This week in ModPo, we were to analyze Frank O’Hara’s poem: Why I Am Not A Painter. My essay is below.
This poem indicates both the similarities and differences between painting and poetry. The two disciplines are similar: Goldberg creates a visual out of a word, while O’Hara creates words from a visual. However, this is also the source of their difference. Goldberg paints until the word is gone, only remaining in the title, replaced in the painting by visuals, no longer a word. O’Hara keeps writing until the orange is buried in a sea of words, again only clearly stated in the title of his poems (even then, a word).
O’Hara seems to be saying despite their connection, painters cannot be poets and poets cannot be painters because each in innately, irresistably drawn to their preferred medium. Even when starting with words, a painter paints. Even when starting with visuals, a poet writes. Being a painter or poet is less something one does than something one is. O’Hara may like to be a painter, but he cannot: He cannot change what he is. He is a poet.
The first stanza says it all. He is not a painter. He is a poet. Why? Because he has no other choice. Even in attempting to explain, he veers away from a straightforward, logical explanation into the Dickensonian world of truths told slant.
His stories also point toward another key difference between poetry and painting. The painter, Mike, removes Sardines from his painting, saying “It was too much.” In contrast, O’Hara buries Orange in his poem by going further, claiming there should be more. Instead of simply removing it, he dissolves the orange in an avalanche of words. It never occurs to O’Hara that there may be such a things a ‘too much.’
In a way, I think this attitude represents the appoach of many modren poets. They do not want to be limited, in style, form, or content. There is no too much. Rather than do as painters do, accepting the limits of the canvas, they break the frame of traditional form. One gets the sense from Goldberg’s comment “It was too much.” that he is using the limits of his form to further himself, rather than seeing them as something to be overcome. This, too, may be why O’Hara is a poet and not a painter. The limits to a painting are all too obvious and natural. O’Hara would not accept them and work within them, so must turn to poetry. Accepting limits, as a painter does, is not in his nature.