What are some double-coded meanings in Frank O'Hara's poem "The Day Lady Died"?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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One might argue that some of the double-coded meanings in Frank O’Hara’s poem “The Day Lady Died” include the following:

Line 1: “Friday” refers to the end of the work week; this day will also mark the end of Billie Holliday’s life.

Line 2 mentions that Bastille day, associated with a momentous political revolution, is in the past; one might argue that Billie Holliday, associated with a momentous artistic revolution, is also now in the past.

Line 3 mentions the speaker getting a “shoeshine,” presumably to make himself look more presentable; by the end of the poem he will be much less concerned with such superficial appearances and attractiveness.

Line 4 refers to a specific time having to do with the stopping of a train; by the end of the poem time will seem to have stopped for the speaker in far larger ways.

Line 5 refers to keeping an appointment in the future; by the end of the poem the speaker will be fixated on a memorable moment from the past.

Line 6 (like line 8) refers to being fed physically; by the end of the poem the speaker will be concerned with a much deeper kind of sustenance.

Line 7 refers mostly to unknown black artists from Africa; the end of the poem will focus on a transcendently famous black artist from the United States.

Line 13 alludes to the speaker’s financial wealth; by the end of the poem he will be thinking of wealth in far higher, more significant terms.

Line 14 refers to a poet who transformed forever people’s conceptions of poetry; the end of the poem will focus on a singer who did the same for music.

Line 15 refers to Pierre Bonnard, another transformational artist (like Verlaine) and also another artist who resembles Billie Holliday in his willingness to experiment artistically and overthrow conventions.

Line 16 refers to Genet’s play Les Nègres, which is commonly seen as a play which mocks whites’ expectations of blacks. By the end of the poem, the speaker will have celebrated the real artistry of a real – and very talented – black person.

Line 18 refers to Genet, another transformational, revolutionary artist who was also important as one of the great gay writers of the twentieth century.  Billie Holiday was (and is) also held in high esteem by the gay community.

O’Hara’s poem is full of suggestive phrasing, despite its seemingly ordinary language. It is also carefully designed so that the first two thirds of the poem foreshadow the final third in ways that seem intriguing and often ironic only after the poem is read for a second time.

Something extra: O'Hara is often seen as a poet who was at odds with academic poets and academic criticism, but his poems (ironically) lend themselves splendidly to the kind of "formalist" close reading that was the reigning critical procedure at precisely the time when O'Hara was writing. On another note, clearly O'Hara aspired to be the kind of transformational artist he mentions and celebrates in this poem. He wants to celebrate Holliday in a poem that will be as memorable, in its own way, as her music. Yet he also wants his poetry to be as intimate, informal, subtle, and unpretentious as her singing.



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