The Orange Sardine of Artistic Expression

Frank O’Hara’s “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.

 

The main idea argued in this poem is ultimately linked to an abstract artistic expression. Frank O’Hara uses a playful tone to tell us a parable, allowing us to understand better the process of creation of a modern work of art.

The first step is to observe the symmetry of the poem. Symmetry in form – three stanzas, first of three lines, introducing the argument; the second and the third of thirteen lines each, comparing the painter and the poet. Symmetry in ideas – Mike Goldberg first paints “sardines” (as the actual fish, representing traditional painting), and then he writes “sardines” on the painting (as words, representing abstract, symbolic painting); O’Hara thinks of the color “orange,” writes 12 poems and calls them “oranges” (making us think of the fruit). Neither work in the end contains what we thought would contain. The painter started from a material representation of a physical object and ended up representing an idea. The poet goes pretty much through the same process – he wants to write about something, but finds this too confining, discovers new meanings, and thus new ways of expression.

And this leads us to the second step, seeing the main argument. This symmetry makes us think that despite the playful tone, and a relatively easy to follow narrative (with its extensive use of dialogue, simple present, and present continuous), the poem (considered as a modern, abstract form of art) is not as simple and devoid of meaning as one might think, at a first glance. Modern art requires an elaborate train of thought, just as conventional art, maybe even more. The fact that it does not resemble anything we have encountered before does not take away its value. On the contrary, modern art represents a natural evolution of man’s creative expression.

The simple present and present continuous verb tenses give us a sense of immediacy, of things happening right now, in this moment. This may be an allusion to the current nature of modern art, to the fact that it is happening now, not in the past. This is what matters in the present day. This is the form of expression for current artists. In this sense, Why I Am Not a Painter can be also viewed as a manifesto for modern(istic) expression.

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