Sunday, October 19, 2014
MOOC ModPo Poem of the Day: "The Day Lady Died" by Frank O'Hara
The Songs of Eretz Poetry Review MOOC ModPo Poem of the Day for October 19, 2014 is "The Day Lady Died" (1959) by Frank O'Hara (1926 - 1966) (pictured). The text of the poem may be found here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171368, and an audio recording of O'Hara reading the poem may be found here: https://media.sas.upenn.edu/afilreis/88/OHara-Frank_The-Day-Lady-Died_1966.mp3. "The Day Lady Died" is an elegy for jazz singer Billie Holiday. Although her name is never mentioned in the tribute, part of her name, "day," is in the title (see below for citation). For those who would like to set the mood for reading the poem, here is a link to some of Holiday's jazz singing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6MOht5qcIU4.
O'Hara was a member of the "New York School" of poets, which included: John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler. The name was borrowed from The Abstract Expressionist painters of the 1950s & 1960s with whom the poets were tightly associated and by whom they were inspired. Reference to this and additional biographical information about O'Hara, as well as a brief analysis of "The Day Lady Died," may be found here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/frank-ohara.
The title of "The Day Lady Died" screams elegy. However, as aforementioned, the subject of the elegy is never mentioned by name, unless one accepts the "day" in the title to refer to "HoliDAY," a stretch for anyone not in the know. Furthermore, the poem does not hint at whose life was lost until the penultimate line, and even then, the reference is vague. Instead, a full twenty-seven of the poem's twenty-nine lines describe a series of quotidian doings and random wanderings through New York City on the part of the speaker. It is as though the speaker sought to avoid the sadness of the loss by procrastination and distraction; indeed, even in the end when thoughts of the loss seem to overwhelm the speaker by literally taking his breath away, even then it was too painful for the speaker to mention the deceased by name. Not a traditional elegy to be sure--but powerful nonetheless.