This poem really rolls off the tongue, and that's no accident. It's designed to mimic the patterns of spoken speech. Basically, the whole thing reads like a one-sided conversation, in which the speaker has come to a decision to spill his guts to the addressee of the poem. He steels his nerve, takes a deep breath, and then he's off.
What lines give us this sense of verbal momentum? Well, pretty much all of 'em, but let's check out a few examples:
Check out line 8: "as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it." Here the speaker is telling us how bummed out he is by statues (compared to his love for the you of this poem). What's his beef, exactly? The statues are "solemn." They're also "unpleasantly definitive." These are two, separate descriptions that get jammed together, with no punctuation, into the same line. It's as though our speaker is casually tossing out ideas as they come to him, not planning or punctuating for emphasis. Even in this line, which is an enjambed continuation of a thought from the previous line, the speaker is off and running onto a new thought before the line is even through: "when right in front of it." "When right in front of"… what? We have to read on to the next enjambed line to figure that out.
Enjambment and compression are two ways that O'Hara keeps us hustlin' though his poem. As we are sped along as readers, the true intensity of the speaker's conversation emerges. Consider the last line of the poem: "which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I am telling you about it" (25). Again, we have a line that carries forth an idea from the line above it, and again we have a line that does away with the traditional boundary-markers of grammar (commas, periods, and the like). Instead of two separate ideas—"which is not going to go wasted on me," and "which is why I am telling you about it"—we get both at once together, with no stopping or pause. Even to the end, the speaker is rushing to get this off his chest—not in a hectic way, but in a way that tells us as readers how important this realization is to him.
The title, "Having a Coke with You," does a lot of jobs in this poem. In its most simple terms, it tells us what the poem is going to be about. It sets the scene: speaker + you + Coke = poem. Got it? Good. So we have an established backdrop of activity right from the get-go, and we understand what's going on before we dive into the poem any deeper.
Of course, there's more to it than that (there always is, isn't there?). The title is also the first line of the poem. This is not an unheard-of strategy in poetry, where the first line of the poem actually serves as boththe opening line and the actual title. So what's the effect of that kind of first-line-and-title double duty?
Well, one undeniable effect is that of speed. Clearly, the title is not repeated in the poem. We simply launch right into the poem from the title. The title then acts as a kind of catapult, propelling us as readers headlong into the text. At the same time, O'Hara is propelling us right into this conversation, and the speed with which the title does this gives us a sense of energy, and urgency, to what's being discussed here. This isn't somebody talking about his favorite wallpaper. He's got something urgent to tell you. So listen up, Shmoopers.
The setting of "Having a Coke with You" is pretty specific. Here we are in New York City, home to the Frick collection and many other wonderful museums of art. We even know what time it is. It's 4 o'clock in the afternoon, and we know that that light at this time of day is still "warm." We can then assume this is taking place some time in late spring, summer, or early fall, before that wintry time of the year where 4 p.m. in New York City means icy winds howling down the boulevards as the sun disappears from view.
The warmth of the season is in line with the general tone of this love poem, which is relaxed and peaceful. Our speaker notices the trees (which are, um, breathing), so we can also guess that this poem's conversation is taking place outside. We imagine a serene park bench, or café table, at which our speaker and you are seated, sipping on an icy coke and watching the rest of the city rush by.
In this way, the setting of New York City creates an effective contrast. Usually filled with the hustle and bustle of rampant humanity, this poem takes a break from that rat race. As he steps back from the city—in the same way it steps back from the work of art in general—our speaker gets a sense of perspective. It's not about being part of some grandiose project, for him, it's these small, quiet, private moments (much like the poem itself) that truly give us a sense of life's wonder and meaning.
At the risk of stating the obvious, our speaker is in love. Big time. With you. Well, he's in love with "you," the addressee in this poem, not you personally. Still, that makes a big difference to us as readers, doesn't it? Most people, when they're in love, make us want to stab knitting needles into our eyes. (There's a reason we call y'all Shmoopers, and not Shmoopie.) Really, we're happy for 'em and all, but it's… just… so… nauseating. Luckily, our speaker's not that way. Well, he is that way to a degree, in that he's totally, head-over-heels in love. At the same time, though, he's in love with "you," not with "my honey."
