April 14: Frank O'Hara's "The Day Lady Died"

Two years ago, when Mark Ford edited a new selection of Frank O’Hara’s poems, we celebrated during April by asking a number of Knopf poets to pick their favorite O’Hara poem and record it for us. O’Hara, the quintessential poet of the New York School, died in 1966, having produced a remarkably energetic and influential body of work by the age of forty. We here reproduce the poem that was picked by John Updike (click to listen again to the recording in his inimitable voice, much missed in our offices). The 1959 poem “The Day Lady Died” is such vintage O’Hara—such a perfect sample of his endlessly seductive walking-around-New York style of verse—that it almost constitutes a guilty pleasure.

The Day Lady Died

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


Listen to John Updike reading “The Day Lady Died”

Read more from Selected Poems by Frank O’Hara