Orpheus said that the mind is a slide ruler. It can fit around anything. Words can mean anything. Show me your body, he said. It only means one thing.
– Eurydice (2004), Sarah Ruhl
The poem is a simple one. The original: seven letters produced via typewriter, centred on an otherwise white page by its lonesome. In 1965, this seemingly harmless creation by Aram Saroyan changed the history of American poetry. The minimalist poem was then published in The American Literary Anthology, and as compensation, the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) paid each published writer a generous sum of $500 total. Many became outraged. Congress even met to discuss the organization’s absurd use of its funds, and demanded the resignation of the organization’s chairwoman. The public sent letters to the NEA and clogged their mailboxes, all infuriated that their taxpayer dollars were being wasted on a misspelled word. The massive outcry obtained the attention of Ronald Reagan, who used the poem as an example to strengthen his opposition to government spending, more than twenty-five years after the poem’s publication. The backlash Saroyan received for his minimalist work in the sixties kept it out of print for over thirty years.
I have a lot of love for Saroyan, and for minimalist and experimental poetry in general. I know that statement makes me sound like a bougie motherfucker, and I’m actually very sorry about that. I also like sparkling water and linen dress shirts, so I already know I’m a pretentious dirtbag and I’m learning to live with my awful self so please be patient with me. I understand that his work can come off as insipid and inaccessible, but just give me a chance to convince you to love him too. I think I have found a wonderful thing, and would like to be given the opportunity to share my joy with you.
I purchased Saroyan’s Complete Minimalist Poems last winter without really knowing what I was getting myself into. The book was wrapped in plastic and though I was unable to flip through it and peer into its innards, I was intrigued by the stark white cover and the weight of it in my hands. At the counter, the cashier’s eyes lit up upon seeing the book in my possession, and asked if I was familiar with Saroyan’s works. When I told him I wasn’t, he immediately jotted down ‘lighght’ on a nearby piece of paper and gave me a quick explanation of its significance.
When I did finally cracked the book open, it took me less than twenty minutes to go through all two-hundred and eighty pages. Despite the short amount of time I spent engaged in the actual material itself, I couldn’t seem to stop thinking about it. I was surprised to find that Saroyan’s work stood as a real testament as to why I love writing in the first place. People learn to fall in love with language in many different ways, and mine was through phonetics, through the physicalities of language itself. I didn’t really take well to reading as a kid. It bored me to tears. I preferred to sit in front of the television and dig in the dirt for worms instead. Reading wasn’t something I learned to enjoy until high school, but I would like to think that I always loved words.
When I was younger, I would often find myself intrigued by certain words based on their sounds. I would repeat them aloud to myself and enjoy the shapes they forced my mouth and tongue to make. And once I said them enough times, it began to sound like cacophonic nonsense. I would devoid the word of its meaning by reducing it to absolute gibberish and find amusement in this. I loved fricatives and all the sounds that would give me an excuse to run the tip of my tongue over the edges of my front teeth. I was absolutely enthralled by the physicalities of the English language.
Saroyan’s work provides me with a similar type of pleasure. Instead of sound, he reduces the word to an image. One can argue that his work falls under the category of concrete/visual poetry (a form that currently has a pretty terrible reputation unfortunately). Instead of engaging in the act of reading, he forces his audience to engage in the act of seeing. Much like I did as a child through oral repetition, the poet strips the word of its meaning and context. Without contextual information, the written language is merely an act of mark making, and we look at it the way we would an abstract painting. For a clear example, we can look at his four-legged ‘m’, which is easily recognizable as both common and alien to the reader. He has converted the letter to something that is more akin to an image as opposed to a letter. It is almost architectural, like a row of Corinthian columns lining a long passageway.
Courtesy of Brief Poems
In his essay “Before the Alphabet,” Italo Calvino traces the emergence of the written language to Lower Mesopotamia around 3300 BC, when pictographic signs were engraved into slabs of sun dried clay. These forms became increasingly simplified over time for speed and clarity until the resemblance between the thing and the representation disappeared. This link can still be seen in certain varieties of Sino-Tibetan and Japonic languages, where certain characters can be seen as visual depictions of the language. For example, the character for person in Chinese (人) looks like an individual in mid-stride.
