   casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a cartonof Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking ofleaning on the john door in the 5 SPOTwhile she whispered a song along the keyboardto Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing. 


A perfect monologue of someone's hurried, distracted trek through a bustling city scape , attempting to get things done and then prepare themselves for later pleasure or duties performed , an accounting of inane events, a list of stupid rituals and stop overs that merge suddenly with news of incredible sadness, a deep sharp wound that is made that brings  on the ironic counter effect, a recollection of joy. Frank O'Hara's tribute to Lady Day makes sense and it is one of the very few that people remember from poetry because, I think, you have a sense that he is a friend who was standing next to you when first heard of the tragic passing of someone close to your heart. It's a poem that you re-read, over and over, through the decades. Frank O'Hara wrote more than a few poems like that.

It's been fifty years since the publication of Frank O'Hara's seminal book "Lunch Poems":, which means that I was twelve when it first appeared. It was a small book, part of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Pocket Poets series on his City Lights imprint, and it was one of those books you saw everywhere you went as a young person in search of experience, ideas, and kicks of a sort; it was on bookshelves and stuffed in back pockets all over the map, especially the city map. Reading Frank O'Hara was one of those authors you had to read in order to feel current with the alternative culture.


 Despite the book's ubiquity when I was a teen and a young poet/musician/critic looking to make a mark, I didn't read the volume until I was in my late twenties, after a couple of other poets I'd made friends with strongly suggested that my own work resembled O'Hara's. Curious, of course, I dug up the copy of "Lunch Poems" I bought a couple of years earlier, along with a stack of other assorted texts and which I had also left in said stack. How much my work resembles O'Hara is something for others to suss out, but I will say that I had made a new friend ; the poet's ebullient breeziness, his disdain for the formal conception of profundity, his ability to write a poem that seems wonderfully to capture the sense of an alert mind noticing the city and its citizens and the work and play they do simultaneously is, I think, one of the miracles of modern poetry. With its abrupt beginnings, swooning affection for the tacky, the tarnished and frayed, with its emotions obviously and playfully at the surface of all things engaged, O'Hara transformed the lyric poem; he brought the lone voice back from its time in the wilderness of  the deepest part of downtown and gave it the swing and brackish grit of fast, rapid played  bebop.

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