Originally read: July 17, 2013
More information about the Poet: Frank O'Hara
I didn't know this poem has many analyses about it. I think the common thread among the analyses are the poem's references. Yes, the lady in this poem represents "Billie Holiday." And yes, there's numerous mentions of pop-culture, place, and time. I think the references have been covered over by Shmoop and Modern American Poets websites.
So what can I bring to the table? I'll go stanza by stanza.
In the first stanza the speaker knows specifically the time, date, and place, "It is 12:20 in New York a Friday / three days after Bastille day, yes / it is 1959" Why so specific? It's funny the construction is specific as though the speaker wants to remember history, but also note that the poem is written in present tense. The present tense serves a sense of immediacy. The speaker is here, right here, and the reader is along for wherever he is going. This brings a sense of closeness.
Also these line's in the first stanza, [...] I will get off the 4:19 the Easthampton / at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner / and I don't know the people who will feed me." The impromptu. Also note the speaker note caring about being an imposition, rather, the speaker "knows" that he'll meet up with people and he'll probably be fed. It's as though he knows his routine down to the minute.
I consider the second stanza to be up to up to the alignment shift. So with the second stanza it's a lot more vague on the speaker's movements. He doesn't name a place where he ate, but he does specify what he ate, and more importantly what he busy, the newest issues of "New World Writing." Note that the speaker buys a copy but the qualifier of ugly is more ambiguous. Maybe the look of the magazine. Maybe the entire thought of poets in Ghana. The word "ugly" tells more than the buying in that sense -- a glance judgement.
The shifted aligned line of "I go on to the bank" shifts the action of the poem to a forward momentum. Furthermore, the shift is to a specific person, "Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)" Past me wrote, "reinforcing unknown friends." And I could see why past me wrote that -- all the mentions of people are cursory in this poem without any emotional tie. The focus is the movement of the speaker.
Even still the speaker is considerate, "I get a little Verlaine for Patsy" but the mind continuously shifts, "I do think of Hesoid, trans. Richmond Lattimore." However, the thoughts don't go further than just dropping names. These thoughts are purely stream of consciousness just like the speaker's movements.
The speaker keeps on moving though, and at this point there hasn't been this moment until this stanza. The speaker is alone. The speaker is alone with his thoughts and his journey. This is the reason why he could move so freely in place and thought. At the Park Lane liquor star (once again specific) he sees "New York Post with her face on it" Past me pointed out this is the first mention of the "her" in the poem. Also note how ambiguous the description is. "Her".
Yet, this unspecific pronoun triggers a specific memory:
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.
The beginning of this stanza is in the present but the first line confirms that the speaker is "thinking" that the following scene is in the mind. The actions that happen after the first line are past -- and this is the momentum stops, and the memory plays. "She whispered a song along the keyboard" Note, no song, no tempo of voice, just a statement. And then the final line going back to the speaker "I stopped breathing."
Now why? Why be so generic about a memory, but specific on the present? There's the idea of focus and that the speaker is specific in motion, but unspecific in memory. I see it this way. In being unspecifc, the speaker doesn't come off sentimental. That the speaker returns power to the "her". It's 50/50 instead of how the speaker intrudes into a situation. Now with the lack of sentimentality, the impact is there. The speaker doesn't lament, rather expresses action "I stopped breathing" where the reader has to infer what that means, but understands how devastating the action is.