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The jazz singer Billie Holiday died of liver disease in a New York hospital early in the day on July 17, 1959. The early editions newspapers carried the news and printed picture. Holiday, nicknamed "Lady Day," was the singer of such hits as "Strange Fruit." She is one of the most important figures in the history of jazz music. Her life, however, held many hardships. She was involved in abusive relationships and grappled with a serious drug problem. Even as she lay dying in the hospital, she was arrested for drug possession.
On July 17, Frank O'Hara was walking around New York, running some errands, when he happened to see a newspaper with Holiday's face on it, from which he learned of her death. A huge admirer of jazz and of Holiday in particular, O'Hara had been to several of her performances. He once saw her perform in an old movie theater – an unusual venue made necessary by the fact that Holiday had been arrested for possession of heroin and was not allowed to enter a normal club. The last time he had seen her was at a New York club called "The Five Spot," backed by the piano player Mal Waldron (source). You might compare the reaction of serious jazz fans to her death to the reaction of serious grunge fans to the death of Kurt Cobain. It was a huge blow.
Hearing of her death, O'Hara quickly wrote up the poem "The Day Lady Died" – on his lunch-break (source). Yes, you read that right. This classic American poem was probably written in one shot, in less than an hour. Actually, the conditions under which the poem was written are pretty much par for the course for O'Hara. He had one of the most unique styles in contemporary poetry. He wrote piles and piles of poetry, and many of them remain unpublished. He wasn't one of those tortured geniuses who sat for hours laboring over a line. He wrote in a very fast, breathless, rambling style, incorporating bits of tabloid news and snatches of telephone conversations. He never intended many of the things he wrote to be published. An extremely social guy, he preferred reading his poems to friends over drinks or dinner.
He worked at the front desk of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for much of his life, selling postcards and such, and he scribbled down many of his poems during lull periods in his job. This approach seems to resemble throwing spaghetti at a wall and hoping something sticks. Sometimes, as in this poem, the spaghetti did stick. The result is one of the most interesting, innovative, and accessible American poems of the second half of the 20th century.
Frank O'Hara was a major figure in the so-called New York School of poetry, along with fellow New Yorkers like John Ashbery. His two most famous collections are Meditations in an Emergency (1957), and Lunch Poems (1964), in which "The Day Lady Died" was published.
Have you ever been taken by surprise with the news that someone you care deeply about has died? Maybe you've been fortunate and haven't experienced this yet, but it happens to almost everyone eventually. That's the feeling that Frank O'Hara captures – oh, excuse us, hold on a minute, phone call. ("Yes? Uh-huh. What time? What's the address? 278 Oak Street. OK. Great. Bu-bye.")
Anyway, what we were saying? Yes, unexpected death. That's the experience O'Hara captures in "The Day Lady Died." Here's a normal guy, just walking around New York City, picking up some gifts for friends and peering into newsstands. He has a lot on his mind, and this death just imposes itself in the middle of everything. (Vibrate). One sec, let us just fire off this text message. (Lol, later.) Like, when you have a lot of stuff to do, you can't really process the news of someone's death. The world goes on, even if you feel like you're about to suffocate.
If you've ever thought that poetry is just too darned philosophical and nothing like real life, then you have to check out O'Hara's work. (Yes, I'll have the double Americano. Low-fat milk, please.) Without going into drama mode he conveys a deep, almost frantic sense of grief over Holiday's death in a way that pretty much anyone can identify with. And he never loses touch with the everyday world. Notice for example how he capitalizes the names of certain brands, so they seem to leap off the page like concrete things.
In the real world, insignificant things are constantly interrupting our best efforts to think. We're bombarded with advertisements and products. (Half price on toilet plungers!) O'Hara's hip, haphazard style is true to modern life. He didn't spend a lot of time reflecting on the meaning of life. In "Meditations in an Emergency" he wrote, "I can't even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there's a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life." In other words, this guy sounds awesome.
Many of his poems read like bullet-point lists of stuff he did during the day. They are frequently hilarious. When reading O'Hara's work, you can't help but ask: this is supposed to be poetry? Where are the flowers, the deep thoughts, the obscure literary references? Maybe "The Day Lady Died" will lead you to reconsider what poetry is. Or maybe...Oops! We're late for a meeting. We recommend you just read the poem. Talk later! Promise.
The poet reads from his work, including the poem "Having a Coke with You."
Recordings of O'Hara reading several works, including the hilarious poem that begins, "Lana Turner has collapsed!"
Frank O'Hara, Literary Heartthrob
Is he "leaning on the john door" in this photo?
The New York School
Frank O'Hara with members of the so-called "New York School" of poets. He's the one smoking, and "Patsy" from "The Day Lady Died" is on the left.
Selected Poems Cover
The cover of a collection of O'Hara's works, with a picture of the poet.
From Mad Men
The character Don Draper from the acclaimed television show reads O'Hara's mysterious poem, "Mayakovsky."
Frank O'Hara: Poet Among Painters
Marjorie Perloff is one of the most respected scholars of contemporary avant-garde poetry, and this study had a lot to do with securing O'Hara's reputation.
American Masters: Billie Holiday
A short biography of Holiday from the good people at PBS.
The guy has his own website. Audio, video, biography: it's all here.
Modern American Poetry
A biography and critical discussions of O'Hara's works.
O'Hara Book Review
A review of a recently published collection of O'Hara's selected poems.