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Frank O’Hara’s poem “The Day Lady Died” achieves various effects, including the following examples from its first ten lines:
- Line 1: The opening line is typical of the whole poem. Its tone is casual, its rhythms are deliberately prosaic, and – most important of all – it is highly specific in its references to time and place. It implies that the speaker of the poem is a no-nonsense sort of person, concerned mainly with facts. It is partly this implication (that he is a mundane person concerned with mundane things) that helps make his expression of powerful emotions at the end of the poem so startling.
- Line 2, with its reference to “Bastille day,” implies that the speaker is sophisticated enough to know European history. Thus, if line 1 makes him sound like a plain-spoken New Yorker, line 2adds a bit of polish to that persona.
- Line 3, by mentioning “1959,” suggests (as does the title) that the poem will deal with an event of some historical significance. If the focus were simply on the here-and-now, as the opening two lines had implied, there would be no need to mention the year. Notice that the speaker is writing in the “historical present” tense – the tense writers use when they want to make the past seem somehow present. This tense is also appropriate because it is as if the speaker is reliving, mentally, a crucial day in his life. This possibility helps explain why the poem is so painstaking in laying out factual details. The poem creates, for the reader, the effect of “you are there,” as if we are experiencing the day as the speaker does.
- Lines 4-6 are effective, especially when the poem is re-read, because the speaker seems very confident about what the rest of his day will bring. In fact, of course, the day will bring him wholly unexpected news that will stun him, and which, by stunning him, will leave us feeling a bit stunned as well.
- Line 6 is significant because he thinks he will be spending a relatively meaningless evening among strangers, when in fact by the end of the poem he will be remembering what he considers one of the most important evenings of his life.
- Line 7 indicates that the weather is humid:
I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun . . .
By the end of the poem, the speaker will be heavily sweating, not from humidity but from the shock of the news he will later discover.
- Line 7 indicates that the sun is beginning to illuminate the street; later, both speaker and reader will find themselves inside dark surroundings, struck by a wholly different and deeper kind of illumination. Light is emphasized in line 7; sound will be emphasized at the end of the poem. Note, incidentally, the wonderful way in which O’Hara transforms a noun into a verb when he says that the street is beginning “to sun.” This is just one small example of the ways O’Hara’s deliberately prosaic phrasing can sometimes catch us by surprise.
- Line 8 emphasizes the speaker’s concern with nourishment of the body; later the poem will emphasize nourishment of the spirit and soul.
- Line 9 notes that the cover of a magazine is “ugly” – ironic foreshadowing of the great beauty that will be stressed by the end of the work.
- Lines 9-10 imply that the speaker is looking for (but not finding) new and stimulating artistic experiences. The end of the poem will stress a highly stimulating artistic experience that seems new and stunning each time he remembers it.
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