The Day Lady Died

Robert von Hallberg: On "The Day Lady Died"

Hamburger indeed. The contours seem to have been shaved off the experience the poem reports. Poetry from New York or Ghana, Verlaine, Hesiod, Brendan Behan, or Genet (lines 14-18): the time, the place (trains named after "points in time," as they say), even the language matters little. The whole world and all of history is right there in Manhattan, on 17 July 1959, for the buying, piece by piece, of Strega, Gauloises, Picayunes (lines 21-25). Distance is reduced by the pulp press, which is dominated by the lower-middle class (the New York Post, not the Times); poetry, modernism, these international zones of experience have no special force here. AU art is brought close not by tradition, as Eliot had said, but by mass production, cheapness.

All principles for arraying emphasis and registering discriminations have been flattened. The rhyme in the third fine is only a chance thing, and the first of the poem's nineteen "and"s (in the same line) makes an arbitrary connection. And as syntax and prosody go, so does social order: O'Hara says that he will be the dinner guest of strangers that night and then recounts his efforts to find suitable gifts for Patsy and Mike, who are made to seem his hosts." This easy familiarity, O'Hara suggests--Patsy, Mike, Linda--should not be too easily sniffed at; the reference to the well-known translator of Homer invokes an ancient sanction for gift giving and the entertaining of strangers and for paratactic syntax. The power of the poem is in its inadvertent, banal approach to an earnest genre: the subject of the elegy does not even emerge until the poem is nearly complete, as though the great theme (death) can now only be talked around:

... 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.

Beside the example of Billie Holiday, well eroded by the time she worked with Mal Waldron (1957-1959), Partisan Review complaints about the difficulty of making art in a culture so leveled by mass culture as America was in 1959 sound disingenuous. For most of her career, her audiences were small and sometimes difficult of access. In 1947 the New York Police Department denied her a cabaret licence, as many other jazz musicians were similarly punished for drug offenses. (During her final illness, she was arrested in her New York hospital room for illegal possession of drugs.) She was a singer who knew well how difficult reaching a fit audience might be, but even in her decline, O'Hara says, she took one's breath away and this elegy is literally directed at the renovation of that cliché of mass-culture advertising, the "breath-taking performance." The poem ends with much more than the apparent universal swoon for a great torch singer. "Everyone," he says in the last line, suggesting that a poet might well take pleasure in 1959 from the fact that some art can directly reach us all, and that nearly all art, African, French, and Irish, can be had now for the asking. The Bastille had been stormed, and if it turned out to be emptier than expected only the expectations deserve criticism. New York, even the New York Post, was moving still.

From American poetry and Culture, 1945-1980. Copyright © 1985 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Kevin Stein: On "The Day Lady Died"

The tone at the opening of the poem is giddy and excited. After all, this is a somewhat glib speaker who is readying himself for dinner at the home of someone he doesn't know, who can smart-aleckly refer to the "poets / of Ghana," who is prone to "stroll" and "casually ask" for cigarettes, and who can "practically" go "to sleep with quandariness" over the simple decision of what book to buy a friend. This is not a speaker burdened with metaphysical deliberations about the meaning of life.

Even when he sees the "NEW YORK POST with her face on it," he refuses to break into discourse on the brevity of human life, "thinking," instead, in visual and sensory images. He recalls an instance when he heard Billie Holiday sing so sweetly that life itself seemed to halt in deathly pause while "everyone and I stopped breathing." Up to this point, he had offered the reader an ontological account of selfhood based largely on a narrative retelling of the way the individual fragments of his day melded into a mysteriously unified whole. But at this juncture, where anticipation and profound loss meet head on, the collision results in image, scene, a moment of experience which itself is of ultimate value. The present moment and the remembered one do not require metaphysical rumination in order to clarify them. That kind of deliberation has preceded the poem onto the page: the understanding that life is unpredictable and crass, capable of imparting immense pleasure and equally formidable pain. Although O'Hara may very well have agreed with the Heraclitean conception of a universe forever in the process of change, he would never use Heraclitus's fragments as poetic epigraphs (as Eliot did) or allow such thinking to impose an overtly philosophical structure on his work. O'Hara has already decided on these epistemological and ontological issues before the poem began. And more importantly, they were first of all personal values, which naturally (but secondarily) gave form to artistic values.

From "Everything the Opposite" in Frank O'Hara: To Be True to a City. Ed. Jim Elledge. University of Michigan Press, 1990.

Brad Gooch On "The Day Lady Died"

The news of Holiday's death led O'Hara to think back to the last time he had heard her sing. Ms fullest exposure to her had been two years earlier at Loew's Sheridan on Seventh Avenue and Twelfth Street in the summer Of 1957 when she had appeared a few hours late for her midnight show. She was forced to perform in the cavernous old movie theatre because she was not permitted--due to an arrest for heroin use--to sing in a bar that served drinks. "We didn't leave," recalls Irma Hurley, who accompanied O'Hara along with Mike Goldberg, Joan Mitchell, and Norman Bluhm. "Frank said, 'I will wait.' I think she was coming from Philadelphia. She finally arrived pretty zonked out. But she did sing." O'Hara's reaction to her performance was as exhilarated as his reaction to Judy Garland's show at the Palace Theatre, after which he had commented to John Button, "Well, I guess she'sbetter than Picasso." But the last time O'Hara had heard Holiday sing was at the Five Spot, a jazz bar on Fifth Street and Third Avenue at Cooper Square, which was beginning to replace the Cedar as the gathering spot of the artists. Like the San Remo a few years earlier, the Cedar had been picked up by the media and was now overcrowded with tourists on the lookout for Pollock-like painters, and young guys cruising for loose "art girls." At the Five Spot the painters could mellow out listening to the jazz of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, or Charlie Mingus. Kenneth Koch and Larry Rivers had begun staging jazz-and-poetry evenings there in response to similar events in San Francisco initiated by Allen Ginsberg and Kenneth Rexroth. One night Koch had read his poems with the accompaniment of Mal Waldron, a black pianist who usually accompanied Holiday. She showed up to visit with Waldron and later in the night was persuaded to break the law by singing. "It was very close to the end of her life, with her voice almost gone, just like a whisper, just like the taste of very old wine, but full of spirit," recalls Koch. "Everybody wanted her to sing. Everybody was crazy about her. She sang some songs in this very whispery beautiful voice. The place was quite crowded. Frank was standing near the toilet door so he had a side view. And Mal Waldron was at the piano. She sang these songs and it was very moving."

O'Hara had written his poem on his lunch hour. Later he caught the train with LeSueur to East Hampton where they were met by Mike Goldberg in the olive-drab Bugatti he had bought the year before when he and Southgate were in Italy on their honeymoon. Ready with a thermos of martinis and plastic cups, both a welcoming gesture and a self-protective ploy so that he could drink while waiting for the inevitably delayed train, Goldberg explained in the parking lot, "We're eating in, the dinner was called off." On the drive to the house Goldberg was renting that summer on Georgica Pond, the only topic of discussion was the tragedy of Billie Holiday's death at the young age of forty-four. "I've been playing her records all afternoon," said Goldberg. Arriving back at the house, Goldberg put a Billie Holiday record on the hi-fi while Patsy Southgate, having finished putting the two kids to bed, brought out a tray of hors d'oeuvres. O'Hara, who had been silent about the matter throughout the trip, pulled a poem out of his pocket that he announced he had just written that afternoon and read it straight down to its concluding stanza:

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

From City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara. Copyright © 1993 by Brad Gooch.