Frank O’Hara liked to drop names in his poems — those of his fellow poets, his artist friends, his favorite composers, as well as personalities from popular culture etc. Some poems are veritable naming-fests (“A Party Full of Friends” for example, or “Memorial Day 1950”). “The Day Lady Died” is one of those poems full of names — we get all the names except that of the person the poem is for and about: Lady Day, aka Billie Holiday. In fact, after the title she doesn’t even appear again until the last line of the penultimate stanza, where he purchases “a NEW YORK POST with her face on it.”
In all, she appears only three times here: in the title, and as “she” in two lines at the end of the poem. Still, the poem is all hers, and the omission of her name, in the face of all the other names mentioned, makes it even more personal and intimate, the way the speaker’s experience of her concert “in the 5 SPOT” was, where it was so crowded he was leaning against the door of the men’s room.
The poem spends a lot of time narrating mundane details rather than, as poetry with a capital “P” might have been expected to do, pondering the metaphysics of death. David Lehman (in The Last Avant-Garde) writes that O’Hara “would carelessly shelve his poems with his towels or give away the only copy of a work written that day” (180). Like John Ashbery and the other New York School poets, O’Hara doesn’t write poetry with the capital “P.” He, in particular, writes his poems during lunch breaks at the museum (he worked as a curator, which put him in touch with many contemporary artists), composes from newspaper headlines and newscast snippets.
“Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!)” is such a headline poem. Like in “The Day Lady Died,” Turner only appears three times, although each time by her full name, and while she is addressed in the last line (“oh Lana Turner we love you get up”), the other two mentions are identical to each other and in the form of a “read all about it” headline.
It is only the final line of the poem that gives us a clear sentiment to work with, although the speaker’s description of himself acting “perfectly disgraceful[ly]” at parties foreshadows a type of sympathy. The final line, “oh Lana Turner we love you get up” — complete with its lack of punctuation — comes across as the strange, yet somehow genuine sympathy a public audience might offer a star, someone they have never met and don’t actually know, but feel like they do.
Frank O’Hara’s Selected Poems also contains “Poem (to James Schuyler)” which begins “There I could never be a boy, / though I rode like a god when the horse reared.” The whole poem is quite different in tone from what I’d read of O’Hara so far, and to me it echoed, strongly, Dylan Thomas’ “Fern Hill” with its dream-like flow and imagery. The language, here, is more traditionally poetic, if I can describe it like that. It really stood out to me with its many adjectives and, well, Dylan Thomas-like melodies: “there I fell, clumsy and sick and good, / though I bloomed on the back of a frightened black mare” sounds, to me, much like Thomas. “I knew her but I could not be a boy, / for in the billowing air I was fleet and green / riding blackly through the ethereal night / towards men’s words which I gracefully understood,” and the sentences are long and longer, — I do not compare poems to “Fern Hill” lightly, because it may just be my favorite poem in existence, but I cannot help myself, this really echoes it.
Another piece that caught my attention (more than the rest, that is!) was “Try! Try!” — a brief play, dedicated to actress Anne Meacham, about the woman Violet who, while her husband Jack is deployed, has taken a live-in lover, John. As the play begins, Jack is about to return home, and Violet and John are talking about what this will mean for their relationship. Well, in a way John is trying to talk about it, but Violet, much in O’Haran fashion, answers him with distractions and digressions. When John mentions his original plans of settling down with her and starting “a pet shop, a little world of our own full of fondling and loyalty and all the tiny things we’ve missed,” she launches into a non-sequitur about polo, followed by a pop-quiz: “Polo is a very interesting sport, second only to duck fighting in polls of national taste. What kind of lipstick did I have on?” In terms of how plays work, this play is doing all the things plays should not do: its characters blatantly state what should be acted out (“I’d like to think about that remark but inattention has become such a habit –“) and their speech simply doesn’t ring true. I believe this is all intentional. There are moments of silliness, like when Violet wishes for a boat to appear in the middle of the city to deliver Jack to her apartment (where she is about to sleep with her live-in lover again).
When Jack finally appears, he speaks like a poem: “I’ve come a long way for your sake, my back all decorated like this and my feet covered with mold. Do you know why they had to put fire under my lids?” It quickly becomes clear that Jack set off into war rather naively, more a boy than a man: “When we first went riding, how like dashing Cossacks! It was easy then to dress in scarlet. I sat my mount prettily and hacked babies and old women with a song on my breast — I even let my eyebrows grow! and with the gold braid and all I frightened myself.” The time in battle has disillusioned Jack: “One minute I was lord of all I surveyed, and the next I knew that I’d be beaten — that I’d better go back to my easy throne, and leave this virgin land I’d first laid heavy hands upon.”
Jack’s speech is much more coherent than that of Violet and John. John especially can hardly resist ridiculing Jack for his language (at one point, Violet covers his mouth with her hand!), and when he realizes Violet is being drawn in by John, he announces, “Pardon me, I’ve got to take a terrific shit.” This is when we realize that the entire time, Violet and John have been in the nude, while Jack is likely still in uniform, or at least fully dressed in civilian clothing. Jack finally notices, too, and confronts Violet: “Who is that anyway?” When she answers with another (albeit beautiful) non-sequitur, Jack (unlike John) knows how to read her: “I know all about the attractive distances and the distraction that’s more elegant than a knife.” To him, her response is clear. When John returns from his trip to the bathroom, Violet tells him off, but then falls crying into his arms. Jack, realizing he has lost her, retreats.
And finally, what’s with the oranges in the title? Ah yes. In “The ‘Unfinished,'” a page and a half into the poem, the speaker is joined by his pal John Ashbery and goes off on a tangent which includes this bit: “picture / a person who one day in a fit of idleness decides to make / a pomander like the one that granny used to have around the / house in New England and so he takes an orange and sticks / a lot of cloves in it and then he looks at it and realizes / that he’s killed the orange, his favorite which came from / the Malay Archipelago and was even loved in Ancient China, / and he quickly pulls out all the cloves, but it’s too / late! Orange is lying bleeding in my hand!”
Did you notice the sudden (re)appearance of the personal pronoun, “in my hand”? Or how the orange turns into Orange, like a person named Orange? Well, one page later, just before the poem goes off on its second and final tangent, Orange becomes a catalyst to love: “I’m not depressed any more, because Gregory has had the same / experience with oranges, and is alive.”
Further Reading about O’Hara and the New York School in general: An excellent blog right here, and, again, David Lehman’s Last Avant-Garde.
…and some more Lady Day, just for the heck of it.