In a classroom on the Lower East Side where I teach poetry writing to eighth-graders, two headlines preside over separate bulletin boards. One says: “What poets do.” The other: “What poetry is.” “What poets do” tops a pleasingly varied list of activities: they notice things, they take notes, they use figurative language, they describe emotions. The sheet that hangs under “What poetry is,” however, is blank. The classroom teacher I work with presented this fact to me with chagrin—the class just couldn’t come up with anything concrete and containable enough to put under that heading. But I was thrilled. The two boards—one crowded with verbs, the other empty—seemed to perfectly encapsulate the irony and reality of poetry.
Frank O’Hara’s poems teem with “doing,” “I do this I do that” pieces, he sometimes called them. In Lunch Poems, the little book he wrote while working at MoMA (and I mean little literally, it is number 19 in the City Lights Pocket Poets Series, the perfect size and shape for a back pocket), “everything is tossing”—the wind, a woman’s blond hair, names in his head, conversation, subway cars, dirt. As a poet, O’Hara gathers all these fleeting elements up and then he tosses them across the page in lines that reanimate the streets and scenes he has witnessed.
The streets of New York City are very much the subject of these poems, and they are strikingly familiar even after half a century in stunning descriptions, like the “6th Avenue bus trunk-lumbers sideways.” But the streets are not the only subject, there is art (“sometimes I think I’m ‘in love’ with painting”), current events (Miles Davis beaten by police outside Birdland), and fantasy (swans gossiping about eating childrens’ fingers). In O’Hara’s poems, seeing and living get all tangled up with writing and reading, and then further entwined with feeling and imagining. Everything is gorgeously rendered, but the lines between them aren’t clear. When O’Hara’s heart is in his pocket, that heart “is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.”
“The main thing is to tell a story,” O’Hara writes in “Fantasy,” in a rare moment of assertion about his craft. He then continues, with a perfectly placed line break undercutting all prior certainty: “It is almost/very important.” I certainly can’t say “what poetry is.” But I know that I can’t stop reading Frank O’Hara’s poems.
Spend your lunch break with Stefania this Friday, June 8 in MoMA’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden as she reads some of her favorite Lunch Poems and shares guidelines for hitting the streets and writing your own. This is a great opportunity to reexperience O’Hara’s famous MoMA lunch breaks right where they happened—there is a tremendous amount to see, hear, and do.