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Critical Commentary on the poem: 'The Day Lady Died' (Frank O' Hara)

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09.10.2003 Critical Commentary 1: 'The Day Lady Died' (Frank O' Hara) Soumik Datta The opening line of The Day Lady Died bequeaths the reader with a time, a date and a location: 'It is 12:20 in New York a Friday' A context is provided. It is 'three days after Bastille day'. And a year is flagged: 'it is 1959'. A certain degree of care has been taken to mark these facts out with precision. Perhaps therefore it is only humorous that the actions governing these precisions deals with the wholly unexciting and deflated task involving the poet 'get[ting] a shoeshine'. And so begins a chain of mundane everyday activities performed by the journeying poet as the reader follows him under the midday sun of New York City. The poem traces the poet from a bank to a bookshop and Liquor stores to tobacconists. We follow him through public transport and 'muggy street[s]'. Ushered into fashioning an entire mental neighborhood the reader can hardly overlook the reflected image upon the page itself. Despite the casual free verse suited to the lunch poem genre that the poet employs, each stanza stands - a characteristic New York block. ...read more.


As a map of literary allusion, the poem is eclectic and heterodox: Brendan Behan and Jean Genet are given equal billing with Hesiod and Paul Verlaine. There is also the reference to the issue of New World Writing featuring the "voices of Ghana." But Africa, as the poet put it was "on its way," and surely there is a strong sense of negritude in "The Day Lady Died": it exists not only in the reference to the newly independent Ghana, which was celebrating its liberation from colonial status, but in the title of Genet's play (Les Negres), in the sad demise of Billie Holiday, possibly even in the skin color of the shoeshine man, though this is not specified. Perhaps the professed interest in "what the poets in Ghana are doing these days" is a prime example of O'Hara's "exoticism" of blacks. Perhaps exoticism is the point: Cigarettes from France and New Orleans, liqueur from Italy, poets and painters from all over-the names in "The Day Lady Died" represent a whole way of life that would have seemed exotically bohemian to the poet's first readers. ...read more.


But that is another way of saying that the poem opens out to include much more of the universe of 1959 than the quarantined space of New York used in this poem. The actual particulars by which the poem captures the vitality of life and simultaneously constantly calls attention to its own contingency hover on the brink of disconnection. The poet knows exactly that he will get off the train at 7:15 and go to dinner, but he doesn't know the people who will feed him. He goes to the bank where the barely familiar teller "Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)" disproves his expectations by not looking up his "balance for once in her life." He cannot decide what book to buy for Patsy and practically goes to sleep "with quandariness." This is a particularly odd detail: when one is in a quandary, one may well suffer from insomnia but hardly from sleepiness! A similar disconnection characterizes the network of proper names and place references in the poem. On the one hand, the poet's consciousness is drawn to the foreign or exotic: Ghana, the Golden Griffin, Verlaine, Bonnard, Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore, Brendan Behan, Le Balcon, Les N�gres, Genet, Strega, Gauloises, Picayunes. ...read more.

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