On "The Day Lady Died"
The extreme vividness of "The Day Lady Died" depends not so much on visualization as evocation; a precise state of consciousness is delineated largely through the abstract color of proper names. The poem's final image--"she whispered a song along the keyboard"--is enormously effective, in part because it is almost the poem's only image.
From "OHara on the Silver Range." Contemporary Literature (1976).
As an elegy for Billie Holiday, the poem could easily follow tradition and have the whole world mourn her loss; instead, things go on as usual, and the only odd occurrence involves Miss Stillwagon at the bank, who "doesn't even look up my balance for once in her life." Apart from that small act of grace, the city is its normal self, and O'Hara follows his routine up to the moment of buying "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
The climax is the discovery of "Lady's" death and the indelible memory of one soft song that lives on, but the poem is essentially about a-day-in-the-life of Frank O'Hara and his city. Death is one of many random things that could punctuate and focus the seemingly unconnected activities of an otherwise typical day, making everything from a shoeshine to a bottle of Strega purchased in a liquor store glow with its own brilliant significance.
From "The City Limits" in Jim Elledge, ed. Frank O'Hara: To Be True to a City. University of Michigan Press, 1990.
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.
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's better 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 OHara. Copyright © 1993 by Brad Gooch.
Robert von Hallberg
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.
Paul Carroll is the first critic I know to claim a really influential role for O'Hara in the poetry of the sixties. . . .
He makes clear for poets how the dada and expressionist doctrines of creation can work for them, for his poems continually insist that they are not representations of reality but the enactment by the artist of certain attitudes and choices within that reality. Consequently there are no canonical or privileged subjects for poetry: "Anything, literally, can exist in a poem; and anything can exist in whatever way the poet chooses." O'Hara then shows how the poet need no longer feel committed to organic unity as a principle of poetic construction. His details need not be chosen because they enhance a specific lyric point or attitude; the objects chosen can embody the multiple facets of experience, only some of which might be essential to the lyric feeling. This antiorganicist aesthetic Carroll defines as the aesthetic of the "impure poem" . . . .
"The Day Lady Died" is Carroll's example of the archetypal impure poem; but that poem to me is one of the finest examples of the rich poetic possibilities in the domestic lyric. The poem not only captures the vitality of prereflective experience but arranges that experience so that it participates in and evokes for consciousness a complex, satisfying and relatively traditional lyric emotion. . . . One way of seeing how the poem is impure, Carroll suggests, is to recognize that twenty lines are devoted to the casual events of O'Hara's day and only four to the ostensive subject of the poem. He goes on, though, to offer two insights that help explain how the artist's apparently free creative selection of details really creates a single complex lyric emotion:
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. . . .
In another sense, "The Day Lady Died" isn't about Billie Holliday at all. It is about the common but sobering feeling that life continues on its humbling way despite the tragic death of an important artist or some loved one.
But it is not only the general configuration of details, the contrast between humbling life and the suddenness of death, that unifies the poem. The actual particulars by which the poem captures the vitality of life at the same time constantly call attention to their own contingency and perpetual hovering on the brink of disconnection. O'Hara has plans for dinner but does not know the people who will feed him; he is divorced in space and attitude from the Ghana poets, in time and habit from the writers mentioned in the third stanza (one usually does not "go to sleep with quandariness"--one sleeps from boredom and the lack of choice--but O'Hara wants to suggest connections between multiplicity, lack of connections guiding choice, and forms of death); he encounters probably for the hundredth time a bank teller be has no communication with, yet who also disproves his expectations; and even the apparently most arbitrary item, the reference to Bastille Day, has a curious appositeness in a poem so thoroughly about death, separation, and the fragility of established order. Moreover, the "and" rhetoric so pronounced in the poem further enhances one's sense of the tangential and problematic links between particulars: parataxis calls attention to the rush of time piling up details united only by sequential time alien to specifically human patterns of relationship. The rush of life then embodies also a process of continual death leading to the climactic stoppages of life and breath in the last four lines. But the initial twenty lines also allow the poet to find a meaning in Billie's death. Seeing in her art and his memories of it the experience of connection counters and helps mollify the pains of discontinuity. What he remembers about Billie is a moment of stasis that is at once death and very intense life-death because it so divorces him from the normal (and insignificant activities of his daily life, and intense life for precisely the same reason since it has been that life which is really involvement in continual deaths. The moment he remembers is one of absolute communication when Billie controlled the entire audience and led them to a single ecstasy ("everyone and I stopped breathing"). And O'Hara's poem is itself an act like Billie Holiday's; the full elegiac effect depends on the reader's union with his memory. Like her singing, the poem also can claim at least for a moment to transcend the contingent multiplicities of daily experience and, through the poem's deliberate slowing in these last lines, allow a brief space where readers all stop that rushing breath always associated with process in O'Hara and realize how art and memory can console in the face of recurrent death.
O'Hara is not often so good. but neither are any other poets of the sixties. Nonetheless, Carroll is correct in insisting that "The Day Lady Died" is a crucial touchstone for postmodern poetry. The poem exemplifies how postmodern literature can thrive, though oppressed on the one side by philosophical nihilism and on the other by the oppressive burden of literary history always reminding poets of how little room there seems to be for meaningful originality. Literature can remain honest and "de-mystified," without succumbing to self-pitying nostalgia or refining away its content in the self-conscious acrobatics of what John Barth has called "the literature of exhaustion." Not only poetry, but even some of the basic values of civilized life can be discovered by pushing further than the past into the manifold particulars and the texture of domestic contemporary life.
From Enlarging the Temple: New Directions in American Poetry during the 1960s. Copyright © 1979 by Associated University Presses, Inc.
The alienation and confusion of urban life, especially at the street level, come into disorienting focus with the news of the death of Billie Holiday, the jazz singer whose self-destructiveness ("Heroin kills you the slow way") clearly mesmerizes O'Hara when it is transformed into a lyrical whisper. The poem, for all its looseness, tries to mimic that improvisational quality, as O'Hara's own self-destructiveness (the Gauloises and Picayunes) shifts uneasily beneath a cover of stylish gesture ("casually ask"). Unlike the Ginsberg "Sutra," this phenomenal present intersects a transcendent moment with evanescent ease. The ease, however, belies the anxiety ("I am sweating a lot by now") that O'Hara attempts to conceal in a supernaturalistic journalism (the poem opens by telling us it is July 17th and O'Hara's sweating can obviously be "explained" by the summer heat of New York).
The sense of audience in O'Hara's poem challenges easy definition. In one sense the poem is clearly demotic; its diction and ordinariness invite the most inclusive set of readers, as if the audience were to be congruent with that of the New York Post. But about halfway through (about where the above quote begins) the selectivity of the speaker and his highbrow cultural concerns quiver ironically against the foreground of the casual "everyday" shopper. O'Hara's audience apparently narrows to practically the same people we described as the audience of Bishop's "Cirque D'Hiver." But "culture" in O'Hara's world is more widely defined than we might expect in an academic poet. For no sooner does he leave the Golden Griffin than O'Hara returns to a New York scene that millions of people (literally) would recognize and presents us with a "typical" urban experience by having the newspaper headline, with its announcement of some tragic "event," serve as a sudden, crude displacement of our reverie. Obviously, more people in America could recognize and empathize with the structuring event in O'Hara's poem than with the equivalent moment in Bishop or Ginsberg. But then, of course, O'Hara takes us from the universally available front page of the New York Post to a moment from the past open only to the cognoscenti. As O'Hara presents the moment, he seems to have a double sense of his audience: for those who recognize Mal Waldron as Billie Holiday's accompanist there is a shock of recognition, and the moment's uniqueness is heightened, its transitoriness made more vulnerable, more precious. On the other hand, the word everyone in the last line refers to the audience that particular night, the people who admire Billie Holiday's genius (regardless of whether they've heard her in a "live" performance), and finally all the urban throng, who by their momentarily caught breaths signal their admiration for the marvellous and for their own mortality. In many ways this poem elegizes with traditional devices, praising the dead artist as somehow the "carrier" of our universal mortality and through the artist's heightened sensitivity creating a special occasion for intense reflection.
