Frank O’Hara’s poem “The Day Lady Died” is one of his most often-discussed works. The title of the poem immediately sets a serious tone: any death will strike most people as important, but a death important enough to be mentioned in the title of a poem must be (one assumes) particularly significant to the poet. Yet O’Hara doesn’t make immediately clear who “Lady” is. Is this noun the nickname of a beloved friend? Is it the name of a cherished pet? The speaker doesn’t explicitly say, but he is careful in the opening lines to specify a year (1959), and readers familiar with jazz or with popular culture may realize by this point that he is alluding to the death of Billie “Lady Day” Holliday, the famous African-American jazz singer and composer whose nickname was often abbreviated to “Lady” (as in her celebrated song and 1956 autobiography, both titled Lady Sings the Blues).
O’Hara’s poem almost immediately undermines our expectations. The title leads us to expect an elegy – a poem extolling at length the accomplishments of the deceased and lamenting her passing. Instead, the poem for the most part reports apparently mundane activities that took place on a single afternoon in New York City. After a while, as one everyday detail is piled atop another, we begin to forget the ostensible subject of the poem. We begin to wonder if the purpose of the text is not simply to recount a normal day in the life of the speaker. At the very end of the poem, however, O’Hara suddenly returns us to its beginning and especially to its title. At the very end of the work the speaker suddenly sees “a NEW YORK POST with her face on it” and then is just as suddenly transported, in his memory, from present to past, from afternoon to evening, from outside to inside, from an ordinary day in the city to an extraordinary nighttime performance by Billie Holiday. He suddenly finds himself sweating
. . . and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing
O’Hara’s poem thus undermines our expectations not just once but twice: first when he seems to promise an elegy but apparently fails, for many lines, to deliver one, and second when he abruptly sweeps us away from an ordinary New York afternoon and drops us, along with the stunned speaker, down into the midst of an exceptionally memorable performance by Billie Holiday. By catching us by surprise at the very end of the poem, O’Hara allows us to share the surprise and shock the speaker felt when he saw Holliday’s photograph on the cover the local newspaper. Seeing that picture was probably his first indication that she had died. After all, if he had known of her death before he went out for his stroll, the speaker would probably have been thinking about her all along. It is the abrupt vision of the newspaper headline and picture that jerks him – and us – back to that recollected performance.
Yet O’Hara has one more surprise in store for us: the poem’s final two words – “stopped breathing” – explicitly describe the impact Holiday’s performance had on those who heard it. Yet the words also, of course, allude obliquely to her death and to the cessation of the breathing that produced such powerful, haunting music. Once again our expectations have been caught off guard.