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The Day Lady Died -- Frank O'Hara

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
-- Frank O'Hara
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

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

  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.

7 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

James Dowell said...

I was going back re-reading some of the past selections and came across this
one again- but this time I read it all the way thru. Think I just scanned
it at first. The whole force of the poem is in the last few lines... but
almost meaningless without the rest. It really got to me when I finally
read the whole thing. Like wow u know... and I have some Billie Holliday
and I know something about what she sounds like and I can get it a little
bit. But its touched with a little envy now.

Anonymous said...

I played Lady's "Good Morning, Heartache," every morning for a year after Chuck Strait died.

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