A series of poems after Frank O’Hara attend to the “lost moments” of daily life in New York City
In this city, I’ve found it’s easy to get lost in the big moments of the day. Big moments like going to class, hitting a show at night, taking a trip to Central Park, or eating at some quaint restaurant. But there are a lot of little moments that get lost in between. Whether it’s a short lunch break, riding on the subway, or walking down an avenue, all of these little pieces of the day have significance to me, and only me. And each one is happening within the context of the biggest and most bustling city in the United States. So, even in the most “irrelevant” detail of my day, I like to think about the enormity of the city I am in. I have witnessed countless new faces, bravely crossed streets into whizzing traffic, and walked in the footsteps of many idols before me.
Because of this realization, I found myself drawn to Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems. The poems he included in his collection feel like they were written on one of his lunch breaks: marveling and remarking at the city in intellectual and personal ways, while remaining brief and slightly mundane. In his mock manifesto “Personism,” O’Hara writes, “I don’t even like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, ‘Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep.’”1 Following “Personism’s” insight on immediacy, I read O’Hara’s works as a way into his mind, without trying to connect his form to larger poetic conventions. O’Hara’s poetry encapsulates the experience of a modernist poet during the simpler parts of the day.
There are two pieces from Lunch Poems that I chose to include in my analysis: “Music” and “The Day Lady Died.” “Music” takes us from very specific locations to symbolic signs of seasonal change in New York. O’Hara mentions The Equestrian, the Mayflower Shoppe, Bergdorf’s, and Park Avenue as different landmarks during his search for “a liver sausage sandwich in the Mayflower Shoppe”2 In between these locations are lines that feel vague and lost in thought (“If I seem to you / to have lavender lips under the leaves of the world, /I must tighten my belt”), but the specific sequence of locations ground and center the poem around the city.3 O’Hara then transitions to commenting on how the “Christmas trees on Park Avenue,” “the “dogs in blankets,” and “those coloured lights,” are signs that Autumn is changing into winter.4 He expresses some sadness in this seasonal change, as if alluding to the extremes that New York goes to in order to sell this phenomenon of Christmas. The most specific example of this sentiment is in the lines, “Clasp me in your handkerchief like a tear, trumpet / of early afternoon!”5 This transition in the day leaves O’Hara wanting to be held, perhaps afraid of what it may bring. O’Hara captures the essence of the changing seasons from the wistful thoughts of “foggy autumn” to the imposed holidays of winter by describing it around the edges, never touching down too long.6
“The Day Lady Died” is considered a classic American poem, and was written literally during O’Hara’s hour-long lunch break, according to author Brad Gooch.7 This piece is extremely easy to follow because of how clearly O’Hara sifts through his day, despite the reader not knowing any of the characters or locations mentioned. O’Hara lets the reader follow him step by step, so when he discovers that Billie Holiday (“Lady”) has died, the shock of the event completely changes the direction of the piece. O’Hara writes,
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.8
The change in timeline and atmosphere of the piece is a significant one, seeing how mundane the day was before O’Hara heard the news. This structure around a sudden change shows the stark contrast in the slow movement of an average day to the emotional, nostalgic direction it turns towards after tragedy strikes. O’Hara has influenced the way I experience the city by finding deep revelations during the little parts of the day, and turning this process into artistic form. In my poems below, I hope to tap into this energy and take for granted the little moments of my time here.
feel like the world’s starting over.
brain is repoured from a concrete mold,
the gaps and cracks fill in, slowly, with that loose rock-glue
neurons and synapses realigning,
refinding stress, anxiety, fear, excitement
all in this handful of minutes and vitamin D gummies.
time is tangible,
like sand, slipping through the webbing of fingers
that wasn’t evolved
to hold seconds, let alone hours and days.
living out of a converse duffel bag
it was nice to be home
even though i have two now.
outside, the buildings brought the stars to earth
solar beams out of little windows,
a vertical grid system that took the stars out of the sky
our human impudence
has run amuck
in my second home.
i’m watching a rose wilt in my hand
that i picked
from an orange vine, wrapped in gyro and couscous.
