Poetry and Jazz with Frank O’Hara and Billie Holiday

It’s not hard to understand why American poets might love jazz. The quintessential American music is the perfect companion language to American poetry.There are many fine collections of poetry about jazz, and these are just a couple I know of.

The Academy of American Poets offers a brief guide to Jazz Poetry, which it defines as “poetry necessarily informed by jazz music–that is, poetry in which the poet responds to a writes about jazz.” One of the poems cited is “The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes, which includes sounds and rhythms just begging to be sung and danced. There are also links there to other jazz poetry anthologies.

One of the characteristics of jazz poetry that makes it hard for me to reproduce it on my blog is the irregular line breaks and shaped stanzas that ensure the poem is read in with the syncopated swing of the music is inspires. One poem I’m going to risk it all for is another poem about Billie Holiday, this one called “The Day Lady Died” by Frank O’Hara. I remember first reading this poem as a young oncology nurse working in San Francisco, something about the urban hustle and detail, the frenetic pacing of the language, which stops dead in its tracks on the news of Holiday’s death without even so much as a concluding period — something about this poem spoke to everything I was feeling.

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


In related news, the Smithsonian launched Jazz Appreciation Month in April of 2002, which only seems right — poetry and jazz can share the month and each delight the other. The poster for this years JAM is shown at the top of this post.

Sing and dance and read some poetry, peeps!

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