The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Day Lady Died” is written in free verse. It describes Frank O’Hara’s activities on the day he found out that Billie (Lady Day) Holiday had died. Although the poem appears to be a straightforward narrative, the title emphasizes the day itself rather than Holiday’s death or O’Hara’s activities, and thus it hints at something larger, something that perhaps combines both Holiday and O’Hara. It suggests that the poem should also be read as something other than the narrative it may first appear to be.

The poem is written in the first person. Poets often use the first person either to address a particular person or the world, while the reader is a witness rather than the addressee. O’Hara, however, uses the first person differently. One of the striking features of this poem is its conversational tone; combined with the first-person point of view, it creates the impression that the poet is talking directly to his readers, including them in the seemingly innocuous moments of his life.

This effect brings an intimacy to the poem. O’Hara furthers this intimacy by including the names of friends and places that are meaningless to almost anyone who does not know him or his social circle without ever explaining who or what they are or what their significance is to him or his life. He appears to be telling readers about his life as though they already understand all the references; the poem becomes a conversation, O’Hara talking...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Though the poem’s narrative structure looks simple, O’Hara employs devices that ultimately break down ordinary concepts of time and perception. For many years he was an art critic, and many of his friends were abstract painters. One of the developing thrusts of visual art at that time was that the painting itself became a record of the process of painting; so, too, O’Hara makes the poem a record of the process of the contents of the poem.

O’Hara accomplishes this through the impressionist quality of the writing, telling of events as he goes about his day. He does not link them together through metaphor, imagery, or any other standard poetic device, but merely sets them down as they occur. Yet this seemingly innocuous jotting down has a peculiar effect; the poem becomes not only a record of the day but also a mirror of the actual process of going through the day. Clearly, when people are standing in line at the bank, they are not linking that action, on some larger scale, to eating a hamburger in a restaurant half an hour earlier; neither does O’Hara. What he does instead is mimic real life. Readers see him as he goes around New York, and the poem becomes a record of that process rather than a poem of any one particular event.

This mirroring of the process of going through a day has a peculiar effect on time. The poem is written entirely in the present tense, and the sense of going through the day while reading heightens the present...

(The entire section is 523 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Altieri, Charles. “The Significance of Frank O’Hara.” Iowa Review 4 (Winter, 1973): 90-104.

Breslin, James E. B. “Frank O’Hara.” In From Modern to Contemporary: American Poetry, 1945-1965. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Feldman, Alan. Frank O’Hara. Boston: Twayne, 1979.

Gooch, Brad. City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994.

LeSueur, Joe. Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.

Perloff, Marjorie. Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters. New York: George Braziller, 1977.

Smith, Hazel. Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara: Difference, Homosexuality, Topography. Liverpool, England: Liverpool University Press, 2000.

Vendler, Helen. “The Virtues of the Alterable.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 1 (Fall/Winter, 1972): 5-20.

Ward, Geoff. Statutes of Liberty: The New York School of Poets. New York: Palgrave, 2001.