"Lady Day" (Billie Holiday) was a jazz singer, and jazz thrives on improvisation. Fittingly, the speaker of "The Day Lady Died" sounds like he's just making things up as he goes along. The entire poem is a factual narration of the speaker's afternoon, with very little in the way of figurative language or fancy descriptions. (The word "muggy" in line 6 is the only descriptive adjective in the poem). You might call the third stanza "The Golden Griffin Bookstore Blues."
From the perspective of sound, the goal of the poem is to leave the reader breathless by the time "everyone and I" stop breathing in the final line (line 29). For example, in the second line O'Hara could have easily put a period after "Bastille day" to give the reader a small pause; instead he adds the word "yes," forcing the reader to push on into line 3 without a pause.
In the third and fourth stanzas, he trips us up with a bunch of strange or foreign-sounding names," like "Stillwagon," "Bonnard," "Verlaine," "Strega," and "Ziegfeld." Thus, when he notes in the fifth stanza, "I'm sweating a lot by now," we're like, "We're right there with ya!" The last line includes the deliberately confusing reference to "Mal Waldron and everyone and I. .." O'Hara could have written, "Mal Waldron, everyone, and I," but he adds an unnecessary "and" to emphasize the rapid-fire nature of the speaker's thoughts. It's a sprint to the finish, and the speaker sounds like he's jumping from name to name like Spider-Man jumps from building to building. He doesn't decide where to go next until the very last possible moment.
Finally, how do the capitalized names affect the way you read the poem? We think they add an extra accent to those words, giving an effect similar to making "quotation marks" with one's fingers while speaking.
"The Day Lady Died" is a simple description of the poem, which gives a blow-by-blow account of the speaker's activities on the day Billie Holiday died. "Here's where he went. Here's what he did." But wait, there must be something more, right? The title contains Holiday's nickname – "Lady Day" – backwards. It's like a secret code. But the connection only works if the reader knows that Holiday's nickname was "Lady Day." Otherwise you wouldn't even know that the poem is about Holiday. You might think it was about Lady and the Tramp or something.
O'Hara liked to write poems he could read aloud to his friends, and he knew his friends were cool cats who knew and followed the jazz scene (source). We can imagine a modern reader getting a bit irritated at his assumption of such cultural knowledge, but that's just how O'Hara rolls. By reading the poem, you become a member of the club.
When you were a kid, did you ever watch one of those educational cartoons where words seem to be real, physical objects? We're thinking Sesame Street or Schoolhouse Rock here. You know, a character is walking down the street, and suddenly a word seems to fly out of the sky or appear in the middle of the street like a roadblock. Kind of like the trains in "Conjunction Junction."
The setting of "The Day Lady Died" looks like regular old Manhattan, but it's really an obstacle course with words and names popping up all over the place like some kind of literary Whack-A-Mole. The speaker is just trying to run his errands before he heads to East Hampton. First, though, he has to make it past the obstacles, some of which are capitalized; it's almost as if he has to physically climb over them. "NEW WORLD WRITING...Richard Lattimore...PARK LANE." All these brands and authors swarm around him like the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz. Taken together, they give a very concrete idea of the intellectual scene in the 1950s.
This scene is both exciting and overwhelming. By the middle of the poem, the various images have put the speaker in a state of "quandariness," or intense confusion (line 19). They crowd the poem and stick to our clothes like the "muggy" summer air (line 6).
However, when the speaker sees a copy of the New York Post with Billie Holiday's face on it, the setting suddenly shifts to a nightclub called the "5 SPOT." It's as if he has entered a literary teleport machine (also known as his memory). Like the street, the club is hot and muggy, but suddenly the crowded confusion seems pleasant. We're swaying back and forth to Holiday's mesmerizing voice. We've made it through the obstacle course, and this is our reward.
The speaker of "The Day Lady Died" is crazy-busy. As in, he barely has time to write this poem. He keeps making asides and getting off on tangents, like when he says that he doesn't know who is going to feed him. He's walking around New York City – perhaps on his lunch hour – and he's sweating bullets because it's so hot. He smokes and drinks frequently.
The speaker is one of those people about whom you can never tell if they're being sarcastic. Does he really want to know what the poets in Ghana are doing these days? Is he actually annoyed at Linda for looking up his balance so much? We're not sure. The only time he sounds completely earnest is at the end of the poem, when he remembers listening to Billie Holiday while leaning on the bathroom door.
