The poem uses simple, direct language that all readers should have an easy time understanding. It resembles prose more so than it does verse. O’Hara uses ‘Why I Am Not a Painter’ in an attempt to define the differences between painters and poets. But in the end, he appears to reveal more about their similarities.
Explore Why I Am Not a Painter
‘Why I Am Not a Painter’ by Frank O’Hara is a narrative poem taken from the poet’s own life experiences.
In the first lines of the poem, the speaker, O’Hara himself, notes how he would like to be a painter, but he’s a poet. He goes on to describe visiting Michael Goldberg’s studio and watching him add sardines to a painting. When he visits later, they’re gone. O’Hara presents this as a contrast to his own work. He writes about oranges, never mentioning oranges themselves. Although the poem initially sought to express the differences between the two ways of creating, in the end, they feel more similar than they are different.
You can read the full poem here.
I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,
In the first lines of ‘Why I Am Not a Painter,’ the speaker begins by stating that although he’d rather be a “painter,” he’s a “poet.” It’s clear from the start that O’Hara is meant to be the speaker of the poem, or at least a version of himself. He’s considering his own writing practice and, later, how it compares to the art practice of Michael Goldberg, a painter of the New York School of painters.
The speaker’s language is quite causal throughout this poem, making it sound more like prose than verse. This is something he acknowledges towards the end of the poem.
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
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.
In the second stanza, the speaker notes how when he visits Michael Goldberg’s studio. He can watch the man paint and admirers his work. They drink together, and O’Hara notes that Goldberg put sardines into his generally abstract work. There is a casual conversation between the two about why (“it needed something there”), and O’Hara leaves. When he comes back, the sardines are gone. It was “too much,” Michael says in response to O’Hara’s query into why he removed this element of the painting. It’s this simple addition and removal that O’Hara focuses on. Goldberg can come to a conclusion about what his painting needs and what “too much” or “too little” is.
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.
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.
O’Hara tests up a contrast between his work and Goldberg’s, or another successful painter’s, in the next lines. He says that one day he’s thinking about “a color: orange,” and he starts to write a line about it. There is, pretty soon, a whole page about oranges. They’re “words, not lines.” Then there is another page, and so on. He reads his own work and finds himself longing for more. This is not at all dissimilar from what Golberg was doing when he added the sardines.
Poetry and painting, it turns out, are not that different from one another. When both works are done, one is called “ORANGES,” and the other “SARDINES,” but neither mention/depict their title subject. Goldberg removed the sardines from his painting just as O’Hara never explicitly uses the word “orange” in his writing. It’s possible, the poem suggests, to use either medium to capture the essence of something without utilizing that thing.
The specific painting O’Hara is referring to is known as Sardines. It was completed in 1955 and hangs in the American Art Museum in New York. The painting can be viewed here.
Structure and Form
‘Why I Am Not a Painter’ by Frank O’Hara is a three-stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. The first stanza has three lines (making it a tercet), the second and third have thirteen lines each. The poem is also written in free verse. This means that the lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. O’Hara uses other ways of unifying his verse, such as through the literary devices described below.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “painter” and “poet” in line one of the first stanza.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines two and three of the first stanza as well as lines one and two of the second stanza.
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. For example, “I drop in. / “Sit down and have a drink” he / says. I drink; we drink.”
- Repetition: occurs when an element in a poem is repeated. This could be an image, word, phrase, structure, or device. In this case, the poet repeats “I am” at the beginning of the poem. He also starts most of the sentences with “I” or “The.”
The tone is descriptive and causal. The speaker, O’Hara, spends the lines of the poem narrating a section of his life and defining the differences (and similarities) between poetry and painting.
The purpose is to show why the speaker is not a painter. But, in the end, it reveals the similarities between poetry and painting.
The speaker is Frank O’Hara, the author of the poem. It was inspired by real trips the author took to Michael Greenberg’s studio in New York and his admiration for the man’s work.
The themes at work in this poem are creativity and life struggles. The speaker spends the lines addresses issues of art and writing, both of which deal with the subject matter in a similar way.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Frank O’Hara poems. For example:
- ‘Easter’ – a surrealistic take on the contrasting elements of life and death, and the images these forces can spawn.
- ‘Having a Coke with You’ – a beautifully complex poem about the speaker’s love for the listener.
- ‘Meditations in an Emergency’ – appears in the book of poetry by Frank O’Hara, first published in 1957. This bitterly humorous piece deals with the theme of unrequited love.