Complete Minimal Poems
By Aram Saroyan
Ugly Duckling Presse, $20.00 paper
Aram Saroyan, son of William Saroyan, and a well-known author, will be visiting my school on May 18 to speak with students about the fine art of writing. So it was with the interest of preparing my students for Saroyan’s visit that I introduced them to Ugly Duckling Presse’s recent publication of his Complete Minimal Poems. Then the controversy in the classroom began.
First, some background. Aram Saroyan has written a great number of books—novels, biographies, memoir, poetry, essays, photographs and words. This book, Complete Minimal Poems, “collects nearly all the poems Aram Saroyan wrote in the 1960s, when he was in his early 20s,” according to a recent review in The New York Times written by Richard Hell (April 27, 2008).
The genesis of these minimal or “concrete” poems began when Saroyan lived in New York City and decided to submit a piece to The American Literary Anthology edited by George Plimpton and to be published by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The piece was a poem of a single word:
One, tiny misspelled word, a $500 award from a government arts council, and the House of Representatives and Congress recoiled. The American people seemed to agree with the politicians—awarding this poem anything was outrageous. Yet, there it was, and more would follow.
From the distance of history, Saroyan’s poem does not seem very controversial when placed in context with the uproar over Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a photograph of a plastic crucifix in a bottle of urine. That work, too, was sponsored by the NEA. Or, we could place Saroyan’s work next to that of Robert Mapplethorpe, a photographer who specialized in erotic and homoerotic images of nudes, and often had NEA backing.
In any case, Saroyan challenged contemporary notions of what constitutes poetry. His was not the only challenge to conventional forms of art. According to an article written by Ian Daly on the Poetry Foundation website (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/), Saroyan was influenced by Dadaists and the poet, Robert Creeley. They were playing with words on a page. “Lighght is something you see rather than read,” writes Daly. “Look at lighght as a poem and you might not get it. Look at it as a kind of photograph and you’ll be closer.”
Daly’s article also includes Saroyan’s take on the controversy. “All of this was a little hard to take seriously…at a time when 500 Americans a week were dying in Vietnam, and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had recently been assassinated.”
Beyond all the cultural and political discussion of his poems, Saroyan had other matters to contend with, namely being the writer-son of a famous writer. In his published memoir of the last months of his father’s life, Last Rites: The Death of William Saroyan, he wrote, “What am I describing here, after all, but the continuing skirmish of my very life itself, with my father in front of me, the great writer, bigger than I, or more famous, and no matter where I go, no matter how I struggle to get past him, he is still there in front of me…” Their relationship was extremely difficult at best. “My father never liked me or my sister, and he never liked our mother either…” the younger Saroyan wrote, “he never liked anyone at all after an hour or two…no one except a stooge, someone he could depend on to be a lackey, a nitwit he could make fun of behind his back, someone he could control completely by whatever means he could make work—fear, intimidation, or, because he was a famous and admired man, blind worshipfulness.” All of this acrimony was aired out publicly in his memoir and the resulting review in The New York Times (August 1, 1982). He wanted to distinguish himself as a writer and artist separate from his lineage. He wanted to become his own man. He succeeded.
Aram Saroyan was born in 1943. His mother, Carol Marcus, married William Saroyan twice, but later divorced him to marry the actor, Walter Matthau. Although Saroyan attended several colleges and universities, including Columbia University, he never completed a degree. He wanted the career of a writer, and according to one report, turned down the role of Benjamin Braddock, the Dustin Hoffman character in the 1967 film, The Graduate, in order to focus on his writing.
So the son of a great writer has himself become a most important figure of literary pursuits, bringing us to his upcoming visit with my students. Their initial reaction to Complete Minimal Poems was vocal and energetic.
“Couldn’t he spell ‘light’?” one asked.
“I’m sure he could.”
“So what was he thinking when he wrote it that way?”
I struggled to explain to them that a poet’s, an artist’s job, is to make us see the world differently. By writing a common, simple word that way, did we not think about the word differently? Did he mean “light”? What constitutes the word “light”? Is there some meaning behind the misspelling? And by asking these questions, are we not thinking about light differently, as a word and as a concept?
“Still,” my student persisted, “I want to ask him what he was thinking when he wrote these poems.” I urged them to keep an open mind.
“Anyone could have written these poems,” another student said. “I could have written these poems.”
“Yes, you could have,” I replied, “but you didn’t.” Does art have to take every ounce of talent from the artist? What about some of the more modern art pieces, a white canvas, let’s say, with a red dot in the center? Could you have painted that? Yes, but the artist was trying to say something about the human condition, maybe. In a symphony orchestra, should the individual parts come close to exceeding the abilities of the players? Many times simplicity is best; less is more.
“I do not think it’s art,” a student insisted. “It’s just words on a page.”
“Is not all writing just words on a page? It is up to us, the readers, to invest it with meaning.”
I reminded them how adults often view teenagers’ music. How many times has someone told them their music is noise? They were closing their minds to the poetry the way adults often close their minds to teenagers’ music.
Then, I had an epiphany. My students were vigorously discussing the nature of art. They were debating what constitutes poetry. They were engaged. They had always been a good discussion group—they are only tenth grade students and yet, we had some good philosophical discussions. Now, they were asking the questions of each other. These were not my made up questions, but inquiries driven by their desire to know, to figure things out for themselves.
If Aram Saroyan’s concrete poetry could cause this kind of debate, a critical discussion among fifteen and sixteen year olds in the crucible of the classroom, I can hardly wait until he comes on May 18 to join the discussion. Let the fireworks begin.