New York City plays a major role in O'Hara's Lunch Poems. The setting grounds his poems and the reader in the everyday. New York becomes a character of its own. Rather than death, love, and the muses, O'Hara wrote about the city around him, bringing poetry back down to earth, or more specifically to New York.
Let's take his poem "The Day Lady Died" as an example. The "Lady" in the title refers to Billie Holiday, who not only sang in the jazz cafes of New York but also died in Harlem. In the poem, the speaker goes to and mentions different shops and hot spots: the Ziegfeld Theatre, the Golden Griffen. Besides Billie Holiday, he mentions other names in the art world. The poem ends with the lasting impression of Holiday's singing performance: "she whispered a song along the keyboard / to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing." New York is a hub of art and celebrity. It is also the place where stores and theaters go out of business and artists die, but art lives on, and people like the speaker go on about their day. Articles like the one on the front page of the New York Post in the poem continue to be written, bought, and sold. The spirit and hustle and bustle of New York lives on, too.
Who is the speaker in these poems? Is it O'Hara? If so, it is a present O'Hara, one who lives and writes in the moment. It is not a past O'Hara, but one who is unapologetically a New Yorker. O'Hara provides further insight into what it might mean to be a New Yorker, the sense of identity that comes with that label, and the sense that this label has taken the place of a previous, less cultured one.