Having a Coke with You
As a member of the literary Beat generation, Frank O'Hara was all about the conversation. By that, we mean that he wanted to capture the rhythms of everyday spoken speech in his poetry. He wasn't trying to shoehorn his insights into iambic pentameter or villanelles. Nope. Instead, he was trying to recreate the tone of our spoken language on the page.
Now, that might sound easy, but it's much harder than you might think. The truth is, it takes a lot of attention to form to pull off a truly conversational poem. For example, go back and count up all the commas in this poem. We'll wait right here while you do.
Really? Not into counting commas? Well, we love that kind of stuff. And we found… two. That's right. Outside the list of cities in line one, there are a whopping two whole other commas in this 25-line poem. Here they are: "partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt" (4) and "the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint" (11).
A comma is used to join clauses together in a sentence (among other things), and it also indicates a brief pause that allows the reader's brain to catch up. O'Hara's poem only pauses twice, though. Most of the time, we get lines like: "as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it" (8) when, grammatically speaking, it should read, "as solemn, as unpleasantly definitive as statuary, when right in front of it." Why no commas here, Frank? Was that key on the typewriter not working that day?
Well, if you take out the commas, you tend to run thoughts together in a sentence. The overall effect is a kind of speed and energy that is also achieved in intense speech. We mean, how intense is this guy? Not very. But this guy? Crazy intense, right?
We're not saying that O'Hara is the Micro Machines guy, but he is writing to capture the intense energy of a love-struck conversation. When you're spilling out your guts to your honey bun, you're probably not going to do it in a calm, laid-back fashion. You're going to take out those commas, baby, and go for it.
The End of the Line
Which brings us to another of O'Hara's favorite techniques: enjambment. An enjambment is the technique in poetry of ending a line mid-sentence or mid-thought, then continuing it on the next line. All poetry, really, has a built-in pause at the end of the line. The reader encounters a blank space there, and has to go back to the next line to keep reading. Poets know all about that, and use line breaks and enjambments for particular effect.
In the case of this poem, O'Hara uses enjambments to allow us a brief chance to pause, but then he picks it right back up again in the next line, and we're off and racing. We get a sense of this in the very first line, "is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne," (1) which picks up right where the title left off: "Having a Coke with You." That pause-then-return is a formal reminder to us as readers that there is an energy to what this speaker has to say.
It also allows O'Hara to pull thoughts apart and highlight thoughts-within-thoughts. Check out these lines:
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 (13-15)
Really, all three of those lines are part of the same whole sentence. Using enjambment, though, O'Hara breaks them up for the reader to consider them—both as individual lines and as a whole. At first, we read "I look," and are allowed to consider all the ways in which this poem is about the speaker's vision, how he sees the world, art, and the "you" to whom this poem is addressed. Then we get, "at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world." In this next line, we learn more specifically what the speaker is looking at, and how it is an act of love for the addressee. But then, we get the next line: "except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it's in the Frick."
Like a yummy cake, the layers keep adding up, separated by some delicious enjambment frosting. We've learned that the speaker looks, the speaker would rather look at you, and now we get this comic, sort of nervous babbling moment where the speaker says essentially, "Well, almost every portrait is worse than you to look at… pretty much." This last line complicates our understanding of the previous two, adds a note of comic realism to take the edge off the super-sweetness of the line before it, and more than anything really helps to accomplish the conversational tone that O'Hara was going for with his writing.
And you thought it was just a question of writing like you spoke, huh?