Guest poem sent in by Robert Finnegan
(Poem #722) The Day Lady Died
It is 12:20 in New York a Friday three days after Bastille day, yes it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner and I don't know the people who will feed me I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun and have a hamburger and a malted and buy an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets in Ghana are doing these days in Ghana are doing these days I go on to the bank and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard) doesn't even look up my balance for once in her life and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or Brendan Behan's new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres of Genet, but I don't, I stick with Verlaine after practically going to sleep with quandariness and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT while she whispered a song along the keyboard to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing
I thought of this poem last night while watching Ken Burns' film on jazz. There was an especially interesting part about 52nd Street in Manhattan (it became known as simply "the street" because of the many jazz houses on the block between 5th and 6th Avenue). In talking about the street, there was some interviews with people who knew Billie Holiday (who needless to say is the Lady of this poem). Her drummer said that no matter what was going on in the place--no matter how rocking the previous band might have been--complete silence fell when Lady began to sing. Also, after looking over the list of poems previously presented, I thought Frank O'Hara should be represented. This poem is one of my favorites and is indicative of O'Hara's style in general. The poem moves with the pace of the city that he loved, his love affair with the New York pace is apparent in the title of one of his few books, Mediations in an Emergency. O'Hara's mind seems to be in constant motion in the poems and yet everything is observed--everything is present. Commentary from the pros can be enjoyed at http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/m_r/ohara/ladydied.htm Biography - Frank O'Hara Claudia Milstead O'HARA, Frank (27 Mar. 1926-25 July 1966), poet, was born Francis Russell O'Hara in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of Russell Joseph O'Hara and Katherine Broderick, who both came from strict Irish-Catholic families. O'Hara always believed he was born 27 June 1926, but his parents apparently lied about his birthdate to hide the fact that he was conceived before their marriage. Shortly after their wedding in Grafton, Massachusetts, in September 1925, the couple moved to Baltimore, where their child was born six months later. They lived in Baltimore for eighteen months before being summoned back to Grafton so that Russell O'Hara could run the family farm for his ailing uncle. In June 1944, shortly after his high school graduation, O'Hara enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He served as a sonarman third class on the destroyer USS Nicholas. After receiving an honorable discharge in 1946, O'Hara went to Harvard on the GI Bill. He took creative writing classes from John Ciardi and earned a B.A. in 1950. With Ciardi's recommendation, O'Hara was given a graduate fellowship in comparative literature at the University of Michigan, where he earned an M.A. in 1951. His collection of poems, "A Byzantine Place," and Try! Try!, a verse play, won O'Hara the Avery Hopwood Major Award in poetry. O'Hara then moved to New York to join fellow poet John Ashbery, whom he had met at Harvard. Living at first on the money from the Hopwood, O'Hara wrote poetry and explored the city. In New York O'Hara was finally free to live openly as a homosexual and to indulge his interest in the arts. He worked briefly as an assistant to photographer Cecil Beaton, then looked for a more permanent job, preferably one that would allow him time to write. What he found was ideal. In December 1951 he was hired to work at the front desk of the Museum of Modern Art, selling postcards, publications, and tickets. He often wrote poems while he worked at the counter, and his friends in the art world frequently stopped by to visit. O'Hara began writing articles for Art News and in 1953 became an editorial associate. He continued to write for the publication when he returned to the Museum of Modern Art in 1955. The abstract expressionism movement, whose major artists were Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Jackson Pollock, was flourishing in New York, and O'Hara, along with John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch, became part of the avant-garde art scene. In 1952 O'Hara's A City Winter and Other Poems was published, a collection of thirteen poems with two drawings by Larry Rivers. The collection was the first of a series of books by poets with artists' drawings published by the Tibor de Nagy gallery. At this time O'Hara became involved with the Club, an artists' forum that had been established in the 1940s. Beginning in March 1952, O'Hara appeared on a series of panels to discuss art and poetry. O'Hara's first collection of poetry to receive wide recognition was Meditations in an Emergency (1957). Even though early reviews were unenthusiastic, it became the collection for which he was primarily known during his lifetime. While Meditations was being prepared for publication, O'Hara was approached by a publisher about collaborating with artist Larry Rivers. The resulting project, a series of twelve lithographs titled Stones, was produced between 1957 and 1960. For the work, Rivers and O'Hara worked directly on the stones from which the lithographs were made. O'Hara had to write backward so the text would be readable in the finished lithograph. In 1960 O'Hara published the collections Second Avenue and Odes. Perhaps the most significant event in O'Hara's writing career occurred that year, when Donald Allen published The New American Poetry: 1945-1960. Allen classified the forty-four poets by groups: New York School, Beat Generation, San Francisco Renaissance, and Black Mountain. O'Hara, identified as part of the New York School, was a dominant poet in the anthology, with fifteen of his poems included. Two more collections were published during his lifetime: Lunch Poems (1964) and Love Poems (Tentative Title) (1965). Several more volumes of O'Hara's poems were published after his death, notably The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara (1971), The Selected Poems of Frank O'Hara (1974), and Poems Retrieved:O'Hara sought to capture in his poetry the immediacy of life, feeling that poetry should be "between two persons instead of two pages." He was inspired and energized by New York City as other poets have been inspired and energized by nature. In Meditations he wrote, "I can't even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there's a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life." He described his work as "I do this I do that" poetry because his poems often read like entries in a diary, as in this line from "The Day Lady Died": "it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine." O'Hara died of injuries he received when he was hit by a vehicle on the beach at Fire Island, on Long Island, New York. O'Hara's papers are in the Literary Archives, University of Connecticut Library, Storrs. Brad Gooch, City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O'Hara (1993), is well researched and is the most comprehensive biography of O'Hara available. It also corrects inaccuracies in the newspaper reports of O'Hara's death. For a critical study of O'Hara's poetry, see Marjorie Perloff, Frank O'Hara: Poet among Painters (1977). A more concise study of O'Hara's life and work is Alan Feldman, Frank O'Hara (1979). Brief obituaries are in Time, 5 Aug. 1966, p. 76, and Newsweek, 8 Aug. 1966, p. 74. -- From American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by the American Council of Learned Societies.