O'Hara's poetry, even as early as the first years of the 1950s, operated with split awareness, and split intentions. Clearly resembling Whitman in his democratizing impulses, his attempt to devalue "poetic" language and replace it with a demotic, spontaneous language, O'Hara also operates in the tradition of French surrealism, especially as that tradition was transmitted to this country through painters such as those in the New York school. This tradition contains elitist elements; in it the artist is presented as a priest figure, though his liturgy is intensely individualistic and his altar is his own studio. Because of this joining of impulses, O'Hara's poetry was little appreciated by either academics, who found it too unfinished, or the larger audience of general readers, who found it too hermetic. Such a split in audience results from trying to join potentially conflicting artistic aims, and it continues to plague American poetry. Most poets are unwilling to accept the minority status of poetry, or at least to use the inevitable smallness of its audience to justify continued use of self-protective irony. What O'Hara never openly addressed, because of his own temperament and his sense of poetic ends, was just this split impulse in American poetry: to speak openly to all, and to whisper only to other like souls. But then most poets today are more the victims of the split than its open challengers.
It might also serve us well to be a bit more schematic for a moment. Imagine the following four poems placed along a spectrum: Bishop's "Cirque D'Hiver," Shapiro's "Auto Wreck," Ginsberg's "Sunflower Sutra," and O'Hara's "The Day Lady Died." Obviously, as we move on this spectrum from Bishop to O'Hara, we are increasingly submerged in the mundane details of unrelieved dailiness, and any preset aestheticized framework fades away. (In O'Hara's poem there are aesthetic objects, such as books of poems, but they are clearly equated with Gautois cigarettes and the New York Post in the realm of mere commodities.) Also, the same movement along this spectrum takes us away from the personal, disinterested stance of Bishop toward the intimate and self-revealing speaker in Ginsberg's poem. But then, and this is important for our argument, as we reach O'Hara the immersion in the mundane is checked to a certain extent by a dulling of the tones of intimacy. Now it is true that O'Hara's voice in his poem reflects the numbing grief and quieting nostalgia that he feels suddenly overwhelm him at the end of the poem. But the felt weight and presence of the objects O'Hara details in the poem flatten and almost oppress anyone who looks to them for significance; the objects are clearly in the poem as an antipoetic weight. "I want the poem to be the subject, and not about it," O'Hara said, and in this poem he comes close to realizing that aesthetic. As the speaker in Ginsberg's poem erects his mystical awareness, he "descends" to objects below the level of mundane commerce and surrounds himself with the disjecta membra of industrialized, urbanized man. There, as if by a kind of willed reversal, transcendence appears in this unpromising context. In O'Hara's world, the context is one of sufficient objects; and the transcendence, such as it is, evanescently captures the subject, but hardly transforms him. What happens on the spectrum instructs us in what happened to an important segment of American poetry in the late fifties and early sixties, for I would argue that in a key sense the spectrum folds back on itself, if we consider the detached, suspended sensibility of the speakers. Instead of what we find in Bishop, a world of aesthetic objects considered with fond irony, we discover in O'Hara's poem a gathering of mundane objects fondled by an aestheticizing irony. (It may also be instructive to notice that in both poems the speaker gradually moves his or her own affective response to the foreground as the poem ends.) But the two attitudes are similar in their gesture of holding up an object taken from its context, "lifted" in the several meanings of that word, and using that object as a kind of cathexis for otherwise unformulable recognitions. This pattern is one of the traditional forms of lyric poetry, to be sure, but here it enables us to focus on how American lyric poets want to approach the world of objects but often do so by falling back on traditional methods.
From The Fierce Embrace: A Study of Contemporary American Poetry. Copyright © 1979 by the Curators of the University of Missouri.
"In one brief poem," Ted Berrigan said in his obituary essay on O'Hara, "he seemed to create a whole new kind of awareness of feeling, and by this a whole new kind of poetry, in which everything could be itself and still be poetry." What Berrigan means here, I think, is that O'Hara dispenses with all the traditional props of elegy--the statement of lament, the consolation motif, the procession of mourners, the pathetic fallacy, and so on--and still manages to pay an intensely moving tribute to the great jazz singer. It is not an easy feat. In his own earlier elegies, for example the four poems prompted by the sudden tragic death of the young James Dean in 1955, O'Hara often makes a straightforward statement of lament and complaint, thus risking sentimentality, much as William Carlos Williams does in his "Elegy for D. H. Lawrence," which begins:
Green points on the shrub
and poor Lawrence dead
the night damp and misty
and Lawrence no more in the world
to answer April's promise
with a fury of labor
against waste, waste and life's
O'Hara avoids the bathos inherent in such a frontal attack by making no reference at all to Lady Day until the twenty-fifth line of his poem, and then only obliquely: the poet catches a glimpse of "a NEW YORK POST with her face on it." The title leads us to expect an elegy or at least an account of Billie Holiday's death; instead, O'Hara traces the process whereby he comes across the news of that death, a process so immediate, so authentic that when we come to the last four lines, we participate in his poignant memory of Lady Day's performance. Reading the last six words of the poem, "and everyone and I stopped breathing" (reminiscent of the arresting ending of Yeats's "In Memory of Major Robert Gregory": "but a thought / Of that late death took all my heart for speech"), we too stop breathing. For a moment, however brief, memory and art enable us to transcend the ordinary particulars of existence.
How does the poet accomplish this? If we look at the details that make up the first twenty-five lines of the poem, we see that they are not, after all, as random as they appear to be. As Charles Altieri has observed: "The actual particulars by which the poem captures the vitality of life at the same time constantly call attention to their own contingency and perpetual hovering on the brink of disconnection." O'Hara knows exactly that he will get off the train at 7:15 and go to dinner, but he doesn't know the people who will feed him. He goes to the bank where the barely familiar teller "Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)" disproves his expectations by not looking up his "balance for once in her life." He cannot decide what book to buy for Patsy Southgate and practically goes to sleep "with quandariness." This is a particularly odd detail: when one is in a quandary, one may well suffer from insomnia but hardly from sleepiness!
A similar disconnection characterizes the network of proper names and place references in the poem. On the one hand, the poet's consciousness is drawn to the foreign or exotic: Ghana, the Golden Griffin, Verlaine, Bonnard, Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore, Brendan Behan, Le Balcon, Les Négres, Genet, Strega, Gauloises, Picayunes. On the other, the poem contains a set of native American references: "shoeshine," "the muggy street beginning to sun," "a hamburger and a malted," "an Ugly NEW WORLD WRITING," "6th Avenue," "a NEW YORK POST," "the 5 SPOT," "the john door," and the reference to Billie's accompanist, Mal Waldron.
Why does O'Hara introduce Verlaine and Genet, Gauloises and the Golden Griffin into a poem about Billie Holiday? I think because he wants to make us see--and this is his great tribute to Lady Day--that she embodies both the foreign-exotic and the native American. As a person, Billie Holiday was, of course, quintessentially American: a southern Black who had experienced typical hardships on the road to success, a woman of great passions who finally succumbed to her terrible drug addiction, a victim of FBI agents and police raids. In this sense, hers is the world of muggy streets, hamburgers and malteds, the john door, the "5 SPOT." But her great voice transcends what she is in life, linking her to the poets, dramatists, and artists cited in the first part, to Le Balcon and Les Nigrés, to Gauloises and Strega. Even the name Lady Day (ingeniously reversed in the elegy's title) reconciles these opposites.
Disconnections which turn out to be connections, isolated moments in time which lead to one moment transcending time--everything in the elegy works in this way. The syntax is particularly interesting in this regard. The paratactic structure (and ... and ... and), linking short declarative statements sequentially rather than causally, calls attention to what seems to be the meaningless flux of time. One moment is succeeded by another as Frank moves back and forth from street to street, from store to store. But then it seems as if he is virtually running out of steam. The conjunctions become increasingly insistent (eleven of the poem's nineteen and's occur in the last ten lines), and the pace slows down until finally the sequence of meaningless moments is replaced by the one moment of memory when Lady Day enchanted her audience by the power of her art. Time suddenly stops.
O'Hara does not have to say here, as he did in "For James Dean," "For a young actor I am begging / peace, Gods.... I speak as one whose filth / is like his own," or as Williams says in the Lawrence elegy, "Sorow for the young / that Lawrence has passed / unwanted from England." "The Day Lady Died" moves surely and swiftly to its understated climax; it establishes the singer as an authentic presence even though the poem never mentions her by name and seems to be "about" the poet's own activities, his trivial preweekend errands on a typical July Friday in muggy Manhattan.
