Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Close Reading of Frank O’Hara's “Why I Am Not a Painter”

A close reading of “Why I Am Not a Painter” by Frank O’Hara reveals that it demonstrates many of the elements of the New York School poets that we have learned about in the class Modern & Contemporary American Poetry. This essay will examine how O’Hara arrives at the conclusion that indeed he really is a poet and not a painter, and review what O’Hara can do in a poem that he believes is not possible in a painting.

First, it is important to understand the tenets of the New York School poets. We can see several of them demonstrated as we read through this poem. The poem reads like a diary, where O’Hara is telling of several events that seem to have really occurred as he interacted with his friend Mike Goldberg (the painter). This gives the poem a deep sense of truth and realism. The poem is not a narrative. It does not tell a story sequentially from start to finish. It is not clear, for example, whether the poem about orange is written before or after the painting with the sardines. In total, we must also realize that this poem is a meta-poem in that the example of “orange” represents the titular question of “being a poet and not a painter”. Just as the writer in the poem “hasn’t even mentioned orange”, O’Hara hasn’t actually mentioned why he is not a painter. But he has ultimately gone through the same process of discovery that is detailed in the poem. The poem uses these New York School techniques to do all of the things that we ultimately conclude cannot be done in a painting (more on this later).

Next, we look at why O’Hara concludes that he is a poet and not a painter. Of course, this is clearly stated in the first line. But then he says “I think I would rather be a painter”. This appears to be in jest – setting up the humorous situation that he details in which the painter can essentially put sardines into the painting for no reason, and then title it “Sardines” even though ultimately there is hardly a remnant remaining of the concept (since “It was too much” and had to be mostly redacted). O’Hara is implying here that being a poet requires more discipline and intellectual honesty than being a painter. The other reason O’Hara illustrates as to why he would “rather be a painter” is the physical limit of the painting. The poem about orange can take O’Hara in many directions, even across many poems, with the poet having to struggle with all of these ramifications. The painter need not worry about this, as he simply crams anything that is needed into the canvas. Although O’Hara decries this aspect of poetry, it is thinly veiled and it is clear that he is playing devil’s advocate and actually prefers the freedom that poetry provides.

Finally, we examine what O’Hara states that one can do in a poem and not painting. The first is the scope. The painter is not only limited by the size of the painting, but must make sure he has enough material to fill the painting. Hence the great line uttered by Goldberg that the painting “needed something there”, resulting in the inclusion of the sardines. Of course, the poet can use as little or as much space that is needed – even if it means spilling over into multiple poems as in the orange example cited. This brings us to the next difference, that poems can be anthologized. While the painting must stand on its own in the gallery, the poem can be published in a book (such as O’Hara’s “Lunch Poems”) and deliver some of its message in totality of the work beyond the poem itself. A final thing that a poem can do, as opposed to a painting, is that it can describe the nature of how it was created. This is reminiscent of Stein’s efforts to detail the challenge of the poet coming up with the right words, or Williams’ “Portrait of a Lady” detailing this struggle or creating. In O’Hara’s poem, he states “The painting is going on, and I go, and the days go by.” He is detailing the creation of the painting using the New York School I-did-this-I-did-that methodology. But notice that the poem we are reading is also being created by these same lines! None of this process can be captured in the medium of the painting. In this way, poetry is ultimately different than painting by capturing much more than what is visible on the “Sardines” canvas.

In summary, although O’Hara notes some of the reasons that being a painter would be easier than being a poet, it seems clear that he much prefers being a poet. In fact, this poem itself could not exist without the inherent advantages provides by the possibilities of poetry.


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