Poetry Friday: Frank O’Hara, “Why I Am Not a Painter”

Conversational and accessible, Frank O’Hara’s poems read as if he jotted them down on a scrap of paper during lunch break, or told you them as you walked down the hall. Don’t let the surface casualness fool you, the man could write and he did it with care. This is one of my favorites, and one of the best poems ever written about the creative process and its attendant mysteries.

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.

Here’s Michael Goldberg’s expressionist painting, “Sardines.”

Lastly, below, Frank O’Hara reading “My Heart,” because it is always a thrill to hear the poet’s actual voice, his pauses and cadences, the sound his own work makes.

Don’t you think?

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One comment

  1. Mary Lee says:

    The process is always mysterious, no matter the creation.

    What about that hot tub you mentioned a few posts ago?

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