Why I am not a Painter

June 23, 2006 at 2:30 pm 5 comments

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
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

From the profound to the whimsical. Why I am not a Painter it is a quintessentially O'Hara-esque poem – delightfully lighthearted but managing to say, or at least suggest, something essential. I can't explain just what it is I think O'Hara is saying here (I'm not sure he knows himself) but in some not unimportant way the poem seems to hint at a great truth about the nature of poetry and art. About how the two arrive at absence through fundamentally different processes, one by never getting to the essence at all, dealing only in approximations; the other by taking the essence out in order to make it more noticeable by its absence (was it Andrew Wyeth who said that the key thing about a painting is what's missing from it?). Perhaps it's just that the specific experiences seem so familiar. If you've ever tried your hand at writing poetry at all, you can easily relate to that last stanza: the bit about "there should be so much more…of words, of how terrible orange is and life" and the bit about "my poem is finished and I haven't mentioned orange yet".

I'm probably overanalysing it. Hell, I'm almost certainly overanalysing it. The other thing that makes this such an entertaining poem is the way O'Hara pulls of the casual, conversational tone, and the way the poem is dotted with tiny asides to create an effect that is at least half comic. More than anything else this is a deliciously funny poem, one that must be taken seriously precisely because it tries so hard not to do so itself.



Entry filed under: Art and Painting, English, Falstaff, Frank O'Hara.

Musee des Beaux Arts Beacons

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Facetious Feline  |  June 23, 2006 at 7:09 pm

    Not so deft, the analysis. This is a poem of teasing, of joshing, of taking the mickey out… “Look, what a high-wire act this is! Can be made to seem profoundly silly…”

  • 2. falstaff  |  June 25, 2006 at 1:55 pm

    Feline: True. Which is pretty much what I was saying (though perhaps not as clearly as I could have) in the second paragraph. I do think though that part of the reason the joke works is because it has enough of a sense of the authentic underlying it. Otherwise this would be just a silly poem. The whole point of the high wire act is what it seems to say without actually saying at all.

  • 3. Swansong | Mitchell Reids in America  |  April 27, 2011 at 2:16 pm

    […] See, I think it’s interesting how school poetry, written by children, tends towards the propositional.  It’s a poem about loneliness, so I’ll tell you about loneliness, but using metaphors and alliteration and such.  It’s a poem about Oranges, so I’ll tell you about Oranges (using words like ‘devour’ and’ flesh’, as William says; now here’s a poem about Oranges) […]

  • 4. Qualitaetssauger aus Deutschland  |  December 17, 2011 at 9:38 am

    Intriguing point of view. Im curious to feel what type of impact this would have globally? Sometimes men and women get slightly upset with global expansion. Ill be about soon to look at your response. 34688

  • 5. Jackie Tweedie  |  August 17, 2012 at 4:35 am

    I have always loved this poem, since I first studied it in college, and i love it even more when I found out there really IS a painting by Mike Goldbeg called “Sardines”, and a chapbook of poems by Frank O’Hara called “Oranges”.


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