Third ModPo essay, on O’Hara

Since I haven’t written much here of late, I think I’ll post some of what I have been writing. Our most recent essay in ModPo was on this Frank O’Hara poem, and my essay is below. It misses a lot of what it could talk about, but that’s the kind of thing you notice when you’re in an interactive class with thousands (or at least hundreds) of active and thoughtful classmates and try to limit yourself to ~500 words.

Why I Am Not a Painter

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.

Variations: Why I Am Not a New York School Poet, Or, Because Oranges

Why I Am Not a Computer Science Major

I think I would like to be a computer science major, but I am not. Why? Well, I arrive for orientation, I ask “Can I use php on the student web space?” “Yes” they say. This is all I need; I am too proud not to try to learn it on my own.

Why I Am a Philosophy Major

I am a philosophy major. Why? Well, I am auditing introductory philosophy. The book says physical stuff may be all tiny vibrating strings.* So I gawp at my hand for an hour, turning it slowly, thinking “this is a symphony.”

* This, of course, refers to string theory, an area of theoretical physics. Therefore, I am a philosophy major because of a fluke of selective reading.

Oranges Are Reasons

In the above, I use the present and present continuing tenses to name things I have done. So far, so O’Hara. However, there is a causal flow to my actions – there is “because.” Whoops? O’Hara doesn’t offer much causality in “Why I Am Not a Painter,” especially for a poem whose title claims to offer a cause.

Instead, he offers two examples, one of a painter at work (Goldberg) and one of a poet (O’Hara). There is similarity between them; each takes several days, each seems to diverge from an early idea (sardines or orange), and each, still, names the work for the early idea. Of course, painting is a visual medium and poetry is verbal; indeed, O’Hara does little to ‘paint’ images in the poem (I’m not even sure if “sardines” began as the word or an image), emphasizing that difference. But there is similarity in process.

The difference is in the artist. Each seems to have an intuitive sense of where his work is and needs to go and when it’s complete (“it needed something,” “it was too much,” “there should be…”). Goldberg has this intuition for painting, and O’Hara seems to lack it (asking questions and having nothing more than “oh” to say to the answers); O’Hara has it for poetry. So when O’Hara has orange on his mind, he doesn’t go to a canvas, he starts writing. There is the reason.

But he never says this directly, in the same way his poem-within-the-poem, “Oranges,” never mentions orange. We could even read “orange” as a stand-in for “the reason I am not a painter.” “Oranges” is finished before he’s mentioned oranges, just as this poem is finished before he’s mentioned his reason. And the lines “there should be so much more, not of orange…” translate to “there should not be more of reasons—there should be more of words, of how terrible ‘reason’ is and of life.” Life doesn’t feel neatly, cleanly causal (reasons are “terrible” at explaining life), so let go of “why,” he seems to say; a poem should capture life, not contrived questions and answers; or we or life should have more of life.

What O’Hara has done here is like titling a colorful drawing of an orchid “Why I Am Not an Architect;” it’s a non sequitur, and that’s exactly what makes the point. The architect would not have drawn the orchid. The painter would not have written the poem. We might take a cue from Ashbery and say “these accents seem their own defense” – the poem is its own answer.


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