O’Hara set the poem, as the first lines reveal, in New York City on a busy summer day. O’Hara creates a broad picture of city life by moving from place to place and action to action. By using first-person in ‘The Day Lady Died,’ the walk feels personal but also at times detached as the speaker gets wrapped up in everything he sees.
It is not until the end of the poem that O’Hara brings in sounds and memories of Billie Holiday. This element of the poem is interwoven within the rest, but it also stands alone as a feature of life that is more effective, profound, and even spiritual. This poem, which O’Hara wrote during his lunch break, was published in Lunch Poems in 1964.
Explore The Day Lady Died
‘The Day Lady Died’ by Frank O’Hara is a moving and memorable poem that was written in honor of jazz singer Billie Holiday after she died.
The poem takes the reader through the simple movements of a first persona narrator during one day of his life. The speaker, who is certainly O’Hara himself, goes from place to place. He lingers in a bookstore, buys liquor, and walks down the street. Finally, he is confronted with the news that Billie Holiday has passed away. This leads him to a nightclub where the poem ends.
You can read the full poem here.
Throughout this poem, Frank O’Hara engages with themes of death and loss. These two come together in his reaction to Billie Holiday’s death. She is the “lady” referenced in the title. Although the death is not mentioned till the end of the poem, the title forces it to the forefront of the reader’s mind. No matter who dies, or how important they are, the world turns on. Modern life, another interesting theme at work in this poem, is going to continue. There is always something else to read, see, or hear about. One piece of news is replaced by the next.
Structure and Form
‘The Day Lady Died’ by Frank O’Hara is a five stanza elegy that is separated into uneven stanzas. The first with six lines, the second: four, the third: nine, the fourth: six, and the fifth has four lines. There are twenty-nine lines in total and they are structured in what is known as free verse. This means that there is no standard rhyme scheme or metrical pattern that unifies the lines of ‘The Day Lady Died.’ But, this does not mean that there is no rhyme or rhythm present in the poem at all. There are several examples of half-rhyme as well as literary devices that increase the power of the poem.
O’Hara makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Day Lady Died.’ These include but are not limited to enjambment, allusion, and alliteration. The first of these, enjambment, is quite obvious in this particular piece. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence—for instance, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “muggy” and “malted” in lines one and two of the second stanza as well as “doing” and “days” in line four of the second stanza.
An allusion is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to the mind without directly stating it. This is perhaps the most important poem, content-wise, in ‘The Day Lady Died’. Without it, the reader would not be able to connect the date, time, and location to the death of Billie Holiday.
It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
and I don’t know the people who will feed me
In the first stanza of ‘The Day Lady Died,’ the speaker gives the reader a bit of information about the setting. It’s a Friday in New York, “three days after Bastille day” (meaning it is July 17th). He provides the date, the exact time of day, and his location. He’s walking through New York City, narrating everything he sees and does. Each of these activities is accompanied by time. The narrator is getting a shoeshine and then taking the train to dinner with friends, but he isn’t sure which.
I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
in Ghana are doing these days
He mentions in the second stanza of ‘The Day Lady Died’ that he stopped by a newsstand and bought “NEW WORLD WRITING.” This is a reference to a literary magazine that was published during the fifties. It contained numerous examples of writing from different authors in one issue. He speaks sarcastically about his desire to see “what the poets / in Ghana are doing these days,” as if it is the literary center of the world. The magazine was known to publish not only popular writers but various writers from around the world. It’s unclear exactly how he feels about the inclusion of these writers, but he is at the very least skeptical.
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness
Moving on from the magazine, he goes to the bank and barely has an interaction with someone named “Miss Stillwagon” whose first name is likely “Linda”. He adds the last piece of information in parentheses as an afterthought meant only for the reader. Linda doesn’t look up his bank balance like she normally does. This is something that’s notable enough for him to mention. It is also the first indication that this particular day is any different from others that have come before it.
The speaker buys books, one by Paul Verlaine, that have drawings in them by Pierre Bonnard, a French post-impressionist painter. He had considered getting several other things, but he set with his first choice. If nothing else, from these lines a reader should come to understand the speaker as an educated person. He is informed on various subjects and is ready to show that feature of his personality off.
and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it
The fourth stanza of ‘The Day Lady Died’ is six lines long. In it, the speaker buys his friend Mike a bottle of “Strega.” He goes back and forth between different places, buying newspapers and going to the tobacconist. It’s in the last line of this stanza that he mentions that “her face” is on the “NEW YORK POST”. It is the first time that Holiday is mentioned in the poem and the speaker doesn’t react to it, as if the news is of no importance.
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing
The poem ends with the speaker in a nightclub sweating and listening to a musician, Mal Waldron, play. It is so moving that “everyone and I stopped breathing,” he says. It’s struck him so profoundly at that moment because of the news he received about Billie Holiday earlier in the day. There is an interesting piece of historical context in the last line of this poem. It is noted, by O’Hara himself, that one of the last times that he saw Holiday play was backed with the pianist Mal Waldron.
The tone throughout this piece is at first excited and conversational. But as the poem progresses, it becomes more reflective and even mournful if the reader is aware of what the poet is thinking about.
This poem was first published in Lunch Poems. The collection was released in 1964 and also included poems like ‘Step Away From Them,’ and ‘Personal Poem.’ The book was commissioned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights and was part of the Pocket Poets series.
Yes. ‘The Day Lady Died’ is an elegy. This means that it is a poem written in memory of someone who has died. Specifically, O’Hara wrote this poem in honor of the jazz singer Billie Holiday, who died July 17th, 1959. She passed away due to complications from liver disease.
Billie Holiday was a jazz singer whose real name was Eleanora Fagan. She also went by the nickname “Lady Day.” She had an important influence on jazz music during her lifetime, mostly due to her improvisational skills and vocal style. Today, she’s considered to be one of the most important musical artists of the 20th century.
Frank O’Hara wrote this piece in order to honor Billie Holiday’s life and allude to the impact she had on him and many others while she was still alive. It also presents the reader with an intimate picture of the poet’s life in New York.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Day Lady Died’ should also consider reading other Frank O’Hara poems. For example:
- ‘Easter‘ – a surrealistic take on the contrasting elements of life and death and the images these forces can spawn.
- ‘Meditations in an Emergency‘ – a bitterly humorous piece that deals with the theme of unrequited love.
- ‘Poem [Lana Turner has collapsed!] – depicts a few moments in a speaker’s life as he walks in New York and learns that Lana Turner has collapsed.