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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.

Frank O’Hara

Let us do a close-reading of this poem which is in many aspects extraordinary. The thing is: I love this text and if you dare read all of the lines that follow, you will understand why…


Personally, I have often wondered if I could be as good at painting as I am at poetry. But I never gave it a try. It seems that these two arts are somehow world apart while being close as we can see with Imagism. Today, I am given the great opportunity to discuss a poem talking about this old doubt of mine. It sounds great!

Frank O’hara asked himself: “Why I am not a painter?” And he found a funny way to answer that question by making a real-life comparison between a painting and a poem. What a striking contrast of arts!

And, he starts by saying something very interesting: “I think I would rather be a painter, but I am not.” This sentence makes crystal clear the poet’s wish to be what he is not. Oddly enough, it seems that being a painter is a state of mind or a quality one has or has not. And that quality is: Understanding the creation process of painting! Reason why a remarkable analogy is thereafter given to describe how much painting resembles poetry and how much it differs from it…


1.      On the idea

It could greatly help to first give a glance at this dialogue about a painting being created:

Frank O’hara: “You have SARDINES in it.”

Mike Goldberg: “Yes, it needed something there.”

Doesn’t it sound weird, especially the word “something”? It looks like the painter does not know where exactly he is going with his painting. The poet had the impression of seeing “SARDINES” and enquired about his guess.

The painter replies: Amongst all these red and blue and white colors I have used to describe stuffs that do not exist, it could be interesting to add “something” everybody can take as reference for the real world, “something” we all know, “something” like “SARDINES”.

So, “Yes, it needed something there.” sounds like “Great idea! This picture could be about sardines since I am not sure of what it is all about!”

Therefore, the first difference between painting and poetry is that painting can start with absolutely no idea and end up making reference to something that exists,—a common idea. With poetry, things are quite different.

Indeed, before starting a poem, the writer says: “One day I am thinking of a color: orange. I write a line about orange.” This means that before writing, the poet is able to visualize the main theme of his poem(s). He ultimately knows where he is going! It all starts with an idea that gives birth to the poem whereas painting can start with an image that will give birth to an idea.

Note: Knowing the end-result irrevocably makes of Frank O’hara a poet and not a painter!

2.      On the number of letters and content

Well, another dialogue happening at the end of the painting could tell us more:

Frank O’hara: « Where’s SARDINES? »

Mike Goldberg (making reference to the letters): « It was too much »

Now everyone can understand why Mr. O’hara is not a painter! Indeed, for painters, letters are just too much! While poets love letters, painters run away from them. For painters, letters are not as meaningful as they are for poets. Poets and painters do not share the same degree of love for letters and this is an understatement! In truth, poets use letters and letters and letters… Painters use colors and colors and colors…

But, hey! Stop for a minute and look closer again at what Goldberg said: “It was too much”. This is also a declaration about the “SARDINES” themselves: They are just too much. I searched on Google the image of the painting and indeed, there are no sardines in it because as the painter thought: “It was too much”.

But, what about the writer?

He said: “I write a line about orange. Pretty soon it is a whole page of words, not lines. Then another page.” He is therefore extensive and expensive on his theme! Oranges are never too much! All that could be said about oranges need to be said. The more precise and descriptive the poem, the better it is!

Note: Loving using letters and saying as much as he can about his themes make of Frank O’hara a poet and not a painter!

3.      On the number of creations

The contrast here is not on a dialogue but on two quotes from the text:

A: “The painting is finished.”

B: It’s twelve poems”

Here we can see that poets can easily act upon their inspirations and create more on a theme than painters could. Poetry is not easier than painting! But poetry is just more fertile, more fruitful and more prolific than painting because it manipulates words! At the end of the day, the poet can create more than a painter.

Note: Being this productive makes of Frank O’hara a poet and not a painter!


There are three (3) similarities we were able to notice between painting and poetry that strengthened the desire of the poet to become a painter, to become what he definitely is not:

1.      First, painting and poetry can treat the same themes. For instance, in this text both the writer and the painter use their creativity to mull over food. The painter draws about SARDINES while the poet writes about ORANGES;

2.      Second, both writer and painter give Food-titles to their creation and do not use these keywords  in the contents of their artworks;

3.      Finally, duration for creation is almost the same for both writer and painter: It took them “days”.


It is not easy to become what your soul is not… Frank O’hara is a poet and sees the world as such. To become a painter would require seeing and capturing the world differently, not with letters and words but with colors and paints,—a very hard bet!

While close-reading this text, I have learned the answers to a question I secretly asked myself: “Why I am not a painter?” And frankly, I personally think that it is better for me to stick to poetry since all of my love is for the creating process letters enable me to achieve!

Gilles Fabien Dogbo

Illustration: Mike Goldberg


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