A Visual Footnote to O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died”: New World Writing and The Poets of Ghana

Because his poems are so overstuffed with references to proper names, movies, books, small-scale historical events, and famous or not-so-famous friends, people who love and teach Frank O’Hara’s work often talk about how useful it would be to have an annotated version of his work, with explanations, images, and links to the myriad things, people, and places he mentions.

Alas, there is no “Annotated O’Hara” yet, but consider this a tiny gesture in that direction.  In his most famous poem, “The Day Lady Died,” O’Hara offers a diary-like account of an ordinary lunch hour — walking around midtown Manhattan, eating a burger, buying some magazines and books and cigarettes – a routine which is interrupted by the sudden news that Billie Holiday has died tragically young.

In the midst of the poem’s blizzard of proper names, O’Hara memorably mentions buying a very specific item – a copy of the literary journal New World Writing:

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

In case anyone has ever been curious about what that particular issue looked like or contained, here’s a reproduction of its cover, which O’Hara apparently (justifiably?) found less than beautiful:

O'Hara New World Writing

 (I was happy to stumble upon this issue in the office of one of my colleagues, Stan Gontarksi.  He’s a scholar of Beckett and Grove Press and has a great collection of vintage books and journals in his office).

As you can see, the issue is #15 and appeared in the summer of 1959, cost a hefty 75 cents, and featured a story by Boris Pasternak, one of O’Hara’s favorite writers, an excerpt from John Ciardi’s translation of Dante’s Inferno, a piece by Henri Michaux about his experiments with mescaline, a selection of contemporary poems from Iceland, and poems by a young Robert Bly.  And, of course, “Voices of Ghana.”

O’Hara’s reference to the poets of Ghana has been much discussed — is it a sign of O’Hara’s cosmopolitanism and the growing internationalism of American literature (as can be seen in the very idea of New World Writing)? Does it illustrate his profound enthusiasm about Africa, decolonization, and racial equality, which can be seen in numerous other poems?  Does the allusion tie together the subtle reflection on racial identity and oppression that courses throughout the poem — a chain of references running from Ghana to Genet’s play Les Negres (“The Blacks”) to its validation of jazz as an art form, to its sympathy for the sad fate of Holiday herself?

Or is the remark at least partly ironic or sarcastic, a reading perhaps supported by the campy tone in which O’Hara says the line in a recording of the poem (which can be found here)?  Along those lines, should it be viewed as a telling example of the “exoticism” and “fetishization” of blacks that some, like Yusef Komunyakaa, have sensed in O’Hara’s work?  (See David Lehman’s Last Avant-Garde for a discussion of O’Hara’s Ghana remark and the broader debate raised by critiques like Komunyakaa’s, pp. 196-201).

In any event, something led O’Hara to buy this particular issue of New World Writing, and I don’t think it was just the Pasternak, the Michaux, or the Dante.  And something compelled O’Hara to not only write about it, but to refer to the poets of Ghana (rather than, say, “Contemporary Icelandic Poetry” or Robert Bly). 

(Apparently, O’Hara’s seemingly offhand reference to poets in Africa has had quite an impact on some readers.  Here’s an interesting twist: in digging around for this post, I came across an interview with the poet Laban Hill, who has spent time living and teaching in Ghana.  He says O’Hara is to thank for his going to Ghana in the first place: “When I was first invited to come to the University of Cape Coast, the lines from the Frank O’Hara poem ‘The Day Lady Died’ immediately came to mind. In an ironic way, it’s sort of my jumping off point for coming here and exploring the creative life here … I decided to make it my project to find out what the poets in Ghana are doing these days. It just made sense to follow up on O’Hara’s question”).

For more on New World Writing, there’s a mildly useful overview here — along with a picture of an even uglier cover of another issue.

I’ve yet to be able to find a reproduction of the New York Post for the day Billie Holiday died, July 17, 1959, the one “with her face on it,” though admittedly I haven’t tried very hard.  If anyone has a copy, I’d love to see it.

UPDATE: Many thanks to Don Share (the new editor of Poetry magazine, if you haven’t heard!), for immediately sending this along:

Billie Holiday New York Post

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