In his infamous poem, Saroyan’s choice of the word ‘light’ is an interesting one. It is a common word that English speakers are familiar with and can comprehend with ease despite the incorrect spelling. In the word ‘light,’ the ‘gh’ sound is a silent one and does not correspond in anyway to in the word’s correction pronunciation. It forces us to acknowledge the fluidity of the English language and mourn for the loss of dead sounds. It is a symbol that is unnecessary, for one can still comprehend the word without it. It’s non-utilitarian, superfluous, borderline decorative. Which is seemingly strange, considering that modern Western cultures value efficiency and pragmatism. We are so bound by tradition with language that we often get angry when people utilize certain modern day abbreviations (lol) or words like ‘lit’ or ‘trill’ to describe something they find cool, but language is organic and elastic. It grows and it moves much like we do.
The silent sounds present in ‘lighght’ greatly intrigue me, and I think it’s partly because I’m always mispronouncing words. Literally all the time. Sometimes, I get too excited and speak too fast and forget to enunciate and slur my speech like a giddy drunk. I grew up in a household of immigrants who mostly conversed in Vietnamese, a language that is much more choral than English (the octaves of your voice play a crucial importance in its orature). I didn’t really begin speaking English till I started elementary school. I thought ‘Kentucky Fried Chicken’ was ‘Kenturkey Fried Chicken’ till high school because that was the way my parents pronounced it. I assume that my fascination with English phonetics developed from this. The English language is filled with strange and exciting sounds, and I wanted to fill my mouth with all of them.
When I mispronounce a word, people often respond by laughing. I’m not necessarily offended by such a reaction, but I can’t help but think it’s strange considering how complex and absurd the English language is. I mean, how am I supposed to figure out on my own how to pronounce ‘lieutenant?’ English is the most difficult language to learn and is nearly impossible to master due to its lack of concrete rules. It borrows words from multiple dialects. It’s essentially the Frankenstein monster of languages. I’m currently going through a list of irregular verbs right at this moment and I’m repressing an urge to scream because I’m sitting in a very public place.
Aram Saroyan allows one to visually understand how we have come to assign meaning to the world around us, and how arbitrary and flawed the English language really is through a multitude of different written pieces. One of his poems reads as follows:
Despite the rather extensive list, it only takes a person familiar with the English language a second or two to fully scan through the poem and recognize what is nonsensical and what is capable of being ‘read’ (WHOM WINS). I have never been engaged in a work which has made me so consciously aware of how I read and process information, and how we have come assign meaning to everything. Words can indeed mean anything. We just have chosen to not let them.
Writing is such an utterly difficult thing. The act of writing itself is a struggle between the individual and the language he or she utilizes, an attempt to milk as much clarity as possible. There are so many words to sift through, so many different combinations to play around with. Everyday, we struggle to be honest with each other; we make attempts to successfully express ourselves through the written or spoken word. That is why we give so much praise to great writers. They are successfully accomplishing the near impossible. They have made us cry and scream, and broken our hearts within the first paragraph and assembled them back together by the last page.
The ways we think and live are not as articulate and understandable as the lives of people in books. And when I say this, I think of Joyce and Woolf and the ways they experimented with stream of consciousness writing in order to mimic the human experience. I think of Stein’s love for the phrase ‘a rose is a rose is a rose.’ I think of the reasonless baby-talk resonance of Dadaism. I think the one-hundred and twenty copies of bp nichol’s Cold Mountain that were burned to ashes after reading upon his instructions. I think of Aram Saroyan penning ‘lighght’ and setting the world aflame. Despite its scopic nature, the English language still cannot cover even a fraction of the ever expansive spectrum that is the human condition. That being said, I love it all the same. I come to love it even more everytime I remind myself that it is an absurd and flawed absolute.
About the Hello Friend series.