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Book Title: The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara|
The author of the book: Frank O'Hara
Date of issue: 1971
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Format files: PDF
The size of the: 613 KB
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Why I Am Not a Painter
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.
In “Why I Am Not a Painter” we are privileged to witness the beauty of the creative process, not only of a poem, but also of a painting done by Mike Golberg, one of O’Hara’s friends and an abstract expressionist painter of the time.
Told in a first person point of view and somehow in a jesting tone, O’Hara explains why he is a poet and not a painter and then he goes on comparing these two types of artists, and the evolution and similarities of their works in process and their final result, which in both cases turn out to be something completely different from what originally inspired them; SARDINES in Goldberg’s painting and ORANGES in O’Hara’s poem, ultimately none of those works contain sardines or oranges but they use them as a title.
I can easily recognize the basic treats of the New York School in this poem. The I-do-this, I-do-that form, as we see in sentences like: “I drink; we drink. I look up”. The description the daily urban life, the spontaneous manner, told in an informal and casual way, for example “for instance, Mike Goldberg is starting a painting. I drop in. Sit down and have a drink, he says”. The parataxis, the list of sentences not necessarily in order and told at the same time, without sequence of events, without the cause and effect relation, like in “You have SARDINES in it. Oh. I go and the days go by and I drop again.” There are also several words used as polyptotons, “The painting is going on, and I go, and the days go by.”
Reading this poem made me feel like I was a friend of O’Hara’s and that we were having a conversation about something very intimate to him; of why he is a poet and not a painter. And he resolves that question in the first three lines of the poem: “I am not a painter, I am a poet. Why? I think I would rather be a painter, but I am not. Well,” In this first stanza, O’Hara simply points out that he can’t be a painter because he is a poet. He expresses his wish to be a painter, maybe because of their bigger fame (Pollock?) or because he admires their work, but he then assesses that he can’t be what he is not, he has no choosing in it. He is a poet. “I am a real poet.” he reaffirms at the end of the poem. And that final “Well,” in the third line could be read as a “oh well, I would love to be a painter, but I’m not, and that doesn’t upset me very much at all”. The adverb also connects the first stanza with the rest of the poem, which is the comparison of the process of painting and writing and their similarities in the end.
Finally, I want to mention the last line of the poem, which is, for me, the biggest revelation of all because we discover that neither the poem nor the painting contain the original ideas which inspired them. This could be simply an example of another juxtaposition, often used for the New York School Poets, only a contradiction that could be read in a joking or a playful tone.
But at the same time, this sincere way of showing the beauty of the inspiration process makes, in my humble opinion, this seemingly light and easy-going poem almost an emotional and intense confession of O’Hara’s love for art and for New York, creating meaning out of the comparison of these two arts and making the seemingly unconnected sentences converse in the end, where everything makes complete sense.
October 24th, 2012
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Read information about the authorFrank O'Hara was born in Baltimore, Maryland and grew up in Grafton, Massachusetts. O'Hara served in the South Pacific and Japan as a sonarman on the destroyer USS Nicholas during World War II.
With the funding made available to veterans he attended Harvard University, where he roomed with artist/writer Edward Gorey. Although he majored in music and did some composing, his attendance was irregular and his interests disparate. O'Hara was heavily influenced by visual art, and by contemporary music, which was his first love (he remained a fine piano player all his life and would often shock new partners by suddenly playing swathes of Rachmaninoff when visiting them).
While at Harvard, O'Hara met John Ashbery and began publishing poems in the Harvard Advocate. Despite his love for music, O'Hara changed his major and graduated from Harvard in 1950 with a degree in English.
He then attended graduate school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. While at Michigan, he won a Hopwood Award and received his M.A. in English literature 1951. That autumn O'Hara moved into an apartment in New York City with Joe LeSueur, who would be his roommate and sometimes his lover for the next 11 years. Known throughout his life for his extreme sociability, passion, and warmth, O'Hara had hundreds of friends and lovers throughout his life, many from the New York art and poetry worlds. Soon after arriving in New York, he was employed at the front desk of the Museum of Modern Art and began to write seriously.
O'Hara was active in the art world, working as a reviewer for Art News, and in 1960 was made Assistant Curator of Painting and Sculpture Exhibitions for the Museum of Modern Art. He was also friends with artists like Willem de Kooning, Norman Bluhm, Larry Rivers and Joan Mitchell. O'Hara died in an accident on Fire Island in which he was struck and seriously injured by a man speeding in a beach vehicle during the early morning hours of July 24, 1966. He died the next day of a ruptured liver at the age of 40 and was buried in the Green River Cemetery on Long Island.
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