A Critique on the Works by William Carlos Williams and Frank O'Hara

During the early nineteen hundred, painters began to break away from traditional subjects and ideas associated with painting to refresh old conventions. Some artists claimed that painting was simply a matter of paint upon canvas and not a mirror to nature or a window on the world. They began to explore new ways to describe the world with the intent to shock viewers out of their preconceptions. This new breed of the painter, the abstract expressionist, recognized the spontaneity of the creative moment and constructed works that would attempt to deconstruct ideas from the past.

The focus of this essay will be how these revolutionary ideas infused their way into literature with a specific focus on works by American writers William Carlos Williams and Frank O’Hara. Using critical analysis the author of this essay will attempt to show how both authors incorporated ideas from the abstract expressionist movement into their works. As a result, the reader may acquire a new appreciation for the themes and images discussed by both authors while achieving an understanding of the ideas perpetuated by abstract expressionists.

To assess how writers, like Williams and O’Hara, were influenced by ideas propagated by painters one may be inclined to look into the historical period in which they lived

Between the years 1909 through 1925, there was a period of unprecedented collaboration between art communities in New York, Paris, and London. In 1913 abstract expressionist art made its first major appearance in North America at the Armory Show in New York and this is cited as having a major influence on American artists of this period.

Get quality help now
Dr. Karlyna PhD

Proficient in: William Carlos Williams

4.7 (235)

“ Amazing writer! I am really satisfied with her work. An excellent price as well. ”

+84 relevant experts are online
Hire writer

A poet, William Carlos Williams, was impressed at the advances made in painting and set out to revive literature with the philosophies of abstract expressionists. Even before the date of the Armory Show, Williams was interested in painting and he had associations with painters, such as Charles Demuth. As abstract expressionist art gained momentum in America, alliances were made between poets and painters and Williams made valuable connections. He joined a painter and poet circle financed by Walter Arensberg in 1915 and he exchanged intellectual ideas with artists from Europe and America. Williams collaborated with painters by using their abstract ideas and paintings to gain inspiration to fuel his literary projects. He was concerned with breaking away from old European poetic tradition and verse to create poetry for modern times. His poetic style and conceptions led the way for other poets to adopt his foundations and helped create a modernist type of poetry. Frank O’Hara similarly dealt with poetry as Williams and this could be attributed to his collaborations with modernist abstract artists. O’Hara, like Williams, became associated with American and European artists when he moved to New York and started working at the Museum of Modern Arts in the 1950s. O’Hara is cited as being one of the founding fathers of the New York school of poets and these writers had close connections with the New York school of painters. In a sense, the poetry of Williams and O’Hara is similar because they were both influenced by painters and were open to using modernist art to enhance the meaning of their work. Both poets held that “Poems are made of words, not ideas” (Lechman, 3), and as a result, William and O’Hara look at poems as visual objects and pay close attention to how specific words and lines appear on the page. In the pieces selected for critical analysis, one may want to pay attention to how these poets can liken their works to abstract paintings while incorporating the sentiments of abstract artists.

