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Arts & Life

Book Review: 'Lunch Poems' Reissue

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

If you spent this lunch hour at your desk clicking around the Web, you might find a little inspiration in this next piece to get up and take in the world when you can. In 1964, Frank O'Hara published a collection of poetry called "Lunch Poems." They were all ostensibly written during his lunch hours. For its 50th anniversary, the publisher has issued a special addition. Reviewer Tess Taylor can't get enough.

TESS TAYLOR, BYLINE: Each poem in this jaunty, dazzled roving collection of verses is dated by year and yet the quintessential voice running through all of them is emphatically now. Walking, seeing hum-colored cabs, and chorus girls, and neon in daylight, but like one man that O'Hara spots hanging out in a doorway, these poems are also languorously agitating. The change the landscape of American poetry with their leaps, jettisoning verse forms to capture instead glimmering turns of thought. O'Hara's I did-this-I-did-that method spoke to readers. The first 2,000 copies sold out within a year and the book has never gone out of print since.

In honor of the 50th year of such lovely lunches, City Lights Books - Lawrence Ferlinghetti's famous San Francisco press - has reissued the pocket edition, this time including facsimiles of the buoyant post cards O'Hara and Ferlinghetti exchanged while editing the book. These are chatty, alive - full of O'Hara's promises to edit poems and Ferlinghetti's desire to have more. On June 5, 1964 O'Hara writes, I'm getting ready to send you some stuff to consider for "Lunch." Hope this isn't too much bother.

The postcards with their 4 cent stamps take us back to a world before email, when poets typed off such letters during lunch time and like the poems themselves, they are reminders of the wonderful physical material of the 1960s.

A poet friend of mine suggested that perhaps O'Hara's perennially charming, perennially distracted problems were great precisely because they rebelled against the stolid early '60s and that perhaps our challenge now is to learn to focus again. I thought he had a point, but when I read "Lunch Poems" the world both in and around me seems to get a little Technicolor verve. First Bunny died then John La Touche then Jackson Pollock, O'Hara writes, but is the earth as full as life was full of them?

It's only lunch time so none of us have time to answer. A glass of papaya juice and back to work, O'Hara says. My heart is in my pocket, it is poems by Pierre Reverdy, he writes.

Whoever you are, I'm sure you could put O'Hara's "Lunch Poems" in your pocket and they would make your heart leap, too.

SHAPIRO: The book is "Lunch Poems" by Frank O'Hara. It was first published in 1964. Tess Taylor had our appreciation. She teaches poetry at Whittier College. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.