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The effectiveness of Frank O’Hara’s poem “The Day Lady Died” depends greatly on the effectiveness of individual lines, including the following:
Line 11 consists of a single, simple phrase: “I go to the bank.” This line takes on added significance, however, in light of the very end of the poem. Banks are associated with money and with mundane materialism; they are necessary but are not particularly inspiring. Later the speaker will be celebrating an entirely different kind of place associated with a much more spiritually and psychologically enriching experience.
Line 12 mentions the bank teller “Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard).” Her very name suggests someone who is formal and static. Later, the speaker will be celebrating Billie Holiday, who, despite her nickname “Lady,” was anything but formal or undynamic. The speaker’s reference to “Miss Stillwagon” is just one of the numerous ways in which this poem is much more subtly and cleverly designed than it might seem at first. The speaker’s relationship with Miss Stillwagon is formal and distant; his later relationship with Billie Holiday will seem far more intense and intimate, even though he probably has spent far actual more time in the presence of Miss Stillwagon.
Line 13 reports that Miss Stillwagon
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
This is a significant comment: the day now seems unusual, but it will seem far more unusual by the time the poem ends.
Line 14 reports the speaker’s visit to a bookshop and his purchase of a book of by the French symbolist poet Paul Verlaine. This purchase is itself symbolic: it suggests that the speaker is a cultivated person with “highbrow” tastes, even though later he will be stunned by the beauty of “popular” art. We are beginning to sense that he is a cultivated person with eclectic interests who loves beauty wherever and however he finds it.
Line 15 is significant because it implies the speaker’s sophisticated appreciation of the visual arts as well as of literature. Later, of course, we will get a strong sense of his appreciation of music. By the end of the poem he emerges as a person of very well-rounded artistic tastes.
Lines 16-18 continue to emphasize the importance of various kinds of art in the speaker’s life, just as they also imply again his cultivation (an important fact in view of his later love of jazz, a kind of music sometimes denigrated by persons whose tastes were supposedly more “highbrow”). All of these last several lines prepare us for the speaker’s ecstatic appreciation of beautiful music at the end of the poem, yet his words about music nevertheless seem surprising when they arrive. The different kinds of writing mentioned in lines 16-18 are wide-ranging, including both the traditional (such as Lattimore’s translation of Hesiod) and the avant-garde (such as Genet’s Les Nègres).
Line 19 refers to the possibility that the speaker might actually fall asleep because he cannot make up his mind. This possibility seems ironic, of course, in light of the intense alertness he later describes and relives. Note, too, that the word “quandariness” is O’Hara’s invention and is typical of his playfulness with language.
Line 20 is particularly significant because of its verb: “stroll.” This word implies leisurely, unexcited, and unexciting movement – movement far different from the kind emphasized at the end of the work.
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