The Coca-Cola Company Discovers Frank O’Hara’s “Having a Coke with You,” Uses It for Promotion

A couple years ago, when I was musing on the connections between Frank O’Hara and the finale of Mad Men — which notoriously ended with Don Draper having an epiphany in the form of a famous Coke commercial — I wrote “while we’re on the subject of O’Hara, soda, and advertising, count me as one of those who thinks Coke owes the O’Hara estate some serious royalties for its very successful recent “Share a Cokecampaign…”

Well, I don’t think Coke is paying any royalties to O’Hara’s estate yet, but the company is at least now using his work to flog their brand.  Yesterday — in surely what is one of the stranger and perhaps more depressing moments in the recent reception history of Frank O’Hara — the Coca-Cola Company posted an article called “The Story of Frank O’Hara’s ‘Having a Coke with You'” on their website.  Apparently, Coke hosts a series called “Stories” — who knew? — featuring pieces on things like “Why Sprite has Sported Green Since 1961” and “‘What is Coca-Cola?’ Why the Brand Has Appeared on Jeopardy! 200+ Times.”

As part of that ongoing series, Coke posted this new story by Jac Kuntz that provides Coke fans with an overview of O’Hara’s life, and a brief gloss on his best-known (though not only!) poem with a Coke cameo, “Having a Coke with You.”  I’m not totally surprised that Coke would’ve caught wind of this poem, as O’Hara’s charming love poem for Vincent Warren has recently found renewed life, becoming in recent years one of his most famous and most adored works — partly because it is such a tender and beautiful poem, partly because there happens to be a wonderful clip of O’Hara reading it on YouTube, which has helped the piece go semi-viral (or as viral as something poetry-related can get).

In the piece, Kuntz talks a little — though less than you might expect — about the role of Coke in O’Hara’s poem, which he wrote in 1960:

One poem in particular subtly marked the country’s cultural ascension with a classic American icon, while demonstrating O’Hara’s romantic intensity… Romance and tenderness aside, “Having a Coke with You” almost begs an interpretation that asserts the glory of the inherently American “every day” over Europe’s crown jewels of high culture. Though the author’s intention was arguably one of affection, Gooch pointed out how the classic soda replaced the traditional Italian or French red wine as the romantic drink of choice. A simple, corner store bottle of coke, sipped under the foliage of a tree with a loved one, far exceeded the visual marvels and rich tastes Europe once could offer—a reflection of the mid-century cultural shift.

One can only imagine how O’Hara might’ve felt upon learning that Coke was using his poem to promote its brand — ironic laughter?  eye-rolling?  disgust?  In any event, this unusual confluence of corporation and poem surely marks an interesting moment in the long debate about the role of consumer culture in O’Hara’s poetry, his insouciant dropping of brand names, his reveling in the pleasures and banality of pop culture and everyday consumption.  Is O’Hara a cheerleader for American capitalism at the height of its postwar triumph and expansion?  Is he an ironic commentator on its excesses and absurdities?  A savvy cultural critic gauging consumer culture’s charms alongside its insidious dangers and vapidity?

Although critics have been debating such questions about O’Hara for the past several decades, leaving them unresolved, it seems pretty clear how the Coca-Cola Corporation would answer them.

I eagerly await the next installment on the Coke website, this time perhaps on the heart-warming moment when O’Hara mixes booze and soda to drown his sorrows, early on a sad Sunday morning (“washing the world down with rye and Coca-Cola and the news”).  Or maybe they could do a piece on the product’s appearance in “A Step Away from Them,” where “the classic American icon” is being guzzled by some hot construction workers O’Hara ogles on his lunch break in midtown Manhattan:

First, down the sidewalk
where laborers feed their dirty
glistening torsos sandwiches
and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets
on.
Can’t beat the feeling — have a Coke and a smile!
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