Think about it: if you were to replace the "you" in this poem with someone's name, would it be as effective. Even though we know that the speaker is not addressing us personally, we can't help but feel some appreciation for his feelings by being directly addressed with the poem's use of "you." After all, we're witnessing a private conversation here. We're flies on the wall, and lucky us. There's no showmanship, no grand gestures. Just swoony-but-real talk.
So our speaker is in love, but not in a nauseating way. He's in love in the kind of way that makes him reflective. That's unusual, too. They say that love is blindness, but our speaker is acutely aware that he's in love. It's as if being in love has heightened his senses to a new reality, one in which trees "[breathe] through [their] spectacles" (10). That may sound like a drug-induced hallucination, but, for our speaker, it's a "marvelous experience" (24), a chance to embrace a side of life that is full of joy and wonder that "is not going to go wasted on" him (25).
This love-struck appreciation isn't all lollipops and high-fives, though. This new state of bliss has taught the speaker something, a lesson about the futility of art. He's a sharp guy, and he knows his way around a museum or two, like the Frick (15). Still, all that art is now somehow dissatisfying to him when compared with the wonder of the person with whom he is in love. He comes to believe that the joy and insight that art provides really just pales with the experience of being in love. While being in love tends to reduce most people to a kind of goofy stupor, our speaker seems to be more insightful, and more reflective, for the experience.
Since it was meant to be conversational, this poem is really accessible and easy to follow for most readers. The most challenging thing about reading O'Hara's poem is that it's addressed to a "you" who obviously knows a thing or two about visual art. Still, if works by Rembrandt or Marino Marini aren't hanging on your wall or standing in your foyer, Shmoop's here to get you up to speed. With just a few clicks, we can know as much about art to effectively fake it through the poem. Yay, us.
Like his friends and fellow writers in the Beat generation and the New York School, Frank O'Hara was all about capturing the tone of everyday, spoken speech in his writing. The idea was pretty radical at the time, actually, considering that poetry (in America, anyway) was previously held to be a place where Grand Ideas went to be expressed in all their complex glory.
"Eh, not so much," said O'Hara and his buddies. Like the English Romantics before them, O'Hara and co. strove to bring poetry to the masses, to ground it in common experience and language. That's one reason that "Having a Coke with You" is not called "Having Some Fine Champagne with You." It's also why you'll see words like "anyway," and only find two (count 'em) commas (aside from the list in line 1) in the whole poem. O'Hara mimics the speed and urgency of an intimate conversation. (For more on this style of writing, check out "Form and Meter.")
Don't let that fool, you, though. Just because it's approachable, doesn't mean that our guy doesn't have something to say. Specifically, O'Hara was interested in art, and its relation to reality and our lived existence. As both an art reviewer and an assistant curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art, O'Hara thought and wrote a lot about art, and so it's not surprising to see sculptures and paintings interspersed throughout the lines in this poem.
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.
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?
There are two St. Sebastians in this poem: the saint himself, and the city in Spain. It seems like a little more than a coincidence that this name would show up twice in just twenty-five lines, don't you think? One theory is that St. Sebastian has, over time, become adopted by the gay community as a kind of patron saint. And given that Frank O'Hara was gay, he's a fitting figure to call upon in a love poem.
Much like St. Sebastian, the color orange appears twice in close succession in the poem. These echoes should set our reader's antennae twitching, as repetition is often a way that authors get us readers to, you know, Pay. Attention. But what's worth paying attention to when it comes to the color orange, anyway? In this poem, orange is a hap-hap-happy color, associated with the joy that comes with the speaker's feelings of love. It makes chromatic sense, too, as orange is a bright, warm color that wakes up our eyes and just generally cheers things up. When we see orange in this poem, we know happiness and love are there, too.
Art is important in this poem, insofar as the speaker wants us to know that it's not important. Well, it's not important compared to appreciating the time you have on Earth to be in love with a dude in an orange t-shirt. The moments you get to spend with your One True Love, for our speaker, are life's greatest treasures, and no Renaissance drawing or French painting can even come close. There are a variety of examples of art that O'Hara, himself an art critic and museum curator, offers up in this poem. All of them fall short, though, in in that way they collectively come to stand for what the speaker sees as a fundamentally distracted, wrong-headed approach to life. Life is about loving someone, not representing them with art.