Frank O’Hara’s Having a Coke with You has always been a favourite of mine, but this 1960 love poem has taken on a new, bittersweet quality in 2021 as we move towards our year anniversary of life under a pandemic. Across the four stanzas, O’Hara has inadvertently curated a list of some of the experiences I miss most in this dark, socially-distanced winter: holidays to European cities; blooming flowerbeds; visiting art galleries; warm light at 4 o’clock. Yet none of these pleasures, O’Hara argues, compare to the ‘marvellous experience’ of spending time with his lover.
I can’t remember how, or when, I came across this poem for the first time. If I were to hazard a guess, it would be that I was initially drawn to the title. Whilst I resent feeling any affection for a corporation like Coca-Cola, I can’t deny the presence of the drink’s sweet, chemical burn in some of my own favourite memories, from hungover New Year’s Day breakfasts to sheltering under the shade of a café umbrella, or even mixed with something stronger in a sweaty nightclub.
An alternative theory is that I first found the poem through one of my favourite bands. ‘Martha’ are a queer, anarchist, four-piece rock band from the village of Pity Me, County Durham. In their 2014 song, 1967, I Miss You, I’m Lonely, ‘Martha’ makes repeated references to the poem and borrows one of its most iconic lines: ‘I look at you and I am confident that I’d rather look at you than all the portraits in existence in the world’. The song is less of an adaptation and more of an homage. Whilst O’Hara’s favourite portrait (the only one that could ever potentially distract him from his lover) is Rembrandt’s The Polish Rider, ‘Martha’ chooses a portrait of O’Hara, painted by his friend Grace Hartigan, instead. In the poem O’Hara clearly only has eyes for his lover, but in ‘Martha’s’ cheeky opening lines the narrator attempts to entice the couple into a ménage à trois. Nevertheless, the song captures a similar mood to the poem; an art-filled, whirlwind tour of Europe, whilst hopelessly in love.
As I write this, it’s still getting dark before 5 PM, I can’t visit a gallery and, despite the taunting airline promotions that fill my inbox, Barcelona and Biarritz feel further away than ever. However, even in Edinburgh today, some of O’Hara’s lines are within our grasp. It is inevitable that soon there will be warm afternoon light, I’ll see tulips bloom around the birches and maybe I’ll even wear an orange shirt, like a ‘better happier St. Sebastian’. And, of course, there will always be the ultimate pleasure of having a coke with someone I love.
Image: La Chachalaca Fotografía via Flickr