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Analysis of Poem "Having A Coke With You" by Frank O'Hara

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Frank O'Hara  photographed by Kenward Elmslie

Frank O'Hara photographed by Kenward Elmslie

Frank O'Hara and a Summary of Having A Coke With You

Having A Coke With You is a love poem Frank O'Hara wrote in 1960. It is based on an afternoon drink with a young lover, set under a tree in New York city. Published in a small magazine initially (Love), it was also included in the book Lunch Poems, published in 1965. It is a typically spontaneous O'Hara work, unconventional and open-hearted, dashed off with enthusiasm.

Frank O'Hara was known as 'a poet among the painters' because of his association with a group of New York artists, the abstract expressionists, with whom he collaborated for a number of years. A livewire and party animal, he worked as an assistant curator at MoMA.

Though not prolific, his carefree style, which he termed 'Personism', went against the grain of tradition. He hated literary pretension and wanted his poetry to reflect his dynamic interest in and involvement with cutting-edge cultural activity. Manhattan, his stomping ground, was certainly full of that.

Having A Coke With You was written when O'Hara returned from a trip to Spain in April 1960 and focused on the intimate relationship between two people enjoying a drink and alludes to art and religion. It's an unorthodox poem that contrasts a beautiful lover with fine art and saintliness.

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

I look
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 marvelous experience
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I am telling you about it

Analysis of Having A Coke With You

Having A Coke With You is in free verse, there are no end rhymes and no regular meter (metre in UK). There are two large chunks - stanzas - and two unrhymed couplets, one that separates the stanzas and one that closes off the poem.

Punctuation is non-existent apart from a series of commas in the first two lines and one comma in line four. This reflects the rare and unusual romantic situation the speaker finds himself in. There are no rules. Enjambment has gone wild.

  • The lines are mostly long and rambling and give the impression that they are prose sentences simply laid down end to end in a breathless fashion. This could be a casual telephone call monologue, or a passionate interior description.

Reading through this poem is an adventure because there is a lack of guiding punctuation, there is no steady rhythm or regular variation in stress so the reader has to decide when and how to pause before moving on. This is very much an individual choice.

The first person perspective means that the reader is brought right into the mind of the speaker, who is sitting admiring the beauty inherent in his lover. It is an intense burst of admiration the reader witnesses; some might say it is a little too over-the-top but one thing is for sure - there is no denying the passion the speaker feels in these moments of personal bliss.

Further Analysis Line by Line of Having A Coke With You

Lines 1 - 10

This poem is all about the moment, the sharing of a coke with a lover, time being transformed by love. Love, life and art are put into the mix, and love comes out top; it is much more preferable to the best picture, the best statue, the best saint.

Frank O'Hara wrote this poem having just returned from Spain, so the chance to meet up with his lover - in real life Vincent Warren, a dancer with the New York Ballet - is too good an opportunity to miss. Better than traipsing round those spanish towns and cities!

Saint Sebastian is often portrayed as a handsome young man martyred by being tied to a post and having arrows fired into him, which he is said to have survived. How an orange shirt fits into this scenario is anyone's guess, but the speaker is clear in his own mind.

  • Note the repeated 'partly because' which puts emphasis on the reasons for this occasion to be so special. And those reasons are both concrete and romantic, from the orange shirt to pure unadulterated love, from yoghurt to those secret smiles. The speaker is opening up his heart, admitting to infatuation and a kind of helplessness in relief.

The momentum builds as the speaker introduces the statuary - the statues which are near to them - and states that he doesn't like them, they're 'unpleasantly definitive' and so still, and this is in acute contrast to him and his lover who are fluid and alive when compared to the solemn statues.

In fact the two are like the trees, the breathing birches, so green and focused are they. The unusual simile like a tree breathing through its spectacles could be a reference to the shiny leaves - a tree certainly does breathe through its leaves - but conjures up a strange image of a tree wearing a pair of glasses. Surreal, yet it seems to do the job. The speaker and the lover are as one entity; one is the tree, the other the lens (from the spectacles), and both need each other to function.

More Analysis

Lines 11 - 12

The separate couplet follows the opening stanza and questions the reasons why a painter might want to paint a portrait of someone, when the living flesh is so much more impressive. The speaker is saying that the show, the exhibition he has just been to see, is little more than paint.

Why create a picture of someone's face when the living reality surpasses anything an artist might produce? The speaker is attempting to convince himself that no painted portrait could ever substitute for the person right in front of him at that moment in time.

Further Analysis Line By Line

Lines 13 - 25

Again the speaker reiterates his infatuation with his lover by stating that any portrait doesn't come near the transformative experience of the living face, the real person seen at the right moment.

The allusion to an actual picture - the Polish Rider by Rembrandt - brings a slight doubt to the proceedings. The speaker almost casually mentions the fact that the picture hangs in the Frick (an Art reference Library in New York) and that his lover hasn't actually been there yet, much to the speaker's relief.

And further mention of Nude Descending A Staircase by Marcel Duchamp - one of the founders of Modernism - and other great artists from the Renaissance, plus the Impressionists with their radical take on technique and use of paint - the speaker is giving the reader a potted history of art, specifically portrait painting, and saying that all of these artists cheated themselves out of the experience of simply being near to a beautiful loved one.

Even Marini's Horse and Rider is questioned - seems the speaker thinks the horse is better looking than the rider.

The conclusion is that, from the still standing statues to the modern nude, nothing compares with what the speaker can see, feel and experience in the moment, even if that moment includes a coke, yogurt and orange shirt. The love between two intimate people conquers all, the sensual nature of the passionate secret smile, the look, is what matters in the end.


Norton Anthology , Norton, 2005

© 2017 Andrew Spacey