Why I Am Not A Painter

In Frank O’Hara’s poem, “Why I am Not a Painter” he compares himself, a poet, to his friend, an artist named Mike Goldberg. O’Hara compares Goldberg’s techniques as an artist to his own poetic techniques.

When asked by O’Hara why he has sardines in his painting, Goldberg replied that he put it in his painting because “it needed something there” (9) but then a few lines later Goldberg takes it out since he though “It was too much” (16). In the end though, the painting is named sardines even though there are no sardines in it. Goldberg paints and then paints over it; he comes up with ideas to fill space that then may be later rejected. Though there are no sardines in it his painting is still called sardines because of the rejected space filler.

O’Hara compares Goldberg’s creative process to his own. He explains how he starts off with an idea and after time his idea develops; he may write a whole poem based on an idea never actually mentioned by name in the poem. O’Hara tells us how “One day I am thinking of/ a color: orange” and he then uses this idea, the idea of orange, to come up with words, then lines, and soon pages (17-18).

Goldberg appears to paint and then come up with the meaning behind it. He paints sardines to fill space and then rejects that whole painting but the sardines seem to inspire him to name his new panting sardines after the original painting. This is in contrast to O’Hara who says he first starts off with an idea and then builds on it using his original idea to take him all the way through, though he may not even mention the original idea by name at all.

  1. Why do you think that Goldberg named his painting sardines after the rejected sardines?
  2. Do you think that O’Hara is saying that his way of writing poetry is better than Goldberg’s method of painting or do you think he thinks they are equal but different?
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9 Responses to Why I Am Not A Painter

  1. I don’t think O’hara is necessarily saying one is better than the other. I think he is trying to make a very nuanced point about what it is that makes a “real” poet. It is interesting he even uses that terminology because most artists would shy away from openly classifying themselves as such. But perhaps the point he is trying to make is that it is the flowing process from sardines to whatever, and oranges to whatever, that make a poet/artist a poet/artist. His repetition of “days go by” seems to signify this. An artist should take the time to develop, and let the mind flow, rather than having one specific notion and not straying from it.

  2. Rani says:

    I think that O’Hara considers his method of poetry and Goldberg’s method of painting equal, yet producing distinct products. While O’Hara’s poetry relies more on verbal interpretations, Goldberg’s painting depends on visual interpretations. I agree that the original sardines of Goldberg’s painting served as the muse for his new painting, hence the title of the painting “Sardines”. He relies on the viewer to visually derive the source of his inspiration from the title of his work. However, O’Hara approaches the method by which he pens his work in a different manner. He constructs his work around a singular idea, and strings together words to express his thought on the subject. Because he never explicitly says “Oranges” in the work, he depends on the reader to discern that the work focuses on the color orange. However, it is interesting to note that both O’Hara and Goldberg use the title in order to relay an important factor of their work.

  3. Steven says:

    I think O’ Hara is saying that they are equal but different. O’ Hara starts with a word or idea and builds upon to create a piece of poetry. He does not care if what he originally thought of is present in the work, he is only interested that it is a good piece of work. This is the same thing Goldberg has done in his art. He put something on the canvas and built around it. At final inspection the original idea seems to be missing from the work. In his actually painting, “Sardines,” you can see the word at the bottom if you knew what it was, which could be the same with O’ Hara’s poetry; knowing the original idea, an individual can see that Oranges is there, but it is not prominent anymore.

  4. In response to Miriam’s second question, I don’t think O’Hara is saying that his way of writing poetry is better than Goldberg’s method of painting. I think what O’Hara is saying is that every artist or writer has a method or a process that they follow in order to create their masterpiece, but this method is not set in stone. They may go back and change something, they may switch the order of what they’re doing, or their ideas may lead them in a completely different direction than they originally started off in. I think O’Hara found it interesting that he ended up following the same path as Goldberg; they both had an idea, moved away from it, and then titled their piece after their original idea, which no longer seems to connect to their final products.

  5. Max Richter says:

    Miriam writes that Mike Goldberg “rejects that whole painting”, speaking of Goldberg painting over the word sardines in his work of art. It doesn’t seem that he’s rejecting the work of art, but I think he’s actually building from the word sardines on. The painting would be nothing without that word and if he used a different word the painting would be completely different. That’s why the painting is named “SARDINES”, because the main part of the painting was the word sardines. O’ Hara seems to be saying that poetry and painting are extremely similar in the fact that, in this case, they both take one word and build from that. The difference O’ Hara may see, though, is that in poetry, once you write something, you build from there and can’t erase what was already written. In painting, you can still erase the past of what was painted by simply painting over it, similar to what Goldberg did in his painting “SARDINES”.

  6. Bella Rubin says:

    Miriam explains Goldberg named his painting Sardines “he put it in his painting because “it needed something there” (9) but then a few lines later Goldberg takes it out since he though “It was too much” (16). In the end though, the painting is named sardines even though there are no sardines in it.” ” Answering Miriam’s question as to why I think Goldberg named his painting Sardines after he rejected the sardines, is it sends an important message to the audience. We learn how its not necessarily about the finished piece Goldberg finished and named Sardines. Its about the journey and the inspiration which helped him create his art and it is therefore named after the Sardines even though they aren’t present. So to O’Hara names his writings after his inspiration- Oranges and not after their true content. Its not necessarily where you end up but how you got there.

  7. Debra Zarny says:

    While I was reading this poem I couldn’t help but wonder why O’Hara writes “SARDINES,” in all caps. I immediately thought of how we write in caps when sending a text or email to emphasize a point. I also wondered what was left in that newly empty spot on the canvas where the sardines were supposed to be and wondered what the line “All that’s left is just letters” (15-16) meant. I decided to Google the painting, and after quite a few seconds of staring at the image, I noticed that the word sardines is actually spelled out onto the canvas, in place of where the fish should be. I think the painter is playing on the ambiguities of words and images. Just like poems are a form of art, this piece of art takes the form of a poem. Writing out SARDINES is also an image, and therefore, might just deserve to be the title after all.

  8. Adherly Alvarez Cisneros says:

    I agree with the previous comment; I think that he is holding the two art forms side by side, his poetry and the painting. He isn’t judging either one as better or worse, he is simply comparing how similar the tactics to achieve to a final product are. How artists minds seem to work in the same way despite the difference in tools to perform such works of arts (words, pictures).
    In the way that I interpreted the poem, he seems to be saying both Goldberg and himself started with an idea (Goldberg painted his sardines, O’Hara had oranges in his mind). Then O’Hara went and wrote lines and pages “about orange (19):” “I write a line
    about orange. Pretty soon it is a whole page of words, not lines” (19-20). Meaning, he isn’t LITERALLY writing the word orange within his poem, but instead just ABOUT it. Goldberg, essentially does the same with the final product of his painting. He first painted the sardines, but then took them out, nonetheless, the sardines were his inspiration, like the orange was for O’Hara, so he made it the title of his work.

  9. Deborah Shteierman says:

    I think that O’Hara is saying his way f writing and Goldberg’s way of painting are essentially one and the same. He says he wrote several poems with the original intention to talk about oranges but he says, “I haven’t mentioned orange yet,” and even so, “I call it ORANGES.” This observation is brought alongside the fact that Goldberg’s painting is called “SARDINES,” even though it contains no sardines. In doing so, O’Hara is making the point that the way these two artists, poet and painter, express themselves is very much one and the same. The artist has an image and then that image is either directly conveyed on the paper or canvas, or it remains in only the title of the work!

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