Marjorie Perloff on “Reading Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems After Fifty Years”

Over the past six months, there has been a flood of reviews and reassessments of Frank O’Hara’s landmark volume Lunch Poems, prompted by the release of City Lights Books’s special 50th anniversary edition of the 1964 book.

The new issue of Poetry magazine adds another, very welcome take to the mix — Marjorie Perloff’s “Reading Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems After Fifty Years.”

Perloff, of course, is not only one of the most important and influential critics of modernist and contemporary poetry.  She also did a great deal to put Frank O’Hara on the map, or in the canon, in the first place, thanks to her early, groundbreaking 1977 book Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters, which is still among the best and most valuable studies of the poet.

It’s fun to watch Perloff chronicle her experience of returning to Lunch Poems on the occasion of its fiftieth birthday and being reminded, all over again, just how much she loves O’Hara’s “wholly unpretentious and delightful little book.”

First, Perloff recalls how hard it was, in the early days, to get anyone to take O’Hara seriously, and then notes how, and why, this has changed, changed utterly, over the years:

The underestimation of O’Hara, like the underestimation of John Ashbery in the early sixties, is itself a phenomenon that deserves careful study. Gay-bashing, conscious or unconscious, was clearly involved, even when, as in the case of Marius Bewley, the critic was himself gay. With the advent of AIDS in the early eighties, the countercurrent set in, and today, O’Hara and Ashbery are at the very heart of the poetry canon, even as the New York School, now encompassing three generations, has become a prominent fixture on the global poetry scene.

“Still,” she says, “nothing had quite prepared me for the thrill of rereading Lunch Poems after fifty years. So much of the poetry of the sixties is dated; O’Hara’s, especially in this book, seems curiously up-to-date.”

Like other recent reassessments of Lunch Poems, Perloff is struck by how “immediate” and “contemporary” O’Hara’s book feels today, despite the fifty years that have passed since it first appeared.  Her review goes on to discuss “the marvelous selection of the O’Hara-Ferlinghetti correspondence appended here” (which I discussed a bit myself here).  And it offers some interesting, detailed reflections on a couple of great O’Hara poems — “Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed)” and “Naphtha” — which encapsulate much of what is so compelling and lasting about the book, and O’Hara in general.

After discussing the wonderful last lines of “Naphtha” — “I am ashamed of my century / for being so entertaining / but I have to smile” — Perloff closes with the following:

I am always reciting those last lines to my friends, relishing the mix of pathos and humor that I take to be uniquely Frank O’Hara’s. When, in the poem that precedes “Naphtha,” I read the wonderfully absurd exclamation, “Khrushchev is coming on the right day!” it being the right day for the always scowling, fist-thumping Soviet dictator 
for no better reason than that Frank is in love and it happens to be a gorgeous windy day in New York, I always smile. The arc of feeling is so perfectly rendered. O’Hara’s wholly unpretentious and delightful little book is full of such moments — moments as immediate in 2015 as they were fifty years ago. Surely, Lunch Poems is a twentieth-century classic. Which is to say that all those currently taboo poetic terms — authenticity, sincerity, immediacy, voice — may be coming back to haunt us. And I have to smile.

You can read the whole review here.

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