The Art Assignment


Having a Coke with Frank O'Hara

Frank O'Hara is best known for his poetry, but in this Art Cooking we explore his life as a poet as well as an art curator at MoMA.

AIRED: February 21, 2020 | 0:15:29

WOMAN: Throughout history,

food has served as subject matter, inspiration,

and of course, sustenance for artists.

Food has also been the art on a number of occasions.

Today, we stray from our usual exploration of the eating

and cooking lives of visual artists

to delve into the culinary predilections

of a poet, a much beloved one who

was deeply enmeshed in the flourishing cultural life

of mid-20th century New York City.

He died in an accident at the age of 40

before the wider world had fully recognized his brilliance.

But in his life, he accomplished so much,

including the lofty achievement of probably being the first

to publish a poem mentioning a cheeseburger.

Our source material today will be The Collected Poems

of Frank O'Hara, and his book Lunch Poems, published in 1965.

And we're also going to read from Selected Poems

by Frank O'Hara, edited by Mark Ford, later on.

And while poetry may often be a solitary endeavor,

I won't be alone in this one.

Joining me are my husband, author John Green,

and poets Paige Lewis and Kaveh Akbar.

O'Hara's poetry is full of references to foods.

We've got instant coffee with slightly sour cream in it

and just plain scrambled eggs.

There's a liver sausage sandwich, blueberry blintzes,

and spaghetti, and meatballs, and champagne.

"I want some bourbon, you want some oranges," he writes.

And there are numerous references to yogurt.

But for our first menu item, we'll be consulting

this 1949 edition of The Settlement Cook Book.

In it, I found a recipe for orange, grapefruit,

and avocado salad that may alert our O'Hara fans

to the poem we'll be referencing.

But before we reveal it, let's bring out our ingredients

and get to prepping.

We're going to need to create some orange and grapefruit

segments using a technique fancy people call supreme-ing,

which involves cutting off the top and bottom so your fruit

will sit flat and then paring away the skin and pith,

preserving as much of the fruit as possible.

Rope in your team here and do your best

to not freak out when their knife skills maybe

aren't pro level, but neither are yours,

Sarah, so just get over it.

When you're fully peeled, carefully cut along

the membrane so that you can release

nice clean segments with no white parts,

or at least minimal white parts.

And while we hack away at these,

let's establish the basic biographical details

of our man in question.

Francis Russell O'Hara was born in Baltimore in 1926,

grew up in Grafton, Massachusetts,

and served in the U.S. Navy during World War II.

Afterward, the GI Bill got him to Harvard,

where he began as a music major but switched to English,

started writing poetry, and met poets John Ashbery and VR Lang.

After receiving a master's in English

at the University of Michigan,

he moved to New York City in 1951 and had begun

to find his distinctive poetic voice,

publishing his first pamphlet of poems in 1952

that featured drawings by Larry Rivers.

O'Hara was enmeshed from the start

in the multidisciplinary world of artists that surrounded him,

hanging out at the Cedar Bar, writing poems

while listening to the painters argue and gossip.

Those would be the abstract expressionist painters

who were then called the New York School,

a title that O'Hara and his poet compatriots

would borrow for themselves--

Ashbery, and Barbara Guest, and Kenneth Koch,

and James Schuyler.

All right, well, that should do it for the citrus,

so let's get started on the avocados.

You're going to want to halve these lengthwise,

give them a twist to separate, and release

the pit in whichever way you like,

although you shouldn't technically

do this whacking-with-a-knife method because lots of people

go to the emergency room this way.

But peel these carefully to leave

the exterior as nice looking as possible

and cut them into slices.

While this happens, let's remember

a time when our cutting board was clean, and dry,

and the perfect setting for Paige Lewis

to read us a short poem that O'Hara wrote in 1959.

PAIGE LEWIS: This is a poem titled "Poem" by Frank O'Hara.

"Light clarity avocado salad in the morning

"after all the terrible things I do,

"how amazing it is to find forgiveness and love,

"not even forgiveness, since what is done is done

"and forgiveness isn't love and love is love

"nothing can ever go wrong though things

"can get irritating boring and dispensable (in the imagination)

"but not really for love

"though a block away, you feel distant

"the mere presence changes everything

"like a chemical dropped on a paper

"and all thoughts disappear in a strange quiet excitement

I am sure of nothing but this, intensified by breathing"

SARAH: You've, by now, figured out that we're making

avocado salad in the morning, of course.

And now that our avocados are ready,

we'll start in on our dressing.

