In lines 20 - 29 of Frank O'Hara's poem "The Day Lady Died," what are some aspects of the lines' effects and efectiveness?
The final lines of Frank O’Hara’s poem “The Day Lady Died” are as full of interesting implications as the lines that precede them, and indeed one could argue that all the previous parts of the poem have been subtly and quietly building up to the surprising climax that the final lines deliver. An analysis of the final part of the poem might proceed as follows:
Line 20: The verb “stroll” suggests an easy, relaxed, unhurried pace that is not unlike the pace the poem itself has so far displayed. This pace will greatly differ from the pace of the poem’s conclusion, which will be far more intense. The reference to “PARK LANE” in this line reminds us once more that the poem is set in New York City, while the reference to “Mike” is yet another casual reference – casually phrased – to one of the speaker’s friends. (Imagine how different this one detail would sound if the formal name “Michael” had been used.) Throughout the first three quarters of the poem, the tone of the work is informal and relaxed, whereas the final lines will attempt to achieve a tone of sublime transcendence.
Line 21 refers to the purchase of an Italian after-dinner liqueur named “Strega” – a name, interestingly enough, that means “witch” and thus refers to a strong woman with supernatural powers. This fact may be a simple coincidence, or it may be another subtle foreshadowing of the end of the poem, which will deal with another such woman. Of course, the word “witch” usually has strongly negative connotations, but perhaps that is part of the point: the woman celebrated at the conclusion of this text will seem strong, powerful, but also (unlike a witch) magical in an entirely positive way. In any case, the purchase of an Italian liqueur suggests (like much else earlier in the poem) the speaker’s good taste. His tastes in art, books, and alcohol are all good and so (it may be implied) is his taste in music.
Lines 22-25 follow patterns already well established by this point. These lines emphasize unhurried movement, a casual pace, familiar surroundings, mundane activities, and good (or at least highbrow) taste (this time in cigarettes, since French “Gauloises” and New Orleans “Picayunes” are mentioned rather than a common American brand). One might argue that the last ten lines or so of the poem have dealt with a single activity: the speaker purchasing gifts for friends. One might also argue that the remaining lines of the poem will deal with a gift that the speaker himself recalls receiving unexpectedly – the gift of beautiful music, an undying gift provided by Billie Holiday.
Line 25 catches us by surprise even as it implies the surprise felt by the speaker. In this line the speaker unexpectedly catches a glimpse of
a NEW YORK POST with her face on it.
To whom does the word “her” refer? Presumably it refers to the “Lady” mentioned in the poem’s title – an unspecified woman who has been largely forgotten until now. The title had suggested that the poem would be about her, but, until line 25 she has never been mentioned. Now, however, she will become the central focus of the poem’s remarkable final lines.
[Analysis continued below.]
The word “whispered” is especially striking. It implies that music needn’t be loud and aggressive to have a powerful impact. The word “whispered” (a word which almost sounds like the action it describes) implies that the most powerful kind of art is often the most subtle and understated (like this poem, in fact). This word implies that Holliday by this point in her performance had the crowd’s complete, rapt attention. They were so totally focused on her, so completely silent in their focus on her, that she did not have to sing loudly in order to be captivating. A mere whisper was enough to seem stunningly memorable.
Notice how appropriately “musical” line 28 is. Not only does O’Hara use the kind of onomatopoeia already mentioned (in the word “whispered), but he also uses the alliteration of “while shewhispered.” In addition, he employs assonance in “she” and “keyboard.” Most strikingly, however, he includes an internal echo or rhyme in “song along.” Surely it is not a coincidence that one of the most obviously musical lines in this poem is the line that most obviously celebrates Holiday’s music.
Mal Waldron, mentioned in line 29, was a jazz pianist who accompanied Billie Holiday as she sang. (It reflects well on the thoughtfulness of the speaker of this poem that the poem includes an implied tribute to Holliday’s accompanist.) Line 29 is splendidly constructed. At first it seems that the line means that Holiday whispered her song especially to Waldron, in a way that was both sensuous and intimate, implying their close musical connection. But the line can also imply that Holliday whispered her song “to Mal Waldron and [to] everyone.” Thus, an experience that may at first have seemed intimate and personal, involving only Holliday and Waldron, can in this reading involve Holliday, Waldron, and everyone else present. Both readings “work” – just one more way in which this poem is far more complex and resonant than it might seem on first reading.
Yet the riches of line 29 are still not exhausted, because the word “everyone” can be read not only as just indicated, but also (and especially) as part of the phrase “everyone and I.” The speaker suggests that he and everyone else in the room literally had their breaths taken away by the beauty of Holliday’s singing. Yet line 29 is also powerfully, even painfully, ironic: the very last words of the poem are “stopped breathing.” Just as the speaker stops breathing (in his memory and also in the present, since the poem suddenly ends), so we are also suddenly reminded of the cessation of breath by Billie Holiday, whose death (and life) this poem commemorates.
Line 26 introduces a major transformation in the tone and phrasing of the poem. Earlier, the weather had seemed “muggy” (7) to the speaker; now he finds himself “sweating a lot.” He is sweating, however, not because of the weather but for several possible reasons: (1) He begins to realize and feel the death of a person who has meant, in some ways, far more to him even than his personal friends. (2) He begins to realize that he will never again have a chance to hear Billie Holiday perform in person. (3) He begins to recall, with excitement, an opportunity when he had had a chance to hear her sing in person. All these emotional reactions produce the physical response of perspiration. Suddenly the speaker’s experiences and feelings no longer seem predictable, mundane, or routine.
Lines 27-29 present the speaker’s recollection of a time when he found himself
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
These are the final lines of the poem. The reference to “leaning on the john door” (that is, on the door of the men’s toilet) reinforces the aspects of the poem that have seemed casual, informal, and unpretentious. It seems highly ironic, in a way, that one of the most memorable and transcendent artistic experiences of the speaker’s life occurred while he found himself in such a place and such a position. Perhaps the speaker is implying that memorable encounters with beauty can occur anytime, anywhere, often when we least expect them.
[Analysis continued below.]