Lifesaving Poems: Frank O’Hara’s ‘Why I am Not a Painter’


Here is a revelation: I did not always adore the work of Frank O’Hara.

I had pause to consider why this was so at a reading once. In the Q and A afterwards the poet I was reading with said they had detected a strong American influence in my work: ‘Frank O’Hara, perhaps?’ This was told to me in a way rather as one would remind a recalcitrant child that they had stepped in something.

I replied that while I had been reading a lot of O’Hara’s work, I still felt as though I did not get it and that I was missing something.

That changed when I read ‘Why I am Not a Painter’.

Everything I’d read of O’Hara’s up till that point had left me with the impression that it was all jotted down in five seconds, and that no thought had gone into it. Simply, I felt he was not serious.

I was wrong on at least two counts, namely that his poems do not contain thinking and that they are not serious. (Similarly, Kenneth Koch famously said that he was always serious in his poems, even his humorous ones; what he refused to be was solemn).

This had the rather bracing effect of forcing me to re-evaluate everything of O’Hara’s that I had read up to that point. It changed everything, and here is why.

The poem is offhand, casual, definitely not solemn. It is about a very particular social milieu and the chance encounters that take place within it; even though it relates these events straightforwardly, it presents its subject matter (making things, the nature of creativity, having a fulfilled life) as though they are the most important things in the world:

“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.”

I realised O’Hara was serious about the process of creativity that he describes because he refuses to romanticise the act of creativity or the decision to pursue it.  He wants to be able to make paintings, but knows he will have to stick at poems. We all do that, I think, at some level, wishing we were like our genius photographer brother or writer we once read with. At the same time he undercuts this status anxiety with wit and humour about the processes he engages with and those he observes in the work of others. The drinking and the talking about what is happening seem as important as showing up to make the work in the first place.

Most of all O’Hara is open to the possibility that much of what we are up to when we make stuff up remains sealed off from us, in a purely rational sense. We know that the word ‘Sardines’/’Oranges’ needs to go into our painting/poem but we do not know why. We live by the decisions we make in such moments, evaluating (‘It was too much’) with a detached mind that at the same time unconsciously controls the response we bring to our work in ways the rational mind cannot:

                                      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.

Finally, I felt I would give my arm to write a line as serious, profound and throwaway as: ‘It is even in/ prose, I am a real poet.’ Hilarious can be devastating.

Why I am Not a Painter

Eye Level blog post on Why I am Not a Painter


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