For this, we're to pound to a paste 1 tablespoon

each of pecans and blanched almonds,

and we're using my ceramic mortar and pestle for this.

There's a fair chance that what O'Hara meant by

an avocado salad in 1959 was a gelatin-based concoction

of some sort.

You know, something horrific like this, or possibly a salad

served in a little avocado boat.

But the citrus avocado salad seems

to have been in good rotation by this time,

and the poem was written in December, which is,

indeed, citrus season.

And while it would be great fun to spend all morning

on a layered avocado jello mold,

it seems not at all in the improvisational O'Hara spirit.

He wrote a tremendous number of poems in his short life,

once while riding the Staten Island Ferry on his way

to a reading, and he's known to have

been rather reckless with them, shoving them unceremoniously

into drawers and pockets.

And OK, once we've got our rough paste,

we'll add 1/2 a teaspoon each of salt and paprika.

To this, we'll add 2 tablespoons of lemon juice

and curse ourselves for getting seeds everywhere.

Remove the seeds and add 2 tablespoons of oil.

We're using avocado oil, which seemed appropriate.

And then mix this thoroughly until it comes together

and looks like a dressing.

Now we're finally ready to assemble our salads,

and to do so, we're going to alternate avocado slices

with our citrus segments to the best of our abilities.

What O'Hara had in both his personality

and his writing was a sense of ease,

or what his friend Kenneth Koch called,

"A way of feeling and acting, as though being an artist

"were the most natural thing in the world.

"Compared to him, everyone else seemed a little self-conscious,

abashed, or megalomaniacal."

And that's why, as we spoon a bit of dressing over each

and give it a fresh grind of sea salt over top,

we realize that a layered gelatin salad would

have been way too contrived here,

too fussy, too much like people's

worst conceptions of poetry--

careful, and slow, and designed to impress.

We all dig in and enjoy our light clarity avocado salad

in the morning, savoring its contrast

of creamy and bright flavors and appreciating the true beauty

of the poem that inspired it.

It's a love poem, of course, written expressly

to another person,

in this case, Vincent Warren, a dancer

with the New York ballet, to whom O'Hara

would address a number of poems.

This one gives us a window into one

particular and unprecedented moment of loving,

of the heightened awareness it brought about,

"like a chemical dropped on paper,"

making something special--

monumental, even-- out of an event

as seemingly inconsequential as eating an avocado salad.

To commence our next course, Kaveh

is going to read some excerpts from a poem O'Hara wrote

a few years prior, in 1956.

KAVEH AKBAR: This is a poem called "A Step Away From Them"

by Frank O'Hara.

"It's my lunch hour, so I go for a walk

"among the hum-colored cabs...

"Everything suddenly honks:

"it is 12:40 of a Thursday.

"Neon in daylight is a great pleasure,

"as Edwin Denby would write, as are light bulbs in daylight.

"I stop for a cheeseburger at JULIET'S CORNER.

"Guilietta Masina, wife of Federico Fellini,

"é bell' attrice.

"And chocolate malted.

"A lady in foxes on such a day puts her poodle in a cab...

"A glass of papaya juice and back to work.

"My heart is in my pocket,

it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy."

SARAH: And yes, that's right.

We, too, are going to stop for a cheeseburger and a malted.

Alas, not at Juliet's Corner, but in my kitchen.

We're going to do our best to recreate a classic diner

cheeseburger from the 1950s, which research tells me

would have involved a quarter pound of not-lean ground beef,

handled lightly, spread into very thin disks,

and placed atop a hot griddle.

Kaveh and I are taking different approaches here,

and you can, of course, make your burger however you'd like.

But this poem comes from the collection Lunch Poems,

named after O'Hara's penchant for writing poetry during,

and about, the lunch breaks he took from his job

at the Museum of Modern Art.

He started out selling postcards at the front desk,

but eventually became an assistant curator

for MOMA's international circulating exhibitions

that traveled through Europe.

He was curator for the new Spanish painting and sculpture

in 1960, and later became associate curator

in the painting and sculpture department.

O'Hara curated the 1965 David Smith exhibition

that traveled through Europe, the 1965 Robert Motherwell

Retrospective, and MOMA's 1966 Reuben Nakian Retrospective.

News of a fresh generation of American poets

was similarly spreading, thanks in part to the 1960 anthology,

The New American Poetry, assembled

by Donald Allen, which included, of course, the work of O'Hara.

You've no doubt noticed by now that

we're using Kraft Singles for our cheese,

that most American of foods first introduced in 1949,

and also grilling on the side a couple of

frozen veggie burgers,

which first hit grocery freezer aisles in the 1980s.