From Frank OHara: A Poet Among Painters. Copyright © 1977 by Marjorie Perloff.
Andrew Ross: "The Death of Lady Day"
Some of those who attended Frank O'Hara's funeral in 1966 heard Larry Rivers read a speech which they found distasteful. The offending portion was a graphic account of the state of O'Hara's body on his hospital deathbed:
This extraordinary man lay without a pillow in a bed that looked like a large crib.... He was purple wherever his skin showed through the white hospital gown. He was a quarter larger than usual. Every few inches there was some sewing composed of dark blue thread. Some stitching was straight and three or four inches long, others were longer and semicircular. The lids of both eyes were bluish black. It was hard to see his beautiful blue eyes which receded a little into his head. He breathed with quick gasps. His whole body quivered. There was a tube in one of his nostrils down to his stomach. On paper he was improving. In the crib he looked like a shaped wound, an innocent victim of someone else's war.
Not everyone, however, found these comments inappropriate. That evening, in a bar, Rivers recounted the details to Andy Warhol and recalled how, at the funeral, "everyone was screaming at [him] to shut up." Warhol noted: "It sounded like a very Pop eulogy to me--just the surface things. It was just what I hoped people would do for me if I died." In fact, the circumstances of O'Hara's death inspired another thought on Warhol's part that has since proved to be prophetic: "It was scary to think that you could lose your life if you were taken to the wrong hospital or if you happened to get the wrong doctor at the right hospital."
If both of these commentaries on the death of O'Hara are aimed at a kind of stylized shock-effect, Warhol's response is the one that trades on language and not the body; it distances itself sympathetically from the gruesome details and from the madding crowd and even suggests a conventional form for Rivers's tone of address--the Pop eulogy. And yet one cannot help but feel that it is nothing short of violence that reduces, in Warhol's comment about Rivers, a horrid corporeal realism to formal elegance. It is nothing short of violence, however banal and anti-apocalyptic, that reduces the busyness of everyday life to business as usual, to the ethic of "surface things" which Warholian Pop came to consecrate under its rubric of maximum indifference--Everything is Good.
In what way, exactly, could a eulogy of "surface things" have been appropriate for O'Hara, who is increasingly remembered today as one of the poets of everyday life? It's true that the painters in Rivers and O'Hara's circle had been obsessed with "surface," but this technical obsession was underpinned by a whole ideology of depth--angst, alienation, and autonomy--which marked the tradition of moral seriousness that was their heritage as artist-intellectuals. Pop's egalitarian crusade was to put to the sword the whole apparatus of discrimination that had rested upon a hermeneutics of depth, interpretation and moral value. Value could be located in any and every object, and because everything mattered, nothing mattered very much more than anything else. Pop, in its purist, theoretical form, was intended as an utter negation of the use of taste as a category of cultural power.
Whatever one could say about the friendliness of O'Hara, in his poetry, to the surface detail of everyday life, it is as difficult to find evidence there of this Pop disavowal of taste as it is to detect any sign of heroic Nietzschean loneliness of the sort espoused by Jackson Pollock and others. In fact, his poetry is very much the record of a man of taste, not in the bourgeois mode, of course, but in the sense in which it presents a discourse about a certain kind of masculinity that takes a responsible interest in "surface things" at the cost of the more traditional male leaning towards "important" affairs, topics, judgments, values, etc. For O'Hara's man of taste, everyday-life things matter, not because they are a way of advertising wealth or power, nor because everything matters equally, but because their value is linked to how people use them to make sense of their world. Taste, in this sense, is more like a survivalist guide than a cultural category through which class-marked power is defined and exercised. No doubt this notion of taste also contains the rudiments of the principle that came to be recognized by feminism as "the personal is the political." In this respect, then, surely there are good reasons for remembering O'Hara through "just the surface things" he wrote about, and little danger in confusing this O'Hara with his other reputation as a poet of trivia who shunned the social, artistic, and political questions of his day.
If that is so, then there are also good reasons for rethinking the categories of surface and depth that have come to plague our debates about cultural politics in the two decades since O'Hara died, or, more exactly, ever since Pop inaugurated the kind of culture, known today as postmodernist, which seems to take itself at face value. A culture of surface is not simply a culture that declares its immunity to historical anxiety; it is also a culture that has become suspicious of History with a capital H, moving with awesome solemnity and depth through our lives, a culture which recognizes that history, for the most part, is also made out of particulars by people whose everyday acts do not always add up to the grand aggregates of canonical martyrdom that make for real politics.
In fact, it is a commonly held view that, when it comes to politics, cultural texts are least successful when they are long on militant fiber (and short on pleasure); in other words, when they are at their most articulate or didactic, and when their explicit relation to the political is there for all to read, and to be deferred to or brow-beaten by. Indeed, most of the cultural texts we encounter are protopolitical--they express an imaginary relation to real conditions of oppression or resistance, a relation that is often difficult to read, not least because of its contradictions, but more generally because it is expressed in a symbolic form. Texts, in other words, speak more than they say, even when they seem to be about "surface things." We have learnt to recognize this state of affairs as the work of ideology, often viewed by left critics in terms similar to the work of Satan. But there are good reasons, I think, for preferring the term protopolitical to the term ideological. Protopolitical, for example, suggests submerged activity, while ideological suggests unremitting passivity; protopolitical suggests embryonic, or future forms, while ideological suggests the oppressive weight of the past extending into the present. So too, in looking at texts that occur "elsewhere," whether in time or place, we ought to be encouraged to look for the protopolitical in those things that can be said, rather than in what cannot be said--what is suppressed, in short, by the work of ideology.
To illustrate generally what I mean, I have taken the example of one of O'Hara's best known poems, "The Day Lady Died." It was written in 1950, a kind of prepolitical age--which is to say, an age that preexists the more explicit formation, in the sixties, of the kind of political culture which most of us have come to live and breathe. It was written elsewhere, in that prelapsarian period of innocence--before the break-up of consensus liberalism, before the conspiracy climate of all post-Kennedy ideology, before the sixties "changed everything"--a period that has been celebrated, for over a decade now, in that glut of yuppie nostalgia culture that stretches from American Graffiti to Dirty Dancing. It was written by a poet, as I have suggested, whose blithe disregard for politics is equally well-known, a disregard, for example, that caused a stir when, in 1966, a minor quarrel broke out among certain literati over his refusal to sign a petition condemning U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Agit-prop, or anything like it, is the last thing we would expect from Frank O'Hara in 1959. And yet, this is a poem, recording one of his celebrated lunchtime walks, which (and those who know and love O'Hara's "I do this, I do that" poems will surely agree), has radically transformed modern poetry's expectations of how it is licensed to represent everyday life. It is a poem, like the three-minute rock and roll classics of its day, which brashly articulates the fresh disposability of time and energy, lived at high speed, in the new pop continuum of a consumer culture:
[Ross quotes four stanzas]
It's the day after Billie Holiday's death, and America's consumer markets have never been busier; bank tellers are dispensing cash to spendthrift clients without even consulting their balances. Bohemian poets, as we can see from the conspicuous consumption described here, are no longer immune to the contagious seductions of the commodity world. This is not Baudelaire's poet-dandy-flaneur lured to the marketplace to look but not to buy. In the space of a few blocks, O'Hara's motivated, discriminating consumer-poet has found an entire range of cultural goods to purchase from all over the world, from hamburgers to Ancient philosophy. Robert Von Hallberg points out that all of art and history (most of it is not American) is available here, not through Eliotic tradition, but through the benefits of mass production and cheapness. The last stanza, however, suggests that there are some cultural experiences. that are literally priceless and that therefore lie beyond the realm of paperback discount shopping:
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
This memory of a "live" Billie Holiday moment, with its extreme effect on the motor functions of the body--sweating, constricted breathing--contrasts with the somnolent, low-key anxiety of "quandariness," which was the physical effect of making the earlier consumer choices. Such live moments cannot be reproduced on vinyl for mass consumption--you had to be there. Although O'Hara's poet seems to be perfectly at home in the modem environment of consumer culture, the poem in which he acts out his nostalgia-struck desire ends up paying its tribute to what we might recognize as the modernist poem, with its own epiphanic moment to record the loss, in the past, even the very recent past, of a culture of authenticity evoked by Lady Day's "breath-taking" live presence.
