Read Ted Berrigan’s Original Review of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems
“It’s a great book!”
The following is Ted Berrigan’s review of Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara, published in 1964. (Look at that price!)
Lunch Poems, Frank O’Hara (City Lights Books, $1.25)
It’s a great book! Ferlinghetti has published some fine books in his Pocket Poets Series, and this one is the best. A book by Frank O’Hara has been long overdue, and it was a foregone conclusion that such a book when finally published would take its place beside Howl and Gasoline among the most important documents in contemporary poetry.
In fact, it would be much easier for me to get something said about this book if I could briefly turn into Charles Olson or John Lennon or Martin Luther King. Then I’d just lean forward into the TV camera and say intensely, “If you people really want to know what it’s all about, read Frank O’Hara, that’s right, FRANK O’HARA.” Whereupon six publishers would rush The Complete O’Hara into print (in different versions), eight producers would bring out his epic study of O’Hara titled I Knew It, and Joe Levine would rush production on his new movie, Life on Earth, the biography of Frank O’Hara, starring young James Cagney as Frank (an interesting technical problem to be solved here), and Gig Young as John Ashbery, Rod Steiger as Jane Freilicher. What excitement!
However, because I do not hope to turn into any of those gentlemen, I must turn elsewhere to talk about Frank O’Hara. In the late fifties I was “beating” it through college in Tulsa, Oklahoma, alternately contemplating six Oscar Williams anthologies and On the Road for spiritual guidance. Time magazine, by covering extensively the literary struggle for power between Allen Ginsberg and the future academicians, had freed the backwoods University poets from any worries about formal restrictions etc., so that even in Tulsa we knew that now we only had to imitate Wallace Stevens if we felt like it. This made for certain problems, since it is much easier to hate Stevens and imitate Ginsberg, or vice versa, than it is to admire both and write at all. Consequently we held our breaths and awaited the Don Allen Anthology.
And that’s where Frank O’Hara first bumped into me. While romping thru the assorted confessions, obsessions, concessions and blessings of the Allen book I was suddenly given an extremely close reading by O’Hara’s poem “Why I Am Not a Painter.” For reasons I don’t know this poem seemed to straighten all kinds of things out for me, as I immediately explained to Ron Padgett in one of our typical for then all night ramblings at each other. I don’t remember what I said, but when I asked him recently if he remembered it, he said he did, but it would only confuse me, he added, if he were to tell me what I’d said.He has a knack for evoking the immediacy of people, places and objects in a very exciting way, and with an honesty that is often not only breathtaking but appalling.
A few months later I came to N.Y., and by virtue of a trip to the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. I managed to “get hold of” a copy of Frank’s out of print Grove Press book, Meditations in an Emergency. Someone should reprint it immediately. It’s the kind of book of poems that will create an emergency for you instantly, if you aren’t having one already. After reading that book and poems by Frank in various magazines I settled down to plagiarizing all his lines in accordance with the current theory of poetry prevalent in N.Y.C., i.e., “making it new and signing your name to it.” This seemed entirely in accordance with the mood reading Frank’s poetry puts me in.
He has a knack for evoking the immediacy of people, places and objects in a very exciting way, and with an honesty that is often not only breathtaking but appalling. O’Hara’s breadth of awareness is startling, and it is this wide range of awareness that makes his honesty so interesting. He risks everything on recording his accuracy of feeling. The reward for this daring is an intensity of emotional reality that infuses the life in his poems, i.e., the people, places, objects, relationships, with an electric richness. To read a poem of Frank’s such as “Joe’s Jacket” or “For the Chinese New Year” is an experience in the same way that meeting someone at a party or falling in love is an experience.
It’s uncanny to have lines by O’Hara pop up constantly on TV, in the movies, in subway ads, on the radio, it makes one feel that Frank is the author of everything! But lately in contemporary poetry many other authors also seem to have written everything, or most of everything. Read Ashbery or Burroughs or Olson (though Olson gives credits sometimes) and for days you’ll swear that the whole world is full of plagiarists.
Anyway, Lunch Poems is just great. You won’t be able to avoid it.
Credit: Excerpt of pages 48-49 from Get the Money!. Copyright © 2022 by Alice Notley, Literary Executrix of the Estate of Ted Berrigan. Reprinted with the permission of City Lights Books. www.citylights.com