Frank O’Hara, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the Evolution of Lunch Poems

 

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There’s been a lot of welcome attention lately to the 50th anniversary of Frank O’Hara’s 1964 book Lunch Poems, including a star-studded group reading of the book at the Poetry Project the other night.  As I mentioned before, City Lights Books has issued a new edition of the book that includes an introduction by John Ashbery and a series of letters between O’Hara and the editor and publisher of City Lights, the Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Fortunately, the other day the Paris Review posted a neat piece by Nicole Rudick that included a selection of these letters — four from O’Hara, followed by a brief postcard from Ferlinghetti.  Although scholars have discussed and quoted from the correspondence between O’Hara and Ferlinghetti about the publication of Lunch Poems before, this is the first time the letters have been published, so it’s a real treat to see them in print.

First, there is just the sheer pleasure of seeing a handful of O’Hara’s wonderful, voluminous letters in print.  To the chagrin of O’Hara fans everywhere, his letters have mostly languished in archives, accessible only to scholars, rather than being available in, say, the Selected (or better yet Collected) Letters of Frank O’Hara that the world sorely needs.

Second, the letters feature some revealing nuggets: for example, we get to see firsthand that it was O’Hara himself who wrote the famous, funny blurb — though he refers to it in the letter as a “blurp” — that would soon adorn the back cover of Lunch Poems in a letter to Ferlinghetti (“Often this poet, strolling through the noisy splintered glare of a Manhattan noon, has paused at a sample Olivetti to type up thirty or forty lines of ruminations…”).

We also get the inside scoop about how O’Hara felt regarding some of his now-famous poems.  For example, he had special affection for “Rhapsody” and “Naphtha” (“which I really like a lot for personal reasons”) and didn’t want them omitted from the final cut.  We also learn that Ferlinghetti apparently declined at first to include “Personal Poem,” one of O’Hara’s best-loved and often discussed poems.

Luckily, O’Hara gently resisted.  In his response to Ferlinghetti, he asks him to reconsider even while acknowledging that the poem’s connection to his personal life (particularly his romantic relationship with Vincent Warren) may be clouding his judgment about its merits: “I am perfectly content with the ones you sent back, with the possible exception of Personal Poem which I am sending back for your consideration, if that’s okay.  I’m not insisting on it at all, and if you find it weak by all means leave it out, because my feeling for it may be entirely sentimental and may also have vanished by the time the book comes out. It’s up to you.”

We also learn that O’Hara left the ordering of the poems in the volume entirely up to Ferlinghetti, which indicates a level of detachment I imagine few other poets achieve when it comes to the production of their books.  He did, however, have one suggestion: “maybe it should end up with something like ‘Rhapsody’ or maybe something lunchy like ‘Adieu to Norman, Bon Jour etc.,'” O’Hara wrote.  “What do you think?”

Ferlinghetti apparently did not take O’Hara’s suggestion, though I wish he had.  As it is, Lunch Poems closes with the late poem “Fantasy,” which is not likely in anyone’s top 10 O’Hara poems and which doesn’t feel like the most satisfying conclusion to me (although “never argue with the movies” has its charms).

On the other hand, “Adieu to Normanis one of O’Hara’s best and most moving poems, and would’ve closed the collection with a hell of an ending:

and surely we shall not continue to be unhappy
we shall be happy
but we shall continue to be ourselves everything continues to be possible
Rene Char, Pierre Reverdy, Samuel Beckett it is possible isn’t it
I love Reverdy for saying yes, though I don’t believe it

The same goes for the dense and wild and amazing poem “Rhapsody” — it’s equally fun to imagine if Lunch Poems ended “as I historically / belong to the enormous bliss of American death.”

One thing that might not be apparent from reading the letters Rudick posted is just how long it took O’Hara to finally gather his poems together, send them to Ferlinghetti, and see the project finally come to fruition.  O’Hara was, of course, notoriously lackadaisical about getting his work published (“dashing the poems off at odd moments,” John Ashbery once wrote, O’Hara “would then put them away in drawers and cartons and half forget them”).

Readers of the letters in the Paris Review might be interested in the fuller backstory about the evolution of Lunch Poems. Here’s how O’Hara’s biographer Brad Gooch tells it in City Poet:

Lunch Poems had been in the work for six years, O’Hara’s dilatoriness and ambivalence almost solely responsible for its unusually long gestation. ‘I met O’Hara with Allen Ginsberg when we went up to Larry Rivers’s studio one night,’ recalls his publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti. ‘He was writing poems on his lunch hour and I was interested in that.  So I said, ‘Why don’t you do a book of lunch poems?’ Responding to his request in December 1959, O’Hara wrote to Ferlinghetti, ‘Yes, suh, lunch is on the stove and lordy, I surely hope you don’t think I forgot to put the fire under the greens, I am even flavoring same with cholesterol and hormones so we will all live forever.’  That letter was followed by nine more to Ferlinghetti over the years, as well as several to Donald Allen who was helping him select poems.  O’Hara was constantly apologetic in his letters to Ferlinghetti for his ‘various doubt-seasons.’ Typical of his habit of dedicating books to friends and lovers on the wane, he dedicated Lunch Poems ‘to Joe LeSueur.’ During one panic that the title was too close to Ginsberg’s Reality Sandwiches or McClure’s Meat Science Essays — both published by the San Francisco press — he even toyed with calling the book To Joseph LeSueur until convinced otherwise by Kenneth Koch.  When asked by Ferlinghetti to write its jacket copy, he dreamed up an unconventional paragraph in one quick typewritten draft on his second or third drink before dinner one night in September 1964… He also suggested — and received — his favorite colors, orange and blue, for the jacket.”

Fortunately for us, Ferlinghetti had the good sense to stick with O’Hara through his “various doubt-seasons,” and Koch was able to talk O’Hara out of calling the book To Joseph LeSueur, which doesn’t have quite the same immortal resonance as Lunch Poems.

Just as I was about to post this, I noticed that Harriet has just posted a piece by Garrett Caples with some more about this new edition of Lunch Poems, which includes some remarks in which the 95-year old Ferlinghetti looks back at the book from the vantage point of today:

“The main reason I was interested in publishing Frank was because he really represented a distinct voice of New York poets that wasn’t the same as Allen Ginsberg’s,” the Howl publisher says. “There was a certain style that the New York poets developed—I’m thinking of John Ashbery too, for example—that wasn’t like ours at all. It was more like a New York gay style, even though Allen was gay too. I didn’t see it as a departure at all because he was part of the same generation as Allen. It’s just the other side: a representation of New York poetry that wasn’t Allen.”

 

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This entry was posted in Allen Ginsberg, Beats, Frank O'Hara, Joe LeSueur, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Letters / Correspondence. Bookmark the permalink.