Poetry: Frank O’Hara’s The Day Lady Died

Frank O' Hara

I am tired this evening. It has been a very long day. Many people don’t care for poetry. It is too obscure. Too hard to unpack. I love poetry. I love the tight economy of words like a penny pinched in the white knuckled grip of a skinflint. The value held tight and there none the less.

Much of Frank O’Hara’s poetry is autobiographical. He was a prominent member of the New York School of Poetry. He held a certain disdain for poetry and believed that it should be dashed off at odd moments. He did not use rhyme, rhythm, or meter. I like the exactitude of The Day Lady Died. The details of the to the minute times of events of the day lend to recreate that specific generational memory that happens to an age cohort when something significant happens. My grandmother’s generation all knew where they were and what they were doing when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. My generation will all remember with clarity where they were when they heard about the destruction of the Twin Towers on 911. For Frank O’ Hara the death of Billie Holiday was this kind of event.
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
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