“At times when I would rather be dead, the thought that I could never write another poem has so far stopped me."
These words of poet Frank O'Hara appeared in the final pages of The New American Poetry (1960), carrying with them the untempered fervor, drama and resolute tone his writing was known for. His poetry was informed by his life in the social circles of New York creative elites that reigned during a time when art in the United States began to reach an international reputation of maturation and vogue status.
One poem in particular subtly marked the country's cultural ascension with a classic American icon, while demonstrating O'Hara's romantic intensity: “Having a Coke with You."
Brad Gooch, author of City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O'Hara, described O'Hara's work as having “an immediate freshness that has not faded with years, but rather gained in power. He dared to be open, vulnerable, and to think outside the box of formal, academic poetry. His daring included his openness about all the intimate details of his life, friends, sexuality, fears and loves."
O'Hara was a 20th Century polymath: a World War II veteran, Harvard graduate, intimate friend of many painters, art critic, and even a curator at the Museum of Modern Art (after working his way up the ranks from selling museum postcards and staffing the lobby information desk). He was also the first New York School poet to regularly write art critiques, as an associate editor and contributor for Art News.
O'Hara's poetry was first published for a larger, public audience in the anthology, The New American Poetry, compiled by Donald Allen in 1960. The compilation was titled after the Museum of Modern Art exhibition “The New American Painting," which traveled Europe from 1958 to 1959, heralding the new, post-war era of modern art and abstract expressionism. By then, New York was finally establishing itself as a nucleus of high-art production, informing the international scene which had always been inescapably Eurocentric. The idea of the “American style" of painting began to develop.
Legions of artists flocked to New York between the 1940s and 1960s. And where there were artists, there were writers —mingling at parties, talking late into the night, time recorded in extinguished cigarette butts and empty bottles. O'Hara had a foot in both the art and literary worlds through what was known as The New York School of poets, a cosmopolitan group of writers that included John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler. O'Hara's contribution to the development of an American style of poetry reflected the emotive, process-driven movement of Abstract Expressionism.
His professional life flirted with conflicts of interest. He was an art critic and curator, yet his friends often used his face and figure when in need of a model. "A poet among painters," he was but first a lover of art and its artists, before all else. Described by the Poetry Foundation, O'Hara “was part of a group of such poets who seemed to find their inspiration and support from the painters they chose to associate with, writing more art reviews and commentary than literary opinion."
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.
“Having a Coke with You" was not just American, but uniquely O'Hara. The poem comes from a collection titled Lunch Poems (1965) which “refers to O'Hara's penchant for writing poems on his lunch hour," Gooch explained, “even occasionally on a sample Olivetti showroom typewriter, and so emphasized the spontaneous and deceptively casual manner of his poetry." O'Hara's poetry was about the every day, about his everyday, transcribed on scraps of paper at the end of a night, during bouts of unforgiving insomnia, after parties with other luminaries, or reflecting on trips taken with lovers.
The poetry is confessional and reads like a letter. It was for him a form of communication, with the air, intention, and intimacy of a casual phone conversation—a style he coined “Personism." “Poems, in other words, are only one kind of intimate communication, and ought to be at least as impressive, at least as personal perhaps, as the others." “Having a Coke with You" emanates this familiar and relaxed manner of communication, written for a man, a young and handsome professional dancer, by the name of Vincent Warren.
Just as his professional and personal life were one-in-the-same, so too were O'Hara's relationships. His love affairs overlapped and relapsed; his friendships blurred lines and reset already ambiguous boundaries. Virgil Thompson wrote of O'Hara's funeral, “After his death, a dozen of his lovers turned up looking for the glory of being the chief widow." Warren was one of the many murky and indefinite love affairs born out of friendship and creative kinsmanship. O'Hara nothing short of adored Warren, even to a degree that it overwhelmed the young dancer, made jealous other suitors, and concerned his oldest of friends. Gooch described the heated relationship, “Warren swiftly became O'Hara's new muse. Over the next twenty one months, O'Hara wrote a cycle of about fifty poems assiduously taking the pulse of their love affair..."
O'Hara's written proclamations of his love for Warren was admittedly overwhelming for the young man who confessed that at that age, he had never known the depth and kind of love O'Hara crafted in prose. Warren was 20 at the time he began dating O'Hara, 33. The age gap somewhat amplified their differences, but it too was the allure of one another. Warren was a “sweet," youthful prodigy and coveted beauty; O'Hara was sharp-minded, seasoned, and established in his New York circles, rich in social currency.
O'Hara's love life may have been inexplicably complicated, but the love he wrote of in “Having a Coke with You" is simple. The poem demonstrates how affection for and infatuation with another human being can question previously set conventions and measures of gratification. Throughout the poem, from San Sebastián to the Travessera de Gràcia, O'Hara recounts places and artwork he'd seen in Europe during curatorial trips for a MoMA exhibition. He wrote the love note in April 1960, days after returning from Madrid, a trip that kept him and Warren apart for a month, putting O'Hara's experience in perspective.
“Having a Coke with You" is about the everyday moment exalted to a new level of revelry, superseding the varied experiences the world offers, simply because of the presence of another person. The beauty that compelled O'Hara's hand on the lunch break of one sunny afternoon is not one reserved to the sense of the eye. It was not a beauty seen, but rather a beauty felt, a beauty understood.
In a foreboding moment of irony in 1966, O'Hara died of severe injuries after being hit by a taxi in the early hours of the night, not long after telling a group of friends at a dinner party that his greatest fear was to die in old age. He declared he'd much rather die while still in his prime of beauty and repute. O'Hara's death was tragic; the loss of this member left voids in both the visual art and literary worlds.
“Having a Coke with You" represented the shift of cultural dominance to the states, but it was also, in its essence, one of O'Hara's finest love poems. Partly because of his love for Warren. Partly because of Warren's love for yogurt. Partly because of New York's love for the immediacy of his unchecked passion, documented in the lines of his poetry.
Jac Kuntz is an art critic, editor and journalist living in Atlanta. She has a Masters of Arts in Journalism from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, a B.A. in Psychology, and a B.F.A. in Painting from Clemson University. She has experience working in both commercial and educational art galleries and writing for academic institutions, a nonprofit publishing house, and the online Atlanta arts nonprofit, BURNAWAY. Her thesis research, and ongoing project, “Where the Clay is Red,” examines contemporary art in the South through an anthropological lens.