Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Music Feature—Issue 40, April 2014)

Jeff Sirkin
Stolen Time: Frank O’Hara and the Musical Event

In the summer of 1959, a summer of heightened racial tensions, riots, and violence in New York, Frank O’Hara wrote what would become two of his best known poems, “The Day Lady Died” and “Personal Poem.” The first on Billie Holiday, who died that July after a long struggle with drug addiction, police harassment, and exploitation; and the second on Miles Davis, who was beaten by police one August night while on break outside a club where he was performing.1 For a poet primarily known for his interest in and relationship to the New York School painters, and who is often understood by critics through the lens of that relationship,2 the poems may seem unusual. And, indeed, these poems are generally read simply as examples of O’Hara’s “I do this, I do that” aesthetic, the musicians being incidental to the poetics.

For Michael McGee, the poems should be read in the context of O’Hara’s newfound interest in avant-garde jazz around the time of their writing. Yet, this “recent” interest was in fact nothing new for the poet. A quick read through the Brad Gooch biography shows that O’Hara’s first artistic love and pursuit in fact was music. From the time he was a child, through his teen years, through his service in the Navy in World War Two, and up through his entering Harvard in 1947, where he planned initially to study musical composition, O’Hara was a voracious listener and serious student of piano and avant-garde composition. His work is riddled with allusions to composers, specific compositions, and the act of listening. Indeed, music was not just some childhood fancy, and his newfound interest in jazz was more than likely an extension of his lifelong interest in avant-garde music. In other words, these two musical poems were no fluke. Music was the ground of O’Hara’s poetic vision from the beginning, and it shaped O’Hara’s thinking about his own work throughout his career.

The poem “Music,” in fact, written in 1954, and later given the opening slot in Lunch Poems, predates “The Day Lady Died” and “Personal Poem” by five years. The later poems on Davis and Holiday, then, set in the middle of the same book, are not even his first to explicitly address music, and indeed they restate and develop themes, structures, and ideas from the earlier poem. It is the earlier poem where O’Hara first contemplates music in relation to his critique of metaphysics, aesthetics, and consumer capitalism, wherein music is deployed as an antidote to the “technological culture” (to borrow a term from Heidegger) that has shaped our society since the Ancient Greeks. If America is governed by a politics of “difference”—wherein a “technological” understanding of the world frames all things outside oneself (including humans) as resources to be used, manipulated, and consumed, and that justifies in the name of difference the brutal treatment of African Americans, homosexuals, and all those people and things perceived as “other” (not to mention the varieties of capitalist exploitation)—O’Hara offers as alternative a politics grounded in music. The opening statement of Lunch Poems, “Music” is O’Hara’s model for a poetics to defuse the oppressive and often brutal realities of postwar America: a poetics of music.


“Music” begins with its speaker out for a walk in the park, ostensibly on break from work, contemplating whether or not to eat his lunch in view of a nearby statue. He writes,

  If I rest for a moment near The Equestrian

pausing for a liver sausage sandwich in the Mayflower Shoppe,

that angel seems to be leading the horse into Bergdorf’s

and I am naked as a table cloth, my nerves humming.

While the statue dominates the first line, the poem is not interested in describing or contemplating it; rather, the poem seems more focused on the conditional statement with which it opens. “If I rest,” says our speaker, offering himself and his reader a choice. He can continue on his way, or he can pause. If he continues, everything will likely remain as is: the statue is a statue, and he is a worker on his lunch break. The status quo will hold. “If” he chooses to “rest,” however, his experience changes radically. The statically represented world breaks open, and the statue, indeed the world, erupts into motion. “That angel,” he writes, “seems to be leading the horse into Bergdorf’s,” and, as we see a few lines down, “[g]usts of water spray over the basins of leaves / like the hammers of a glass pianoforte.” If he chooses the rest, taking an intentional moment apart from the chronological measure of the workaday world, he will be rewarded by a surprising temporality, by the motion of previously static objects. The Equestrian is now on the march.

We shouldn’t ignore that this rest is being proposed in the opening lines of a poem called “Music”—indeed, it should be read as a musical rest. Yet it does not function as an ordinary, measured pause in a musical score as we might understand it. O’Hara’s rest is more akin to what musicologist Michael Chanan calls fermatafermata being one of two “nuances” of live classical performance Chanan argues have been destroyed by the cult of metrical precision and identically repeatable performances that developed over the 20th century to satisfy the demands of musical recording. Fermata, meaning a hold or pause, is a musical notation indicating a note should be held or sustained longer than its actual metrical value would demand. Unlike the standard metrical rest in a musical score, the length of the fermata is left to the discretion of the performer, whose determination is based on factors arising from the particular performance—the interaction with other performers, the reactions of the audience, the quality of light, or anything, really. The length of the pause depends on anything but the desire to maintain metrical fidelity to the written score. The effect is that notes cease to exist as measured metrical units and become “elastic” and unregulated. True musical performance, for Chanan, is not governed by the abstract logic of the score and metrical precision, but is a space within which performers and audience listen to and interact with one another and the text—a space within which individuals open up to one another. It becomes, in a sense, a moment of time-space reconfigured musically, in which listeners are no longer simply discrete subjects seeking to consume and judge the musical object, and in which performers are no longer simply discrete subjects seeking to earn a wage or show off their technical prowess and impress their judges.3 Rather, the musical performance is a space of mutual interaction and participation between performer, listener, and the musical score—an open, temporal relation.

