28 November 2012

the day lady died.

Build Up to Breathless
Fran O’Hara takes the air from your lungs. Literally. 

In The Day Lady Died Frank O’Hara fashions an elegy from a breakneck paced laundry list of the “mundane”. He uses his stream-like style to build momentum throughout the poem, until the reader is left breathless at the same moment the narrator finds himself breathless in the 5 Spot club listening to Billie Holiday sing.

O’Hara opens with two stanza’s of his daily routine, bringing in specific “day planner” information from the first line. We know immediately the concrete physical setting of the poem: 12:20 pm in New York City on Friday the 17th of July 1959 (lines 1-3). We see the narrator with a long list of things to do, and think before his 4:19 train to Easthampton (lines 8-19). These two stanza’s (2 and 3) utilise a flowing stream of consciousness enabled by his use of enjambment and his not using full stop punctuation (either here or anywhere else in the poem). Stanza two reads: 

“I walk up the muddy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days” 

each line continues to the next with the rapid fire connection of a person rattling off their to-do list. The following stanza continues this technique; with a first line indented to the end of the stanza before, the sense to the reader is to just keep reading without the moment of breath usually reserved for the stanza break. The momentum only continues to build throughout stanza’s three and four. O’Hara uses the tangent here to bring more information (and speed) to the text. These bits of information serve to provide context to the piece; producing an intellectual context with which to understand the narrator’s perspective. Each new piece of information left unseparated from the surrounding content by any sort of firm punctuation, also serves to give the reader no choice other than continuing the pace. This form mimics the sensation of walking in New York City. The speed and dexterity with which O’Hara moves between ideas and information emulates the movement of pedestrians navigating busy city streets and short lunch hours. There isn’t a moment for reflection. 

Until, that is, the narrator sees a newspaper with the information that Billie Holiday has died printed in the headline. This moment serves as a turn in the poem, when the narrator is forced to drastically slow his breakneck pace and descend into memory (though he doesn’t allow the reader that same luxury). Stanza’s one through four anchor the reader very much in the present with their concrete imagery such as; “I just stroll into PARK LANE liquor store and ask for a bottle of Strega” (lines 20-21), and “It is 12:20 in New York a Friday” (line 1). When we arrive at the final stanza, however, the narrator is jolted away from the present and returns to memory in his moment of grief. The momentum continues its pace, and leaves the reader breathless even as O’Hara reaches that breathless moment of memory listening to Lady Day’s voice in the nightclub of the final stanza. 

Frank O'Hara's The Day Lady Died (full poem).