In a poem called "Jitterbugs," Amiri Baraka put the matter more succinctly: "though yr mind is somewhere else, your ass ain't." Baraka is addressing himself more to the contradictions of ghetto realism than to the romantic spirit of the white bohemian in ritual thrall to the spectacle of jazz performance. But his tone here might serve as an earthy corrective to the rapt mood of O'Hara's last stanza. In fact, if we look back through the poem, beginning with the encounter in the first stanza with the probably black shoeshine boy, who may be worried about how he is going to be fed in a way that is different from the poet's anxiety about his unknown hosts in Easthampton, we begin to see how the references to postcolonial "Negritude"--Genet's Les Nègres and those "poets in Ghana"--have indirectly, perhaps even unconsciously, prepared the reader for the final confrontation with American "negritude."
By 1959, scenes of jazz idolatry on the part of white intellectuals had become a commonplace, if not a cliché, especially in the poetry world where the Beat cult of hipsterdom had become an object of national media attention. What is striking, however, is that O'Hara is not like that; he is not that kind of poet. Sure, he frequented the jazz clubs, and even gave readings at the 5 Spot. There is enough personal testimony around, from friends and acquaintances, to establish that he was quite familiar with jazz music. But when it comes to his poetry, jazz almost never figures in the taste milieu within which he represented himself, or in the realm of cultural events about which he wrote in copious detail. True to his impeccably camp outlook, Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera House were more standard venues in his poetry than the 5 Spot, Rachmaninoff a more constant source of religious ecstasy than Miles Davis. This scene in the 5 Spot doesn't seem to properly belong in O'Hara's work, where it is employed nonetheless to invoke a spirit of authenticity. It appears to me as a fond reader of O'Hara that this scenario might be read as an ironic, even parodic, gloss on the stereotyped Beat devotee of the more "authentic" world of jazz culture.
By 1959, the image of the white intellectual worshipping a black jazz performer had become a popular icon, the subject of a thousand cartoons and comedy routines. Jazz was beginning to acquire the legitimacy of a high art form and was therefore being annexed as a realm of minority and not popular taste. But while intellectuals of the day were ritually crowding into small jazz clubs, the popular action was elsewhere, ever since white high school kids had begun to tune into black R&B radio stations in the late forties and early fifties. By 1959, the rock and roll revolution was over three years old, but you can comb through O'Hara's entire oeuvre--compendiously packed with cultural details--and never find any evidence that such a revolution had taken whole regions and sectors of the culture by storm. The Civil Rights Movement was beginning to gain momentum. But which would prove more crucial to the future gains of multiculturalism? The power of white liberal fantasies, centered upon the idolizing of the purity of black culture and its fine arts? Or the prospect of fully integrated dance floors--black and white bodies moving to recognizably black rhythms, and the other racial crossovers which rock and roll culture has generated ever since its scandalous origin?
For white intellectuals, the sacred spectacle of the spontaneous jazz performer was underscored, among other things, by a highly romantic form of racism. It suggested that work was simply an extension of a kind of presocial culture that was at ease with play and had mastered leisure; in other words, making jazz was work that didn't look like work, by people who weren't supposed to know the difference. In O'Hara's poem, what Billie Holiday does comes "naturally." Her languorous "whisper," by contrast, precipitates an unnatural response, a near cardiovascular attack, on the poet's part, which can be compared, diametrically, with the nonchalance that he had earlier displayed during his bout of compulsive buying. Then, what was most self-conscious about consuming had been made to seem like the most natural thing in the world. "Just" strolling in here and there, and "casually" asking for this and that, at once indecisive and pragmatic in his purchasing, he had behaved almost like a practiced shoplifter, carefully covering his tracks with a whole range of consumer rituals. But, for all of its worked-at insouciance, the art of consuming, unlike the art of the jazz singer, proves to be hard work: after a while, he's "sweating a lot," unlike Lady Day, who is remembered as the very image of cool. Even now, when she literally has stopped breathing, it is the poet who takes on her symptoms as he reads of her death in the newspaper.
That it is a Lady Day and not a Charlie Parker being commemorated in this way is, of course, O'Hara's own personal touch. As a gay poet, and one of the most spontaneous of all camp writers, it is no surprise to find that it is a woman singer who shares the billing along with the goddesses of the screen whom he celebrates in other poems. In fact, O'Hara's most celebrated camp line occurs in a poem in which the poet sees a newspaper headline announcing that "LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!" It ends thus:
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up
Survivalist exhortations of this sort lie at the very heart of camp's insistence that the show must go on, that irony and parody can redeem even the most tragic and sordid events, which color everyday life. The last years of Judy Garland's life, for example, in which she transformed her career role as a self-destructive loser into that of a reliant, irrepressible fighter, came to exemplify this survivalist spirit for the gay community, and the final period of Billie Holiday's checkered life and career is certainly the closest equivalent among female jazz performers ("The Day Lady Died" takes place almost exactly a decade before the day that saw both Garland's funeral and the Stonewall riots).
In the prepolitical climate of O'Hara's day, this survivalism found expression in the highly ironized flamboyance of the camp ethic--"laughing to keep from crying"--which structured a whole subculture around the act of imagining a different relation to the existing world of too strictly authorized and legitimized sexual positions. In this respect, camp has to be seen as an imaginative conquest of everyday conditions of oppression, where more articulate expressions of resistance or empowerment were impossible. The most elaborate of these imaginary codes involved identification with the "power," however restricted, exercised by certain women, especially those in the cinema, and especially those like Bette Davis, whose mannered repertoire was a highly performed caricature of the conventional representations of women. The suggestion that role-playing, and the destabilizing of fixed sexual positions, could actually add to the exercise of sexual power was a very attractive suggestion for the gay male, who knew that his sexuality, in everyday life, was likely to get him into trouble.
The sometimes mawkish sentimentalism of camp is often seen as an institutionalized expression of self-hatred, and thus a dangerous form of acceptance, by an oppressed group, of the oppressor's definition of the oppressed. Like the eponymous "Jewish self-hatred," or "Tomming " in black culture, or certain expressions of "machismo" in Latin cultures, camp is a form of defense constructed by an oppressed group out of conditions not of its own making. That is why it is protopolitical; in other words, it is a response to politically induced oppression, but at the same time, it is a response that accepts its current inability to act in an explicit political manner to combat that oppression. This response takes many covert forms and baroque systems of disclosure, not least in the heavily coded speech repertoires and intonations of gay vernacular, which the attentive reader can find everywhere in O'Hara's poetry.
Looking back over O'Hara's poem, we can see how it tends to accept what might have been stereotypically regarded as the social contours of gay masculinity in 1959, the obsession, for example, with trivia, with feelings, with discriminations of taste, and, of course, with the fine arts. The tone of the poem marks its obvious distance from the voice of legitimate masculinity; O'Hara's is not the voice of the public sphere, where real decisions are made by real men and where real politics is supposed to take place. In fact, the hectic itinerary followed by his poet could just as well be that of a genteel lady about town, if you substitute a hairdresser for the shoeshine, the Russian Tea Room for the soda parlor, Rizzoli's for the Golden Griffin, and so on. This is a man on a shopping trip, and the dizzy combination of quandariness, fastidiousness, vagrant attention, distaste for ugly items, and the general air of practiced nonchalance that he displays in the process of making his various purchases--all of this mirrors or mimics the way in which a woman of means with a busy social schedule might have conducted herself as the fifties were drawing to a close. (It is open to debate whether, in fact, a woman would deliberate for so long over the choice of gift for "Patsy," while proving so confident in making such a straightforward selection for "Mike.") The "lady's" version of this poem would have ended, of course, with the shock of reading the obituary, in the Times, of a fashionable musician or composer. In fact, the "day lady died" is an account of a lady's day, played out by a man through an imagined lunch hour that is the very opposite of the power lunches being eaten in restaurants in the same few blocks by the men who make real history--no quandariness for them! They know what they like, and it's not Gauloises and it's not Genet, even although they may share the 4:19 to Easthampton, the same commuter train as O'Hara's poet, who, incidentally, shares the same working hours as they do.