Williams Carlos Williams’ poem “The rose is obsolete” (1923) is a good representation of how modernist abstract art enhanced the field of poetry. This poem appeared in Williams’ “Spring and All” (1923) and is argued to have a close association with the Juan Gris collage, “Roses” (1914). In his collage Gris used a daring clash of styles and materials to create a work of art that broke traditional conventions. It consisted of cut-outs that cover almost the whole canvas and they were so elaborately drawn and painted over that it is difficult to distinguish between the detail of the original collage and the parts Gris painted over (MacGowan, 112). Williams believed that Gris’ work was a clear representation of what the modern trend was and Williams’ poem tries to recreate what Gris did on canvas (Fure, 11). It can be argued that the poem’s main theme mimics the sentiments of modern art because it highlights the breaking of tradition and the unlimited potential when this occurs. Line 1 of Williams’ poem, “The rose is obsolete”, is a good mark of how painters felt about traditional and accepted art of the early nineteenth century. It is argued that the rose is a representation of art in general and, by using this analogy, the subsequent lines shed light on the modern art movement that Williams is trying to represent in his poem (Langworthy, 2). The rose is obsolete because of the stale emotional associations of the word as a symbol and its overuse and exploitation have made it lose its meaning. As the rose, or any art subject, becomes more popular it is applied to more things, “it renews/itself in metal or porcelain”(lines 7-8). Artists paint what is popular and safe and painting has become void of artistic originality. Creating a rose, like art, has become so mathematical it, “becomes a geometry” (line 13). In lines 21-22 the rose once represented love, “The rose carried the weight of love/but love is at an end-of rose”, similarly traditional art once represented unique emotions but through repetitive themes and style, it becomes impotent. Williams draws our attention to the edge of the petal in lines 22-23, “it is at the edge of the petal that loves waits”, the reader gets the impression that the outskirt of the petal is where the definition begins and accordingly the outskirts of our imaginations holds the key to the next wave of artistic expression (Halter, 78). This journey is described on line 32, the path it will take is like “steel” it is strong yet delicately fine. Perhaps this can be viewed in conjunction with lines 25-28 where the petals are described as fragile, just like the state of new modern art expression. However, once an art form has been freed from tradition, its limits may penetrate “space” (line 43) and this is also alluded to in line 36 by using the “milky way”. Williams’ poem also displays characteristics that link it directly to Gris’ painting and these enhance the work as a whole. In the poem, there are many occasions where Williams pays close attention to the edges of the petals. As stated above, the edges of the petals may carry another meaning about what is beyond traditional art. However, Williams could be alluding to Gris’ roses because they have a literal edge and also end in an edge since the cut-outs cut through the pieces of flower Gris used to create his work. Gris’s abstract painting also carries ambiguity in that his illusion of depth is created and revoked; shadows are brighter than the things that cast them and there is an overlapping of planes (Marling, 194). Williams recreates these ambiguities and enhances his work by meeting these paradoxes head-on. For example in line 3 “the double facet/cementing grooved columns of air”. One could also take notice of lines 5-6, “The edge/cuts without cutting” or how Williams describes the end of the rose petals. In lines 2-3 he writes “but each petal ends in/an edge” and then he carries on to question this statement in lines 9-11, “whither? it ends-/ but if it ends the start is begun”. One might also take notice of how the rose is described, in lines 18-20. “Somewhere the sense/makes copper roses/steel roses-“. The rose’s petals are also associated with steel in lines 32-33, “From the petal’s edge a line starts that being of steel”. Although Williams characterizes the rose with strong imagery he also recognizes its fragility. These ambiguities in the poem mimic those that are in Gris’ painting and as a result, the viewer and reader are invited to interpret these pieces similarly. The overall layout of the poem could also be paralleled to Gris’ painting. The abrupt line breaks and the hanging position of some of the lines compare with Gris’ collage and could convey the tension and the immediacy of the imaginative moment that modernist painters and writers might have been faced with when breaking from old conventions (Langworth, 3). Line 29 is hanging in the middle of the page but if it is read in conjunction with line 28 it reads, “touching what”. Williams might be asking what is at the outskirts of the norm that is so important. Or what is the potential if old traditional art forms are broken? In looking at the painting, the original has a background of blue but the copy Williams would have seen was black. This background could be alluded to in lines 32-39 when Williams describes a mysterious imaginative flight that “penetrates/the Milky Way”. In analyzing Williams’ poem in conjunction with Gris’ collage and abstract expressionist sentiments the reader is given a critical impression of how poets and painters can be viewed similarly. Williams was able to bring these aspects into his work by adapting the techniques of modernist painters in his poetry and as a result, his work is enhanced by traditional poetic conventions. O’Hara lived during the same time as Williams and also used techniques similar to Williams to supply commentcomments, on abstract art while enhancing his poetry.

