Wednesday, October 31, 2012

ModPo essay #3: O’Hara’s Defense of Poetry: A Proof

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.

First a few words about the title and the opening stanza. Then a few words about Imagery, and Tone, and Rhythm. Then a few words about Speakers, and Voices, and Symbolism. Then the proof of the proof.
“Why I am not a painter” is a negation. He could have easily entitled this poem “Why I am a poet.” An affirmation. He could have put a question mark at the end and made it an interrogative. Why didn’t he? Because it is not a question, fool! And because it is not a poem, it is a proof. But I am getting ahead of myself. The title is a declarative statement, a proposition. 
The second alert is in the opening stanza. It is eerily reminiscent in structure of the Islamic declaration of faith, La Ilaha ila llah. There is no god, except the one God. (I am not a painter, I am a poet. Get it?) Two independent clauses separated by a comma. Not only connected, but commutative. A refutation followed by an affirmation. A dialectic. O’Hara asserts in a very logical way, to a disbelieving and hypocritical art world, that poetry is superior to other art forms, i.e., there is no artistic expression equal to the pure artistic expression of Poetry, using an Islamic logic construction that preserved an Aristotelian logic function that preserved the purity of mathematical truth in a continuous thread from the ancients to the moderns.
IMAGERY. Sardines appears in all caps three times. Once for the Father, once for the Son, and once for the Holy Spirit. A clear reference to Christian symbolism. And finding Mike’s painting hanging in the gallery at the end of the poem suggests that O’Hara thinks religious faith has found its final resting place with all the other curious historical artifacts in galleries and museums. His poem, his proof, at the level of imagery, is a pastiche, an appropriation of the oft-cited Bertrand Russell essay, Why I am not a Christian. Same construction.
TONE: conversational but slightly ambiguous, definitely an anti-narrative (One day, i.e., once upon a time).
ATTITUDE: uncertain, self-effacing, doubtful. O’Hara says: “I think I would rather be a painter…” So he is not sure, he only thinks so. He expresses a some doubt only to draw you in. He appears pitiable. Everybody loves a whining doubter. So you lower your resistance and he slices your aorta! Think also rhymes with drink. Let’s not take it too seriously. RHYTHM. A definite syncopation with alliteration. A pristine percussion. A cool bass line with rhymes: Think, Drink, drink, drink/ I go, days go, I go, days go, I drop in/ Orange, orange, orange, orange. I can almost it hear the beat. I CAN hear the beat. Twelve poems, a twelve tone system of music...
SPEAKERS AND VOICES. There are three speakers here (another allusion to the aforementioned Trinity). On the surface, Frank is talking with Mike about the new painting. But watch the quotes in the second stanza that give it away: Frank: “Where’s SARDINES?”; Second person: All that’s left is just letters (Maybe Frank thinking…); Mike: “It was too much.”
SYMBOLISM. Refer back to Imagery above. Could Mike’s SARDINES in the gallery be a reference to Goya's painting the Burial of the Sardine? Goya doesn't illustrate the fish in his painting, either, and, “All that's left is just the letters.” The letters in Goya's painting spell out Mortu (Death). Again, the Gallery where O’Hara see’s Goldberg’s Sardines is a resting place for paintings, a type of burial. The end of the road. The end. It is a death of sorts. It is also an allegory to death and resurrection. But that is the subject for another essay. ORANGE on the other hand "symbolizes endurance and strength, the color of fire and flame. It represents the red of passion tempered by the yellow of wisdom. It is the symbol of the sun,” as permanent a natural representation as we know.
And the proof of the proof is already alluded to. Poetry is immortal. The syncopation, the imagery in words, the symbolic representation all endure beyond the end of the exhibition, beyond the life of the gallery. The proof itself, ultimately, reveals O’Hara’s metaphysical conceit, establishing an analogy between the spiritual qualities of orange (endurance) and sardines (the death and resurrection of the Trinity) as religious symbols and the superiority of poetry as an art form to convey values and principles.

1 comment:

  1. Great work from a fellow ModPoian! I'm espcially impressed by your noticing the similarity to the Islamic expression of faith. Nice pickup!