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On "Why I Am Not a Painter"

Anthony Libby

Appropriately, "Why I Am Not a Painter"--which in fact suggests that he is--contains no visual images at all, though it describes the development of a painting. As in Pollock, what replaces image is not so much plot, though the poem does tell a story and imply an argument, as the movement of the individual line, frequently circling back on itself to create the duration as well as the depth and texture of a particular experience.

From "O’Hara on the Silver Range," Contemporary Literature (1976).

David Lehman

"Why I Am Not a Painter" made poetry seem as natural as breathing, as casual as the American idiom, and so imbued with metropolitan irony and bohemian glamour as to be irresistible. As a freshman in college I hadn't yet developed the critical vocabulary to describe the effects of O'Hara's line breaks, but it was impossible to miss the surprises enacted in the space between lines: "how terrible orange is / and life. "

Only after many rereadings did I understand that the poem proposes, in its off-the-cuff way, a serious parable about the relations between poetry and painting. "Why I Am Not a Painter" begins by communicating the painter-envy to which poets in New York were susceptible during the reign of Abstract Expressionism: "I think I would rather be / a painter, but I am not." In a turnaround characteristic of O'Hara's poetry, however, wry resignation is transformed into nervy self-celebration. The seemingly inconsequential anecdote in the poem is actually a restatement of another, more celebrated anecdote illustrating that the medium is the difference between the painter and the poet. A century ago in Paris, the painter Degas had lamented that his poems weren't any good though his ideas were wonderful, and the poet Mallarme responded, "But my dear Degas, poems are made of words, not ideas." The parable of Sardines and "Oranges" makes this point deftly but insistently. The rhetorical figure of the chiasmus—a crossing over, as in the shape of the X—is enacted in the inversions of the poet (who begins with a color and ends in "pages of words, not lines ") and the painter (who begins with a word and ends with an abstract painting in which random letters remain as a purely visual element without verbal signification). The original inspiration for the painting ultimately called Sardines is preserved only in the title of Mike Goldberg's work, because paintings are made of paint, not words, and the process of painting may erase any of the artist's preconceptions. And since poems are made of words, not ideas or colors, the orange that incited O'Hara exists only as the title of his work. The symmetry is complete. "It is even in prose, I am a real poet," O'Hara wrote in his patented tone of jubilant wonderment, and in the reader's mind the French tradition of the prose poem—from Baudelaire's Spleen de Paris and Rimbaud's Illuminations to Max Jacob's Le Cornet a des and Henri Michaux's Plume—established itself as a form invested in modernity. For Barbara Guest, "Why I Am Not a Painter" was also an exact statement of an Abstract Expressionist principle. "'Why I Am Not a Painter' is about the importance of not having a subject. The subject doesn't matter. That's straight out of Abstract Expressionism."

With its use of the present tense and its offhanded delivery, "Why I Am Not a Painter" seems, at first glance, to tell a "true" story. One thinks, reading it, that O'Hara wrote a prose poem called "Oranges" at the same time that Goldberg painted Sardines, and that the conjunction is an accident. It turns out, however, that "Oranges" was written in 1949, when O'Hara was still a Harvard undergraduate, many years before he met Goldberg. And this is another lesson that "Why I Am Not a Painter" teaches: What looks spontaneous may really be the product of a calculation, a fabrication, in the same way that Franz Kline's calligraphic black-and-white compositions, which seem like homages to an improvisatory ideal, were preceded by careful studies and sketches. Like a crime, true innovation in art requires premeditation, means, motive, and opportunity.

"Why I Am Not a Painter," so full of reversals and sly surprises, was, I came to see, a characteristic example of the New York School's aesthetic of irony. Irony was either "the citadel of intelligence," as Ezra Pound called it, or "the test of a first-rate mind," as Scott Fitzgerald maintained: the mind's ability to hold contradictory ideas at the same time and continue to function. In any case, it was the supreme expression of modernity, the trope of ambivalence and hedged bets. It involved a reflexive uncertainty, as in the poignant conclusion of Ashbery's "Decoy":

There was never any excuse for this and perhaps there need
    be none,
For kicking out into the morning, on the wide bed,
Waking far apart on the bed, the two of them:
Husband and wife
Man and wife

Deadpan wit was required. Irony could take a self-lacerating form, as when O'Hara announces that he is "waiting for / the catastrophe of my personality / to seem beautiful again, / and interesting, and modern." Irony also meant arched eyebrows, an effect that the poets obtained by the strategic use of quotation marks. Thus Schuyler delights in "the tonic resonance of / pill when used as in / ‘she is a pill’" and O'Hara confides that "sometimes I think I'm ‘in love’ with painting." The quotation marks allow the speaker to use the language without necessarily subscribing to it. It was one way of redeeming the idioms of the day and achieving what Ashbery in "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" calls "pure / Affirmation that doesn't affirm anything."

from The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets. Copyright © 1998 by Doubleday, Inc.

