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Wry on Rye

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A break in the workday--time to relax, grab some coffee, maybe create a literary masterpiece. Frank O'Hara, American poet, hunted and pecked poems on store display typewriters during his lunch breaks as curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art. A New Yorker to the core, he wrote about skyscrapers, Ginger Rogers, and dogs wearing sweaters in the time it took to catch a crosstown bus. But most of all, he wrote about lunch, his favorite meal. His poems-on-the-fly are filled with bite-sized reveries: liver sausage sandwiches, construction workers "feeding their dirty glistening torsos sandwiches and Coca-Colas with yellow helmets on," and the "hum-colored cabs" whizzing past.

O'Hara's life of poetry and art will be synthesized on Friday at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art. In the center's main gallery, writer David Lehman--an editor of the Best American Poetry series and a scholar of New York art and literature of the 1950s and '60s--will read O'Hara's poetry, as well as his own, with commentary on both.

The classic image of the starving writer, huddled in a threadbare attic corner, was lost on O'Hara, who placed his chair and typewriter where the action was--sometimes smack in the middle of cocktails and party conversation at his friends' apartments. His work reflects that flurry of energy and activity: "Lana Turner has collapsed!" exclaims the first line of one of the poems in Lunch Poems, his 1964 collection that was released two years before his death at age forty in a freak dune buggy accident.

Lehman says his affinity for O'Hara goes beyond art, affecting his own work: "While writing my book about poets and painters in the New York avant-garde (The Last Avant- Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets), I began writing one casual diary-entry-like poem per day," he says. "I felt close to O'Hara and his lunch poems." Like O'Hara, Lehman has collected these "casual" poems--his book, The Daily Mirror, is set for publication next year.

O'Hara also gave voice to abstract expressionist art, through his critical writings that included books on Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. His fast-moving circle of friends reflected his love for both poems and paintings--it included de Kooning, painter Jasper Johns, and poets Allen Ginsberg and Kenneth Koch.

So pass the mustard and hold the tomato--it may be after hours, but lunch is on its way.

--Ruth Corradi Beach

David Lehman will give a reading and lecture, How to Be a Modern Poet, on Friday at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, 8501 Carnegie Avenue. The reading is free; call 216-421-8671 ext. 21 for details.

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