In defying the mathematical “logic” of the metrical score, fermata thus exemplifies the most crucial element of live musical performance for Chanan, which is “the vital element of communion” (126) between musician and listener. Lost to the performance, each becomes part of its ebb and flow, and thus, in a sense, part of one another, a unified whole. Itself a kind of fermata, or temporal suspension within our chronologically ruled (and technologically enframed) world, we might call the reconfigured time-space of the musical performance, wherein performers and listeners and score and setting are bound together as a unity, a “musical event.” To borrow terms from Krzyztof Ziarek, the musical event thus supplants the illusion of “difference” (wherein subjects and objects are separate and discrete, wholly isolated from one another) with a lived experience of “nearness,” which we very well might define using Chanan’s phrase, “the vital element of communion”—the intimate and inextricable connection between oneself and other beings in the world.


For O’Hara’s “Music” to begin with a “rest”—an unguarded and unregulated space within the otherwise carefully measured linear score called chronology (the mechanical measure of time in industrialized, technological culture)—signals that this technologically inscribed “moment”—the lunch break in the middle of a workday—will be experienced as somehow other, it will be a musical event.

Within the poem’s fermata, then, the speaker’s relation to the world is reconfigured. No longer governed by the mechanized chronology of “the locomotive on the march,” his “door” is now “open to the evenings of midwinter’s / lightly falling snow over the newspapers.” Standing over the chronologically driven, date-stamped “newspapers” adorned with their headlines and photographs and commercial advertisements—each suggesting another object available for consumption, another event made static representation—each word and object in the phrase seemingly folds forward and back on itself and on the others, confusing subjects with objects, each connected to all. O’Hara’s “rest” becomes a thick web of mutual belonging, the plural “evenings” stretching the image into a non-chronological space-time where past, present and future exist simultaneously within the elastic temporality of a reconfigured experience. “Music” momentarily escapes the chronology that imprisons it.

This is not unlike the opening of “The Day Lady Died”—in which “[i]t is 12:20” on the clock; it is “Friday” of the seven day week; it is “three days after” a French national holiday; “it is 1959” on the Christian calendar; and in which our speaker “will get off the 4:19 … at 7:15.” Conflicting temporal frames are deployed and twisted around one another, not to locate us more precisely in time and space, but to show the inadequacy of mechanical chronology and to forge in its place a newly elastic present—a disturbance no doubt in space-time caused by the musical event that is Holiday’s performance in the poem’s final stanza. It is certainly no accident that Bastille Day, which celebrates the attack on the famous prison with which the French Revolution began, appears in the opening stanza of this poem about Holiday. Indeed, like the poem “Music,” Holiday’s performance becomes another model for O’Hara’s poetics of music, a poetics that informs and guides the temporally elastic “I do this, I do that” aesthetic generally. What is clear in both poems is that no technologically derived system of temporal measure—whether the precise ticking of the clock, the linear motion of the locomotive, or the date-stamped newspapers covered with photos and stories meant to represent the world in its neatly unfolding linearity (“a NEW YORK POST with her face on it”)—is adequate to describe time as experienced within the “rest” that is O’Hara’s poem—or Holiday’s performance.

With chronology thus stripped away, the assumptions of technological culture, such as the interior-oriented subject, also lose their hold: the speaker is now “naked as a table cloth,” a blank surface, an empty slate. That is, having entered “Music” as a subject intent on consuming a “liver sausage sandwich”—an object understood only in terms of its use value, as a technologically derived resource to be ingested by that subject4—O’Hara’s speaker now opens outwardly and multiply. He no longer defines himself through his desire or through his consumption (i.e. needing a sandwich), but through the networks of relation to the myriad things that occupy his temporal and spatial exterior—things close at hand, like the fountain, the snow, and the newspaper, and things vastly distant, both in space and time, like “the stars which have disappeared” (to which he feels “close”)—even as his multiple “daydreams” walk by. Consumption becomes irrelevant (“it’s so meaningless to eat!”), and money as exchange-value, as the universal medium through which discrete objects are produced and made available to capital, and to the subjects of capital, becomes useless (“I have in my hand only 25¢”). Indeed, the stars themselves are a sign of the inadequacy of linear chronology to account for the lived experience of temporality (we see them yet they are long gone), and of the immutable law of transformation that governs the universe.5

