Having a Coke with Frank O’Hara


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 forty,
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.     Poetry Cooking: Frank O’Hara Our source material today will be two books,
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, our collaborators on the channel Ours Poetica,
which this might be a very unsubtle plug for. (Go Team.)  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 “yoghurt.”  But for our first menu item, we’ll be consulting
this 1949 edition of The Settlement Cookbook. In it, I found a recipe for an “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 membranes 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 US Navy during World War
II. Afterward, the G.I 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 V.R. Lang. After receiving a Masters in English at the
University of Michigan, he moved to New York City in 1951 and had begun to find his distinctive
poetic voice. He published his first pamphlet of poems in
1952 that featured drawings by Larry Rivers. And O’Hara was enmeshed from the start in
the multi-disciplinary 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. Alright, 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 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 lets 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:  “This is a poem titled ‘Poem’ by Frank
O’Hara… Light clarity avocado salad in
the morning…” 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 even 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 a rough paste, we’ll
add half a teaspoon each of salt and paprika. To this we’ll add two tablespoons of lemon
juice and curse ourselves for getting seeds everywhere. Remove the seeds, and add two tablespoons
of oil–we’re using avocado oil, which seems 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 in his writing was a sense of ease, or what his friend Kennech 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 overtop, 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:  “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. Giulietta Masina, wife of 
Federico Fellini, è 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.  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
quarter pound of not-lean ground beef, handled lightly, spread into a very thin disk, 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 thirty
or forty lines of ruminations, or pondering more deeply has withdrawn to a darkened ware-
or firehouse to limn his computed misunderstandings of the eternal questions of life, co-existence
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 Giulietta Masina, trivia that bubbles up unbidden
from his active and highly educated mind. While one negative reviewer in 1966 called
this 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, three
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. Yummm… 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 read his
own work, written in 1960: “The poem’s called Having a Coke with You…”  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
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian
partly 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 and statuary
it is hard to believe when I’m 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 the Nude
Descending a Staircase or at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo
or Michelangelo that used to wow me and what good does all the research of the
Impressionists do them when they never got 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 marvelous experience
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I am telling you about it 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 & 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 once more 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 yoghurt.   
Ours Poetica brings you a new poem three times a week, read by poets, writers, artists, and
unexpected but familiar voices. Like Shailene Woodley reading Kahlil Gibran,
and Sarah Kay reading her poem “Forest Fires,” and this episode’s own Kaveh Akbar reading
Mahmoud Darwish. Poet Paige Lewis, whose hands you also met
today, curates the series, which is a co-production of Complexly and The Poetry Foundation, and
which you should 100% subscribe to right now.  Thanks to all of our patrons for supporting
The Art Assignment, especially our grandmasters of the arts Vincent Apa, Josh Thomas, and
Ernest Wolfe.

100 comments

ours poetica is my current favorite internet thing. it also lead me to the poetry foundation's podcasts which are great and both things enhance my online time a lot

Great video! When will we be seeing some Australian artists on the art assignment?
Sydney Nolan
Howard arkley
Max dupain
Olive cotton
Del Kathryn Barton
Anne Ferran
Indigenous artists:
Emily Kame Kngwarreye
Dorothy Napangardi
vernon ah kee

I was super confused when the futurist painting had the description of Rembrandt and 1650. I thought Rembrandt created a painting nearly 300 years ahead of its time. I looked up, I was wrong.

I've never heard of O'Hara before but I instantly loved these poems! It reminds me so much of a collection of tanka, written by Japanese poet Machi Tawara in the 80s, called Salad Anniversary.

Frank is how I fell in love with poetry! I always chose his poems for spoken word assignments in school. He inspired me as a gay poet and art lover.

I can't say enough how much better this channel being so well done and freely accessible makes my life. Whoever reads this: I hope you have a splendid day.

i don't know why, but this video made me tear up – something about the direct brightness of o'hara's poetry and the lovely connections you made with the food you prepared. the way he talks about love in the poems that you read is really sweet. this video was wonderful, thank you.

Wikipedia doesn't seem to know how old Sarah is. It says she was born in either '79 or '80. It's good to know that the internet does not have all the answers.

I sometimes get really overwhelmed by my feelings for my girlfriend. Like the way her fingers get a little crooked when she's using the gear stick is the single most important thing in the world, or how i wish i could freeze the moment when she drinks her favourite coffee and just stare at it forever.
When everyone says that after the honeymoon phase things loose their sparkle and I'm still here as sparkly now as on our first kiss five years ago, it makes me feel anormal.

Reading these poems made me feel normal.

Any aimless soul that does not understand that life is a sneak attack will compose his works poorly. I don't care much of what passes for poetry. It's too dull and lacks the requisite paranoia to become alive. With very few exceptions this genre of literature is a stillborn we present before a naked breast. It will not feed and we all know why.

Oh wow… The Art Assignment AND Ours Poetica, together, in a foodie episode? Heaven! 😀 So much great appreciation and so much fun. Love it!

This crossover of two of my absolute favorite channels making a video in one of my favorite series is somehow still bigger than the sum of its parts, which is a testament to how great the people who create it are at what they do.

First heard having a coke with you on a house track by new jackson called having a coke with you. The music and poem complement each other perfectly.