it bleeds out in a fountain
of smelly whale water,
while wispy college kids dance to the sound of a bluetooth speaker,
we reflect on our faces in the middle of the ocean
in the dark purple of the water over an abyss
and when the dark purple gets even darker,
it feels like the tears could finally come.
this cold wooden bench, this dim streetlamp
this cold sandwich in a cold park.
the bagels in new york are ridiculous
not that anyone’s surprised.
they keep adding these insane flavors
to the bagel base
and somehow it all works out, somehow it is always something new.
today at 11:15 i got breakfast—
a gingerbread bagel, with little christmas sprinkles on top
that takes the part of ginger that is warm and nostalgic,
like the first christmas i remember…
somewhere deep in minnesota with our very large christmas tree,
our very large family and their missing dog that i found,
and the frozen lake and welt above my eye from falling on my face on the ice.
something about that flavor embodies the past, a moment that we are told
to have together, to give each other things,
and it’s found in ginger—
and i ate it on a stoop under a scaffold.
i sat next to some spit and tape that were stuck, in their own ways, to the stoop.
it felt very new york.
it was a morning when i felt new york lonely,
surrounded by people and friends and faces,
able to text, call, or facetime all of my life at any given moment,
and yet i find myself sitting on a stoop
with a bagel that reminds me of the past,
watching the present move in front of me,
feeling the future loom above,
with my bagel.
it’s crazy that i got here,
i watched the leaves turn from green to red, orange, and then they left their little stick homes,
covering the ground in wet, brown patches. from the tenth floor, it isn’t washington square park,
it’s the treetops, and the sounds beneath them.
“movin’ with the breeze / on me / underneath the trees / all leaves / i know what i need / on me, shit / i know what i need.”
every once and a while, there’s been a marching band in the morning, filling up all the sonic space with the colorful textures of the brass timbres. distant melodies and counter melodies weave through the leaves, through the mesh window screen, to my room. the sun slants in on these mornings, revealing the displaced dust that swirls with every movement or breath i take. it’s crazy to look out this window, and be here.
i’ve been making myself little cups of tea every morning. they level out the mind a little before the day starts. it’s a lot going on in this city, to the point where it feels inescapable. it takes a few minutes for the water to come to a complete boil, and i usually like to do some stretches or push ups while i’m waiting. once it gets to around 185 degrees, i put my red rose tea bag in the cup and a splash of oat milk. i pour a splash of non-dairy milk in before the tea because it combines with the leaves and steeps a little so that when the water comes in, all the ingredients get mixed smoothly. i like paying attention to this little detail, because it makes the cup a little bit better. a little bit more personal to me. i could go out and buy one hundred cups of tea within any given mile of this city, but i make it myself. it’s crazy.
and it’s crazy that whenever i try drinking coffee, i get anxiety. i see so many new yorkers rushing around with their iced coffee in hand, making it to wherever they just have to make it to. so i tried it too. i took a day off of my cuppa in the morning, and got myself a cup o’ joe. soon after, everything felt a lot more important than it actually was. i heard that anxiety is caused by the relationship between the way one imagines a situation and the reality of the situation itself. something about that cup made the imagined scenario pop out in my mind, and become something that was necessary to achieve, without giving me the focus or rational mindstate to do so.
god, i was all over the place. is this the working mind of new york? why is it so frantic, cluttered, jittering, awful? then, the sadness hit. blue . . . it was blue and a little brown, like a new bruise. you’re supposed to massage them out of your skin, but they hurt to touch. trying to touch it just evokes a spike of pain, a dash of a little more “sad.” maybe that’s why people here don’t wait for others to get off the train before jamming their way on. maybe it’s because their coffee has made their inner sanctum of thought the only one that matters and i guess that’s just what coffee does. it’s crazy.
- Frank O’Hara, “Personism: A Manifesto,” Yugen #7, 1961.
- Frank O’Hara, “Music,” Lunch Poems (City Lights, 2001), 2.
- O’Hara, “Music,” 8–10.
- O’Hara, “Music,” 17; 18; 19.
- O’Hara, “Music,” 15–16.
- O’Hara, “Music,” 16.
- Brad Gooch, City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara (Knopf, 1993), 327.
- Frank O’Hara, “The Day Lady Died,” Lunch Poems, 26–29.