"Why I Am Not a Painter" by Frank O’Hara: a Close Reading

In this New York School classic the poet narrator visits his painter friend over a number of days during which the artist is at work on a painting. The painting originally contains the word "sardines" but this is ultimately only retained in the painting’s title and as the presence of some letters. To illustrate the difference between painting and poetry, the narrator goes on to describe how, in a neat reverse effect, he writes a poem inspired by the color orange, yet the resulting poem(s) never mentions the color.

The provocation for the poem is the admitted envy that the poets of the New York School held for the Abstract Expressionist painters who pre-dated them and could be said to have inspired them. This is alluded to in the first and shortest stanza of the poem, while the second and third stanzas, of equal length, describe the creative acts of painting and poetry respectively.

The climactic sentence in the poem is "There should be/ so much more, not of orange, of/ words, of how terrible orange is/ and life." This states a fundamental difference between poetry, which is made of words and can thus directly stimulate philosophical trains of thought, and painting, which is constructed from visual stimuli and can only do so obliquely. One reason this line stands out is that in a poem written colloquially in the first person present tense, it is one of only two lines in the subjunctive. It is also in the third person, a much more didactic statement than the other subjunctive line which occurs earlier: "I think I would rather be/ a painter…"

The colloquial nature of the poem gives it a skeletal structure similar to a sine curve with all the gentle repetition that implies: "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." On entering the final stanza about the creative act of poetry, however, the amplitude of the sine curve begins to increase as the reader feels the narrator’s own sense of excitement building. O’Hara uses tone to great effect here as the narrator crows "It is even in prose. I am a real poet." This reaches its highest positive point at the climactic sentence, dips sharply downward in the line "The poem is finished" and returns to the gentle, almost anti-climactic amplitude in the final sentence: "and one day in a gallery/ I see Mike’s poem, called SARDINES."

An effect worth noting is how O’Hara subtly gives the works of art (both painting and poetry) agency in their own creation rather than talking always about his friend painting or himself writing. In stanza two we have "The painting is going on" and in stanza two "Pretty soon it is a/ whole page of words" as though the artworks are independently coming into being.

The poem is so typical of O’Hara’s jaunty, apparently artless style that it is difficult to imagine it written otherwise. It would be interesting to envisage it written from the painter’s viewpoint instead. ("I am not a poet, I am a painter…") but that would imply a different cultural dynamic.

The poem is a triumphant celebration of the two different arts and the relative importance they place on words as opposed to visual cues. The reader does not believe the narrator would actually rather be a painter—he is too delighted in his poetry—however it is O’Hara’s respect for that medium which enabled him, and the other poets of the New York School, to carry out the groundbreaking experiments with language which still fascinate readers today.

Link to text of "Why I Am Not a Painter" by Frank O’Hara