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Frank O'Hara: The Day Lady Died

by John Cobley

Thursday Mar 28th, 2024


Frank O’Hara: The Day Lady Died


It’s 12:20 in New York a Friday

three days after Bastille Day, yes

it is 1959, and I go to 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

                                                            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 PARK LANE

liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and

then I go back to 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 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


A vast amount has been written about this poem (see maps-legacy.org) , so I want to focus on some of its details--details that initially seem irrelevant. These details create themes for the reader to consider in relation to the immortal singer Billie Holiday.


A first reading of this poem usually elicits the question “Why does the poem only get to the topic in the last five lines?” The topic of course is the death of Billie Holiday who was known affectionately in the jazz world as Lady Day. Then more questions arise: what has the shoeshine got to do with the death of Billie Holiday? What does the early Greek poet Hesiod have to do with her? Why the French poet Verlaine? Who is Miss Stillwagon?


 This diary-like poem describes some of the poet’s activities in New York on the day Billie Holiday died.  It’s along the same lines as the familiar questions, “Where were you when Kennedy was assassinated?” and “Where were you at the time of the 9/11 incident?”


The poem uses apparently irrelevant details to add depth to this off-beat elegy. These “irrelevant” details, upon investigation, actually refer to aspects of Billie Holiday’s life. This practice starts as soon as the second line with “Bastille Day.” The Bastille is a famous French prison and it alludes here to the fact that Holiday spent time in jail—as did the three writers mentioned in the poem: Behan, Genet, Verlaine.


Then in the third line, O’Hara mentions a “shoeshine.” This is surely a reference to Lester Young’s famous “Shoeshine Boy” recording; Young was one of Holiday’s closest friends. “Shoeshine” also has racial connotations as most of the shoeshiners of the time were black. In the same way there are two more references to Holiday’s race: “Ghana,” from where many slaves where brought to America, and Genet’s play Les Nègres. And then there’s Mal Waldron, another Afro-American who was Holiday’s pianist for the last 18 months of her life. (A friend pointed out another subtle racial detail in his poem—an echo of the common racial insult ”Go-back-where-you-came-from.” In the poem it’s “I go back to where I came from.”)


The literary references in the poem can all be associated with Holiday’s life. The setting of Genet’s Le Balcon is a brothel; this alludes to Holiday’s childhood in a brothel. Hesiod’s early Greek work is a theogony, a work that deals with the birth of the gods. The inclusion of Hesiod in the poem thus suggests a deification of Holiday. I suspect the main reason for O’Hara’s inclusion of Verlaine was because he was considered one of the most musical of French poets; he famously wrote, “De la musique avant toute chose” (Music above all).


Then there’s a drug theme in this poem. Holiday’s well-known drug addiction is echoed in Verlaine, Behan, Genet and Waldron, who were all known to have had a drug addiction.


I am not sure about relevance of the two types of cigarettes (Gauloise and Picayune) or about the Strega liquor. And “Stillwagon” puzzles me. Perhaps it can be taken as a reference to a hearse. (Stiffwagon would be clearer—but cruder.)


Of course not all the images in this poem can be related so directly to Billie Holiday. Many, like the names of his future hosts and of the theatre and bookstore, are real. as are the geographical details of New York. And it should be remembered that New York was Billie Holiday’s home city for much of her life. 


Thus O’Hara’s poem expands on the life of Billie Holiday in many different directions while at the same time paying homage to her. Avoiding the traditional elements of a poetic elegy, O’Hara nevertheless achieves the appropriate elegiac effect with the last four lines. Paul Carroll offers an insight into how the initial non-elegiac 25 lines help achieve this elegiac effect. “I wonder how touching that beautiful final memory . . . would be if O'Hara had preceded it with emotional tributes and "props" customary in most traditional elegies.” (Quoted by Charles Altieri in Enlarging the Temple)





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