To read Frank O’Hara’s ‘Having a Coke with You’ is to infatuate yourself with the beautiful impermanence of the everyday. Included in his 1965 collection Lunch Poems – a series of poems written on the fly during his lunch breaks – it captures O’Hara’s trademark spontaneity and stream-of-consciousness interaction with the present moment, inspired by an innocuous drink shared with his then-lover, the dancer Vincent Warren.
Over two stanzas of free verse that seem to ramble through metaphors, never quite satisfied by the traditional tropes of love through art or nature, it’s easy to dismiss ‘Having a Coke with You’ on first reading for its apparent simplicity. It’s clearly a love poem, albeit one that feels more like a casual conversation than the typical grand romantic sonnets or ballads. But don’t be fooled: its aloofness – full of fleeting cultural references, while leaving readers unguided by punctuation – disguises O’Hara’s mastery of poetic form, and his ironic acceptance of the imperfection of language as a representative for the blissful clarity of love.
Likewise, while O’Hara’s references to a range of artists and works might seem like an attempt to attain some kind of cultural grandeur, they’re not random posturing. Riffing on ‘Polish Rider’, ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’, and ‘Leonardo’ and ‘Michelangelo’, O’Hara traverses shifting modes of portraiture across art history, from renaissance masters to futurists and impressionists, across painting and sculpture. As the poet laments, none of these forms are adequate when it comes to capturing the sensation of the lived present, always being one step removed from real experience as they are re-interpreted by audiences across time and place. Ultimately, these masterpieces are ‘just paint’: a bold statement from a man employed at the Museum of Modern Art, and inextricably tied to the New York School of abstract expressionist art and poetry.
It’s a poem that luxuriates in the singularity of the immediate present, taking as much pleasure in the labour of finding adequate words and comparisons to articulate O’Hara’s intense joy as in the emotion itself. In a subtle way, it’s a poem as much about the craft of poetry and poetic perception and representation as it is one about love. Full of run-on sentences and continually flowing thoughts, it’s entirely uncontrived, relishing instead in the spontaneity and authenticity of feelings as they occur. Its moments of fantasy, like ‘a tree breathing through its spectacles’, might seem elite and obscure, but such unions of the concrete and abstract replicate the individualised responses and interpretations of common sights that shape our interactions with the world. No two people will ever see the world the same way, but isn’t it wonderful that we can find joy in one another’s company even so?
The 1960s New York that O’Hara writes is a world I’ll never experience – but his appeal to universal feelings and his attention to attention itself (‘I look’) reject the banality of daily life by finding moments of beauty in the mundane. ‘Having a Coke with You’ reminds us that our greatest pleasures come from those around us.
It’s a lesson worth remembering.
You can read Frank O’Hara’s ‘Having a Coke with You’ online here.
Image: hill.josh via Flickr