Study Guide

The Day Lady Died Themes

  • Mortality

    "The Day Lady Died" has to be one of the most unusual elegies (a poem written mourning a deceased person) in modern poetry. The title couldn't be any clearer: this poem is about a person who has died. But in the poem itself – silence, at least until the end. What do going to the bank and buying books have to do with Billie Holiday or her death? O'Hara assumes that we already know who "Lady Day" is, that we love her music, and that we care about her death. From the reader's perspective, it's a bold move, but we think it works masterfully.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. If you were to put the speaker of the poem on trial, could you prove that he does or doesn't feel grief over Holiday's death?
    2. How does his reaction to her death compare to his reaction to other, more trivial events in the poem?
    3. Why isn't Billie Holiday ever referred to by name? What is the effect of this choice on O'Hara's part?
    4. Does the poem feel more or less authentic than other elegies you have read (if you've read any)?

    Chew on This

    The poem leaves open the possibility that the speaker just isn't that distressed by Holiday's death.

  • Memory and the Past

    "The Day Lady Died" is firmly rooted in the present moment, so much so that the O'Hara uses the present tense until the final stanza. But the past is lurking just behind the everyday activities and errands that concern the speaker for most of the poem. Like an underground reservoir that suddenly bubbles up, a glance at a newspaper is enough to send the speaker spinning back into the past, to remembering the night at the 5-Spot when he heard Billie Holiday sing.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. How much of the poem focuses on the past? Where do you see references to the past?
    2. What do you think the phrase "involuntary memory" means? Do you think the speaker's memory of the concert at the 5-Spot is an involuntary memory?
    3. How does the poem prepare for the last stanza? Is it unexpected?
    4. Does the speaker seem like a person who thinks a lot about the past?

    Chew on This

    The poem hints that the speaker knows about Billie Holiday's death even before seeing her picture in the New York Post.

  • Society and Class

    The speaker of "The Day Lady Died" is comes off as very "intellectual." He knows what to read, what plays to see, what music to listen to, and even what kinds of fancy foreign liquors to drink. Sophisticated people want to be around him, and he can show up in the Hamptons and know that his friends will take care of him. On the other hand, he might seem aloof or insincere, depending on your view of intellectuals.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. To what social class does the speaker belong? Does he seem wealthy, or does he just mooch off friends?
    2. Is "intellectual" a social class?
    3. Is the speaker aware of how hip he sounds?
    4. In what ways is the speaker just a regular Joe?

    Chew on This

    The speaker of the poem may sound hip to an intimidating degree, but at heart he's just an average American consumer.

  • Art and Culture

    The speaker is totally plugged into the New York City arts and cultural scene. He also follows the latest global trends, such as experimental French theater and the up-and-coming African literary movements. It's ironic that he would name all of these examples of "high culture" in a poem about a so-called "popular" art form – jazz. The poem seems to make the case that Holiday's work belongs right up there with the big players of world culture.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. Does the speaker agree that there is a distinction between high and low culture?
    2. How is jazz treated differently from other art forms in the poem? How are the speaker's reactions different?
    3. Would you trust the speaker to give you a good book recommendation? Why or why not?
    4. Do the artistic allusions in the poem actually mean anything, or are they just coincidental?

    Chew on This

    The speaker is a slave to the fads and trends of high culture.