Even while it accepts a stereotype of gay masculinity, itself based upon a sexist stereotype of female character traits and mannerisms, O'Hara's poem begins to imagine a different relation to everyday life for men in general. The masculinity he imagines here has increasingly become more familiar, along with the steady erosion, since 1959, of the sexual division of labor and the gradual softening of the contours of social masculinity to incorporate more attention to style, feeling, taste, desire, consumer creativity, and sexual toleration. It marks the beginning of a whole chapter of sexual politics that will come to learn almost as much from the redefinition of masculinity articulated by gay males as from the struggle against everyday oppression mounted by feminists.
O'Hara's poetry rejects the big, global questions of politics and economics, even the big "artistic" questions of aesthetics. His is certainly not a heroic poetics of self-reliance or self-making in the transcendent, Emersonian tradition, nor does it make a pragmatic religion out of individualism, in the American grain. Instead it subscribes to the micropolitics of personal detail, faithfully noting down dates, times, events, feelings, moods, fears, and so on, devoting a bricoleur's disciplined attention to details in the world and in the people around him. O'Hara's is a code of personal politics, which says that at some level you have to take responsibility for your own conduct in the everyday world and toward others; you can't rely on organized politics or unorganized religions to change that. It is a code that starts from what we find lying, unplanned, around us, rather than from achieved utopias of the body and mind. In 1959, well before the coming riots of self-liberation, this was a mannered way of saying take things into your own hands.
It seems impossible to end without recalling the elegiac note with which I began, for death is a very important part of "The Day Lady Died." Who can read this poem about Billie Holiday's death without thinking of O'Hara's own untimely death seven years later? Who can read it without thinking of the deaths today, from AIDS, of thousands of young homosexual men, like O'Hara, in a culture that is only beginning to recognize how public agendas work by reorganizing and redefining private responsibilities. It is in this context that O'Hara's code of everyday responsibility begins to take on a new kind of sense, three decades later. It is in this context that the survivalism of the camp sensibility, always prepared to deal with an apocalypse of worst possible outcomes, takes on new meanings, when danger is located today in the smallest things in our lives. It is in this context, perhaps, that the "surface things" in O'Hara's poetry show their unhidden depths.
Originally appeared in Poetics Journal. Copyright © 1989 by Andrew Ross. Reprinted by permission.
Andrew Ross's provocative essay on "The Day Lady Died" . . . argues, quite rightly I think, that O'Hara's fabled "culture of surface" is not without its own political resonances, its implicit critique of a consumerism, dependent upon the sharply defined gender roles of the fifties and the dilemma they posed for the gay man. But Ross's case seems curiously overdetermined:
Looking back over O'Hara's poem we can see how it tends to accept what might have been stereotypically regarded as the social contours of gay masculinity in 1959, the obsession, for example, with trivia, with feelings, with discriminations of taste, and, of course, with the fine arts. The tone of the poem marks its obvious distance from the voice of legitimate masculinity; O'Hara's is not the voice of the public sphere, where real decisions are made by real men and where real politics is supposed t take place. In fact, the hectic itinerary followed by his poet could just as well be that of a genteel lady about town, if yo substitute a hairdresser for the shoeshine, the Russian Tea Room for the soda parlor, Rizzoli's for the Golden Griffin, and so on. . . .
In fact, "the 'day lady died' is an account of a lady's day, played out by a man through an imagined lunch hour that is the very opposite of the power lunches being eaten in restaurants in the same few blocks by the men who make real history (SE 388-89).
The difficulty with this argument is that Ross has to posit a "voice of legitimate masculinity" against which O'Hara's own homosexual one may be seen to position itself. But whose voice in 1959 (or, for that matter, at any other time) would this be? Did "straight" poets of the fifties--say, Robert Lowell or Robert Creeley--present themselves as "making real history" over their business "power lunches"? Or weren't they also outsiders by their very status as lyric poets?
The relation to women is even trickier. Ross's argument is that "the social contours of gay masculinity of 1959," which O'Hara's poem supposedly embodies, allow the poet no choice but to assume a feminine role: "the hectic itinerary followed by his poet could just as well be that of a genteel lady about town." O'Hara's elegy . . . begins with the lines:
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
"Genteel" lady shoppers are hardly likely to go out to the Island on a summer Friday afternoon without knowing with whom they are going to have dinner. "The people who will feed me," moreover, is an odd way of referring to one's hosts: who knows what unladylike things that "feeding" is to include? Again, the sense of immediacy and improvisation is underscored by the reference to getting a shoeshine. Ross's suggestion that we need only substitute "hairdresser" for "shoeshine" for the day to reveal itself as a "lady's day," curiously misses O'Hara's nuance. Ladies' visits to the hairdresser are scheduled and regular--part of the routine of putting oneself together, rather like brushing one's teeth and putting on make-up in the morning. But one doesn't schedule a shoeshine or make an appointment to have one: one does it (or rather, a man does it) on the spur of the moment so as to "look good," to make an immediate impression, especially when one doesn't know "the people who will feed me." And the further irony is that, what with the drinking and the partying that could be anticipated at Mike and Patsy's, no one would notice Frank's shoeshine anyway. It is merely a way of (literally) putting one's best foot forward.
Or consider the lines in the following stanza: "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 my life." This seemingly casual and irrelevant reference, far from linking the poet to genteel lady shoppers with their "busy social schedules," has precisely the opposite effect. What bank teller would confront a Madison Avenue matron by looking up her balance? What matron would give so much as a thought to the teller's name? The implication of the lines is that the poet is always self-conscious about being "different": polite and friendly as he is at the bank, Miss Stillwagon evidently perceives him as just a bit queer, and besides he is evidently prone to overdrawing on his account. The routine withdrawal of money thus becomes an incident worth reporting. The name "Stillwagon," moreover, with its oxymoronic conjunction of whiskey still and being on the wagon, anticipates the crisis of Billie Holiday's last days.
It is charged language of this sort (a good bit of which I missed the first time I discussed the poem) that makes O'Hara's work so fascinating. As for "consumerism," it should be noted that every item the poet buys (or contemplates buying) is bought for someone else. Intense friendship, which is the gay poet's alternative to the family networks that determine the largely routine purchases made by the typical New York lady shopper, depends upon the careful discrimination and choice of gifts: Frank knows Patsy's taste for Verlaine and that Mike especially likes to drink Strega. And , in the larger sense, it is the set of choices of the poem's maker that provides us with a catalogue of items, all of which (as I suggest in Chapter 5), relate, like Miss Stillwagon, to Billie Holiday herself. In line 17, for example, the poet contemplates buying "Brendan Behan's new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres / of Genet." Behan, who drank himself to death at a young age, anticipates Lady Day's death from a drug overdose, while the mise-en-scène of Les Nègres sets the stage for Lady Day's climactic appearance at the Five Spot. As for Genet himself (and the characters in Le Balcon), the motif introduced by the invocation of the gay, ex-convict author is that of the artist punished for his or her deviance--punished, in Lady Day's case, by premature death.
To say that the poet's itinerary is conceived as the daily shopping round of a genteel lady thus glosses over precisely those images and phrases that make "The Day Lady Died" the bitter-sweet, poignant elegy it is. "Totally abashed and smiling" (CP 406), fearful and funny, self-possessed and yet profoundly vulnerable, the poet who makes his Manhattan rounds on a Friday (with Bastille Day soon to come!), is the Frank who was given to referring to New York as "Sodom-on-Hudson," the Frank who had written in his Harvard Journal, "I often wish I had the strength to commit suicide, but on the other hand, if I had, I probably wouldn't feel the need. God! Can't you let us win once in a while?" (10/17/48, EW 100). If the sensibility here is indeed "gay," we must remember that not all gay sensibility of the period-- Allen Ginsberg is a case in point-- strikes the note of comic pathos, of humor laced with tough common sense, and especially of complex verbal play, that is O'Hara's legacy to poetry.
from Frank OHara: A Poet Among Painters. U of Chicago P, 1997. Online--http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/perloff/ohara.html
. . . O'Hara's refusal to specify how a poem is significant or makes events significant transfers the act of attention to the reader. There is minimal subordination of seemingly insignificant elements to greater patterns of meaning in O'Hara's "I do this I do that" poems. Because these poems are narrative, the sequencing of events often overshadows any pattern of symbolic meaning. Although such poems resemble what Roland Barthes would call the classical "readerly" text in their apparently straightforward narrative structure, they continually submit the narrated events to questions concerning their ideological significance, concurring with Barthes's notion of structure in the "writerly" text: "[S]tructure is not a design, a schema, a diagram: everything signifies something." The two polar hypotheses describing O'Hara's poetrythe "will not to impute significance" and "everything signifies something"inform the process of "double coding" that compels readers to continually decide on what is significant while concurrently reflecting on the grounds for such decisions. Such tension makes readers simultaneously attentive to significance in the seemingly insignificant and wary about attributing significance at all, as closer examination of several representative "I do this I do that poems" will show.
