Critical Commentary on the Poem: ‘The Day Lady Died’ (Frank O’ Hara)

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The opening line of The Day Lady Died bequeaths the reader with time, a date, and a location: ‘It is 12:20 in New York a Friday’ A context is provided. It is ‘three days after Bastille day’. And a year is flagged: ‘it is 1959’. A certain degree of care has been taken to mark these facts out with precision. Perhaps therefore it is only humorous that the actions governing these precisions deals with the wholly unexciting and deflated task involving the poet ‘get[ting] a shoeshine’. And so begins a chain of mundane everyday activities performed by the journeying poet as the reader follows him under the midday sun of New York City.

The poem traces the poet from a bank to a bookshop and Liquor stores to tobacconists. We follow him through public transport and ‘muggy street[s]’. Ushered into fashioning an entire mental neighborhood the reader can hardly overlook the reflected image upon the page itself. Despite the casual free verse suited to the lunch poem genre that the poet employs, each stanza stands – a characteristic New York block. Uneven, yet grid-like and structured the stanzas are funneled through by spaces – roads dividing city blocks. In many ways, the poem on the page assumes the dimensions of a map – an aerial view of the space and distance covered by the poet. Capital letters undertake the shape and size of large hoardings. Numbers flash at regular intervals like seconds ticking: ’12:20/4:19/7:15′.

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Although depicting the essence of a busy, urban, neon-lit cityscape, one senses that the given few streets are only a sample representative of a larger metropolis. The poem is the only a fragment of a map. There is a sense of continuity that pervades – a continuity marked by the poet’s conscious omission of the full stop. Pauses, comas, and stanzas are retained to prevent monotony and promote a sense of change in the urban landscape. Amusingly, it is a closure that is prohibited.

The Day Lady Died is a classic instance of a poem chronicling it’s own coming into existence-you can trace the poet’s footsteps up to the moment when he sat at his typewriter recapitulating the hour he had just spent. Part of the poem’s charm lies in its mix of populist and elitist elements: a hamburger and a malted and “a little Verlaine,” a trip to the bank to cash a check, the purchase of exotic cigarettes and liqueurs. Here again, as in “Personal Poem” and “Memorial Day 1950,” the names mentioned in the poem are not merely gratuitous; from our distance, we can see just how much they tell us about the world in 1959. Even the detail about the bank teller-“Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard) [who] / doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life”-has an interest beyond the sass in the speaker’s voice; it helps evoke a once commonplace situation remote from us today, used as we have become to automatic teller machines and the universal American first-name basis.

As a map of literary allusion, the poem is eclectic and heterodox: Brendan Behan and Jean Genet are given equal billing with Hesiod and Paul Verlaine. There is also the reference to the issue of New World Writing featuring the “voices of Ghana.” But Africa, as the poet put it was “on its way,” and surely there is a strong sense of negritude in “The Day Lady Died”: it exists not only in the reference to the newly independent Ghana, which was celebrating its liberation from colonial status but in the title of Genet’s play (Les Negres), in the sad demise of Billie Holiday, possibly even in the skin color of the shoeshine man, though this is not specified. Perhaps the professed interest in “what the poets in Ghana are doing these days” is a prime example of O’Hara’s “exoticism” of blacks. Perhaps exoticism is the point: Cigarettes from France and New Orleans, a liqueur from Italy, poets, and painters from all over-the names in “The Day Lady Died” represent a whole way of life that would have seemed exotically bohemian to the poet’s first readers. It was the same exoticism that young Americans, black and white, responded to in bebop jazz.

And so “The Day Lady Died” was an instant hit, though it provoked dismay from critics who wondered whether a poem that doesn’t get around to mentioning the deceased until four lines from the end and then in the most incidental way, could possibly be a sincere expression of grief. This reaction put the poem in the company of other great elegies. Milton’s “Lycidas,” the greatest elegy in the language, suffered a similar fate: There were readers-the great Samuel Johnson among them-who felt that the poem’s pastoral conventions were artificial, that the poem, therefore, lacked sincerity, and that it was moreover unseemly of Milton to acknowledge, as he does, that one of his motives in writing this elegy for a drowned classmate was the hope that he, in turn, would be similarly memorialized. As the detractors of “Lycidas” were wrong, so the critics of “The Day Lady Died” misjudged the poet’s conversational ease and seemingly self-centered stance.

