Perhaps only Tokyo rivals New York for the amount of neon in daylight. But Frank O’Hara, the quintessential New York poet, lived here, not Japan. In a 1956 poem called “A Step Away from Them,” O’Hara described walking around Midtown on his lunch hour, concluding, “Neon in daylight / is a great pleasure.”
For O’Hara, urban life was the only life. His most famous lines about the city are inscribed on a wall in Battery Park: “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy” (“Meditations in an Emergency,” 1957). He loved the peculiar swirl of sensations that comes from a place so teeming with people and their proclivities, particularly abstract art and popular music.
Using a writing style he termed “I do this, I do that,” O’Hara wanted to do in words what his artist-friends were doing on canvas. Together, O’Hara and his pals, including Jasper Johns, Larry Rivers, Mark Rothko, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler, among others, formed a loose confederation of friends in the 1950s and 1960s interested in exploring the links between poetry and art; critics now refer to them, collectively, as the New York School. (That’s Rivers’s painting of O’Hara above, “Double Portrait of Frank O’Hara,” 1953.)
O’Hara worked at the Museum of Modern Art, and he would eat lunch and write poems in (and sometimes about) Times Square; many of these were collected in the aptly named collection “Lunch Poems” (1963). He died in an accident on Fire Island in 1966.