The poem that best illustrates this tension of attention is "The Day Lady Died," probably the poem most frequently cited for demonstrating O'Hara's antipoetic stance. Because this poem is an elegy, it is somewhat atypical of the more casual "I do this I do that" poems. The occasion of the poem, the death of Billie Holliday, heightens the significance of the poem's details. Nevertheless, the relation of the details to the poem's generic form remains problematic. The majority of critics agree that the details observed by the poem's speaker are random, that there is little significance to the times, people, places, and events mentioned. These details are the poem' s "anti-poetic weight" or mere coincidences that contrast sharply with the seriousness of the occasion. Robert yon Hallberg's assessment that the poem's impact depends on its "inadvertent banal approach to an earnest genre" typifies this critical reaction. On the other hand, critics such as Charles Altieri have argued that the details of the poem do contribute to the feeling of the elegy. Such critics still maintain the contrast between the discontinuity of the reported experiences and the poem's elegiac conclusion. Despite this disagreement about the poems details to its impact as an elegy, no one is willing to read too much significance into the details; the sense that the poet seems to just coincidentally and randomly notice these details forecloses such conjecture.
"The Day Lady Died" epitomizes the tension between first and second readings of OHaras "I do this I do that" poems. Except for the cryptic title, a title whose significance would be noticed only by those familiar with Billie Holliday, there is no indication that the poem is an elegy until the closing stanza. Like so many of OHaras poems, "The Day Lady Died" narrates events in the present tense; the events occur concurrently with the utterance itself. This process of simultaneous composition is less stream-of-consciousness than consciousness-of-stream, the stream of urban streets reported in rapid succession. The rapidity of reporting, emphasized through paratactic syntax, constant enjambment, and minimal punctuation, precludes attention to detail. It is only with the poem's apocalyptic closure"everyone and I stopped breathing" (CP, 325)closure that unites the remembered event with the present, the performance of Hollidays song with the performance of the poem, that the narrated events become significant. Yet even when the poem has "stopped breathing," the details do not fit into a readily apparent design other than that of the speaker's lunchtime walk itself. The genre of the poem demands the reconstruction of design from its disparate details, but the details resist such reconstruction. To insist on a coherent design that unites the apparently random details is to risk reading too much symbolism into a poem whose tone is so casual; to avoid such a risk means accepting the cliché of the spontaneous, unreflective poet.
There are a number of references to time in "The Day Lady Died," typical for the lunch poems OHara wrote with one eye on his wristwatch but particularly significant for a poem about death. These references to time are hardly uniform, however; there is quite a difference between saying "It is 12:20 in New York a Friday" and saying "three days after Bastille Day" (CP, 325).The first reference situates the poem in a specific yet repeatable time frame, while the second calls attention to the poet's selection of a dramatic descriptive term. "Bastille Day" gives the poem a sense of historical depth that contrasts with the matter-of-fact reporting of departure and arrival times of the Long Island trains the poet plans to take that evening. The reference to Bastille Day hardly seems gratuitous, for many of the poem's succeeding historical and geographical references are to oppression, imprisonment, and revolution, issues intimately related to Billie Holliday's life. When the poet buys "an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets / in Ghana are doing these days" (CP, 325), he refers to a country (formerly the Gold Coast) that had gained independence in 1957, only two years before the "day Lady died." The reference to Ghana, rather than to another African country, is especially relevant for Holliday's African American genealogy, for the Gold Coast had been an important center for the slave trade. Similarly, the books the poet considers buying for "Patsy" are relevant for the final years of Holliday's life, years in which she was trailed by the FBI. The books mentioned, "Brendan Behan's new play or Le Balcon or Les Negres / of Genet" (CP, 325), concern oppression and rebellion, and the authors were not only noted rebels but had spent time in prison themselves: Behan was twice imprisoned while a member of the IRA, Jean Genet spent much of his life in jails, and Paul Verlaine, whose book the speaker finally decides to buy, spent two years in a Belgian prison after shooting his lover, Anhur Rimbaud. As casual and coincidental as such references to authors and literary texts appear, the pattern of oppression and rebellion they convey casts a powerful shadow over a life the poem elegizes but never explicitly describes.
The other names the poet mentionsnames of friends, familiar places, and consumer productsbecome more resonant with their historicity when juxtaposed to other historical periods, people, and places. The juxtaposition of names and places the poet knows closely ("Patsy," "Mike," "the GOLDEN GRIFFIN," the PARK LANE / Liquor Store," the "Ziegfeld Theatre," "the 5 SPOT") with historical figures and foreign places personalizes the poem's historical references. The mention of those the poet hardly knows at all ("the people who will feed me," "Miss Stillwagon") along with the mention of international trade names ("Strega," "Gauloises," "Picayunes") conflates the impersonal and the international with the personal and the local. As the literary and artistic center of 1950s American culture, New York offers unlimited choice, but only in exchange for the reified subjectivity of consumer capitalism. Finally, except for the reference to Bastille Day, all of the poem's references to "foreign" and "past" history (the poem as well as consumer capitalism problematize the meaning of foreign and past) are references to texts. History is always represented, in this case bracketed between the covers of the journals and books the poet browses through at newsstands and in bookstores. Even the first mention of the figure the poem celebrates appears in a "NEW YORK POST with her face on it" (CP, 325). This emphasis on the textuality of history foregrounds the relation of this literary text, "The Day Lady Died," to its immediate historical referent, the day "Lady" died. "The Day Lady Died" is concurrently a repeatable, ahistorical script and an unrepeatable historical transcript of events; the poem loses much of its resonance without historical knowledge of the day it records. In accentuating historical difference, the transience of the local people, places, and events named, the poem also suggests patterns of historical repetition: revolution in France and revolution in Ghana, persecution of artists in France and persecution of artists in America. By placing the death of Billie Holliday in the context of Bastille Day and official oppression of artists, O'Hara subtly comments on the state of the "avant-garde" artist in 1950s America.
All of the actions represented in "The Day Lady Died" are acts of selection, especially the consumer's selection of what to do and what to buy for specific social occasions. Most of these are automatic or socially constrained acts of selection, but beginning with the decision of the bank teller, "Miss Stillwagon," to not "even look up my balance for once in her life" (CP, 325), the process of selection raises fundamental interpretive questions. The poet does not speculate on "Miss Stillwagon's" reasons for her change of behavior, but by stressing the singularity of this occasion, he suggests his own act of reflection and encourages readers to consider the significance of the bank scene to the rest of the poem, and even the semantic possibilities of "Miss Stillwagon" and "my balance." The next act of selection initially seems to be as un- problematic as the other purchases: "and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN / get a little Verlaine / for Patsy" (CP, 325). However, this seemingly unreflective act is modified by the catalog of book titles the poet has already considered, a catalog that concludes with the striking oxymoron: "I stick with Verlaine / after practically going to sleep with quandariness" (CP, 325). "Quandariness" implies a state of agitated or distressed awareness, a state not normally associated with sleep. "Going to sleep with quandariness" suggests a weariness with selection, in this case the consumer's weariness with selecting a literary text to give to his friend, but a weariness as well with selecting the appropriate literary references to elegize Holliday. On the other hand, "going to sleep" also suggests an erotic of "quandariness," as this weariness is belied by the inventiveness of such a line as "going to sleep with quandariness." The poem asserts that imaginative inventiveness can subvert imprisonment in tradition; likewise art can momentarily release one from the imprisonment of self-consciousness inherent in such anxiety of selection.