But when Lunch Poems was first published in 1964,

it included a description on the back

that we now know was written by our man, O'Hara.

"Often this poet, strolling through

"the noisy splintered glare of a Manhattan noon,

"has paused at a sample Olivetti to type up

"30 or 40 lines of rumination, or pondering more deeply

"has withdrawn to a darkened ware- or fire-house

"to limn his computed misunderstandings

"of the eternal questions of life, coexistence and depth,

while never forgetting to eat Lunch, his favorite meal."

O'Hara called these works his "I do this, I do that" poems,

for that is, indeed, what happens.

We follow him through the city on a particular day,

noticing what he notices, following his mind

as it pings among the stimuli and landmarks

that he passes.

We follow as he free-associates between Juliet's Corner,

the restaurant, and the unrelated actress,

Guilietta Masina, trivia that bubbles up unbidden

from his active and highly educated mind.

While one negative reviewer in 1966

called his work a "wearisome cataloguing of personalia,"

many more responded with glee and adoration,

thrilled to be along for the ride.

And it would be a shame if we didn't chase our cheeseburger

with a malted, wouldn't it?

So let's do that, starting with a few scoops

of good vanilla ice cream, following

with an ounce or two of chocolate syrup,

3 tablespoons of malted milk powder,

which I now have a lifetime's worth,

and then following up with some quality whole milk,

almost to cover, but not quite.

Then we're going to blend this all up,

but instead of listening to the music of the blender,

we're going to hear about the importance of music

to O'Hara's life.

Before he turned his attention to writing,

Frank was a serious music student,

taking courses at the New England Conservatory

and studying to be a concert pianist.

He loved the work of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff.

And after O'Hara turned his attention

to writing, which he called "playing the typewriter,"

he wrote no fewer than seven poems

all titled "On Rachmaninoff's Birthday."

But along with references to musicians and music,

the poet's musicality can be felt

in the syncopation of his poetry, which

moves fast, and then slow, and then fast again,

keeping time with the quick movement of the city,

and also the experiences that punctuate it and make us

pause and appreciate the texture, and detail, and taste

of life, like sharing chocolate malted milkshakes with friends.


And we can't end this meal without hearing

from Frank O'Hara himself, so why don't we grab a drink

and listen as he reads his own work, written in 1960?

FRANK O'HARA: The poem's called "Having a Coke with You"--

"is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye,

"Biarritz, Bayonne, or being sick to my stomach

"on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona

"party because in your own shirt you look

"like a better happier Saint Sebastian

"party because of my love for you

"partly because of your love for yoghurt

"partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips

"around the birches

"partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on

"before people in statuary

"it is hard to believe when I am with you that there

"can be anything as still as solemn

"as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when

"right in front of it

"in the warm New York 4 o'clock light

"we are drifting back and forth between each other

"like a tree breathing through its spectacles

"and the portrait show seems to have no faces in it

"at all, just paint

"you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them

"I look at you and I would rather look at you

"than all the portraits in the world

"except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally

"and anyway it's in the Frick which

"thank heavens you haven't gone to yet so we can go together

"the first time

"and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less

"takes care of Futurism just as at home I never

"think of theNude Descending a Staircase

"or at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo

"and Michelangelo that used to wow me

"and what good does all the research of the impressionists

"do them when they never get the right person

"to stand near the tree when the sun sank?

"Or for that matter Marino Marini

"when he didn't pick the rider as carefully as the horse

"it seems they were all cheated of some marvellous experience,

"which is not going to go wasted on me

which is why I'm telling you about it"

SARAH: After O'Hara died in 1966 in a freak accident,

when a beach taxi ran him over on Fire Island,

Peter Schjeldahl titled his obituary

in The Village Voice "Frank O'Hara,

He Made Things and People Sacred."

And as we share our Cokes and think about his work and life,

that is, in essence, what O'Hara's work

did then and still does now.

He called his approach personism,

likening a poem to a telephone call,

positioning it squarely between and among two people.

This direct address gives his work

a rare immediacy and intimacy.

And blending in references to places near and far,

and culture high and low, O'Hara put the process

of writing into the writing,

kind of like the abstract expressionists were putting

the process of painting into painting, showing us

their gestures and actions.

Nobody else was writing about avocado salads,

and cheeseburgers, and chocolate malteds, and Coke.

And even today, alone again in my kitchen in 2019,

his poetry still feels very much alive,

overflowing with the granular details

of his well-lived but too-short life.

And I might as well have a snack, too, partly because

of your love for yogurt.


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