I’ve been reading and rereading Frank O’Hara’s poems for some twenty years. The Fiftieth Anniversary City Lights republication of his seminal classic Lunch Poems marks the passing of a significant milestone in O’Hara’s work being readily available to readers of American poetry. O’Hara has become one of the most recognizable voices of the previous era. His influence reverberates across a broad spectrum of poetry written today. Revisiting Lunch Poems is like returning to familiar, fruitful turf of days past. Spanning a decade’s worth of O’Hara’s poems from the early 1950s through the beginning 1960s, a little bit of everything recognizably O’Hara is included here.
This same year John Coletti’s Deep Code appears in the City Lights Spotlight series. I met Coletti several years ago through mutual friends. His poems have long been of interest to me. On my end, our relationship is one of fundamental respect and admiration for the work. By reviewing the book alongside O’Hara’s, I hope to present points of relevant variation that demonstrate a correlation between these two poets. While the comparison may appear rather set-up, we are always reading works in relation to each other, looking consciously and unconsciously for connections between past and present poetry, creating constellations out of stellar works of art that shine across the years.
One chief virtue of O’Hara’s poems is that it took a good long while for all their variable tones and styles to fully appeal to me. While the more obviously engaging contents of Lunch Poems, poems such as “Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!)” or “The Day Lady Died” have always been delightful, I’ve butted my head against many others. Particularly O’Hara’s prosaic lines—such as those found in “Alama,” where description and exclamation slam together “[…] her fancy white skin quite unoriental to the dirty children’s round eyes standing in circles munching muffins, the cockroaches like nuggets half hid in the bran. Boy! how are you, Prester John?”—left me cold. It’s taken my own growth as a reader for me to get with and appreciate O’Hara’s full poetic range.
Coletti’s work was similarly challenging at first. Throughout Deep Code, Coletti moves freely between a natural, direct, lyric address that’s wonderfully sudden and immediate in nature and a more abstract, cumulative spread of singular words across and down the page with what initially struck me more as lethargic sparkle than decisive burst of energetic display. Beginning to appreciate and trust in this writing even as it veered outside of my immediate comfort zone was only possible as my reading practices were opened up by other poets, such as O’Hara. The poems in Deep Code continue to challenge my expectations and enlarge the parameters of my reading.
Take the opening lines of “Poem”:
I see yr hair
and it’s never
been yr hair
Here each movement from line to line is balanced with a William Carlos Williams type of careful finesse. The casual grace is superb as Coletti keeps the tone intimate yet refuses to meet expectations that the details of a past or current romantic (perhaps?) relationship will be divulged. Compare this to the vividly apparent bare basic beats of vowel synergy found in:
(“Post & Uneven”)
which later gets repeated in variation:
This is not the Coletti I expected to encounter. While surprised, I also know it’s not without reason Coletti reaches these verbal bouncing matches upon the page. He’s aiming at a game that I must just be missing. Even when his most abstract word-slinging appears random, there’s methodic deliberation behind his movements. In other poems, after all, he displays recognizable characteristics of construction I trust. When he’s boastful it’s not for nothing, even if it is with an ironic pride:
East coast skaters
just failed brats
& I could be one of them
if I weren’t so heavy
my name? “I do”
and do it brilliantly
I trust Coletti in areas where my own comfort is absent in part because of my reading of a poet like O’Hara over the years. One classic New Yorker has led me to embrace the extravagances of another New Yorker from out my own generation. The breezy chattiness found in such classic O’Hara lines as
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
appears as if it came effortlessly, yet despite appearances doesn’t arrive without significant effort. Such charm, commonly found in O’Hara’s work, always appears deceptively, easily arrived at. However, such “disabused enthusiasm,” as poet John Ashbery aptly calls it in his short preface to this new edition, is a rare breed of successful affect for which there’s no chance of faking your way through. Full appreciation requires sustained reading and rereading, allowing a natural trust in O’Hara’s ear and a necessary comfort with its immediate warmth to develop. All of this requires a fair amount of time just spent sitting with the work, learning to remain open to its idiosyncrasies.
