How to Work Your Lunch Break Like Frank O'Hara

Living with Poetry is an occasional series where we explore how poetry infuses our everyday lives. Catch up with past features here.

The subject of working and writing brings up two important issues: how to best utilize the lunch break to your creative advantage, and how to eat well.

This might not come as a surprise, but most writers have day jobs, sometimes in entirely unrelated fields. If you’re one of them, consider yourself in good company in the ranks of those like Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and Frank O'Hara, who found time to write during the confines of the work hours they kept.

In a Harvard Business Review article, Poetry for Professionals, John Coleman writes how poetry can teach us to infuse life with beauty and meaning. “A challenge in modern management can be to keep ourselves and our colleagues invested with wonder and purpose. As Simon Sinek and others have documented, the best companies and people never lose a  sense of why they do what they do. Neither do poets. In her Nobel lecture "The Poet and the World," Wislawa Szymborska writes:

Granted, in daily speech, where we don’t stop to consider every word, we all use phrases like “the ordinary world,” “ordinary life,” “the ordinary course of events” ... But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone’s existence in this world.

Frank O'Hara understood that "the ordinary world" was full of inspiration. While on his lunch break from the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, O'Hara often composed poetry from fragments he observed in this brief hour. His collection, "Lunch Poems," chronicles many walks around the city.

It's my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-colored
cabs. First, down the sidewalk
where laborers feed their dirty
glistening torsos sandwiches
and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets
on. They protect them from falling
bricks, I guess. Then onto the
avenue where skirts are flipping
above heels and blow up over
grates. The sun is hot, but the
cabs stir up the air. I look
at bargains in wristwatches. There
are cats playing in sawdust.

-from "A Step Away from Them"

This might seem like a list with no apparent cohesion, but when you consider the circumstances under which the poem was written, it flows. As a reader, you are following O'Hara through Manhattan, seeing what he sees. As a writer with a busy day job, O'Hara used his lunch hour wisely by observing the world around him, collecting lines for poems, and composing them on a park bench.

A lunch break is your time. Whether it’s twenty minutes or one hour, you can accomplish something creative. Bring a book, take a walk with the intention of thinking through a creative rut you’re in, pull out a notebook or sketchpad, type up the draft that you hand wrote the day before.

Now, when it comes to eating well during your lunch break, that’s also an issue worth discussing. Especially if you’re planning to use your creative juices, you’ll need to stay energized (think healthy ingredients like avocado and whole grains, rather than empty fast food calories).

Have you read Lunch at the Shop? It’s a slim little cookbook celebrating the enjoyment of the midday meal. Peter Miller makes lunch every day at his bookstore in Seattle, and this collection of 50 simple recipes makes me want to do the same.

In our current bustle, lunch has been overlooked. The bulk of lunch has been sourced out to stand-up counters and takeout platters, wrapped and rolled and packaged, and it is now mostly a pass-through, of time and food.

Peter continues to explain how when you take control of your meal, you are "simply taking a part of the day back into your hands, making it personal and pleasure. The food will be better, the stories more interesting, and the day considerably more distinct."

Cheers to that.

Lunch looks different for each of us. The point is to at least give the meal some attention, in whatever way makes sense for you. And if you need a little inspiration for your lunch bag, here are some great ideas:



Things With Avocado*
*Because avocado is always a good idea!