The final act of selection in "The Day Lady Died" appears not to be a conscious choice at all; the photograph of "Lady Day" invokes a memory of the artist's power to literally take one's breath away, and in doing so, to make the scenario of the poem's closure more vivid, more lasting. When the poem ends on this note, it not only closes the process of selection but heightens the significance of the poem's details as well. As the image of "Lady Day" conjures the precise memory of "leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT" (CP, 325), the conclusion of "The Day Lady Died" sharpens the images portrayed earlier. Such lines as "and I don't know the people who will feed me" or "Miss Stillwagon . . . doesn't even look up my balance" (CP, 325) become laden with possibly ominous significance when viewed through the lens of Billie Holliday's death, a lens colored by the questions of oppression, revolt, and imprisonment that inform the references to other artists in the poem. It is possible to go to "sleep with quandariness" with the details of "The Day Lady Died" only by refusing to select how they are significant. Such a reading risks falling into a state of historical amnesia that the poem insistently militates against.
from The American Avant-Garde Tradition: William Carlos Williams, Postmodern Poetry, and the Politics of Cultural Memory. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Associated University Presses.
O'Hara had heard Lady Day sing the previous autumn at the Five Spot Cafe, where Thelonious Monk regularly played. It was a Monday night. Monday was Monk's night off, and on those nights, Mal Waldron, who was Billie Holiday's piano accompanist, played with a trio consisting of Elvin Jones on drums, Julian Newell on bass, Pepper Adams on baritone sax. Others., too, joined in; Larry Rivers, whose first love was jazz, sometimes got in the action with his tenor sax. It was Rivers who persuaded the Five Spot's owner to let him conduct some experimental sessions in poetry and jazzpartly to spoof the new vogue of beat poetry and mournful saxophone sounds and partly to join in on the fun. One Monday Kenneth Koch came and read from the Manhattan telephone directory while Rivers played saxophone. Afterward Billie Holiday, who had wandered in to greet Waldron, told Koch, "Man, your poems are weird." Holiday, whose cabaret card had been revoked because of her heroin use, consented to break the law for one song while Waldron hit the keys. She sang in a husky whisper. O'Hara stood leaning against the bathroom door, listening.
Having digested the news of Lady Day's death, O'Hara went up to his office and typed out a poem, folded it, and put it into his jacket pocket. When he and Joe LeSueur arrived in East Hampton, Mike Goldberg met them in his olive drab Bugatti, which he had bought the previous fall on his and Patsy's honeymoon in Italy. Goldberg had brought a Thermos of martinis along, and the friends passed it around as Goldberg drove them to Briar Patch Road, where Patsy was waiting. Mike put on a Billie Holiday record. Patsy brought out a tray of hors d'oeuvre, and the four of them sat on the screen porch, where O'Hara announced that he'd written a poem that afternoon. This is what he read: . . .
"The Day Lady Died" is a classic instance of a poem chronicling its own coming into existenceyou can trace the poet's footsteps up to the moment when he sat at his typewriter recapitulating the hour he had just spent. Part of the poem's charm lies in its mix of populist and elitist elements: a hamburger and a malted and "a little Verlaine," a trip to the bank to cash a check, the purchase of exotic cigarettes and liqueurs. Here again, as in "Personal Poem" and "Memorial Day 1950," the names mentioned in the poem are not merely gratuitous; from our distance we can see just how much they tell us about the world in 1959. Even the detail about the bank teller"Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard) [who] / doesn't even look up my balance for once in her life"has an interest beyond the sass in the speaker's voice; it helps evoke a once commonplace situation remote from us today, used as we have become to automatic teller machines and the universal American first-name basis. As a map of literary allusion, the poem is eclectic and heterodox: Brendan Behan and Jean Genet are given equal billing with Hesiod and Paul Verlaine. Then there is the reference to the June 1959 issue of New World Writing featuring the "voices of Ghana." It was the fifteenth and final issue of the eight-year-old magazine, which was published in the form of a Mentor paperback by New American Library. The issue contained a powerfully enigmatic story by Boris Pasternak and an account by the French poet Henri Michaux of his experiences with mescaline, and it is more than likely that O'Hara picked up the "ugly" paperback (the adjective is aptthe cover is a graphic designer's nightmare) to read these two items rather than the voices of Ghana. But Africa, as O'Hara put it in "Personism," was "on its way," and surely there is a strong sense of negritude in "The Day Lady Died": it's there not only in the reference to the newly independent Ghana, which was celebrating its liberation from colonial status, but in the title of Genet's play (Les Negres), in the sad demise of Billie Holiday, possibly even in the skin color of the shoeshine man, though this is not speciied. Perhaps Yusef Komunyakaa is right, and the professed interest in "what the poets in Ghana are doing these days" is a prime example of O'Hara's "exoticism" of blacks. Perhaps exoticism is the point: Cigarettes from France and New Orleans, liqueur from Italy, poets and painters from all overthe names in "The Day Lady Died" represent a whole way of life that would have seemed exotically bohemian to O'Hara's first readers. It was the same exoticism that young Americans, black and white, responded to in bebop jazz. Amiri Baraka, when he was still LeRoi Jones, understood that "the goatee, beret, and windowpane glasses were no accidents, "that they signaled "the beginning of the Negro s fluency with some of the canons of Western nonconformity, which was an easy emotional analogy to the three hundred years of unintentional nonconformity his color constantly reaffirmed."
"The Day Lady Died" was an instant hit, though it provoked dismay from critics who wondered whether a poem that doesn't get around to mentioning the deceased until four lines from the end, and then in the most incidental way, could possibly be a sincere expression of grief. This reaction put the poem in the company of other great elegies. Milton's "Lycidas," the greatest elegy in the language, suffered a similar fate: There were readersthe great Samuel Johnson among themwho felt that the poem's pastoral conventions were artificial, that the poem therefore lacked sincerity, and that it was moreover unseemly of Milton to acknowledge, as he does, that one of his motives in writing this elegy for a drowned classmate was the hope that he, in turn, would be similarly memorialized. As the detractors of "Lycidas" were wrong, so the critics of "The Day Lady Died " misjudged the poet's conversational ease and seemingly self-centered stance. "The Day Lady Died" is a moving elegy not in spite of the poem's preoccupation with the poet's self but because of it; the death of the great singer at age forty-four occurs as an interruption, a shock that the reader is invited to share. The sharpness of the contrast between the vitality of the living man, attending to the errands and tasks of life, and the dead singer is like a last percussive note held in an expectant stillness. The poem's breathless ending virtually enacts the death of the "first lady of the blues" (as the New York Post put it) whose nickname, "Lady Day," is inverted in the poem's title, a gesture as witty as it is poignant. To the charge that O'Hara is too ironic to be sincere, I would borrow the distinction Lionel Trilling made between sincerity and authenticity: O'Hara's suspicion of sincerity as a rhetorical mode is paradoxically what makes his work more authentic.
A delicious irony about "The Day Lady Died" is that this most casual of utterances will, in becoming an anthology standard, someday require a whole battery of footnotes. But that is another way of saying that the poem opens out to include much more of the universe of 1959 than many another seemingly more ambitious poem. Indeed, to borrow a hyperbole from O'Hara's beloved Mayakovsky, it could be said that if all that survived of 1959 was "The Day Lady Died," then historians a century hence could piece together the New York of that moment in the same way that archaeologists can reconstruct a whole extinct species of dinosaur from a single fossil bone.
from The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets. Copyright © 1998 by Doubleday, Inc.
In 'The Day Lady Died' the cityplace is unobtrusively feminized when the poet goes on a shopping trip during his lunch hour: it is, as Andrew Ross says, 'an account of a lady's day, played out by a man through an imagined lunch hour that is the very opposite of the power lunches being eaten . . . by the men who make real history' (Ross 1990, p. 389). Furthermore, the seemingly innocuous books the poet browses in the shops include plays by Genet (Les Negres involves a sophisticated non-essentialist exploration of the relationship between racial identity and skin colour); a play by Brendan Behan; and a New World Writing volume from Ghana. Widening the scope of the poem beyond New York-as-text, these casually listed titles resonate as sexually transgressive and revolutionary counter-sites. As such they foreshadow the capitulation to drugs and death of Holiday, victim of exploitation by white (and black) men. But the nodes along the route of the poem open up racial difference by retaining the complexities of place and culture. The differences between Holiday, the poets in Ghana and the characters in the Genet play are not reduced to one African 'other', though they are placed on multi-layered planes which project into the same place. The climax of the poem (the memory of the reduction of the singer's voice to a whisper) involves another shift of location, this time to The Five Spot, a jazz club in New York which temporarily becomes superimposed upon the immediate environment:
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 Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O'Hara: Difference/Homosexuality/Topography. Liverpool UP, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by Hazel Smith.
