A scrapbook of whatever I'm making, collecting, or just obsessing about
at the moment.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Why Frank O'Hara Wasn't a Painter

Below is another of the essays I wrote for my online "Modpo" (Contemporary and Modern Poetry) class I took from the Unversity of Pennsylvania through Coursera.org.  I've been putting these essays on my blog as a way to preserve them after the course content disappears.

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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The writing is good. There is a connection made between O'Hara's preference to be a poet rather than a painter and the way he has written this poem.He/she speaks of the "I do this...that" N.Y. School mode and the poem as demonstration.The writer's premise that O'Hara is "incapable of abstraction" along with the keen "and we must abstract it for ourselves"etc. may be food for talk in the forums.

About O'Hara's noticing the SARDINES in the painting, the writer states that the caps indicate the word, not the concrete objects. This may be worth further observation/clarification.There is comparison of the painterly way of expression vs the poet's way.

The metapoetics of O'Hara"s work is emphasized at the end of the essay along with a rather complex use of "real" in quotation marks. A comparison is set up with that "real" i.e. prose poet and Mike Goldberg's not using a "real" sardine in his more abstract painting. Again, I think there may be room for discussion stemming from this tightly-presented essay.