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The Day Lady Died

The Day Lady Died

Songs are an integral part of culture, and the singers that belt them out sometimes feel like family. A song's words, lyrics, intonation, and emotion transcend the song and have an emotional impact on the audience. Some singers, because of their impact on culture or a political movement, leave a lasting impression on fans. When grunge singer Kurt Cobain died, a slew of fans mourned alongside his bandmates, wife, and family. For Frank O'Hara (1926- 1966), famous jazz singer Billie Holiday left an indelible impression. He saw her perform, and although the day he recounts in the poem "The Day Lady Died" (1964) seems uneventful, the realization of her death steals his breath away. Has a singer, artist, or other public figure had such a powerful impact on your life or ideas that you felt a loss when they die?

The Day Lady Died at a Glance

Poem"The Day Lady Died"
AuthorFrank O'Hara
Publication Date1964 in Lunch Poems
StructureNo rhyme scheme or repeating structure
Literary devicesEnjambment, allusion, imagery
ToneCasual, disconnected, and indifferent
ThemeBillie Holiday's work and music influenced Frank O'Hara, and her death affected him.
MeaningThe poem honors the life and mourns the death of jazz singer Billie Holiday.

The Day Lady Died Full Poem

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me
I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness
and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it
and I am sweating a lot by now 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

Summary of The Day Lady Died

"The Day Lady Died" was written in 1964. It is an elegy, or a poem written in memory or in honor of someone. "The Day Lady Died" is about famous jazz singer Billie Holiday and the day O'Hara learns of her death. Frank O'Hara recounts the events of what at first seems like an unremarkable day—like any other. He lists a catalog of events that culminate until his reaction to learning of her death. Although not specifically stated, the reader is left to infer that O'Hara admired the singer, had seen her perform, and was significantly affected by her work and death.

The day lady died, Billie Holliday, StudySmarter

Billie Holiday was an influential jazz singer known for her deep soulful voice and hard life. Pixabay.

Born Eleanora Fagan, Billie Holiday was a famous jazz singer known for influential songs such as her cover of "Strange Fruit," which is a heart-wrenching and poetic account of the bodies of African-Americans hanging from trees after being lynched. Billie Holiday was nicknamed "Lady Day" by fellow musician Lester Young. Often known for wearing gardenias in her hair while performing, her stage presence was unforgettable, as was her method of focusing on the syllable by syllable pronunciation of song lyrics. The emphasis on syllable pronunciation elongated the words, made the lyrics linger, and resulted in a deeper emotional reaction from her audience.

Imagery in The Day Lady Died

From the onset of the poem, readers understand that New York City is the setting. The free-verse poem continues to list commonplace actions and places, such as getting a "shoeshine" (line 3) grabbing lunch, and running "to the bank" (line 11). Although there are multiple opportunities to include visual and auditory imagery in a bustling city setting, O'Hara excluded that information purposefully. "The Day Lady Died" has significantly few instances of visual imagery, but it uses two key detailed descriptions of tactile imagery to indicate a sense of physical discomfort through the description. Rather, readers are given small clues to indicate a strong physical discomfort by using words like "muggy" (line 7) and "I am sweating a lot by now" (line 26). These few details force the reader to harness what little connection they have to the speaker in order to understand the ambience. Taking those two central descriptive details that feature tactile imagery, the reader can then zero in on the heated atmosphere, and the reader feels a sense of claustrophobia along with the speaker.

A free-verse poem is when the lines in a poem do not follow a set rhyme, meter, or form. There may be instances of rhyme, but there are no recurring patterns.

The day lady died, New York City, StudySmarter

For O'Hara, the busy streets of New York City feel suffocating on this Friday in "The Day Lady Died", Pexels.

Analysis of The Day Lady Died

"The Day Lady Died" is an exceptionally unique poem that reads as though it is a journal entry. Listing his actions during lunch for the day, O'Hara creates tension in the poem. He uses enjambment to propel the narrative forward and compel the reader to jump from one line to the next. Lines 6-7 forces the reader to jump quickly from one stanza to the other without pause as the speaker states, "I don't know the people who will feed me" before he abandons that thought and jumps to the next stanza to state "I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun." The abrupt transition, and lack of any punctuation throughout the entire poem, shows a preoccupied mind. It also shows a lack of direction. While punctuation within writing shows pauses, stops, and shows emotions, the lack of punctuation leaves the reader at a loss for how to absorb the information. This missing direction mirrors the loss O'Hara experiences as he copes with the news of Billie Holiday's death.

