Frank O’Hara for the 21st Century

newlunchAs we prepare for our upcoming 50th Anniversary edition of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, first published by City Lights as number 19 in the City Lights Pocket Poets Series in 1964, we begin to notice how Frank O’Hara’s poems continue to engage present sensibilities–no matter which “present” it happens to be. The beauty of Frank’s work is how many different readers keep coming back to it for their own very personal reasons.

As much as we want to resist the idea that Frank O’Hara’s ability to push the boundaries of sincerity and irony in the poem are analogous to social media culture, there is no denying that younger readers coming to this book for the first time are doing so from a perspective that is their very own, which inevitably means social media. This article from The Atlantic attempts to illustrate that meeting ground between Lunch Poems and status updates:

Casual, sardonic, funny, and full of pop-culture references, Lunch Poems has all the brevity, informality, irony, and at times chatty pointlessness of modern discourse without having been influenced by it. The volume has never gone out of print, in part because O’Hara expresses himself in the same way modern Americans do: Like many of us, he tries to overcome the absurdity and loneliness of modern life by addressing an audience of anonymous others.

O’Hara’s Lunch Poems—like Facebook posts or tweets—shares, saves, and re-creates the poet’s experience of the world. He addresses others in order to combat a sense of loneliness, sharing his gossipy, sometimes snarky take of modern life, his unfiltered enthusiasm, and his boredom in a direct, conversational tone. In short, Lunch Poems, while 50 years old, is very a 21st-century book.

In “Personism: A Manifesto,” O’Hara compares his poems to a decidedly 20th-century communication medium: a telephone call. Much of “Personism” is tongue-in-cheek, but O’Hara was often at his most serious when being ironic, and this is true of the second part of “Personism”: O’Hara writes that his poems are like telephone calls because they are addressed to someone else. The difference is that the address in the poem is indirect—“thus,” O’Hara writes, they evoke “overtones of love without destroying love’s life-giving vulgarity.”

o hara catThere is certainly a lot of loneliness understood when thumbing through a newsfeed or a succession of tweets: the idea that any person on the feed is reaching their friends–and hundreds or possibly thousands of others–when they themselves are alone at their desk or on public transport, silent as can be.

So it’s not that Frank O’Hara predicted a kind of future communication aligned with technology in his poetry, it’s that the world continues to read him because the poetry continues to drive toward the urge or instinct to define the world around us on a very personal level. Frank’s world. That instinct, as the article says, is one of “self-declaration”. Are we all just unconsciously trying to cheat death by continually posting our thoughts, ideas, and pictures?

Our 50th Anniversary edition of Lunch Poems comes out next month from City Lights Books. It features a foreword by Frank’s friend and fellow poet John Ashbery and previously unpublished correspondences between Frank and City Lights founder and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

If you’re in New York on Wednesday, June 11th, the Poetry Project is hosting a reading of the entire book with an amazing roster of writers including Justin Vivian Bond, Peter Schjeldahl, David Shapiro, Tony Towle, Edmund Berrigan, John Godfrey, Trisha Low, Trace Peterson, David Henderson, Patricia Spears Jones, Edwin Torres, Charles North, Karen Weiser, Simone White, Adam Fitzgerald, Vincent Katz, Erica Hunt, Andrew Durbin, John Coletti, Jacqueline Waters, Sharon Mesmer, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Arlo Quint, Lisa Jarnot, Lee Ann Brown, Marcella Durand, and more. More info on the book and Frank can be found here.

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