We think the speaker is an exceptionally hip and social guy. His friends are willing to buy him dinner and put him up in their house in East Hampton simply because he tells great stories and might recite his latest poem.
Our speaker has his finger on the pulse of high culture and follows multiple art forms very closely. He's especially fond of contemporary French painting and writing, which were all the rage in the 1950s, when existentialism and absurdist theater were in their hey-day. If you needed a recommendation for a book that would show off your intelligence, he'd be the person to ask. He doesn't really tell us any of his deep feelings or emotions, but by the end of the poem, we feel like we've been looking through a small window into his daily life.
There are two minor hurdles for the reader of this poem to overcome. The first is the abundance of brands and cultural references from the 1950s. Google can probably help you with that one. Or you can just read our "Line-by-Line" summary. The second minor challenge is that "The Day Lady Died" doesn't really sound like poetry. This could throw you off your guard. But there's no hidden dimension here. It's just a guy talking about how he found out about the death of Billie Holiday. The poem is deliberately one-dimensional.
Many of Frank O'Hara's poems appear to be lists of stuff he's done, people he's talked to, things he has read. They are filled with information you might get out of his day planner, if he had one. "12:20 – eat lunch. 4:19 – get on train. 7:15 – arrive in East Hampton." O'Hara obviously feels it is important for a poet not to have his head in the clouds. He delivers the facts without getting too philosophical about why such-and-such has happened.
"The Day Lady Died" is an elegy to Billie Holiday. An elegy is a poem of mourning and lament for someone who has died. Some of the most famous elegies in the English language are Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" and Walt Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." O'Hara's elegy, though, departs radically from tradition, because the poem on the face of it doesn't seem to be about Holiday at all. It never mentions her by name, and she is described only briefly in the final lines.
The thing about writing a poem during your lunch hour is that you don't really have time to plan for some elaborate formal scheme. You write the words that come to you. That's what O'Hara has done here. Except for its division into twenty-nine lines and five stanzas, "The Day Lady Died" has none of the familiar markers to let us know we are reading poetry. No rhyme scheme or regular meter. There's an internal rhyme in line 3 between "1959" and "shoeshine," but it sounds unintentional. The poem has no punctuation and almost all of the lines are enjambed, meaning they are clauses that carry over to the next line.
You could think of the poem as consisting of three separate sentences with periods to divide them. The first stanza is a sentence, the second stanza is a sentence, and the last three stanzas form a long sentence. These are all run-on sentences that your English teacher would never let you get away with. They are cobbled together with the help of frequent uses of the word "and," making the speaker look busy, rushed, and possibly stressed-out. The most notable "literary" device is the capitalization of brand names. Check out "Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay" for more on that.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
Holiday was an African-American jazz singer, and one of the most acclaimed singers of the 20th century. Her nickname, "Lady Day," is meant to suggest that she is jazz royalty. "The Day Lady Died" elegizes Billie Holiday without ever mentioning her by name. We catch only small glimpses of her, and of the effect of her death on the speaker. Paradoxically, by hiding her death behind a blizzard of names and places, we notice the yawning gap in the poem created the absence of the figure mentioned in the title.
"The Day Lady Died" is remarkable for its lack of some kinds of figurative language normally found in poetry, particularly similes and metaphors. Instead, we get a lot of names and places, some of which are strangely capitalized. Whereas many elegies portray the person who has died as "timeless" or "eternal" in some way, O'Hara integrates Holiday into a very specific time, place, and cultural background. He shows how difficult it is to focus on someone's death amid the sound and fury of a modern big city.
Lacking similes and metaphors to chew on, we're left to focus on the few, small examples of poetic language in the poem. Hyperbole means "exaggeration," like when you talk about eating "tons" of food. It's very frequent in everyday conversation, and the speaker of this poem uses several examples of hyperbole as he rambles on about his day. It's ironic that "exaggeration" should be so common in this poem. The opposite of hyperbole is understatement, and "The Day Lady Died" is extremely understated when it comes to its actual subject, the death of Billie Holiday.
If this poem were actually about Billie Holiday's life, maybe we could amp this a bit. But it's not. It's about her death.