I’m not really sure what defines a love poem. Typically, I suppose we think of Shakespeare sonnets, or Keats or Byron or Shelley. Red roses and Summer days. Hearts torn out or hearts given. Contemporary poets seek to subvert the romantics. Carol Ann Duffy gives ‘an onion’ as a representation of her love, in her ballad Valentine, whilst John Cooper Clark wants to be his lovers vacuum cleaner ‘breathing in your dust’, in I Wanna Be Yours (beloved of the Arctic Monkeys).
But in all these metaphors, I struggle to find a depiction of love which is suitably relatable. Maybe it’s because I don’t want something similar, or something ‘like’ love. I want an image of the real thing. In all its everyday guises. And for that, I find myself turning to the poetry of Frank O’Hara.
There is something spontaneous and natural about O’Hara’s poems, perhaps because many of them were composed on his lunchbreaks. O’Hara was a pioneering member of the New York School of Poets, and much of their inspiration came from the abstract expressionist art movement. He worked as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art. I like to imagine him sneaking out of the gallery and wandering the streets of New York, a portable typewriter in tow. Taking in the rush of the city, at a pace completely his own.
O’Hara’s poem Having a Coke with You was first published in small magazine Love, and it was subsequently included in his collection Lunch Poems in 1965. At this point in his life, O’Hara was enjoying a love affair with ballet dancer Vincent Warren. O’Hara wrote this poem after returning from a research trip to Spain, in April 1960.
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
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 marvellous experience
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I am telling you about it
Having a Coke with You captures the momentary. It is an unselfconscious celebration of the joys of shared experience. When sharing a moment with someone you love, however ordinary, is more sacred than anything else materially beautiful or adventurous.
The commercialisation of Valentine’s Day, and the pressure I associate with it, has sucked all the real romance out of it for me. Although maybe I’m kidding myself that I didn’t secretly enjoy the heart shaped chocolate
lollipop (probably from good old M&S) that I received from an anonymous admirer when I was 8.
Romantic antics will be at a minimum on the 14th of Feb this year. No fancy restaurants or boutique hotels. No cinema dates or cosy pub trips, tipsily walking home after glasses of rosy red wine, all in the name of St. Valentine. Of course, these are lovely things to do. And I certainly miss doing them. In our pre-virus lives, when our schedules were jam-packed and working days were fast-paced and relentless, having a scheduled date in the diary dedicated purely to ‘love’, maybe was quite helpful. If not a little sad and contrived.
Perhaps what I love then about O’Hara’s poem, is that it is about the shape his love takes on an ordinary day. After returning from what was probably an exciting but exhausting road-trip around Spain, he writes this to his lover. An appreciation of the ordinary and the relief of returning to it. It is heartfelt and natural, with little need for structure or form. He does not succumb to the lure of cliched metaphors. O’Hara talks endlessly about art and artists and portraits and visiting galleries. , they are his primary interests. But what he seems to be getting at is that these experiences would be vastly improved by the company of someone he is in love with. The poem is about the energy that exists between two people as they ‘drift back and forth between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles’. There is no need for red roses (although I acknowledge there is an abundance of ‘fluorescent orange tulips’ …), or Summer days. He doesn’t need to compare his love to those things, because it exists without them. It is there as they drink coca cola on their lunch breaks. It is there in the secrecy of their smiles. And it will be there when they visit the Frick for the first time together.
You might not consider O’Hara’s poem to be about love. Which is fine. But it is undeniably about the fun of sharing and delighting in company. Whether that is with a lover, or friend, or family member, a neighbour, or a stranger. Unfortunately for now that company might have to be enjoyed via a phone call, or video call, a chilly walk or a door-step chat. But re-reading Having a coke with you, has made me long for the days where we can stroll together through an art gallery. When we can bask in the glory of the sun with a friend under a tree. And there is no Valentine’s gift that can beat that. So, I think I will listen to Frank O’Hara reading this poem to while away these difficult days, until we are there again …
at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world …’
Happy Valentine’s Day,
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDLwivcpFe8 ‘Frank O’Hara reads Having a Coke with You …’