Reading a 1960s Village writer’s “Lunch Poems”

Frankoharacedartavern“It’s my lunch hour, so I go for a walk among the hum-colored cabs.”

So begins Frank O’Hara in “A Step Away From Them,” one of his witty, observational Lunch Poems.

The name comes from the time of day when they were supposedly written: during O’Hara’s lunch hour in Midtown, when he worked as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art.

Born in Baltimore and a graduate of Harvard, O’Hara arrived in the city in the early 1950s, a time when abstract expressionist painters and Beat poets were hitting their stride.

FrankoharaapartmentAnd both were meeting and drinking at bars like the San Remo and the Cedar Tavern (top photo; O’Hara is in the center), next door to O’Hara’s apartment at 90 University Place (left), which he shared with then-partner Joe LeSueur.

The Lunch Poems were published in 1964, and they are of their time, with references to no-longer-there restaurants and long-gone starlets and sometimes a campy sensibility.

But the New York O’Hara writes about—the culture, the noise, the crowds, the way the Sixth Avenue bus “trunk-lumbers sideways” so full of people, is still the city of today.

In “Music,” he references Grand Army Plaza by Central Park and the statue of William Sherman on a horse, led by an angel:

Frankoharapoems“If I rest for a moment near The Equestrian
pausing for a liver sausage sandwich in the Mayflower Shoppe,
that angel seems to be leading the horse into Bergdorf’s

“The Day Lady Died” is about Billie Holiday:

“I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
Then go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfield Theater and casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
Of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it”

O’Hara wrote other poems too, and he also made a name for himself as an art critic.

The Lunch Poems, though, were his last collected volume. He died prematurely after being hit by a beach taxi on Fire Island in 1966 when he was only 40.

FrankoharamomaPerhaps his most relatable verse, chronicling day-to-day life in a pre-Bloomberg city of smokers drinking coffee they made themselves, comes from “Steps”:

“oh god, it’s wonderful
to get out of bed
and drink too much coffee
and smoke too many cigarettes
and love you so much”

[Photo of O’Hara in front of MOMA: newyorkschoolpoets.wordpresscom]

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9 Responses to “Reading a 1960s Village writer’s “Lunch Poems””

  1. Lu Says:

    Thanks for the Lady Day Poem—the Village when it nurtured artists….

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Yes, 50 years ago!

  3. Penelope Bianchi Says:

    I love your posts! Wonderful!

  4. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thank you! I highly recommend these poems, they are a recent discovery for me.

  5. georgebeach Says:

    New poetry for me, too. Thanks.

  6. Jeffrey Johnson Says:

    really enjoyed this

  7. Agantuk Says:

    very nice. I am quite fond of Frank O’Hara writings

  8. fugabi Says:

    “One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes—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. It is more important to affirm the least sincere; the clouds get enough attention as it is and even they continue to pass. Do they know what they’re missing? Uh huh.” – this is a fragment from Meditations in an Emergency, by O’Hara.

    I just thought it might find its place in here.

    Thank you for the post.

  9. Linkage: LPC Says No to Churches; BAM North Site II Breaks Ground | LIBERTY ALLIANCE Says:

    […] Avenue A [BB] · Ruined bridge in Hudson off Riverside Park will get makeover [DNAinfo] · The many joys of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems [ENY] · Construction has started at BAM North Site II […]

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