Two things:
1) I'm so happy to be sharing this episode with you all. We shot it back in November (hence the 2019 reference at the end), and had a heck of a time sorting all of the permissions. But here it is! And I can't help but think that it was always meant to be out just in time for Valentine's Day.
2) The artwork at 13:45 is very clearly not Rembrandt's "The Polish Rider," as even O'Hara tells you what you're looking at. It is the 1912 painting Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). Which you can go see at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, along with a number of other excellent works by Duchamp. Sorry for the error.

I am traveling today by flights, and it happens to be Valentine's Day. I will think of my destination… her. But I will also have a couple lunches and soft drinks. The irony I feel is that poetry so often comes from looking skyward, but I will be the sky looking downward. I'll likely have a burger and Dr Pepper among the fuselaged mortars who perhaps didn't hear Paige today.

wowwwww! so happy you guys did an episode on this. its giving me goosebumps because I've been so inspired by Having a Coke with you. you got to listen to NEW JACKSON – Having A Coke With You – really great.

I remember hearing about this episode coming out when Sarah and John came and Visited Mammoth Cave National Park. I am very excited and happy to have seen this video come out 😀

I absolutely love everything you say and do, you put everything together to make sense of it all almost as a poet the beauty you bring forth you show it and you know it, keep up the good work, please. Thank you, sincerely Gavin.

Having a Coke with You

is even more fun than going to Disneyland, the Las Vegas Strip, New York City, the surface of the moon, the last day of the universe
or being totally exhausted from an all night shift at a gas station when your smile walks through the door and I can’t remember my own name
partly because in your blue bowtie you are the beginning and the end of the universe
partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for Twitter
partly because of the curtains hanging in the doorways
partly because of the secrets our eyes share around people and pixels
it is hard to believe when I am with you that there can be anything as two-dimensional as pixels
as 32-bit, ten-color trying to create life in xenon and neon
when in the warm Arizona sunlight we are breathing back and forth
like a diode making light against a flimsy plastic screen.

and the games suddenly seem to have no characters at all, just shapes
and you suddenly wonder why anyone in the world ever plays them.

I look
at you and I would rather look at you than all the screens in the world
except possibly World of Warcraft and anyway we do that together
which thank heavens they create new expansions so we can always challenge each other
and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of the fact that you always win
just as at home I never think about the algorithms behind the game play
or at a single rehearsal of Mozart or Grieg that used to wow me
and what good are all the pieces of music in the world
when they never got the right hands to lead them or the right heartbeats to guide them
or for that matter that Blizzard never chose the characters as well as I chose the player

it seems they were all cheated of a marvelous experience
which is not going to be wasted on me which is why I am telling you about it.

(Re)Written by me, H. Rutkowski, for dear friends when they were getting married.
Thank you, Frank O’Hara! 💚

God, I can't describe how much I love the Art Cooking series. And it was amazing to have John Green and Kaveh Akbar and Paige Lewis in the video as well! Loved the entire episode!
P.S: Also, can't wait to see Sarah on Ours Poetica sometime!

Thank you for this video. I’ve been wanting and meaning to suggest an Art Assignment video on the relationship between art and literature, and how both influence and are moved by the other. I know this would be too broad of a subject, but specifically pinpointing to an art/literature movement and expanding and explaining the theoretical complexities between and within them would be sincere satisfaction for viewers (i.e., myself). In fact, I have an even more specific suggestion to make: to make an informative and entertaining video between Cubism and Virginia Woolf’s works. The Waves comes to mind when I think of cubism expressed through and within the world of literature, because of the way that Woolf tells one story through multiple perspectives, simultaneously allowing us into the multiple views of her (or the characters’) world.

I hadn't read any O'Hara before this, but he did make my morning a little more sacred through this, as I just sat listening to him read that last poem and staring at the sun while finishing a bagel. What a good moment.

I was today years old when I realized Sarah was married to John Green. Damn, the Green fam really be birthing many nerds. Thank u so much!

I remember you replying to my comment in 2019 promising this episode and my GOD was it worth the wait. Thank you for everything you do with art and the remembrance and celebration of it – 'Having a Coke with you' was a poem I first read at university at a time when I was considering never writing again because every emotion felt duplicated or contrived or written better by someone older and more respectable. This poem, and your interpretation of it through the reading and the images and the actual drinking with friends made me remember that pristine 'fuck it' feeling of knowing that joy doesn't have to be contingent upon others' presentations of it – and neither does art. I look forward to so many, many more of these!

I was appalled at the thought of an avocado grapefruit salad but after watching you make it, I kinda want to try one now. It doesn't look as bad as it sounds and maybe it might taste ok too

Well I’m openly weeping on my bed at ten am on a Monday morning in February because of the beauty and love Frank was able to capture in his poems.

seasame seed oil would have been really good instead of the avocado! You could say its an illusion to the seasame seeds on the hamburger bun haha

that was such a beautiful video, i had never heard of frank o´hara before and now i´ve immediately fallen in love with his poetry!
the art assignment is one of my favorite youtube channels for exactly this type of videos

Can you talk about how a museum decides which art to display? More broadly speaking, what makes an artist or an art important to be studied and displayed?

I absolutely adore the entire concept of this video! Not only it's concept but the actual video was really enjoyable from start to finish. Quickly becoming obsessed with this youtube channel!

Leave a Reply