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Analysis of "The Day Lady Died" by Frank O'Hara

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Frank O'Hara

Frank O'Hara

Frank O'Hara And a Summary of "The Day Lady Died"

"The Day Lady Died" is Frank O'Hara's curious elegy written in memory of Billie Holiday, the jazz singer. The setting is New York City, a busy Manhattan street. It's summer and the speaker is going about his everyday business.

As the poem progresses, a picture builds, made up of layer upon layer of urban life, surface life if you will. The speaker is excited, tense, wary of time passing as he browses, shops and prepares to catch a train.

He's caught up in the flux of life on the street yet is also taken to different places because of the things he looks at—a book on world writing for example—so the poem has a universal feel to it.

  • As reference points shift, the speaker's thoughts become a series of actions and possibilities, all expressed in a paratactic style of writing, that is, short simple sentences and clauses . . . I go get . . . I will get off . . . I walk up . . . I go on.
  • This first-person running commentary reinforces the idea that this is an individual fully engaged in the here and now. He's totally wrapped up in the present, almost giving the impression that life is a humdrum affair, as well as a consumer's dream.
  • When the memory of hearing and actually seeing Billie Holiday sing comes to life near the end of the poem, the contrast between the everyday and the profound becomes clear.
  • An artists's death and genius might appear to be smothered in the urban goings-on but an argument could be made for the opposite to be the case. Our existence is brought into question—how to transcend the mundane?

Frank O'Hara spent most of his creative life in New York, becoming heart and soul of the art and poetry scene during the 1950s and 1960s. As an associate curator at MoMA he had plenty of opportunity to get to know painters such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

Composition and the process of making art were very important to him. In his poetry he preferred a spontaneous style, fresh and in the moment, often writing down snippets on the back of menus during lunch. He didn't like what he thought was literary pretension in poems.

Some are critical of his poetry, claiming it is superficial and reliant on the banal but his friend and fellow poet Kenneth Koch wrote:

'His poems were full of passion and life; they weren't trivial because small things were called in them by name.'

The Day Lady Died first appeared in his book Lunch Poems, published in 1964. The title of the poem is a clever play on words as Billie Holiday was known as Lady Day in her time. Her name is never mentioned in the poem.

"The Day Lady Died"

"The Day Lady Died"

Analysis of "The Day Lady Died"

"The Day Lady Died" is a free verse poem of twenty-nine lines, split into five stanzas. There is no set rhyme scheme or regular metric beat. The punctuation is minimal, there being only five commas, parentheses and capital letters.

The simple way this poem starts reflects the initial ordinariness of the situation the speaker finds himself in. The working week has come to an end, it's lunchtime in New York.

Picture this individual checking out his watch or a city clock, placing himself precisely in the day. Not only that, he's aware that recently a historic event in Europe was celebrated, Bastille Day, the day the revolutionaries stormed the palace and changed the power structure in France and Europe forever.

  • So there is local precision and a broad expansion happening simultaneously. This is a speaker aware of things happening outside of the Big Apple bubble. He is in the moment, literally, but is also able to put this into perspective.

But why tell the reader the year, 1959? Internally, it rhymes with shoeshine, a coincidence no doubt because there is no rhyme scheme to bring about closure and certainty.

There is just a flow, and the speaker goes with this flow because he's about to catch a train timetabled exactly at 4:19, another reminder that our lives are often led by deadlines and specific times.

He's on his way to dinner with strangers, or near-strangers—he doesn't know them well or at all—but he's going to be fed, which is necessary for well-being.

Notice the emphasis on the first person. There are over a dozen . . . I don't know . . . I walk up . . . I get a little . . . I don't . . . I am sweating . . . on and on, the ego forced to compete on the New York city streets.

  • This is near a paratactic style of writing, where short sentences dominate. Yet in this poem there is little punctuation in the syntax, so the reader is left to work out the pauses, the breaks, the delivery, which adds to the idea of the frantic life of Manhattan.

The second stanza continues this theme of personal versus impersonal, the speaker walking through the summer afternoon, grabbing a bite and a drink before buying a book of Ghanian poetry. Ghana, ex-slave capital of Africa, perhaps an indirect link here to Billie Holiday?

This speaker is a cultural vulture.

He proceeds to the bank and is familiar with the teller Miss Stillwagon (an odd surname, loosely associated with a hearse, something that is no longer moving?). His observation is a real close detail of the fabric of everyday life, for Miss Stillwagon does not check his balance this time, which she has done routinely in the past.

  • Things change, the speaker is telling the reader. Minute things change, big things change. Like revolution, like slavery, like life itself.

He purchases more things, gets more ideas. He chooses Verlaine, the rebel poet, but nearly chose Behan, the rebel Irish playwright, and Genet the controversial French playwright.

Verlaine wins out in the end, despite the speaker 'practically going to sleep with quandariness.'

Strega, a herbal liqueur from Italy, is next on the list, followed by tobacco and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it.

  • The final stanza is a time warp of sorts. The face of Billie Holiday in the newspaper throws the speaker, takes him back to the 5 SPOT jazz club. Although he is sweating in the here and now, due to the hot weather perhaps, he is also placing himself in the past, thinking of the singer, the way she whispered a song to her pianist Mal Waldron, the sense of suspension.

Overall, an unusual approach to a celebrity death, one that at first reading seems to have too much incidental stuff in it. Too much ego-based material could be deemed to get in the way of the important event, the passing away of a legend.

But conversely, why not immerse the speaker in the street life of the metropolis, the hub of existence, where time and things play vital roles?

Isn't real life made up of moments full of and then I did this, then I did that despite someone of importance passing away?

This is a poem about mass culture, the vitality of being on the street, personal engagement with the surface of life, juxtaposed against profound change which comes in the form of a legendary jazz singer, Billie Holiday, and her untimely death.

© 2018 Andrew Spacey