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Kevin Stein: On "The Day Lady Died"

The tone at the opening of the poem is giddy and excited. After all, this is a somewhat glib speaker who is readying himself for dinner at the home of someone he doesn't know, who can smart-aleckly refer to the "poets / of Ghana," who is prone to "stroll" and "casually ask" for cigarettes, and who can "practically" go "to sleep with quandariness" over the simple decision of what book to buy a friend. This is not a speaker burdened with metaphysical deliberations about the meaning of life.

Even when he sees the "NEW YORK POST with her face on it," he refuses to break into discourse on the brevity of human life, "thinking," instead, in visual and sensory images. He recalls an instance when he heard Billie Holiday sing so sweetly that life itself seemed to halt in deathly pause while "everyone and I stopped breathing." Up to this point, he had offered the reader an ontological account of selfhood based largely on a narrative retelling of the way the individual fragments of his day melded into a mysteriously unified whole. But at this juncture, where anticipation and profound loss meet head on, the collision results in image, scene, a moment of experience which itself is of ultimate value. The present moment and the remembered one do not require metaphysical rumination in order to clarify them. That kind of deliberation has preceded the poem onto the page: the understanding that life is unpredictable and crass, capable of imparting immense pleasure and equally formidable pain. Although O'Hara may very well have agreed with the Heraclitean conception of a universe forever in the process of change, he would never use Heraclitus's fragments as poetic epigraphs (as Eliot did) or allow such thinking to impose an overtly philosophical structure on his work. O'Hara has already decided on these epistemological and ontological issues before the poem began. And more importantly, they were first of all personal values, which naturally (but secondarily) gave form to artistic values.

From "Everything the Opposite" in Frank O'Hara: To Be True to a City. Ed. Jim Elledge. University of Michigan Press, 1990.

Harry B. Shaw: On "Gay Chaps at the Bar"

It is ironic that here the Black man utters an expression of doubt in a poem entitled "[Love Note I:] Surely."  Although the multiplicity of possible referents in the poem lends itself to a display of artful ambiguity, the persona can be seen using the lover motif to suggest the relationship between Black people and their country.  The sestet of the sonnet helps to unravel some of the ambiguity of the octave.  Read negatively, in light of the sestet, "surely" becomes an expression of doubt rather than certainty. . . .  [T]he use of "surely" in this poem focuses the sarcasm on that about which the Black man would be most secure.  Surely the country and its democracy could not be thought of by the Black man as "mine"; surely to him country had not been "all honest, lofty as a cloud"; surely he would not be assured of the country's love; and surely the country's eyes were not "ungauzed."

. . . "Love Note II: Flags" continues the motif of the unrequited lover to convey the Black soldier's disillusionment over his country's failure to champion his cause in his war for dignity.  Democracy is alluded to here as a lady whose flag the Black fox-hole soldier carries.   Bitter about being whimsically jilted by the fair lady of democracy, the soldier makes a sarcastic proposition in the octave. . . .

"Dear defiance" suggests the indignation provoked whenever the flag and what it represents are invoked by Black people to champion their cause.   The soldier's disgust is shown by his dragging the flag into the foxhole with him and asking derisively, "Do you mind?"

Other poems about the Black man as soldier-patriot . . . reveal as much about the societal mentality against which Black people struggle as about Black people themselves.  The poems depicting the Black man attempting to be a patriot reveal the tension caused by the attraction and the danger of committing to the American dream.  Indeed the danger is sufficient to transform the Black citizen who would be a patriot into a victim of the larger society.  To be sure, each of the patriots discussed so far has been a victim of racism in the larger society.  The Negro hero, for example, was a victim of racism before as well as after his heroic moment.  Most often, however, Black people who are victims of the larger society are not soldiers or patriots but ordinary citizens of the ghetto.  They share, though, the same flirtation with the American dream as do the would-be patriots.  The notion of being able to obtain the good life--or some aspect of it--provides the lure which eventually traps Black people as victims of society.

Shaw, Harry B.  "Perceptions of Men in the Early Works of Gwendolyn Brooks."  Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940-1960.  Ed. R. Baxter Miller.  Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1986.  136-59.