National Poetry Month, day 8: A hat tip to Sheila O’Malley

Sheila O’Malley marks the occasion of Billie Holiday’s birth date with a poem by Frank O’Hara, “The Day Lady Died”. Like many of the people Sheila writes about, I know entirely too little about Mr. O’Hara, who was a prominent voice and presence in the New York literary and art worlds until his death at age 40, when he was hit by a jeep on a Long Island beach. I was just thumbing through my copy of The Music Lover’s Poetry Anthology, and there’s Mr. O’Hara, with a poem that would have been very useful a week ago, titled “Rachmaninoff’s Birthday”. Oh well, I’ll just use that one next year when I spend April 2023 honoring the composer’s 150th.

In the meantime, O’Hara wrote this poem on the occasion of Billie Holiday’s death, and what a vivid sense of time and place and mood O’Hara creates, a life bound by time and obligation and places to be and the time it takes to get there and the general discomfort with everything at all, a discomfort that fades–or is replaced–by something new, a remembrance of a single moment of song that he remembers, a moment that he had to squeeze himself into a gin joint to hear just a whisper.


“The Day Lady Died”, by Frank O’Hara

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


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One Response to National Poetry Month, day 8: A hat tip to Sheila O’Malley

  1. Roger says:

    Just listened to my two Billie albums this week…

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