O’Hara’s poetry manages exceptionally well to relate living with writing. You don’t doubt that he is the man who lived these poems as events in his life. His affect is one with his everyday being. Coletti too embraces such free association between his living and writing. Lines such as “I’m severely everyone / & it hurts” (“I Am Not Myself”) leave no question as to whether or not he means it. He does.
Coletti’s release reading at City Lights Bookstore coincided with the torturously drawn out verdict in Ferguson. Hearing the night before his reading that no charges were to be filed by the grand jury left Coletti flummoxed as to how he might approach the event. He ended up delivering a short prepared text as opening, written earlier that day that stated in clear, direct terms his complete opposition to the state of affairs surrounding the occasion. He expressed how he saw no avenue for his poems to function in order to confront the mess he was feeling. It was an apt, concise assessment, honest in its despair.
Coletti is a pretty regular guy. While his poems reference the occasional run-in with bad habits, i.e. “all the crazy shit I did tonight,” he’s not far off from the description Ashbery offers of O’Hara when addressing O’Hara’s use of the word “fuck”: “he’s no macho spewer of hard truths, but a kind, inquiring, deeply curious and attractive youngish man.”
Both Coletti and O’Hara usher in lines of poetry full of fervent pop-like energy, synergistically bubbling alive with animal humor:
O’Hara: “Totally abashed and smiling” (“St. Paul And All That”)
Coletti: “gone Friar Tuck hauling off at a Nibbler” (“On the Pause”)
O’Hara: “Oh to be an angel (if there were any!)” (“Three Airs”)
Coletti: “I don’t want much, but I want ALLLLLLL the experience” (“Dana @ Danny’s”)
O’Hara’s instincts are eternally of cocktail hour decorum. He values the witty and suggestive allusion over the overstated and earnest. As City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti describes it in his brief note “a word about this edition,” O’Hara’s poems possess “a certain turn of phrase, a certain urbane wit, at once gay and straight.” He’s always found to be taking advantage of the chance to humorously offer readers opportunity to self-identify:
dddddddWhat dreams, what incredible
fantasies of snow farts will this lead to?
don’t know, I have stopped thinking like a sled dog.
The main thing is to tell a story.
O’Hara’s inclination towards “story” is especially discernible in the many poems recounting personal meetings, where he gives details of what happens and what’s been talked about, as in “Personal Poem,” which describes a lunch with LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka):
we go eat some fish and some ale it’s
cool but crowded we don’t like Lionel Trilling
we decide, we like Don Allen we don’t like
Henry James so much we like Herman Melville
Coletti picks up on the theme, mixing into his poems dialogue of his days and hours. He describes the social challenges everybody knows too well:
“I celebrate our openness”
is a cute thing to say
“Are you still a dick?”
“I am.” “He like me?”
“I’m sure.” the deep
of this guy
gives me writer’s block
(“I’ll Show You”)
In addition to Ashbery’s new preface, this anniversary edition of O’Hara’s Lunch Poems also presents an appendix of correspondence exchanged between Ferlinghetti and O’Hara. The letters round out a fuller understanding O’Hara’s wariness towards publication. Any kind of similar back story on the publishing of Coletti’s book will have to wait. Unlike the intimate run of letters printed here for the first time between Ferlinghetti and O’Hara leading up to Lunch Poems, Deep Code doesn’t even offer us a bio note! For the record, Coletti has lived all round the country: from New Orleans to Portland down to the Bay Area, and forever it seems like in NYC. He’s been an editor and publisher of everything from chapbooks and small mags to the Poetry Project Newsletter. In the end though, what counts is that his poems are all human animal. On a couch in eternity, O’Hara and Coletti will hopefully one day meet. I hope to join them just to see the passing glimmer passed between glancing sets of drifting eyes. There won’t be much talk or actual contact, just smiling nods of a mutually acknowledged tease.