Is Frank O'Hara's poem "Having a coke with you" a hybrid of popular and high literature?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Frank O’Hara’s poem “Having a Coke with You” might well be described as a hybrid of “popular” and “high” literature. Such a claim can be supported by citing, for instance, the following pieces of evidence:

  • The title, with its informal reference to a popular soft drink (“Coke” rather than “Coca Cola”), already suggests a “popular” work.
  • The phrase “even more fun” in line 1 is colloquial, while the geographical references in lines 1-2 mostly suggest intriguing places in Europe rather than familiar places in the U. S. (such as Brooklyn, Queens, or Coney Island).
  • Like 3 combines reference to casual clothing (“your orange shirt”) with reference to an early Christian martyr (“St. Sebastian”), who has often been the subject of homoerotic paintings by noted artists.
  • Lines 6-10 juxtapose references to “statuary” (often associated with “high” art) with references to casual afternoons in New York City.
  • The reference to “the portrait show” in line 11 suggests, like the preceding references to “statuary,” a concern with high culture (specifically with exhibitions of paintings). This concern, however, is nevertheless juxtaposed with references to casual, unpretentious reactions (as when the “you” addressed wonders, about the paintings, “why anyone in the world ever did them” [12]).
  • In lines 13-16 the speaker juxtaposes a reference to a famous painting by Rembrandt, in New York’s Frick collection, with a breathless and unpunctuated burst of enthusiasm by the speaker for the person (presumably a male lover) he addresses (16).
  • This pattern of juxtaposing the speaker’s casual phrasing with references to “high” art continues for the next several lines. A perfect example of the casual phrasing, for instance, is the phrase “used to wow me” (19); a perfect example of a reference to “high” art involves the reference to Marcel Duchamp’s abstract painting titled “Nude Descending a Staircase” (18).
  • In lines 20-23 , references to movements in “high” art and to famous painters continue to be couched in very casual, very colloquial phrasing:

. . . 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

Notice, for instance, the casual use of “got” (as opposed to "managed to get") or the use of “didn’t” (as opposed to “did not”).  Marino Marini, meanwhile, was a modern sculptor who created an entire series of sculptures featuring riders on horses.

In the poem’s final lines, the speaker speaks even more directly to the unnamed but obviously attactive and loved addressee. The poem shows the speaker’s knowledge of “high” art while stressing, as far more important, his affection for the person he addresses.

Something extra: This poem is in many ways a foreshadowing of what has more recently been called "postmodern" art, in which combinations of the "high" and the "low" are not only allowed by actually encouraged. This poem also invites attention from the approach to art and literature known as "queer studies," since it is strongly implied in this text that a male speaker is addressing another male in appreciation of that male's beauty and vivacity.

Incidentally, a film of O'Hara himself reading this poem aloud has been posted to YouTube.

Sources:

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