O’Hara’s poem, “Why I am Not a Painter” (1957), is similar to Williams’ poem in that it is also commenting on abstract modern art. At the start of the poem, it seems that O’Hara is writing about the differences between painting and poetry but at the end, it is more about the similarities. In a sense, he is writing about what Williams was trying to show us in “the Rose is Obsolete”; that the techniques and philosophy behind the abstract modernist painting can be applied to poetry. O’Hara gives the reader a more hands-on approach than Williams because he engages us in the making of a painting and a poem to let the reader view the similarities and differences. O’Hara is better able to place the reader into the scenes he creates because he uses real names and colloquial settings. This piece gives a clear representation of some of the sentiments modernist painters stood by; for example the point of not needing a key subject to base a work on (Lechman, 1). In Goldberg’s painting and O’Hara’s poem their main subjects, sardines, and oranges, are not given a key role. When Goldberg states, “I needed something there” (line 9) and “it was too much” (line 16), the reader is given the impression that although his painting should be about SARDINES, its significance is downplayed. Similarly, O’Hara states that he wants to write a poem on the color orange but by the time he has finished his work he has not even, “mentioned” (line 26), his main subject. This piece also captures the spontaneity and unconventional aspects of the modernist abstract creative process (Lechman, 4). This is displayed when O’Hara starts to create his poem on oranges, “One day I am thinking of a color: orange. I write a line/about orange. Pretty soon it is a/ whole page of words/…it is even in prose.” (lines 17-25). This also could be said to show that modernist artists were not constrained by conventions; O’Hara’s work has veered completely from the path he started from. The author has also likened painting and poetry in this poem using paralleling devices that work effectively. The author wants us to view stanzas two and three simultaneously for their structures are similar (Riggs, 82). Goldberg picks “SARDINES” to be in his painting, one would think that he would paint an image of a sardine in his work but instead, he ends up painting the words “SARDINES”. Similarly, O’Hara starts with the color orange to base his poem on, while color is an image, it becomes a word, ORANGES, and in both cases, the artist is combining representation with abstract art form (Lechman, 5). The reader gets the impression that the artists are treating sardines and oranges as just words, Williams and O’Hara both believed that there are no ideas behind words and therefore there is nothing to paint or write specifically about (Riggs, 84). One could also look at the use of capitalization to see that O’Hara might have been trying to visually parallel these words. Both artists in O’Hara’s poem can also be likened because their work is improvisatory and does not conclude with a clear subject. In lines 28-29 the titles of the artist’s works are put together, SARDINES and ORANGES, and one gets the feeling that these works are one and the same, just like the modernist poet and painter. In the second stanza of the poem, O’Hara gives us the impression that there is some sort of intellectual collaboration between Goldberg and him. There is also a strong circular pattern in the poem represented by O’Hara’s frequent drop inns to Goldberg’s residents and the closeness of the similar artistic processes in stanzas two and three. This circular theme of the poem unifies the exchange of ideas between the poet and the painter and deepens the sense of similarity between the two. There are points of ambiguity in the work that calls into question notions of parallelism. In lines 1-3, the poem fails to close off its meaning making it more abstract, “I am not a painter/…why?/I think I would rather be a painter”. There are also points of difficulty in lines 24-25, “It is even/in prose, I am a real poet. The reader might be given the impression that O’Hara does not know what he is, especially since he just wrote a piece of prose and claims to be a “real poet” (line 25). The flow of the poem is also interrupted by the fact that stanzas two and three could be laid out opposite one another and in this way, the poem deconstructs itself (Smith, 1). Perhaps O’Hara has used this theme of deconstruction to show that modern artists can break away from traditional word associations. This can also be found in how O’Hara and Goldberg reconstruct the words SARDINES and ORANGES to create artworks that resembled neither of these images. O’Hara’s poem gives the reader a good feel for how similar the abstract painting and writing process is. This poem is also a good representation of how the collaborations between poets and painters in O’Hara’s time were used to enhance and inspire artistic work.

Analyzing both poets’ works indicates how poets managed to use the advances in painting to enhance poetry. In the poems that were selected, O’Hara and Williams both successfully illustrated the techniques of abstract expressionist poetry by adhering to the sentiments of the modernist artists. Williams’ poem represents this well because he chose to seek inspiration and a visual foundation for his poem based on Gris’ abstract piece. In using the rose as a symbol for art in general it produces a reading closely resembling painters’ feelings towards art in the early nineteenth century. The idea that conventional views on art must be renewed is strongly echoed in this work, as well as the notion that the artist, once freed from convention, can express ideas with unlimited potential. O’Hara’s piece is different from Williams’ in that it explicitly describes the making of an abstract painting and poem while drawing on similarities between the two artists. O’Hara demonstrates the collaborative process that was vital in literary adaptation from the abstract painter school. He has also invoked some of the central themes from abstract expressionist thought to enhance the significance of his work. Notions like not needing a subject to base artworks on, the improvisatory artistic process, and the discarding of old conventional ideas are strongly argued in the piece. However, both poems leave open the possibility for criticism of the abstract form. In Williams’ work, we get the notion that the potential for subjects that are expressed abstractly is profound but there is also a sense in this piece that this potential is awe-striking or in O’Hara’s piece “too much” (line 16). The reader might get the impression that abstract art and expression could go too far and in this manner, these poems recognize the likelihood of this occurrence. Williams’ and O’Hara’s poems do make a valuable comment on the modernist technique while showing that it can be applied to poetry without being too abstract and losing readers in the process.

Cite this page

A Critique on the Works by William Carlos Williams and Frank O'Hara. (2022, Aug 10). Retrieved from https://paperap.com/a-critique-on-the-works-by-william-carlos-williams-and-frank-o-hara/

Let’s chat?  We're online 24/7