Saturday, November 09, 2013

ModPo 2013 Assignment #3:Choosing the Materials for Language: On O'Hara's "Why I Am Not a Painter"

SARDINES by Mike Goldberg

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.


In a short essay of approximately 500 words, offer a close reading of the poem that (at least partly) addresses this question: What is the poem ultimately saying about why O'Hara is a poet and not a painter?

Your essay should offer a close reading of the poem that considers how key lines, phrases, and/or terms contribute to the central argument of the poem.


What is delightfully surprising about the poem of O'Hara is that he baits the reader with "Why I Am a Poet" in the title but doesn't really provide a straightforward explanation. Well, what would be the point, right? He is a New York school poet and he deals with non-narrative or anti-narrative. From that alone, I shouldn't be expecting a cause like "I don't know how to paint" and an effect "Which is why I am a poet."

 In the first stanza, the speaker makes a statement: he is not a painter, he is a poet. We aren't yet in the "I-do-this-I-do-that" mode but rather, the speaker is setting up a premise. He then asks "Why?" He doesn't answer. He just states that he would rather be a painter, but he is not. He then says, "Well" which is followed by a line break.

In the second stanza, the "I-do-this-I-do-that" mode begins. He gives an example ("for instance"), presumably to explain why he is a poet, by way of stating that Mike Goldberg is starting a painting. His tone is very conversational, very casual. He drops in and Goldberg invites him to drink. He says "I drink; we drink," and interesting choice of words because he very well could have just said "we drink." This reminds me of "The Day Lady Died" when the speaker says, "Everyone and I stopped breathing." He creates a distinction with pronouns. He is saying that "I" and "we" are distinct. That's a clue, I think. The speaker then goes on to comment, "You have SARDINES in it." I like the sneaky way the "it" has come in. "It" most likely refers to the painting (what else would there be to comment on?). Then the speaker mentions that the painting is going on. He drops in again and "the painting is finished." "Where's the SARDINES?" the speaker presumably asks. The speaker then says that all that's left is just letters." It begs the question: letters of what? Letters that spell the word sardines? It makes us go back to the speaker's original observation about the SARDINES. Was it an image of SARDINES? Or was it letters that spelled SARDINES? I had to take a look at the painting itself and I discovered that it had the words "SARDINES" and "EXIT" on it but barely visible, faint etchings against the predominantly red abstract painting. "It was too much," Mike says. WHAT was too much? Was it the actual image of the sardines that was too much? Here, the poem points out gaps and assumptions that we make in any language. "It" substitutes for both painting and poem and subject, a polyptoton that means a different thing in different contexts. "It" will resurface once again in the stanza about poetry. I don't really know what was too much. It's vague. "It," meaning the title of the painting? "It," meaning the image of sardines? or "It," meaning the original rendering of the word "SARDINES" on the canvas? We don't know.

The third stanza then goes back to the speaker. "But me?" He asks, rhetorically. He says that he is thinking of a color: orange. He writes a line about orange. The reader assumes that he means a "line" of poetry. But then this gets confused in the next lines because he says that he wrote a whole page of words, not lines. Here, there is a parallelism with painting. Because a painter can paint a whole canvas (page) with paint...the way a poet can write a whole page with words. It is at this point that the speaker draws our attention to the medium of both painter and poet. The speaker then says that there should be so much more: not of orange but of "words." And these words are "about" how terrible orange is and life. WHAT's terrible? The color orange? Whatever is signified by orange? And what does this all now have to do with life? Days go by. And the speaker says that "it" (there's the word again) is even in prose, I am a real poet. He is referring to prose poems, presumably. But what does it have to do with being a "real poet?" Is he making a statement about the kind of poem that he prefers? Modernist prose poems? Versus traditional verses? My poem is finished, the speaker says, drawing once again, a parallel with Goldberg's "finished" painting. And the speaker has not mentioned "orange" yet. Does he mean, the "word" or what was signified by the word "orange?" The speaker says "It's twelve poems" (perhaps a jibe, a one-up-manship against Goldberg who only produced one painting). He calls them ORANGES. The speaker then says, "And one day" (very much like a "once upon a time" of a straightforward narrative) he sees Mike's painting, called SARDINES. In the end, he names the poems and the painting. But by naming them and going through the process of both the painting and the poem, he is also saying that both the poems and the paintings aren't about SARDINES and ORANGES. 

More than citing differences, O'Hara actually creates a lot of parallelisms between painting and poetry in his poem. Both are pieces of art and both have titles. Both also have a basic medium: one is paint and the other is words. The poem calls attention to the fact that both painting and poem are languages. They have basic building blocks: paint and word. They deal with arrangements: form/ structure in images and lines of words. In the case of Goldberg and O'Hara, they are both in a movement that deal with dissociating their art with a set meaning in the traditional sense. In a traditional painting or poem, when the title is "Madonna and Child," the content will be about Madonna and Child. In both Goldberg's and O'Hara's pieces of art, they do away with the association between "subject" and "content." So, what is the poem ultimately saying about why O'Hara is a poet and not a painter? He ends up saying that poetry and painting are intertextual (and to some extent interchangeable) languages. They are both in the "business" of the signifier and the signified. And that both he and Goldberg are also in the business of stretching the signifier and the signified. The only difference is the medium (if this is even considered a difference, ultimately). He is saying that there is a very thin line that separates pieces of work in art because all art deals with language: how to communicate all this to you. Meanings are not pre-assigned. Only the materials vary. And O'Hara chose words.

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