Blog Post

Frank O'Hara Goes off the Syllabus, into the Lunch Room

Here’s a genre in which I haven't written for some time: the lab report (thank you, biologycorner.com, for the template).

TITLE: Out of the Classroom, into the Lunch Room

STATEMENT OF PROBLEM: What happens when a new assistant professor meets her 25 English 101 students in the main campus dining hall for lunch and they read Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems (1964) together? Read it, that is, aloud and all the way through, from its iconic front cover (Pocket Poets #19) through its indelible jacket copy, in which O’Hara describes himself "strolling" around Manhattan, writing poems, and "never forgetting to eat Lunch his favorite meal...?"

HYPOTHESIS: Total chaos ensues. (Have you been to a campus dining hall lately? It’s mania. And the perfect social setting for reading O’Hara.)

MATERIALS: 26 used copies of Lunch Poems; 25 bright, game students; 1 green prof.; loud voices; trays, chairs, one long table; curious undergrads wandering by or peeking over from other tables; any number of interruptions, ring tones, friends stopping by, late arrivals and early departures, yawns, giggles, fidgets, wandering and returning minds, etc etc.; collective sense of humor.

PROCEDURE: Most of the students fit around one long table, with prof and overflow students perched on the next table.  Each person reads a page rather than a poem.  While eating lunch.

RESULTS: A poem! (An unanticipated poem, too). More RESULTS and CONCLUSIONS to come. (For line breaks/spacing, please open the attached pdf version)

*

Having a Coke with You All
(emboldened by Kenneth Koch)

It is 11.54 am in Pennsylvania a Tuesday
five days after Thanksgiving, yes, and students are sluggish
in week 13 but I put my computer to sleep to meet them
in the dining hall for lunch at noon, because it’s O’Hara’s go-time,
and we read Lunch Poems “right straight through,”
each person taking a page not a poem

Tim got there early, thank something!, and staked out a long table
At 12.04 I zip it on professorial asides and start reading “Music”
and the volume is the clock now and I hope we get through it
before I have to teach my next class
Alesha takes over on page 2 before she has to leave for
her softball game
and we’re going, you can hardly hear the readers at one end of the
table from the other end
but that’s the point, yes,
O’Hara would love it! I hope

Arden goes to get a sandwich, Alex goes to get a Coke
Chris climbs over a table to reach ours
and everyone is laughing all of a sudden because of
“Poem (Wouldn’t it be funny)…?” and yes it would! and
we can hear it now
Jacob shifts in his chair as Corwyn bids “Adieu to
Norman” but not to Ryan who’s also on the football team
Adieu to Adam and Kay Kay as they take off for class!
Yes, the lunchtime rush is subsiding beyond our long table
And I can hear a little better
and think a little clearer, too
when Greg stops chewing to read “For the Chinese New Year
and Bill Berkson” I hear, this is new,
O’Hara’s SONAR training in it too

Ishan has lucked out! He gets “Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!)” and Bo and Nick are laughing even though
a student who’s not in our class but whose mom is friends with my dad and his wife walked by and said he was sorry for me for having them in my class
it’s John’s turn now and I went to college with his cousin
Was our dining hall like this? Conor is yawning but I don’t think
he’s bored
Chelsea is putting on her jacket because it’s raining, not snowing,
raining
Jimmie closes his book, John talks to a girl in a chartreuse jacket
Andrew moves to hear better
You won’t hear better poetry than this!
Hunter, following along, seems to think so

O’Hara would love the phones being checked, the friends I don’t
know waving to these students, looking at them quizzically as
they walk by us to refill their Cokes

At 1.07 I, reading, tell them “never to argue with the movies.
The remains of a good old American Sloppy Joe congeal on the
table and someone has left half a glass of an alarmingly
blue drink
It’s time to go and I walk across campus thinking how I took
attendance,
not O’Hara’s kind of attending,
by scrawling their names in my Lunch Poems in the margins of the
poems they read

Their voices are in there now, in the poems in my pocket, with Allen and Jane and Bill that whole “generation”
(did they notice that keyword?)
and Pierre Reverdy and Lady. And everyone and I go to class.

November 30, 2010

—Claire Bowen

Assistant Professor of English, Dickinson College
Claire Seiler's research and teaching focus on modern and contemporary literature and culture in the U.S., England, and Ireland. Her work makes an inquiry of inconspicuous terms that inform twentieth-century literary criticism, among them "midcentury" (which she investigates in her first-book-in-progress, titled "Midcentury Suspension") and the "generation" (the problematic category that organizes her next project, on twentieth-century poetics). Her work has been published in Twentieth-Century Literature, Comparative Literature, Modernism/Modernity, and elsewhere.