Frank O’Hara’s love poem “Having a Coke with You,” written to his lover Vincent Warren, takes as its theme the function of aesthetics. Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy that concerns beauty and taste. Questions it attempts to answer include: what makes art, art?; why do we like some kinds of art and not others?; what is the point of art?; and what is the relationship between the beautiful and the good? O’Hara, who worked as a curator for the Museum of Modern Art, literally makes Warren into a work of art within his poem, and suggests that love itself should be considered a criterion when judging a work of art.
Historically critics and writers have judged art by its effect on the viewer. In the early nineteenth century, the word “aesthetics” largely meant the manner in which art was apprehended through the senses, with an emphasis on the visual. Issues such as art’s relationship to society didn’t become a major concern until the twentieth century. However, O’Hara, like the other poets with whom he is often linked—John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler—was not really a philosopher or even a critic, although he wrote many art reviews and copy for museum catalogues. He was an artist himself and saw words as a kind of paint that captured and created experience. O’Hara critic Alan Feldman notes that O’Hara and the other New York School poets
“are not interested in the concept of the soul or the business of the soul. . . . They are not interested in death and violence except in its capacity for energizing language. . . . Their poems never contain a message to help us make some kind of moral order in our lives. They are neither concerned with timeless values, nor with portraying average, everyday reality. Instead they’re interested in the colors and textures of life as momentary, isolated phenomena, detached from intellectual, moral or religious pattern.”
In treating Warren as an art object himself, O’Hara paints a portrait of the dancer indirectly, by focusing on what makes Warren loveable to him. This is the same tact a painter might take in creating a portrait of a lover, emphasizing the lover’s hair, or smile, or eyes. O’Hara emphasizes individual parts of Warren such as his orange shirt and his love for yogurt, but also emphasizes their own relationship, “the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary.” All of these details are specific to O’Hara’s taste and to the relationship itself. That is, another poet writing of Warren would not necessarily even mention these details. By referring to places and incidents about which only Warren would know the significance, O’Hara is practicing “Personism,” his own theory of poetry. Ironically, O’Hara does not care if readers get the references in his poems or not. In his essay “Personism,” written for fellow poet LeRoi Jones’ magazine Yugen, O’Hara writes:
“But how can your really care if anybody gets it [the poem], or gets what it means, or if it improves them. Improves them for what? For death? Why hurry them along? Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with dripping (tears). I don’t give a damn whether they eat or not. Forced feeding leads to excessive thinness (effete). Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them.”
This attitude towards poetry and by extension to art itself is populist in sentiment. That is, although himself a student of art and someone responsible for acquiring art for MOMA’s many exhibitions, O’Hara implicitly expresses a disdain for art that might be technically and formally brilliant but lacking in passion and feeling. The feeling in “Having a Coke with You” is as much the feeling of frivolity and fun. The very title suggests as much. Having a drink with someone is often what people do on dates. That the drink is a Coke, as opposed to say, a scotch and water, emphasizes the lightness of the occasion. O’Hara juxtaposes this feeling of lightness with references to some very “heavy” people, artists, and paintings. St. Sebastian, for example, who O’Hara says Warren looks like a “better happier” version, is a Christian martyr who died for his beliefs. Da Vinci and Michelangelo are two of the world’s most famous artists and known for the profundity and gravity of their art, and Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase is considered a masterpiece of modern perspective, are compared as well. By preferring having a Coke with Warren to any of these, O’Hara privileges the immediate and the popular and suggests that the true value of art is not in surviving time but in being in time. He underscores the distinction between art, life, the past, and the present when he writes “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.” Viewing museum art, which has been judged “great” by critics, history, and collected and exhibited, can never approach the experience of being in love, O’Hara suggests. Feldman sees this focus on the present as an attempt, conscious or not, to ignore the possibility that the relationship might not last. Feldman writes:
“Explaining Vincent’s beauty, or even describing it, would be as tedious and unnecessary as explaining why a sunny spring day is lovely. But such blithe joy is, however, too carefree to last. This is not mentioned, yet perhaps O’Hara is signaling such an awareness by deliberately confining his admiration for Vincent to aesthetics. The question of whether Vincent is or is not the “right person” seems to be irrelevant to O’Hara as the identity of the person standing “near the tree” is to an impressionist painter whose only concern, after all, is points of light.”
In poetry there is a tradition that takes as its subject other poems or works of art. These types of poems are called ekphrasis; they are representations of representations or mirrors of a sort. By treating Warren as a work of art and comparing him to other works of art, O’Hara is saying that Warren himself has representational meaning. For O’Hara, this meaning resides in the idea that rather than imitating art, life betters art. Ironically, however, O’Hara uses an art form, the poem, to make this claim. He achieves verisimilitude—the notion that art can create the illusion of reality—by explicitly criticizing the shortcomings of other art that, to him, has not achieved his standard of reality, which is based in a more psychological rather than empirical version of experience. At the heart of O’Hara’s poem, then, is the idea that art the world praises is emotionally cold because it concentrates too much on the illusion of appearance rather than feeling. O’Hara, on the other hand, approximates reality through the illusion of spontaneity. His poem has the feel of a diary entry jotted down in the heat of the moment, as opposed to the obviously well planned and meticulously detailed paintings to which he refers. Tradition, O’Hara suggests, can blunt the emotions and lead to cold art, if followed for the sake of tradition itself. He writes “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.” Rather than studying the masters, O’Hara suggests that poets “just go on your nerve,” something readers cannot help but think he would like painters to do as well. When he writes that “it seems they were all cheated out of some marvelous experience / which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I’m telling you about it,” O’Hara is saying that the great painters and artists of the past concentrated too much on their art and not what their art was about.
O’Hara wrote scores of poems about his affair with Warren detailing the emotional ups and downs of the relationship, the doubts, the fears, and the jealousies. These poems, written in 1960–1961 during the eighteenth months of their relationship, were addressed to Warren and serve as a chronicle of the inner life of the affair. Their appeal is that although readers might not understand the references, they do understand the tone of the poems because they deal with the universal and familiar subject of love. So while readers might not know that the Spanish cities O’Hara lists in the first line of “Having a Coke with You,” the readers do not need to know that the cities he visited were efforts to recruit artists for a show at MOMA. And while readers might not be familiar with Duchamp’s or Rembrandt’s paintings or futurism, they do not need to. Readers can infer the speaker’s passion for his lover through the familiar gesture he makes of naming the small things he loves about him and by his comparing him to other objects of beauty. For O’Hara, beauty is love.
Jennifer Smith and Elizabeth Thomason, Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 12, Frank O’Hara, Published by Gale Group, 2001.
Chris Semansky, Critical Essay on “Having a Coke with You,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.