In the wake of the speaker’s having chosen the fermata, subjects and objects are reconfigured, not in terms of “difference,” as realized through aesthetic judgment6 or capital exchange, but in “nearness”—the “vital element of communion” that marks the musical event. That is, whereas subjects and objects in technological culture are ordinarily represented by art, commerce, and power (the statues and newspapers and statistics and coins found in “Having a Coke With You” or “The Day Lady Died” or “Personal Poem,” for instance) as static, interior and discrete, the speaker of “Music,” abandoning himself to the fermata, opens to a vibrant, densely woven mesh of ecstatic relation. For O’Hara, the “rest” is not just a measured half beat of silence, but a performative pause that can send shockwaves through the mechanized rhythm of the everyday that enframes it. Like Holiday’s a-licit “song” whispered along the mechanically delineated notes of the keyboard in “The Day Lady Died”—a performance that seemingly brings together in the “vital element of communion” all those in attendance, thus reconfiguring the dynamics of the commercial nightclub—the “rest” in “Music” inaugurates a musical event.7 Realizing, perhaps for the first time, his radical connection to this musically revealed world, the speaker finds his “nerves humming.”

Yet the musical event of this fermata does not simply transport the speaker to a magical otherworld of love and peace and harmony. Rather, “Music” brings the world—of chronology, commerce, power, and the politics of difference—into stark relief. Difference may be a trick of the technological light, but it grounds a politics of real brutality and real violence and real suffering. The speaker’s sandwich is not the only product of that brutality, and animals and plants, understood technologically as livestock and grain, are certainly not its only victims. Racism, homophobia, police beatings and lynch mobs, Jim Crow, blacklists—all are products of that technological “illusion.” In the two later poems O’Hara will view the experiences of Billie Holiday and Miles Davis through this lens, but within “Music” it brings him close to “the fear of war.”

What “Music” offers therefore is not a solution (and clearly O’Hara doesn’t seek to overthrow Western culture or capitalism—he seems to be thinking along the lines of Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus, seeking a kind of freedom and alternative mode of being made possible by the “schizophrenic” flows of capitalism, the “music” imprisoned behind our technological understanding of everyday experience). Rather, “Music” offers the ability to see technological culture for what it is—the ground of our politics of difference, of racism and brutality—even while it reveals that time, space, and human relations might be experienced otherwise. This is “the season,” he writes, “of distress and clarity.”


To be sure, from this angle the opening lines of “Music” take on a new meaning. The fermata implied in the first line does not simply set “The Equestrian” permanently into ecstatic motion; rather “that angel” is leading the horse and rider—the static representation, little different from the pictures we see in the newspaper—straight to the temple of consumer capitalism, “Bergdorf’s,” where it belongs. Could this be the angel of technological culture? The ordinarily subterranean connections between static representation, consumer capitalism, and the politics of difference become clear: the one, in the guiding hand of technology, leads straight to the other.

Alternately, and at the same time, it is important to recognize that the Equestrian statue in question is in fact a statue of William Tecumseh Sherman, the Union General whose violent march through the South ensured the defeat of the Confederacy and the end of slavery—the end, we’re always taught, of one of the most egregious examples of the politics of difference—the slaveholding South. Yet his presence in the poem seems to suggest that Sherman, and the Union, really lost that fight, that the politics of difference are alive and well in the factories and showrooms and schools and police forces of consumer capitalism. Perhaps then the angel is in fact the angel of music who, like Holiday in “The Day Lady Died,” once awakened within this fermata, can break the imprisoning totality of technological culture and free from within the commodity object (the poem, the book, the LP) the musical event. The angel who can convert the dead object—the broken bolt head or Roman coin or statistic in “Personal Poem,” the book or bottle of liquor or newspaper “with her face on it” in “The Day Lady Died”—into a “musical” charm against difference and brutality. The angel who will storm the prison of “difference,” free the “vital element of communion” held within, and remake the world. And, finally, isn’t this—the angel of music, the musical event, the “vital element of communion”—the gift that O’Hara will give to his friends Patsy and Mike in “The Day Lady Died,” to LeRoi in “Personal Poem,” and to his reader?

