I know this will be controversial, but I’m not the biggest fan of Frank O’Hara’s masterwork Lunch Poems. This small collection of poems contain countless references to New York City and the popular culture of the 1960’s. Without Wikipedia handy many of the poems are inaccessible. I believe great art should stand on its own.
When Walt Whitman writes: “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love / If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.” You know that he was completely overwhelmed by the natural beauty around him. Where Whitman composed those lines is irrelevant because his words can be appreciated by anyone who’s had a similar feeling. But when O’Hara writes: “If I rest for a moment near The Equestrian / pausing for a liver sausage sandwich in the Mayflower Shoppe / that angel seems to be leading the horse into Bergdorf’s.” I know that O’Hara is writing about Central Park South, but would someone who doesn’t know New York City appreciate those lines? And his references to Bette Davis, William Morris, and Hart Crane are completely lost on me.
To be fair, there is a lot of brilliance here too. O’Hara articulates the fear of fatherhood brilliantly, “and do I really want a son / to carry on my idiocy past the Horned Gates.” And the poem “A Step Away From Them” brilliantly describes the feeling of an afternoon walk on a hot New York City afternoon. But in general, I feel that Lunch Poems demonstrates the weakness of modern art, and all things “meta”; if an audience can’t appreciate a work forty years after publication, who will appreciate it in a hundred or two?