“The Day Lady Died” is a moving elegy not in spite of the poem’s preoccupation with the poet’s self but because of it; the death of the great singer at age forty-four occurs as an interruption, a shock that the reader is invited to share. The sharpness of the contrast between the vitality of the living man, attending to the errands and tasks of life, and the dead singer is like a last percussive note held in an expectant stillness. The poem’s breathless ending virtually enacts the death of the “first lady of the blues” (as the New York Post put it) whose nickname, “Lady Day,” is inverted in the poem’s title, a gesture as witty as it is poignant. A delicious irony about “The Day Lady Died” is that this most casual of utterances will, in becoming an anthology standard, someday require a whole battery of footnotes. But that is another way of saying that the poem opens out to include much more of the universe of 1959 than the quarantined space of New York used in this poem.

The actual particulars by which the poem captures the vitality of life and simultaneously constantly calls attention to its own contingency hover on the brink of disconnection. The poet knows exactly that he will get off the train at 7:15 and go to dinner, but he doesn’t know the people who will feed him. He goes to the bank where the barely familiar teller “Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)” disproves his expectations by not looking up his “balance for once in her life.” He cannot decide what book to buy for Patsy and practically goes to sleep “with quandaries.” This is a particularly odd detail: when one is in a quandary, one may well suffer from insomnia but hardly from sleepiness!

A similar disconnection characterizes the network of proper names and place references in the poem. On the one hand, the poet’s consciousness is drawn to the foreign or exotic: Ghana, the Golden Griffin, Verlaine, Bonnard, Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore, Brendan Behan, Le Balcon, Les N�gres, Genet, Strega, Gauloises, Picayunes. On the other, the poem contains a set of native American references: “shoeshine,” “the muggy street beginning to the sun,” “a hamburger and a malted,” “an Ugly NEW WORLD WRITING,” “6th Avenue,” “a NEW YORK POST,” “the 5 SPOT,” “the john door,” and the reference to Billie’s accompanist, Mal Waldron.

The inclusion of Verlaine and Genet, Gauloises, and the Golden Griffin into a poem about Billie Holiday marks the poet’s great tribute to Lady Day-that she embodies both the foreign-exotic and the native American. As a person, Billie Holiday was, of course, quintessentially American: a southern Black who had experienced typical hardships on the road to success, a woman of great passions who finally succumbed to her terrible drug addiction, a victim of FBI agents and police raids. In this sense, hers is the world of muggy streets, hamburgers, and malteds, the john door, the “5 SPOT.” But her great voice transcends what she is in life, linking her to the poets, dramatists, and artists cited in the first part, to Le Balcon and Les Negres, to Gauloises and Strega. Even the name Lady Day (ingeniously reversed in the elegy’s title) reconciles these opposites.

Disconnections turn out to be connections, isolated moments in time which lead to one moment transcending time -everything in the elegy works in this way. The syntax is particularly interesting in this regard. The paratactic structure (and … and … and), linking short declarative statements sequentially rather than causally, calls attention to what seems to be the meaningless flux of time. One moment is succeeded by another as the poet moves back and forth from street to street, from store to store. However, the conjunctions become increasingly insistent (eleven of the poems nineteen and’s occur in the last ten lines), and the pace slows down until finally the sequence of meaningless moments is replaced by the one moment of memory when Lady Day enchanted her audience by the power of her art. Time suddenly stops.

The poet does not have to say here, as he did in “For James Dean,” “For a young actor I am begging / peace, Gods… I speak as one whose filth / is like his own,” or as Williams says in the Lawrence elegy, “Sorrow for the young / that Lawrence has passed / unwanted from England.” “The Day Lady Died” moves surely and swiftly to its understated climax; it establishes the singer as an authentic presence even though the poem never mentions her by name and seems to be “about” the poet’s own activities, his trivial pre-weekend errands on a typical July Friday in muggy Manhattan.

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Critical Commentary on the Poem: ‘The Day Lady Died’ (Frank O’ Hara). (2017, Oct 19). Retrieved from

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