Either way, it seems appropriate that a poem that originates in its recognition of such relationships and its speaker’s entanglement within them ends in what may seem a hopeless recognition that there is no escape. The ecstatic space of the musical event may momentarily reconfigure the world wrought by technological culture, but “the stores,” as we read in the poem’s final line, “stay open terribly late.” The statue may be on the march, but the confederacy shows no signs of immanent defeat. Sandwiched between Bergdorf’s department store at the beginning and the open “stores” of its last line, the poem as fermata—just as is Billie Holiday’s performance at the Five Spot or Miles Davis’ at Birdland—is literally framed by the world of chronology, consumer-capitalism and the racist police state, even as it is contained, a static work of art, within the pages of a book. As we’ll see in the final line of “Personal Poem,” O’Hara’s speaker seemingly has no choice but to strap on his wristwatch and return to work.

Perhaps it is a fleeting event suspended in the linear score of technological culture, but the poem nonetheless suggests its own transformative potential. Just as the memory of Holiday’s performance echoes across and reconfigures a shopping list of consumer quandary8 into a meditation on liberation and the possibility of intimate connection, the poem as musical event can transform the reader’s understanding of the world beyond the poem. Like the speaker in “The Day Lady Died,” we may in the end “go back to where [we] came from,” but it will never again appear as it did before we entered into the fermata that is the poem.

Ultimately then it’s not any one thing the poem says that matters in this regard, but how the static poem becomes, through the engagement of a reader open to “the vital element of communion,” a musical event. O’Hara’s poem is the “rest” that wrests the various and discrete elements of the technologically ordered world into a newly revealed communion, turning the poem into a musical charm against brutality, and, in doing so, becomes with its reader an unexpected and transformative event that will encourage him to momentarily rethink time, space, and human relationships. It is a de-tuning that unwinds difference into nearness, a unity of beings all open to another through space and time, all humming.


1Billie Holiday died July 17th, 1959, while in the hospital for cirrhosis of the liver. Arrested in her hospital bed for drug possession, she was under police guard until her death. Miles Davis was clubbed by police outside Birdland on August 25th, 1959, while escorting a white woman patron to a cab during a performance break.
Return to Reference.

2See Marjorie Perloff, Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters.
Return to Reference.

3See Giorgio Agamben, The Man Without Content.
Return to Reference.

4The sandwich—animals and plants, harvested for meat and seeds, processed into sausage and bread, and sold as a food product—is a perfect example to show the way in which technological thinking presents objects as discrete and static in a manner that serves to erase the brutal praxis through which they are brought before us.
Return to Reference.

5See the recent supernova in nearby galaxy M82.
Return to Reference.

6See Agamben’s The Man Without Content.
Return to Reference.

7Holiday had not been allowed to work in New York City nightclubs for a decade by the time O’Hara saw her perform at the Five Spot in the summer of 1957, having had her New York City cabaret card revoked following a 1947 narcotics conviction. While she couldn’t “work” in the club, however, she could be called on stage to perform as a “guest.” Her name would not have appeared on the marquee, nor would she have been paid for such a performance, and would therefore not technically have been breaking the law. The night O’Hara saw her, according to biographer Stuart Nicholson, she had been in the audience with her accompanist Mal Waldron and was asked by the band to perform. She was literally performing beyond the measure of the law. Her performance neither licit nor illicit, I suggest it was a-licit. See Stuart Nicholson, Billie Holiday.
Return to Reference.

8See Robert Von Hallberg, American Poetry and Culture, 1945-1980; and Mutlu Konuk Blasing, Politics and Form in Postmodern Poetry: O’Hara, Bishop, Ashbery, and Merrill.
Return to Reference.

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. The Man Without Content. Trans. Georgia Albert. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Chanan, Michael. Repeated Takes: A Short History of Recording and its Effects on Music. London and New York: Verso Press, 1995.

Epstein, Andrew. “‘I Want to be at Least as Alive as the Vulgar’: Frank O’Hara’s Poetry and the Cinema.” The Scene of My Selves: New Work on New York School Poets. Eds. Terence Diggory and Stephen Paul Miller. Orono, Maine: The National Poetry Foundation, 2001. 93-121.

Gooch, Brad. City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara. New York: Knopf, 1993.

Heidegger, Martin. “The Question Concerning Technology.” Basic Writings. Ed. David Farrell Krell. New York: Harper Collins, 1993. 308-341.

Magee, Michael. “Tribes of New York: Frank O’Hara, Amiri Baraka, and the Poetics of the Five Spot.” Contemporary Literature, Vol. 42, No. 4. (Winter, 2001), 694- 726.

Nicholson, Stuart. Billie Holiday. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1995.

O’Hara, Frank. Lunch Poems. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1964.

Perloff, Marjorie. Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1998. (Originally U. of Texas Press, 1977)

Von Hallberg, Robert. American Poetry and Culture, 1945-1980. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Ziarek, Krzysztof. The Historicity of Experience: Modernity, the Avant-Garde, and the Event. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2001.