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Frank O’Hara: A Study of Spatial Romance

The allure of the New York Poets, which fascinated both contemporary and modern audiences alike, is rooted in their commitment to realism. Coming to the limelight in the morose and broken post-war era, their dedication to realist art was a comforting welcome to a generation struck by the surreal and incomprehensible recent past. The fact that New York was the setting for this revival of imagination is unsurprising. As Ward (2000) notes, “New York is the only modern city that can still inspire an unironic awe” (p. 1). The “uniquely self-reflexive” nature of the city that Ward alerts to explains much of Frank O’Hara’s consistent attention to his metropolis in Having a Coke with You (1960).

This dedicatory love poem relies on the imagery of the city to explore the speaker’s adoration for the object of the poem, creating a scene of realism that concretes his love within a spatial boundary, rendering it both visible, understandable, and relatable. The ordinary scenes of the city evoke his reflection on love, leading to a conclusion that the wonders of the world are no match for the “awe” (Ward, 2000, p. 1) of New York.

Image 1: Frank O'Hara. Kemward Elmslie.

Indeed, it must be noted that the poem moves beyond the boundary of New York to European marvels to which the love interest is compared. The inclusion of French cities within the poem is historically enlightening. As Ward (2000) suggests, when Paris fell to the Nazi regime, it “ceased to be the world’s art capital” and the economic prosperity of America led to its position of newfound “cultural supremacy” (p. 2). The dismissal of Hendaye, Biarritz and Bayonne says as much about the speaker’s position on love as their position on the contemporary status of America. The poem is so much a dedication to love as it is a homage to the beauty of contemporary America, which is flourishing and prosperous in its post-war position. The effect of the poem, then, is only more concrete by these comparisons.

“Having a Coke with You Is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irun, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne Or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona” (O'Hara, 1960, lines 1-3)

New York, for the speaker, is a haven of love. Whilst he can acknowledge the marvels that exist beyond the city, they are incomparable to the ordinary acts of home, and of being in love at home. The colloquial evocation of “Having a Coke with you” (O’Hara, 1960, line 1) conquers the marvels of foreign cities. In actual fact, the asyndetic list of European cities exaggerates the speaker’s devotion to the wonder of ordinary, homely love. Drawing attention to a familial, colloquial soft drink as an allusion to love highlights the extent of O’Hara’s following the New York School’s dedication to realism, and finds romance in the beauty of ordinary exchanges. The immediacy evoked in O’Hara’s evocation of ordinary occurrences as allusions to grand gestures is a striking realist tendency. As George Becker (2015) suggests, the realists viewed poetry as offering a glimpse into “something immediately at hand, common to ordinary human experience, and open to observation” (p. 6). By connoting love to something as simple as a shared drink, the colour orange, or the scenes of New York, O’Hara employs the realist dedication to both simplicity and spatial appreciation to depict the joy and grandeur of love.

Image 2: New York in the 1960s.

That O’Hara sources his lover’s “love for yoghurt” (line 5) as a higher sentiment than the beauty of European cities cements his realist expression. Indeed, the anaphora of “orange” in the first stanza to describe his lover’s clothes and the familiar scenes of New York, highlights realist attention within O’Hara. The author draws inspiration and devotion from the scenes of ordinary living as opposed to cliched, exaggerated existence, such as archetypal romantic scenes of foreign European cities. This supports Jonathon Barron’s (2019) perception of realism, in which he states:

“Their poetry rejects generic notions in favour of recognisable contemporary landscapes and, above all, contemporary American cities such as Chicago, Boston, or New York” (p. 1).

O’Hara’s homage to New York is epitomised in the final lines of the first stanza. The vividness of a moment of raw emotion is augmented by the speaker’s attention to small spatial details of a specific time in a specific place, comparable to the simplicity of a tree’s natural movement. Away from the grand notions of European romance, O’Hara turns to the beauty of love within his own city, framed within intimate exchanges recognisable to a native inhabitant of the city:

“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” (lines 10-11)

Image 3: Couple with baby in a newspaper in Central Park.

It is interesting that frequent criticism of O’Hara exhibits the view that his “poetry looks casual” (p. 4). The observatory gaze that initiates the second stanza gives the impression of colloquial, naïve love. The speaker claims: “I look at you / And I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world” (lines 12-13). What appears as a childish expression of love becomes a realist appreciation of “everyday people in regular situations” (Barron, 2019, p. 1). As Barron (2019) evokes, realist poetry strips the melodrama from verse and focuses on “the everyday talk of its characters” (p. 1). What appears a casual, plain evocation is in all actuality a perspective typical of the New York School of poets. In this way, “Having a Coke with you conforms to a new tradition of the age that “focuses on speech, plain diction [and] specific details pertaining to character and place” (p. 2). The stream of consciousness that reveals itself throughout the poem is an unorthodox rejection by O’Hara, that conforms to a new variety of art that favours the mimicking of “regular speech of ordinary Americans” (Barron, 2019, p. 2). The poem continually reinstates itself as a homage to love, America, and the diction of its people.

Towards the end of the poem, the speaker’s stream of consciousness moves from a disregard for European grandeur to a comparison of his love object to famous artists and art movements. In a move towards realist appreciation, O’Hara finds no romantics or pleasure in what he deems careless and overrated movements of art. Favouring the way his lover moves over the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo, and the art movements futurism and impressionism, the speaker finds more beauty in an act as simple as a movement than those artistic expressions that used to “wow” (line 18) him. This epitomises Barron’s (2019) claim of the realist attention to “specific details pertaining to character and place” (p. 2).

Image 4: Laughing couple sharing a drink.

So enraptured by the movement and vision of his lover, the speaker finds more inspiration in their ordinary actions than in grand theories and spectacles of art. Interestingly, in the final stanza, the imagery of the tree resurfaces. This time, it becomes a negative vision, of art that does not quite understand itself that, essentially, did not get it right. It encourages the reader to reflect on the New York tree of the first stanza, which perfectly represents the emotive and intimate capacity of love. This encouragement favours the spatial setting of New York and rejects pompous, misunderstanding art forms. As the summative final lines evoke, their failure to appreciate the ordinary spectacle, to favour a simplicity of representation that is fully self-reflexive — as New York so inspires — leaves them ultimately “cheated” (line 23).

Ultimately, O’Hara’s poem Having a Coke with You encapsulates the New York School’s vision of realism. Honouring New York as a spatial site of self-awareness, emotion, and vividness, the speaker rejects cliched visions of romance and the sites that contain it. Instead, O’Hara uses personal and intimate imagery to depict the spectacle of love in general and love in New York, the new haven for the New York School.

Bibliographical References

Barron, J. (2019). The Oxford Handbook of American Literary Realism. Oxford University Press.

Becker, G. (2015). Documents of Modern Literary Realism. Princeton University Press.

O'Hara, F. (1960). Having a Coke with You. Lunch Poems, City Light Publishers.

Ward, G. (2000). Statutes of Liberty: The New York School of Poets. Springer.

Visual Sources

1 Comment

Jan 07, 2023

Excellent analysis of Frank O'Hara's work. As a literature enthusiast, I appreciated the clear and consistent exposition of the topic. This is an excellent article, I recommend reading it!

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Ella Fincken

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