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.
from The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara. Copyright 1995  by Maureen Granville-Smith, Administratrix of the Estate of Frank O'Hara. Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc, www.randomhouse.com/category/poetry/
We don’t always notice everything about a poem at once or even on the fifth or sixth try. It takes years to come to love some poems and others seem cemented into our skulls from almost before we read them. Do you know that feeling, when you read a poem and it seems so intimately familiar to you that you could have dreamt it, yet it is also extraordinarily new and unique in a way that expands your ability to think? Perfumes are like this, too. There are scents that connect with our inner being for no reason at all. Some of them don’t even smell “good” exactly but we find ourselves inescapably driven toward them. I think anybody who hunts down Serge Lutens' Muscs Koublai Khan after reading the descriptions of it must be experiencing that very thing. Sarasotagirl on Makeupalley kindly summed it up for us:
"Hot monkey sex in a bottle.
By which I mean: Sex between monkeys. In the heat."
Where were we? Oranges, yes. Shortly after I posted last week’s notes, I discovered I hadn’t even scratched the surface on the phenomenon of orange in perfumery. All of a sudden, the theme of orange is everywhere, and because I didn’t even discuss some of my very favorites, I thought this would be the time to whip out a little Frank O’Hara and have a discussion of artful oranges.
Orange seems to span all styles and moods in perfumery. In an eau de cologne it can sparkle, while in a deep spicy oriental it can lend exotic power and allure to even the most challenging scents. Calvin Klein Obsession (mandarin, bergamot, jasmine, rose, orange blossoms, coriander, tagete, armoise, amber, and oakmoss) and Fendi Theorema (tangelo, sweet orange, jasmine, osmanthus, spices, cinnamon, pink pepper, cream, amber, Mysore Sandalwood, and gaiac wood, musk) are great examples, and there are many, many others.
I love the spicy, animal oranges of Obsession in the pure perfume concentrate
which is now hard to find. (Don’t disregard Obsession just because
you hated it in 1985 – it’s well worth trying again after two decades
on the market.) The juice itself is an orangy-brown and it actually
looks like some sort of drug to me when it hits my skin in a tiny, aromatic,
golden drops. Theorema is a brand new love, and a gift from a
fellow perfume lover – a deeply golden and gorgeous orange that does
not go near any cliché of perfumery. It dips graciously into
amber territory but never fully gives way to either sweet or spice.
It is a great shame that this one has been discontinued.
Among other orange-note notables:
- Anne Pliska – A resolutely elegant fragrance which some people consider somewhat “chilly” despite its depth and warmth. I love it for its paradoxical qualities. It is a warm embrace, it is cool elegance, it is an invitation to stay but not past one’s welcome. Notes include: mandarin, bergamot, jasmine, geranium, vanilla, amber, musk, patchouli.
- Caron Montaigne – Montaigne came to me as a gift from a fellow perfume lover who thought that it might be just right for me, and she could not have been more accurate. It is a beautiful, soft and feminine, but also very modern. It was once a “secret” fragrance known to only a very few select Caron customers. Recently it has been relaunched in the eau de parfum strength. Notes include: mandarin, bitter orange, cassis, jasmine, narcissus, mimosa, spices and vanilla.
- Etro Messe de Minuit – Another generous gift that came to me recently from a dear friend, this fragrance is, in my opinion, knock-out gorgeous. It has a somewhat goth reputation of being the fragrance of dusty tombs, veils, and spooky incense-scented chambers. Naming it “Midnight Mass” probably helped in this regard, but I find it very lively and strikingly beautiful. The orange and ambery labdanum play long into the drydown after a somewhat sweet/tangy honeyed opening. Notes include: orange, bergamot, tangerine, labdanum, incense, myrrh, cinnamon, patchouli, honey, amber, musk.
- Chanel Coco – Sadly, I cannot wear la Grande Dame Coco. I’ve tried, really, I have. She smells of ash and sweat and dusty potpourri on my skin. I envy those who can wear her, as on the right skin, she is pure magic. Notes include: mandarin, amber, pimento, coriander, rose, carnation, cinnamon, vanilla and honey.
- Creed Orange Spice – Orange, cinnamon, clove and what I think must be a healthy dose of civet make this the one fragrance in all of the Creed world I like best. Absolutely invigorating and very, very sexy. The Scented Salamander posted a lovely short review of it here.
Frank O’Hara made the most of his position and talent by bringing a unique voice to the mid-Twentieth Century poetry circles, though he was not the first unlearned poet to spill free verse onto a page and be praised for his originality. Neither was he the prototypical erudite artiste with a deep dark secret that could only be expressed in cryptic verse. As one Amazon.com reviewer, James Hughes, noted: “This stuff is the secret pulse of the second half of the 20th century, as Eliot and Stevens were the pulse of the first.” He was to contemporary poetry what Calvin Klein Obsession was to perfume in the 80s and early 90s: a ubiquitous and tangible influence.
Reading O’Hara in the late 80s changed my mind about poetry entirely and made me excited about the possibilities that plainspoken paradox and ironic wit can present to the literary world. In “Why I am not a Painter” he does that thing that we should never catch a poet doing but he does it so well we forgive him: he winks knowingly. He grins, throws back a martini and puts his arm around you, as if to say “I have no idea what all this is about, and I live here!” You, reader, are Frank's personal guest at a very hip but intimate gathering. No heavy topics, no boring monologues. Just the two of you having the best conversation you've ever had at a party. He makes you feel smart, and you get it. You get every innuendo and you, too, have entered the art world because Frank O'Hara smiles at you and nods, "Yes, exactly." And when he wanders away to the next guest, you stare contentedly out onto the skyline and realize the absurdity and insignificance of all the Oranges in your life -- the things in which you have invested, the things you consider beautiful beyond description and the things that drive you out of yourself and deep back in.
- "Why I am Not a Painter" by Frank O'Hara from The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara.
Copyright 1995  by Maureen Granville-Smith, Administratrix of the
Estate of Frank O'Hara. Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, a division of
Random House, Inc, www.randomhouse.com/category/poetry/