Assignment: In a close reading of the following poem, explain in approximately 500 words why O'Hara is not a painter.
Why I Am Not a Painter
|by Frank O'Hara|
I am not a painter, I am a poet. Why? I think I would rather be a painter, but I am not. Well, for instance, Mike Goldberg is starting a painting. I drop in. "Sit down and have a drink" he says. I drink; we drink. I look up. "You have SARDINES in it." "Yes, it needed something there." "Oh." I go and the days go by and I drop in again. The painting is going on, and I go, and the days go by. I drop in. The painting is finished. "Where's SARDINES?" All that's left is just letters, "It was too much," Mike says. But me? One day I am thinking of a color: orange. I write a line about orange. Pretty soon it is a whole page of words, not lines. Then another page. There should be so much more, not of orange, of words, of how terrible orange is and life. Days go by. It is even in prose, I am a real poet. My poem is finished and I haven't mentioned orange yet. It's twelve poems, I call it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery I see Mike's painting, called SARDINES.
Sardines? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Sardines!
Frank O'Hara is not a painter because he is incapable of abstraction, or at least very averse to it. He can't just tell us so because that itself would be abstract; instead, he gives us his I-do-this-I-do-that "Why I Am Not a Painter" poem, and we must abstract it for ourselves. The poem is not an explanation but a demonstration.
He begins with a three-line introduction re-stating and emphasizing the title. He tucks the interjection "Well," at the end perhaps to give the impression that he is writing extemporaneously, but also to pull the reader into the next, long verse, which begins, appealingly, with "For instance." This drops us in front of Michael Goldberg at his easel, where we watch how "The painting / is going on, and I go, and the days / go by."
O'Hara devotes a thirteen-lined stanza to Goldberg's painting process, then another one to his own writing process, during which the same days are going by. Giving the same number of lines to each suggests balance and fairness of consideration and also the equal weight of the finished works of art: O'Hara considers his poem to be equal, in terms of artistic importance, to the abstract painting.
Of the painting, O'Hara observes, "You have SARDINES in it." The capitalization of SARDINES indicates he is referring to the word only, not to pictures of sardines. Goldberg answers, "Yes, it needed something there." Later he will partly obliterate it because "It was too much." O'Hara understands that neither word nor object relates to the aboutness of the painting; it is merely using the shape of the word and perhaps a touch of its dadaist shock value.
Contrast what O'Hara says of his "Oranges" poem. At one point it is "a page of words" which he adds to just as Goldberg adds letters to his painting. But his poem is at all stages representational; it is thoroughly about orange, even though the word itself never appears in it. While Goldberg's expression must be curtailed, ("It was too much"), O'Hara goes on adding to his until he has twelve poems about orange, and still feels that "There should be so much more." He may even take a gleeful pride in that he has produced twelve poems in the time it took Goldberg to produce one painting.
At the end, we discover that both works of art have been titled with that one key word which they do not contain, "Oranges" and "Sardines." In this concuding irony O'Hara's demonstration is complete: Goldberg's painting bears a label which signals no aboutness; O'Hara's poem bears a label which signals absolute aboutness.
O'Hara writes this poem to tell us metapoetically that he prefers poetry, where words have meanings that create pictures and interesting for-instances, over abstract paintings that tell no story. His point is confined to the fashions of his day, however: O'Hara might, in a different lifetime, have become a realistic painter whose works did tell a story; instead, to be a "real" poet he must not use rhyme or meter, just as Goldberg, in his day, must never paint a "real" sardine.