Hazel Smith

'Why I am not a Painter' at first appears to be about the differences between painting and poetry, but by the end of the poem seems to be about the similarities. In fact, the poem is about the shared differences within both poetry and painting. The painting mainly hinges round a word, while the starting point of the poem is an image. The painter can represent sardines, while the poet can only begin by talking about orange. But the poem plays on the ambiguities between word and image, since the word SARDINES is also image, while orange is an image which becomes words. In both cases the poet and painter combine representation and abstraction. They each start with the concept of an object, but the painter needs to abstract the word into 'just letters', while the poet writes for days but never mentions orange. And both poet and painter have to negotiate between the formal aspects of the work and the subject matter. When the painter is asked about the painting he responds in terms of formal arrangement, structure, 'it needed something there'. Similarly, the poet concentrates on the medium of language—words, not lines, pages of words and finally prose—to convey 'how terrible orange is/and life'. Both poet and painter, therefore, move between the depiction of an object and the structural arrangement of their material. And in both cases the initial subject matter is very different from the resulting content.

Crucial here is the creative process, which is not one of working towards known ends. Although both poet and painter have a starting point, nothing about the resultant poem or painting is predetermined; the process is improvisatory in the sense outlined in Chapter 5. The poem and painting keeps changing and the product is found in the process. To arrive at the final product may involve a process of extraction or obliqueness. Mike has to take things out of the painting ('It was too much'), while the poet can only write the poem by not talking directly about orange. Furthermore, the development of the poem and painting are interdependent: the artistic and social interaction between the two artists promotes semiotic exchange. The poem stresses the highly intertextual, collaborative nature of the creative process.

The poem also demonstrates how any poem or painting is created from, and can fall back into, difference. Paradoxically, building up a poem or painting may mean breaking down or subverting its individual constituents. In the painting, the word becomes letters, while the poet's poem becomes prose. The relationship here is between parts and wholes and their shifting relationship. Another way of putting this is that both painter and poet work in a way which is metonymic.

The poem itself demonstrates the interdependence of abstract and representational modes. It hinges on real names, characters and events (Michael Goldberg was a painter and a friend of O'Hara's and did paint a picture called Sardines [see note at end of excerpt]). It also represents the incident through social conversation and colloquialisms in a way which is actually quite filmic and also humorous and informal. At the same time, the poem fails to close off its meaning, which is constantly deferred, making it more abstract. For example, the initial statement, 'I am not a painter, I am a poet', which seems to be quite definite, is immediately modified by a statement which neither completely follows on from the first, nor completely negates it: 'Why? I think I would rather be/a painter, but I am not.’ The whole poem hinges on a not-quite-parallelism which makes it difficult to capture. It is also largely circular in structure; its only conclusion is to send us back to the beginning again. In fact, its organisation is highly spatial: the second and third stanzas could be laid out opposite each other on the page, since the effect of the poem will be to move us backwards and forwards between them, to make us view them simultaneously rather than to progress through them. In this way the poem deconstructs its temporal dimension through simultaneity.

The reader, therefore, participates in the structural arrangement of the poem which moves us in and out of difference and similarity. This movement between difference and similarity is a form of 'push and pull', a term used by teacher and abstract painter Hans Hofmann, who was very influential on the New York School of painters. Hofmann's theory of push and pull is that the structure of a painting arises from the way strong colours compete with each other. But push and pull, in a verbal form, is a very prominent technique in O'Hara’s poetry. In some respects it is even more effective in poetry than it is in painting, due to poetry’s temporal, quasi-narrative dimension which allows for each pull to be followed by a push sequentially: it was an important aspect of the poem 'Chez Jane’ analyzed in Chapter 2, created by 'narratives' which conflict but do not exclude each other. Readers experience push and pull in O'Hara’s poetry in the almost physical sensation of being unable to keep the poem in one position. As they start to interpret the poem in one way, it 'springs back' in another. Push and pull, then, is a major factor in the poem's openness to multiple interpretations, and its accessibility to writerly intervention by the reader.

In this respect it is pertinent to compare O’Hara's work to that of Ashbery which, as we have seen, tends further to the pole of abstraction. This is thematically registered in a comparison between 'Why I Am Not a Painter' and Ashbery's poem 'The Painter’. In 'Why I Am Not a Painter' the subject matter (oranges and sardines) of both poet and painter is elided and abstracted creating a push and pull between representation and abstraction. But in 'The Painter' the subject matter disappears altogether:

Finally all indications of a subject
Began to fade, leaving the canvas
Perfectly white.

Here the utopian artistic ideal is a complete erasure of the difference between the representation and what is being represented:

he expected his subject
To rush up the sand, and, seizing a brush,
Plaster its own portrait on the canvas.
                                            (Ashbery 1987, pp. 20-21)

While 'Why I Am Not a Painter' raises issues about the alliance between poetry and painting, it also probes the relationship between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, usually regarded as highly polarised opposites. The methods which both poet and painter use are those of action painting (O'Hara creates an action poem), but the subject matter is that of commodities, sardines and oranges. The poem and the painting are the result of an implicit and subtle negotiation between these two art movements. So I now want to contextualise and historicise the relationship between poetry and painting in O'Hara's work with reference to the contemporaneous art movements Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art.

[Note: Michael Goldberg's painting ‘Sardines' is the subject of ‘Why I am not a Painter'. It dislocates the image of a room (with possibly table and chairs and a figure-like shape in it) and includes the words SARDINES and EXIT. The words both add to the representational element of the picture (they hint at what is represented in the painting) and at the same time, because they are fractured and overlaid with paint, participate in the painting as structural arrangement.]

from Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O'Hara: Difference/Homosexuality/Topography. Liverpool UP, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by Hazel Smith.

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