Essay 3 done – well, it is never done, but submitted with a post-reconciliation that it could have been better. Procrastination is not good for the muse. 

Essay 3 is a close read of Frank O’Hara’s poem “Why I Am Not A Painter”. It’s a rather brilliant poem that works well under the guise of O’Hara’s conversational style. He offers us a seemingly innocent statement whose backstory is filled with irony. I may be stretching, but I posit that O’Hara saw the poet as artistically superior to the painter.

I shall refrain from delving further and leave it at the words below — the 500 word mad dash that shall get dished the moment the dreaded rubric is unleashed. Meh, I care but I don’t for it is my opinion that as ‘old’ student with a science background, not literature, it would be a small miracle for me to write it all right…right? (Okay – enough, good night… or good morning)


Why I am a “Poet among Painters”

“It is even in/ prose, I am a real poet.”

Frank O’Hara’s rather self-congratulatory declaration in “Why I Am Not a Painter” is ironically stated, but cannot be contested. It is this use of irony, as well as conversational tone – name dropping – open language – writing of real events – use of present tense – playing with the concept of narrative — that defines O’Hara as a “real poet” in New York School fashion.

O’Hara, surrounded by painters, may have written “Why…” as an ironical answer to a question he may have encountered daily. The first stanza seems to suggest a story of ‘why’ with the last line ending with “Well/” leaving us with space/pause until the answer in the second stanza.

Stanza two, rather O’Haraish with “I do this, I do that” as he describes an encounter with painter Mike Goldberg.This stanza is filled with action – he uses the word ‘go’ five times. This stanza also pinpoints what is to be the crux of O’Hara’s argument: Subject doesn’t matter for action painters (poets). Abstract Expressionism shall bridge this painter and poet’s art.

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.

O’Hara plays a bit, using form to show the abstraction Goldberg’s dilemma of “too much”. The obvious space left after “just” is SARDINES removed. We are left with ‘letters’ (next line). To me this was a rather clever way of ‘playing painter’ poet, using form and words to produce a picture of a picture.

O’Hara keeps us moving by juxtaposing the SARDINES scenario with his own prose poem ORANGES to uphold contention of “Why I Am”. He writes and writes after thinking of the color orange producing 12 poems about it without using the word. Instead, ORANGE titles the poems, just as SARDINES does the painting. The irony is not lost on O’Hara. The painter removes one word to finish a picture –  the poet adds pages and pages of words to produce 12 poems – neither ends with beginning subject.

Interestingly, there is a sense that O’Hara sees an advantage as poet over painter. “There should be/ so much more, not of orange, of/ words, of how terrible orange is/ and life.” I felt that he was writing how he had more control over his ability to communicate to person via words than a painter can via paint. Dare I call this a meta statement?

“It’s twelve poems, I call/
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery/ I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.”

The last few lines circle the poem again, debunking notion of true narrative; true story. ORANGES was written before O’Hara knew Goldberg, ergo, there was no relation beyond the irony that neither work contained the initial subject.

O’Hara’s presents a multi-layered poem about art that confirms what he already knew, “I am a real poet”.



3 thoughts on “Why I am a “Poet among Painters” –

  1. nice essay. I love the fact you pointed out that “go” was used so frequently. don’t know how I missed that. I think it’s a meta poem too.

  2. I also got the sense that he felt poetry was superior. From what I’ve seen so far, you and I are the only ones. Strange, that. Most readers have been distracted by the list of similarities O’Hara draws in the poem. But he points to all of the similarities so that the differences are all the more apparent.

  3. You know, it’s funny, I didn’t think O’Hara was saying he felt poetry was superior (but bear in mind, I lack the irony gene). I felt, amusingly enough, that I was the only one who thought that–certainly the rubric didn’t back me up! I just felt he really loved what painters could do, and to some extent, felt a little “stuck” with only words for a medium. (I am coming to think that perhaps I’m projecting. “I think I would rather be/a painter, but,” I sort of identify with that. Or maybe a composer. Yup, that’s the ticket, but, anyway, some wordless art . . . well except for that palimpsest of sardines tucked away in a corner of the canvas . . .)

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