Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Essay: "Layers: 'An Analysis of Why I Am Not a Painter' by Frank O'Hara"

As part of the MOOC Modern & Contemporary American Poetry offered by the University of Pennsylvania, I was asked to do a close reading of "Why I Am Not a Painter" by Frank O'Hara and to write an essay using the following prompt:  "What is the poem ultimately saying about why O'Hara is a poet and not a painter?"  A link to the poem may be found here:


Frank O'Hara (1926 - 1966) (pictured), a prominent figure in the "New York School" of poets, was known as "a poet among painters."  A detailed biography may be found here:


Layers:  An Analysis of "Why I Am Not a Painter" by Frank O'Hara

The reason that Frank O’Hara is a poet and not a painter may be seen by performing a close reading of his poem, “Why I Am Not a Painter.”  The first stanza of the poem states that while the speaker, Mr. O’Hara, “would rather be a painter,” he is instead a poet.  To illustrate his point, in the remainder of the poem, Mr. O’Hara offers an example of the difference between painters and poets in their approaches to subjects of fascination.

The second stanza introduces the poet’s friend, the painter Mike Goldberg, and some observations regarding the painter’s work in progress.  During his initial visit, the poet comments that “SARDINES” feature prominently in the painting and wonders why.  The painter’s enigmatic answer is, “it needed something there.”  The poet returns from time to time to observe his friend’s progress and is surprised to see that the finished product no longer features “SARDINES” but only the letters of “SARDINES.”   Baffled, the poet asks, “Where’s SARDINES?”  The painter’s answer is again enigmatic:  “It was too much,” he says.

In the third and final stanza, the poet comments on how he treats a subject of fascination, using the color orange as an example.  The poet begins by writing one line on the subject.  Over a period of days, he adds thoughts to this line until he has written one page and then another.  As the poem progresses, the color orange evolves into a metaphor for how terrible life is.  The final product is a series of twelve poems that he entitles “ORANGES.”

The final sentence of the poem, comprised of half of the penultimate line and the entire last line, drives the poet’s point home:  “And one day in a gallery / I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.”  Here the startling contrast between painter and poet is revealed.  In the painting, the layers are all there, but only the final layer may be observed.  Only the painter knows what lies beneath the surface.  The vital steps that resulted in the final product, the artist’s process, while technically still there, cannot be studied without the use of special x-ray equipment.

In contrast (“But me?” as the third stanza begins), in “ORANGES,” the poet’s thought processes are there for every reader to see.  Each layer of poetry is not palimpsest or overwritten layer upon layer.  Each “layer” of text proceeds down the pages.  The poem may be studied as a complete work, as a series of twelve poems, poem-by-poem, line-by-line, foot-by-foot, word-by-word, even syllable-by-syllable.  This way of recording the creative impulse is essential to the poet.  And so, though he may “rather be a painter,” he is not.

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