Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
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
- There's a weird break between stanzas II and III. The last line of stanza II ends in the middle, and the first line of stanza III begins in the middle.
- There's no clear reason why O'Hara chooses to divide things in this way, except that he seems to be breaking off in the middle of one thought (about New World Writing) and returning to the middle of another (what he is doing at the moment).
- The speaker goes to the bank and interacts with a teller named "Miss Stillwagon."
- Now, come on, that name has to be made up. Well, maybe. You could certainly come up with all kinds of fancy-pants "symbolic" interpretations of this name ("The 'wagon' of life has been halted and now lies 'still'!"), or you could just go with it.
- We know that the speaker goes to this bank regularly, because he knows that the teller's first name is Linda from a separate trip.
- Linda doesn't look up his balance, "for once in her life." Holy smokes, Batman!
- Notice the conversational tone, which doesn't make perfect grammatical sense. Is he suggesting that she has spent her entire life looking up his balance? Obviously not. He is saying that she usually looks up her balance but doesn't this time. You might even think he sounds annoyed at how often she looks up his balance.
- This tiny, insignificant little detail about the Case of the Missing Bank Balance is the first sign that perhaps this day is different from other days. Is Linda absent-minded for a particular reason? Perhaps she has heard some distressing news? Now we're getting way ahead of ourselves, though.
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
- The speaker goes into someplace called the "GOLDEN GRIFFIN" and buys some books. We're going to go out on a limb here and say that the Golden Griffin is a bookstore. Once again, O'Hara capitalizes the name, which is curious.
- The first purchase he makes is a "little" book of poems by Paul Verlaine, a 19th century French Symbolist poet. Does it matter that Verlaine suffered from drug and alcohol addiction, like a certain 20th century female jazz singer? You didn't hear it from us.
- Verlaine isn't exactly a household name, so our speaker clearly knows something about poetry. He has taste.
- He's also a thoughtful friend. He buys the book for "Patsy." Now if he could only find a greeting card store with a section for "Happy Belated Bastille Day." The illustrations in the book are done by Pierre Bonnard, a French artist who liked to paint domestic scenes of women going about their daily lives.
- In fact, O'Hara knew a lot about art because he worked at the Museum of Modern Art, which happens to own several paintings by Bonnard. The plot thickens!
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan's new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don't, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness
- Our speaker is really starting to drag his feet here at the bookstore; he mentions all the books he was planning to buy, but didn't.
- He first rejects a book by the Greek writer Hesiod, whose principle works are The Works and Days, Theogony, and The Shield of Herakles. The Theogony, in case you're interested, is a mythical creation story that features a scene in which the Greek god of time, Kronos, cuts off his father's testicles and throws them into the ocean. Sorry to gross you out.
- And, yes, Richard Lattimore really was a translator of Hesiod.
- The speaker also considers the "new play" by the Irish playwright Brendan Behan, and two plays by the French playwright Jean Genet, Le Balcon (The Balcony) and Les Nègres (The Blacks).
- Our speaker eventually decides to buy the Verlaine. He says that it was such a tough decision – such a "quandary" – that he almost put himself to sleep.
- The takeaway message is that our speaker follows that art scene in America and Europe very closely, not just literature, but painting and theater as well. He has a particular fondness for French literature. You'll have to trust us on this one: for a guy living in the 1950s, our speaker is unbearably hip.
- Also, he seems to have liberal political views, or else he probably wouldn't be interested in difficult works about race relations like Genet's Les Nègres. Billie Holiday, we hasten to mention, was an African-American vocalist in the pre-dawn of the Civil Rights Movement.