The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “parataxis” as “the placing of clauses or phrases one after another without coordinating or subordinating connectives.” Perhaps the most famous example of parataxis is the brief phrase by Julius Caesar usually translated as “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Many treatments of parataxis allow the use of coordinating conjunctions, such as “and.” Thus, Caesar’s line could be rewritten as “I came and I saw and I conquered” and still meet many definitions of parataxis. The crucial thing is to avoid subordination, which makes one statment more important than the others. Thus the following phrase would not be parataxis: “Because I came, I saw and conquered.” The Greek word “parataxis” implies placing things side-by-side, not giving more importance to one thing over another.
Where does parataxis appear in Frank O’Hara’s poem “The Day Lady Died”? More significantly, how does it function there? Consider the following examples.
- Line one reads “It is 12:20 in New York a Friday”. This is almost a text-book example of parataxis and is made even more so by O’Hara’s decision to use no commas. By running these statements together as he does, he creates a blur of time and also implies that neat, orderly, conventional punctuation is not especially important to him or to his work.
- The next two lines might also be seen as examples of parataxis, especially in combination with the first line:
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
The first three lines present six different facts, and not one of them seems particularly more important than the others. This effect is relevant to the conclusion of the poem, which will focus on one fact (the death of Billie Holliday) that will seem enormously important to the speaker.
- Lines 4-6 can also be read as examples of parataxis, but this time there is a slightly different emphasis. The first three lines had dealt with the present; lines 4-6 deal with the future – a future that seems utterly predictable, routine, and foreseen. Of course, the irony is that the future, by the end of this poem, will not have been routine or predictable. In the first six lines of the poem, then, O’Hara uses parataxis in ways that contribute quite valuably to the meaning and impact of the poem.
- Line 8 would meet the standards necessary for parataxis established by grammarians who allow coordinating conjunctions: “and have a hamburger and a malted and buy.” Again, parataxis seems used here in order to indicate that none of these activities is special or out of the ordinary – a fact that will, again, contrast with the activity described at the very end of the poem.
- The poem’s final lines (28-29), describing the speaker’s experience of hearing Billie Holiday sing, are presented, paradoxically, as a calm rush of excitement, a “you-are-there” stream of consciousness:
. . . she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing
One might argue that the two “and’s” in the last line make it an example of parataxis, but the sheer difference in the lengths of the three statements gives them a far different kind of impact that the earlier, clearer examples of parataxis. It is Holliday’s singing that receives strong emphasis here: it is as if, by breathing out her song, she stops the breath of her listeners.