Poem of the Week, “Why I Am 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.

I am not usually a big fan of ekphrastic poetry, but there are a few poems that take my breath away. Charles Wrights’ “Homage to Paul Cézzane,” Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “Poem” to name a few.  I am also crazy about this O’Hara poem. I hadn’t had the opportunity to read it before this week in my Contemporary Poetry class, but now I am happy to add it to my list of poems I love about the visual arts. Interestingly, Mark Goldberg does have a painting “Sardines” (shown below). What I really love about the poem is it’s playfulness in lines like “‘You have SARDINES in it.’ / ‘Yes, it needed something there.'” that so concisely suggest how ineffable the artistic process can be. And then, of course, the best part is that the painting by Goldberg is primarily orange and does indeed have sardines in it. Also, O’Hara really does have a squence of poems titled “Oranges” without any explicit reference to oranges. But, alas, it does not live on the internet as far as I can see and so I cannot link to it.

If you’d like to read more by or about Frank O’Hara, I recommend the Poetry Foundation’s page about him, though I kind of hate their new format.

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