"The Day Lady Died" is one of the "I do this I do that poems," where the notion that words do supplants the notion that words mean, and where truth happens to one's words in the course of their reception and redirection. O'Hara clearly wants to celebrate Holiday […] but, contrary to most critical views of the poem, he is well aware of the hazards involved in his undertaking, and the poem is designed so that it might avoid descending into either "traditional elegy" (Blasing [Mutlu Konuk Blasing, Politics and Form in Postmodern Poetry: O'Hara, Bishop, Ashbery, and Merrill. New York: Cambridge UP, 1995.] 50) or clichéd rendition of the "white intellectual worshipping a black jazz performer (Ross [Andrew Ross, "The Death of Lady Day." Frank O'Hara: To Be True to a City. Ed. Jim Elledge. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1990. 380-91.] 385). The title itself is one aspect of O'Hara's strategy: the elegiac, transcendent bearing of the syntax ("The Day Lady Died," accentuating "Day" so as to remove it from the continuum of days, as in "The Day the Earth Stood Still") is undercut by O'Hara's play on Holiday's nickname, "Lady Day." A second possibility arises, that the title is a plain statement of fact: "The Day Lady" (Lady Day, Billie Holiday) died. Keeping in mind that the poem is contemporaneous with O'Hara's invention of Personism, we should recognize the importance of O'Hara's wordplay, the way he figures Holiday's death as one in a series of everyday events.
The first four stanzas of O'Hara's poem are built on a series of plain, present-tense, declarative statements: "I go ... I walk ... I go ... I get ... I do think ... I stick with ... I just stroll ... I go." The sense of rapid movement is enhanced by his use of specific times (12:20,4:19, 7:15), and the whole passage is a model of what James called "reactive spontaneity" (Psychology [William James, The Principles of Psychology. 2 vols. 1890. New York: Dover, 1950.] 1: 402). "I don't know the people who will feed me," O'Hara insists, and each encounter is an entanglement in externality, a literal modification in his discursive self, the complexity of which is registered in his vernacular expressions. He buys "an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets / in Ghana are doing these days," as if reading across boundaries of race and culture were as casual and egalitarian as knocking on a neighbor's door or calling her on the telephone and in that way the antithesis of the romantic act of "discovery" (in which the operative question is not "What are you doing?" but "Who are you, what do you represent?"). Lastly, he turns around; in describing that turning, he reveals just how actively the social text is mediating the poetic text: "then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue." This is of course a joke on the racist question, "Why don't you go back where you came from?" and O'Hara's answer renders the question absurd-where he came from isn't Africa or Mississippi, Massachusetts or China, Mexico or Ireland; it's "6th Avenue." Just as "the only truth is face to face," O'Hara measures origins in blocks. The joke is a gesture in the direction of his vision of New York as a multi-ethnic radical democracy. Notice that with more than 80 percent of the poem gone, Holiday hasn't even been mentioned. And yet we can read O'Hara's Personism-style games as prelude to the final stanza, or as a return to where the games "came from."
I have mentioned how Holiday's performance at the Five Spot and O'Hara's nervousness over the jazz-poetry events held there are relevant subtexts for the poem; but there is another generally neglected subtext for the poem that I believe needs to be reinstated: namely, the music most associated with the Five Spot itself, the music of the new jazz avant-garde characterized, as I mentioned earlier, by "its heavy emphasis on individual freedom within a collectively improvised context." That music, as Mackey has argued, "proposed a model social order, an ideal, even utopic balance between personal impulse and group demands" ([Nathanie Mackey, Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing. New York: Cambridge UP, 1993.] 34). I noted earlier how O'Hara's move to the "free, glamorous Village" coincided with Thelonious Monk's famous run with John Coltrane at the Five Spot. Monk's influence on the young jazz avant-garde that congregated at the Five Spot (Coltrane, Davis, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and others) was profound [….] Moreover, Monk's influence extended beyond young jazz musicians to include young poets such as Baraka, Spellman, and Creeley. O'Hara, I think, belongs in this mix: the kinds of associations Mackey makes between Creeley and Baraka and Monk, Taylor, and Coleman might just as valuably be made between these musicians and O'Hara [….] And what we have in the milieu of the Five Spot is an instance where artists involved in different mediums were consciously tampering with each other-consciously transgressing the law of genre-in order to invent new forms of democratic symbolic action. Insofar as O'Hara's "The Day Lady Died" represents activity in the Five Spot, it is one of these new forms.
What is most interesting to me about the conclusion to "The Day Lady Died" is that it is a practical application of Personism:
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
To whom did Holiday whisper, and who stopped breathing? The absence of punctuation is an impediment, precludes a definitive answer. Did she whisper "to Mal Waldron and everyone" or only to "Mal Waldron," her fellow black jazz musician, and to no one else? And what of "I," which, in such a chatty, vernacular poem, seems to want to be an indirect object despite the rules of grammar? Then, if "everyone" and "I" are separate objects, did Holiday whisper "to Mal Waldron and everyone" or "to Mal Waldron and everyone and I"-that is, has O'Hara somehow been left out of the communicative loop? Whether O'Hara heard and how he heard are only tentatively defined. What we have as evidence of his reception are a physiological response ("stopped breathing") and the writing of a poem called "The Day Lady Died." What we do not have is anything we might confidently call "understanding" or "knowing." The fact that we cannot decide whether the members of this collective are subjects or objects has the uncanny effect of obscuring their position in space. Much is dependent on whether Waldron and O'Hara can both be included in "everyone"—the only noun which, in true grammatical fashion, occupies the position of both subject and object. And here is the genius of O'Hara's invention: Waldron and O'Hara are irreconcilable subjects mediated by a collective "everyone" which creates the potential position between subject and object, though neither of them occupies it alone, and their inclusion is dependent on dispensing with the grammatical laws that would separate them.
[….] To observe is to be overcome with, first, a sense of anesthesia (blurring to the point of blindness) and, second, the need for a synesthetic leap of faith: the "privileged eye" ("I") is supplanted by an unnamed actor who chooses verse (versatility) over verity (verisimilitude). Faced with the irresolvable tangle of subjects and objects, the operative metaphor becomes not the eye but the keyboard: "she whispered along the keyboard." O'Hara's choice of prepositions has the effect of emphasizing just how long the keyboard is, to the exclusion of several common definitions of "key": "something that secures or controls entrance to a place"; "a systematic explanation of symbols." The multiplicity of interpretive possibilities implied by the keyboard puts to rest these more confining definitions. Even the common musical definition—"the relationship perceived between all tones in a given unit of music and a single tone or key note"—won't accommodate O'Hara's verbal play. For Holiday does not sing in a key but, rather, whispers along a keyboard. In doing so she gestures outside the realm of Western musical notation.
Moreover, O'Hara's poem erects a generational bridge when it introduces Mal Waldron. It is clear enough that, as the final scene of "The Day Lady Died" takes place in the Five Spot, one would have to at least loosely associate it with the aesthetic environment of that venue. But the fact that Waldron is one of the players should provoke further scrutiny. Gooch identifies Waldron as "a black pianist who usually accompanied Holiday" (328), but this is misleading in its suggestion that Waldron would have been identified by the Five Spot community simply as Holiday's pianist. In fact, Waldron was an important member of the jazz avant-garde who figured prominently in groups led by Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy among others, and who was heavily influenced by Monk. [….] The point is that by the time O'Hara composed "The Day Lady Died," Waldron's significance as a player lay much more clearly with the jazz musicians being touted by Baraka than with Billie Holiday. [….] Our reading of the "whisper along the keyboard" should take into account the fact that O'Hara—as an accomplished pianist familiar with Monk, Cecil Taylor, and Waldron and conversing with (and reading) Baraka was aware of the imminent jazz experiments in liberating "key" from even its flexible meaning as defined in bop improvisation.
from "Tribes of New York: Frank O'Hara, Amiri Baraka, and the Poetics of the Five Spot," Contemporary Literature 42 no. 4 (Winter 2001): 694-726.
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