Brain Pickings

Is It Dirty: A Love Letter to New York’s Grit from Frank O’Hara, 1964


“…you don’t refuse to breathe do you…”

After Anaïs Nin’s disenchanted take on New York, here comes a wonderful antidote by way of Frank O’Hara (March 27, 1926–July 25, 1966). Found in the magnificent collection Lunch Poems (public library) and originally published in 1964, “Song (Is it dirty)” is a beautiful homage to Gotham’s grit — the age-old social glue that centuries of visitors and natives have remarked upon and rejoiced in.

Enjoy a reading of “Song (Is it dirty)” by O’Hara himself, an audio excerpt from the TV program USA: Poetry: Frank O’Hara, a 12-part documentary series produced and directed by Richard Moore for National Education Television. This episode was filmed on March 5, 1966, at O’Hara’s New York City home and originally aired on September 1, 1966.

Is it dirty
does it look dirty
that’s what you think of in the city

does it just seem dirty
that’s what you think of in the city
you don’t refuse to breathe do you

someone comes along with a very bad character
he seems attractive. is he really. yes very
he’s attractive as his character is bad. is it. yes

that’s what you think of in the city
run your finger along your no-moss mind
that’s not a thought that’s soot

and you take a lot of dirt off someone
is the character less bad. no. it improves constantly
you don’t refuse to breathe do you

Complement O’Hara’s glorious Lunch Poems with E.B. White’s 1949 love letter to New York and a curious history of the city in 101 objects.

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