I am not a blogger, I am a poet. This week though, I was both. And it was thrilling—scary and vulnerable, fun and really pleasing. In determining the direction this fifth and final blog might take, some favorite go-to poems came to mind. Frank O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not a Painter” is one that I constantly return to. Oranges are pretty great. So is the color orange. Sardines aren’t so bad either. What I really love it for is its ability to say so much without saying anything at all, what it says about the composing process, about what it is to be an artist and a notice-er. It’s the sort of poem that asks for noticing— It’s plainly spoken, but honest and exposed in its plainness. (The speaker says, “Oh.” That’s all he needs to say.) I’m now going to read it again. You should too:
Why I Am 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. 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.
We need so many words to express a word, twelve full poems to get at orange without ever using the word itself. This is why I spend so much time close-reading with my composition students. We spent an hour yesterday coming up with and interpreting over 50 definitions for “critical inquiry.” We could have continued the conversation well into the afternoon, asking things like— Do we inquire into issues that trouble us, or is it more of an uncertainty? Is it uncertainty or a crisis of belief? Are we destabilizing those beliefs or questioning their validity? Do we mean validity or is it a matter of global stakes? Are personal stakes a part of global stakes, or is it the other way around? If we have a personal investment in what’s being researched, is it more difficult to be critical? Is it important to be critical of our own input as much as others’? What do we really mean by critical? Not taking texts at face value? Pushing texts beyond summary into the realm of further understanding? Does further understanding, the journey of discovery, ever really have an end? Is discovery the process or the product? …
And now I’ve written twelve lines sparked from O’Hara’s poem (and therefore oranges?) in which the poem isn’t mentioned at all. Part of me says, “Whoops!” The other part says, “Well, yeah. That’s how it works.”
“There should be / so much more, not of orange, of / words, of how terrible orange is / and life. Days go by.” These are my favorite lines. Words (and therefore oranges?) are exalted here. There are not enough of them. But they’re also terrible in the ways that life is both terrible and wonderful. Poetry attempts to expand the limits language places on our ability to share human experience. Days go by, more life happens, more words are needed to fully experience it.
One of my dearest friends is moving from Milwaukee to New York City in a few weeks, something I did six years ago. Even now I can’t adequately explain what that experience was like – how I felt necessarily pulled to the city, tethered to it as though my left arm rented a studio apartment in Gramercy while the rest of me went for daily runs along Lake Michigan. My friend’s experience is similar, it seems, but there’s no telling which part of her exists where. She might not know until she receives her first piece of mail addressed to her Astoria zip code. And even then, there should be so much more.
"SARDINES" by Mike Goldberg
It’s troubling to always be attempting this sort of explanation of human experience. Being a poet is actually quite masochistic. Even O’Hara says, “I think I would rather be a painter, but I am not.” This is not to say that visual artistic methods are “easier” or less limiting than verbal/textual. I really don’t know because I am not a painter either. What I do know is that Mike Goldberg’s painting called “SARDINES” has no sardines in it, the same way that the poem called “ORANGES” has no oranges (or orange) in it. But the painting is actually full of sardines – the thought process following sardines, their implications, their many versions and colors and patterns, shapes and non-shapes, and the remnants of the word itself scrawled and painted over. We do what we can to represent the days that go by. We try to understand our lives and convey that understanding so that others might better understand theirs too. It’s a cyclical process, both terrible and wonderful.