Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1231
Lines 1-3: O'Hara begins the poem with a simple statement of fact. Answering the implied question of the poem's title, O'Hara notes that he is not a painter for what, to him, is a very obvious reason: he is a poet. Still, the question begs a more elaborate answer, and...
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O'Hara begins the poem with a simple statement of fact. Answering the implied question of the poem's title, O'Hara notes that he is not a painter for what, to him, is a very obvious reason: he is a poet. Still, the question begs a more elaborate answer, and O'Hara admits, "I think I would rather be / a painter, but I am not." (At the time, "abstract expressionist" painters, such as Jackson Pollock, had gained an enormous amount of attention in the popular press, so it was inevitable that O'Hara, what with his own involvement in the art world, would be asked why he himself had not become a painter.) The third line of the poem then ends with the word "Well," with the remainder of the sentence continuing on the next line after a stanza break.
At first, this sudden ending of the line may seem arbitrary, but allowing the word "Well" to dangle here serves a purpose. First, by keeping it close to the sentence, "I think I would rather be / a painter, but I am not," the word "Well" hints at how O'Hara feels about the fact that he is not a painter. Here, "Well" could just as easily be "oh well," which is to say that not being a painter is not something that upsets O'Hara to any great degree—certainly, O'Hara does not consider his being a poet a liability. Placed at the end of this line, "Well" serves the dual purpose of providing commentary on O'Hara's situation, and of initiating the more precise explanation that continues after the stanza break.
In this next stanza, O'Hara narrates an account of the creation of a painting by his friend, Mike Goldberg. O'Hara does not present a cliched image of the artist as a tortured individual slaving over a painting, but rather a portrait of the artist as a calm working man.
As Goldberg begins his painting, O'Hara comes to visit. With O'Hara saying, "I drop in," one should note that this is an informal situation: O'Hara and Goldberg are on equal footing, and his unscheduled visit is neither an imposition nor an inconvenience. Goldberg takes a break from his work and offers O'Hara a drink. With the words, "I drink; we drink," O'Hara starts to delineate the similarities between his friend, the painter, and himself, the poet: just as the painter drinks, he too drinks. What one immediately sees here is that art and everyday life go together.
O'Hara then casually looks up at the painting and makes the simplest of comments: "You have SARDINES in it." (Putting an actual word in his painting, Goldberg is, in a way, borrowing from the poet's territory.) Goldberg's reply, "Yes, it needed something there," is equally simple and direct. Their discussion of the painting is devoid of any self-conscious analysis or direction, which implies that the painting is being created in a similar fashion.
The word, "Oh," which begins the following line does not indicate surprise on O'Hara's part. O'Hara, needing no further explanation of what Goldberg is attempting to do with his painting, is simply closing this brief dialogue between himself and his friend. O'Hara then shows how life continues without anything remarkable going on. "And the days go by," he writes, and when he drops in a second time Goldberg is still working on the painting. Again, O'Hara writes, "and the days go by." Using the same phrase over and over again, O'Hara simulates the passage of time.
When O'Hara drops in a third time he finds that the painting is finished. Seeing that Goldberg has removed the word "SARDINES," leaving just random letters with no "meaning" in them, O'Hara asks, "Where's SARDINES?" This time O'Hara is surprised. Goldberg answers, "It was too much," indicating that he arrived at the finished work of art through a process of removal.
Writing "But me?" at the opening of the final stanza, O'Hara sets forth to explain what he thinks is the difference between the process by which he creates a poem and the process by which Goldberg creates his painting. Where Goldberg starts by painting the word "SARDINES" on a canvas, O'Hara starts by thinking about the color orange. Like Goldberg borrowing from the poet's territory by using a word, O'Hara is borrowing from the painter's territory by using a color. But rather than removing things from his work, like Goldberg, O'Hara keeps adding things. "Pretty soon," O'Hara writes, "it is a / whole page of words, not lines. / Then another page." To further clarify the difference between the poem and the painting, O'Hara notes that what he is adding are "words, not lines." At this point the poem comes to a climax with a battle of sorts between the language of a poem and the lines of a painting. Also of note here is the struggle of the poet to express in words what the painter can express by the simple use of a color.
As O'Hara continues with the poem, he finds that what he wants to add is far removed from his original idea: "There should be / so much more, not of orange, of / words, of how terrible orange is / and life." O'Hara lets the closing of this sentence, "and life," begin another line. Again, this is not an arbitrary ending of a line. Here, O'Hara is employing what Perloff calls a "floating modifier"—namely, "word groups that point two ways." The words, "and life," are connected to the concept "of how terrible orange is." But they also reflect upon the words that directly follow it, providing a transition to yet another repetition of the phrase, "Days go by."
In repeating this phrase, which is used twice in the first stanza where the process of painting is described, O'Hara is subtly setting up the closing revelation of the poem in which O'Hara realizes that there are more similarities than differences in the way he and Goldberg work. As with Goldberg, it takes a number of days to complete his work. Furthermore, when the poem is finished, O'Hara finds that it does not even mention "orange," his starting point—just as Goldberg's finished painting no longer contains the word "SARDINES," which was his starting point.
In the lines, "It is even in / prose, I am a real poet," O'Hara, after temporarily struggling with the apparent limitations of words, is reaffirming the power of words and the art of poetry. Although he says that his work is "in prose," he is not saying that his work is not a poem—it most certainly is a poem, a poem that has taken the form of prose. In addition to this, O'Hara is also implying that he can't help but be a poet.
Finally, even though O'Hara never mentions orange in his poem, he nevertheless decides to call it "ORANGES." Then, upon seeing Goldberg's painting in a gallery, O'Hara finds that Goldberg has done the same thing, calling his SARDINE-less painting "SARDINES." In other words, O'Hara, though he never actually uses orange in his poem, still needs the painterly concept of color; and likewise, Goldberg, though he has no words in his painting, still needs the poetic tool of language to provide entry to his art. Thus the poet and the painter, despite their different approaches, are equals in the overall world of the arts.