Enjambment is the continuation of a thought or sentence from one line of verse to the next without the use of punctuation.

Another notable writing strategy employed by O'Hara in this poem is the use of capital letters and italics. By selecting to use all capital letters to identify place and publications such as "PARK LANE" (line 20) and "NEW YORK POST," (line 25), O'Hara emphasizes these elements within the poem to communicate their importance in his life, as a writer, and within the narrative of the poem. Including italics on line 17 for noting a play provides an element of editorial flair within the poem and positions the reader as a consumer of a news story. The unique use of capitalization and italics readies the audience for the information regarding Billie Holiday, a consideration that was not afforded to Frank O'Hara when he learned of her death.

The day lady died, flowers, StudySmarter

Billie Holiday often wore gardenias in her hair while performing on stage. Pexels.

When the speaker learns of Billie Holiday's death, he states he sees "a NEW YORK POST with her face on it." Never saying the singer's name directly, O'Hara uses allusion to express his sense of loss. By merely alluding to Billie Holiday throughout the poem and in the title, O'Hara expresses his struggle in accepting her death. He can't even say her name, for the utterance of it would force him to accept the immense loss. Perhaps to find solace, he flashes back to a memory of experiencing one of her performances live. Immediately his mind returns him to the "john door in the 5 SPOT" (line 27), a nightclub she would sing at.

Focusing on place again by using all capital letters for the venue of her performance, O'Hara underscores the importance of the person only to reveal the true damage her loss has created in his life. The concluding statement within the poem, "and everyone and I stopped breathing" is ironic. Billie Holiday is the one that has ceased to live, but it is the speaker who has stopped breathing. Her voice was breathtaking. To live without it, for O'Hara, feels like a loss of life and literally takes his breath away.

Allusion is a brief and usually indirect reference to a well-known person, place, or event.

Because of her battles with substance abuse, Billie Holiday was often banned from a lot of traditional performance venues. The Five Spot was a location that accepted her, along with other fellow musicians.

The day lady died, Billie Holliday Piano, StudySmarter

Frank O'Hara remembers hearing Billie Holiday sing alongside a pianist, and this memory gives him solace. Pixabay.

Mal Waldron (1925-2002) was an American jazz pianist, composer, and arranger. He played with musical talents such as Charles Mingus and John Coltrane. For the last years of her life, he was the regular accompanist for the deep voice of Billie Holiday.

Tone in The Day Lady Died

The tone in "The Day Lady Died" is extremely reserved and disconnected. This matter-of-fact tone is forced and serves to highlight the speaker's focus on controlling his emotional reaction to Billie Holiday's death. The disconnected attitude highlights the shock and immense loss Frank O'Hara seems to feel. In refusing to include much imagery, save for the sensations that indicate extreme physical discomfort, O'Hara shares with the reader his feeling of numbness to the news. Focusing on the minute details of the day, and using words like "just" (line 21) and "casually," (line 24) O'Hara ironically places value on the commonplace events but diminishes his suffering until the very end of the poem when he poignantly states, "I stopped breathing" (line 29). This refusal to acknowledge his feelings of sadness communicates a sort of emotional paralysis. When people receive information that is hard to digest, the initial reaction is often one of disbelief and a need to disconnect, which is a coping mechanism. The tone of indifference throughout most of the poem shows O'Hara's struggle with coming to terms with Billie Holiday's death.

By the 1960s, Frank O'Hara had made a name for himself as an important and influential post-war American poet. Unfortunately, he died at 40 years old after being hit by a car while he was on vacation.

Themes in The Day Lady Died

There are two central themes in "The Day Lady Died".

