Tuesday, April 01, 2008

I'm an April Fool For Poetry!

Everybody knows that April is the cruelest month, but did you also know that it is National Poetry Month? Well, it is. I know very little about poetry, definitely less than I should. As such, I'm going to try something this year that I've never done before -- I'm going to read poetry. Lots of it. New and old, long and short (although, to be honest, mostly short). And I'm going to write about it here.

I'd like to say this right off -- this won't be enlightening for those of you who actually read poetry regularly. It might be entertaining, as I stumble around like a drunk in clown shoes trying to figure out what's going on in the world of verse, but it won't be anything great for you. For that, check out Silliman's Blog, or some of the other great internet outposts of verse. For crazed ramblings, however, I'm your man.

So today's poem is "Why I'm Not a Painter," by Frank O'Hara.


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. "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.

-Frank O'Hara

Where to begin with this poem? I like it, for starters. It has a matter-of-factness about it that pleases me. The painter in the poem, Mike Goldberg, was a second generation abstract expressionist (thank you, Google!), and that makes sense, in the context of the poem. Goldberg starts with the word "SARDINES," and progresses until it is "just letters." Something with a literal meaning has been rendered abstract, but maybe not meaningless (if it were meaningless, I think it could've stayed in the painting, but maybe I'm wrong about that).

O'Hara (or the poet in the poem, who I assume is O'Hara) starts with a color -- orange -- and proceeds until he's written twelve poems without mentioning orange. He names the poems "ORANGES," and sometime later, he sees Goldberg's painting, which is of course called "SARDINES."

This poem seems to be about the creative process, and how two artists working in seemingly dissimilar media create and destroy meaning. Both of them work with words and colors, but they use them in different ways. For Goldberg, the word "SARDINES" was "too much," but the letters on their own still serve a purpose. "SARDINES" is where he starts out, and even after obliterating whatever meaning "SARDINES" might have, he still sees fit to call his painting "SARDINES." The inspiration is still the core of the artwork. For O'Hara, it's the color orange, not the fruit or even the collection of letters, that sparks his writing of the poem. Indeed, the collection of letters is so meaningless as to never make an appearance in the poems themselves. Still, the original spark is given its due in the title of the poem, "ORANGES" (fitting, since there are plural poems). O'Hara is suggesting that both artists are exploring the meaning and meaninglessness of language.

After doing a bit of research, I find that O'Hara was a member of the New York School of poets, and was fascinated by painting (perhaps this curiosity started when he was a student at Harvard, where he roomed with the artist Edward Gorey), and that a biography of him is titled O'Hara: Poet Among Painters. Digging around on the internet a bit, I discovered this quote from critic Anthony Libby, which I find particularly illuminating:
"To see what really moves an O'Hara poem involves considering O'Hara as an unusually conspicuous example of the interaction between American poetry and modern painting.... Even those O'Hara poems which accept linear progression often follow [Jackson] Pollock in abandoning ordinary visual imagery." ---- Anthony Libby, from "O'Hara on the Silver Range," Contemporary Literature 17, no. 2 (Spring 1976).
Looking back at "Why I Am Not a Painter," I'm struck now by the incredible lack of imagery in a poem about painting. There are no colors, no descriptions of anything, yet I would hesitate to call this poem "abstract" in the same manner I would a Jackson Pollack painting. What to make of that?

Anyway, if anyone has anything to add to the discussion, please feel free to leave a comment. This is an education for me, after all. Thank you to Robert and Marshall for recommending this very good poem to me. I think it was a fitting start to the month.


At 7:16 AM, Anonymous Edan said...

What fun poetry month is! I don't think you can read this poem without grappling with the repetition in it, especially the use of "go", as in: "I go and the days go by" etc. It's interesting to me that both the speaker of the poem and the painting are going, as is time:

The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in

Later, when the speaker is writing his poems about orange, he says again, "Days go by."

Is this relating the artistic process to the passage of time, the desire to articulate this movement...toward...? I've talked to my painter friend Christine about something related to this, how a painter can't show time/narrative on his or her canvas, while a novelist can--a book is an artifact, in a sense, of time moving, of the work put into it, while a painting is experienced in a moment, no matter how long it took to make. Perhaps a poet has a similar restriction to the painter's
What am I saying? Who knows...


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