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A line about orange: thoughts on poets and painters

I have always been interested in the relationship between art and poetry.

For many years now, I have been using art as a way of stimulating my poetic practice, sometimes by channeling the dead – such as Jackson Pollock and Cy Twombly – but also by collaborating with living artists – such as Linda Karshan, David Harker and Alison Gill – and making new work alongside them, directly inspired by their output.

I would say that art is as important to me as poetry, but I have never attempted to paint or draw or make a film. So, the question is: why not?


Frank O'Hara

Frank O’Hara leaving the Museum of Modern Art. Photo, Fred McDarragh


The great New York poet Frank O’Hara spent much of his time in the company of artists. As a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he championed the emerging painters of his day: Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell and Larry Rivers among them. Their project was to reposition how the world could be seen through the filter of abstract expressionism, and in the meantime, O’Hara was quietly repositioning poetry, to bring together the quotidian and the extraordinary, the high art and low life of New York City.

O’Hara’s poem, ‘Why I am not a painter’ begins with the lines


I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not.


The poem continues by giving an account of a visit to his longstanding friend the artist Mike Goldberg’s studio as he is working on a new canvas. Goldberg has scrawled the word SARDINES into the paint. ‘The days go by’ and finally O’Hara drops in again to find the painting is finished, but the word SARDINES is now gone, ‘All that’s left is just / letters.’ “It was too much,” Mike says.’



Sardines, 1955, by Michael Goldberg, in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum


O’Hara goes on to tell us


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.


Surely the joke here is that both painter and poet are grasping for something which is beyond the boundaries of language, but skirting around the issue in their process of making. Goldberg starts with a word that is then fragmented into letters, thus no longer meaning anything (if ‘sardines’ ever had a fixed meaning in the abstract jumble of colour and shape that makes up his composition); O’Hara starts with a colour that he finds impossible to define or describe, and ultimately doesn’t even mention (I am also reminded of the poet’s quandary that there is no full rhyme for the word ‘orange’). Orange becomes an abstract concept sitting uncomfortably at the centre of the poem (or twelve poems, as they end up being).

But what seems to be most important in all of this is practice. ‘Days go by’ is a phrase repeated several times in the poem, a neat way of encompassing the process that both poet and painter go through in making their works; adding, subtracting, failing, trying something else, until the work is finished (if it is even finished).

This to me seems to be the common ground between painter and poet, and while I am not a painter, I probably write like one. I am also a poet who begins and ends with image. It is often the image that grabs me, that makes me want to sit down and write in the first place. Mark Doty, another poet who often writes from art, describes this first impulse as ‘exploratory description’:

‘I almost always begin with description, as a way of focusing on that compelling image, the poem’s “given.” I know that what I can see is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg; if I do my work of study and examination, and if I am lucky, the image which I’ve been intrigued by will become a metaphor, will yield depth and meaning, will lead me to insight’ (from Introspections: Contemporary American Poets on One of Their Own Poems ed. Robert Pack and Jay Parini. Middlebury College Press, 1997).

Often I begin a poem based on a painting as a way of getting to grips with it. Some paintings, like some poems, are difficult. The meaning is not always evident on the first viewing, or even the fiftieth. I am not an art critic either, so the poem is often my way of challenging what I’ve seen, and writing about it over time is a way of understanding it, or at least getting to a personal understanding.

And that personal understanding, as Doty suggests, often leads to something else. What ‘sardines’ and ‘oranges’ have in common is that they are part of the living world, connected to both colour and object. And in the living world (think of the concept of still life) there is also a notion of mortality, which is perhaps why O’Hara says ‘how terrible orange is / and life’ (which comes before ‘Days go by’, suggesting the passage of time in a narrative sense but also in a larger sense). Both artist and writer are attempting an act of preservation.

So why bring the two things together? The painting exists, the poem exists, why write a poem about a painting? Perhaps in doing so, the poet creates something that extends beyond both media. It may be impossible to define orange, but it exists in the world in fire and sunsets and fruit bowls, and sometimes it takes an artist to present these things to us differently, so that we see them anew and understand what they might represent.

The American poet Jorie Graham has said, when asked about her motives for writing from paintings:

‘I don’t use paintings as much as spring off the scene in them which is strangely fixed and free from us and so makes especially evident our desire for transformation, our tiny imperialisms of the imagination. Paintings are “finished” and stilled in ways few things in nature are, and therefore resistant in ways that make my rage to change more visible in me’ (Shifrer, Anne. Iconoclasm in the Poetry of Jorie Graham. Colby Quarterly, Volume 31, number 2, June 1995, p 142-153).

For me, one of the great pleasures as a poet has been to use art to challenge that ‘rage to change’ as Graham puts it, to extend my vision, to move me beyond what’s in my head, to reposition the world. And it seems it is enough for me to try and do that in words, and to admire what my painter friends do without attempting it myself.


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Image Credits:

Thomas Hawk


Sardines, 1955, by Michael Goldberg, in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Frank O’Hara leaving the Museum of Modern Art. Photo, Fred McDarragh