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I used to hate Frank O’Hara. HATE him. I thought he was a terrible poet, reduced to using too many bits and pieces of his own life, insignificant details and specific allusions that only mattered to him and others in the know. He represented everything that was difficult and inaccessible about poetry to me. I was in college; I was stupid.

The personalness of O’Hara’s poems allows the reader to step outside of his or her own life for a moment and connect with another individual who maybe feels the same way about certain things. “The Day Lady Died,” probably O’Hara’s most famous poem, tells the story of what he was doing the day that Billie Holiday, someone whom he admired very much and was quite important to him, died. In the poem, readers are able to connect with their own experiences of loss—the random memories that inevitably surface, the seemingly insignificant details that stand out vividly afterwards—through O’Hara’s expressions of grief. The poem doesn’t seem to be particularly eulogical on the surface, but there is power in these memories, in the specific notes and chords of a day that has to be played through to its conclusion no matter how much it hurts.

Three years ago today I lost one of my best friends, and I’m sure I’ll never forget those same small details of the world that surrounded me when I found out.

No phones at the dinner table.

Who you talking to, Frank?

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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