Impersonal vs. personal

Frank O'Hara uses the details of the city to begin his exploration of the impersonal vs. the personal self. We see the speaker's voyage throughout the day through his eyes. The narrative begins "in New York a Friday" (line 1) with the expansive setting of the city. The bustling atmosphere surrounds the speaker as he gets a "shoeshine" (line 3) in preparation for his evening dinner plans. The city then encloses upon the speaker and reader as the setting becomes more compact, taking us into "the bank" (line 11) on a menial errand. Strikingly, the bank teller, a seeming unimportant figure in the narrative of the poem is named. This marks movement toward the more personal self within the poem.

As the speaker's lunch break progresses, the setting becomes more and more enclosed, as he becomes more and more enthralled with his own thoughts. Finally, completely sealed off from the world, and armed with the news of Holiday's death after seeing "a NEW YORK POST with her face on it" (line 25), O'Hara finds himself completely within his own thoughts in an enclosed setting: a restroom stall. In this enclosure, he is finally able to release an emotional response as his breath is seized from within his chest. Moving from the vast setting of one of the most populated cities in the United States to a tiny private bathroom stall, readers see the literal portrayal of the figurative movement from the impersonal and public to the personal and private.

Death and the continuation of life

Billie Holiday, or Lady Day, left an unforgettable impression on Frank O'Hara and her fans. Her music and unique vocal intonations created a sound that was intimate, emotional, and near impossible to replicate. Billie Holiday was a unique talent who influenced an entire genre of music with her style. The influence she had on the music community and the culture is still felt today.

The message of "The Day Lady Died" reveres Billie Holiday so well that it isn't even necessary to mention her name in order to feel the impact of her loss and honor her contributions to music. Even after death, her music lives on. The speaker expresses the continual strength of her music as he can hear that "she whispered a song along the keyboard" (line 28). The message of her life echoes in his ears, and his memory of her is forever imprinted within the words of the poem. Lady may have died, but she will forever be remembered, her song will continue to grace the ears of future audiences, and her soulful voice will continue to give life to the ideas she expressed within her lyrics.

The Day Lady Died - Key Takeaways

  • "The Day Lady Died," written by Frank O'Hara, was published in 1964.
  • The poem is an elegy, which intends to honor the dead and commemorate their life work.
  • Jazz singer Billie Holiday was also known as Lady Day, receiving the nickname from fellow musician Lester Young.
  • The meaning of the poem highlights the influence Billie Holiday had on O'Hara and expresses a loss so profound that the mention of her name is unnecessary.
  • Frank O'Hara uses allusion, tactile imagery, enjambment, and a purposeful exclusion of end punctuation to express his feelings of loss and sadness over Holiday's death.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Day Lady Died

"The Day Lady Died"  is an account of Frank O'Hara's experience on the day he found out Billie Holiday died. 

The 5 Spot is the jazz club O'Hara visits after finding out Billie Holiday died. 

The message of the poem "The Day Lady Died"  is honoring the life and mourning the death of Billie Holiday. 

"The Day Lady Died" is an elegy.

"The Day Lady Died" was based on the events of Friday, July 17, 1959. It was published in 1964.

Final The Day Lady Died Quiz


Who wrote "The Day Lady Died"?

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Frank O'Hara wrote  "The Day Lady Died."

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What type of poem is  "The Day Lady Died"?

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The poem is an elegy.

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When was  "The Day Lady Died" published? 

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 "The Day Lady Died" was published in 1964.

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The title of the poem,  "The Day Lady Died," is an example of which figure of speech? 

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 "The Day Lady Died" is an example of allusion. 

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What is an elegy? 

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An elegy is a poem to remember and honor someone who has died. 

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The use of enjambment in the poem  "The Day Lady Died" is intended to 

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propel the narrative forward. 

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The long list of errands the speaker does in the poem creates a sense of 

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tension in the poem. 

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What type of imagery is used in  "The Day Lady Died"?

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Tactile imagery is used in the poem  "The Day Lady Died."

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What is The Five Spot in the poem  "The Day Lady Died"?

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The Five Spot is a jazz club O'Hara saw Billie Holiday perform at. 

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What day did Billie Holiday die? 

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She died on Friday, July 17, 1959.

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