The following essay was originally published in 2005 in Rapportage, the journal of the Lancaster Literary Guild.
Aram Saroyan discusses his career, his father, and his battle with congress…
A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,
As old medallions to the thumb,
Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown--
A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,
Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,
Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind--
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.
A poem should be equal to:
For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea--
A poem should not mean
-- Archibald MacLeish
Aram Saroyan credits the final line of Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica” as the inspiration for his controversial, one-word poem, “lighght”.
By manipulating the spelling of “light” to “lighght,” Saroyan believes he found a way for his poem to be, not mean. “Part of the aim seems to have been to make this ineffable (light) into a thing, as it were -- to change it from a verb (the agency of illumination) to a noun that yet radiates as light does,” Saroyan explains. “The double ghgh seems to work in that way.”
That double ghgh, it turns out, also ignited a firestorm of controversy in the U.S. Congress that many believe still smolders today, some forty years later. After poet and editor Robert Duncan published “lighght” in The Chicago Review in 1968, George Plimpton included it in the second volume of The American Literary Anthology, which he published in 1969 with the help of an National Endowment of the Arts grant. “It’s only after that,” Saroyan explains, “that the political brouhaha occurred. They [some members of Congress] felt it somehow violated a puritan ethic…that one word could receive $750.”
In 1970, when Representative William Scherle, a Republican from Iowa, learned that the NEA had supported Saroyan’s work on “lighght”, he started a national campaign to expose NEA recklessness and remove NEA Chairperson Nancy Hanks from her post. According to Sabine Magazine, “One Congressman at the time said of Saroyan’s poem ‘If my kid came home from school spelling like that, I would have stood him in the corner with a dunce cap.’”
Plimpton, for his part, did little to calm the controversy. Sabine reports that when he was asked by a congressman what “lighght” meant, Plimpton replied, “You are from the Midwest. You are culturally deprived, so you would not understand it anyway.” Saroyan learned later that Plimpton was so upset by the negative treatment of the NEA brought forth by Congress that Plimpton personally went to Iowa to successfully campaign against the re-election of Representative Scherle. Hanks remained at the helm at the NEA for several more years.
So, while Aram Saroyan had unwittingly become a lightning rod for the anti-NEA movement, he certainly never intended his work to be at the epicenter of controversy. “I was a 22 year old writer,” he explains, “involved with the minimalist movement that was mostly apparent in visual art and in music at that time…not so much in writing. At some point, I became interested in the question ‘How does one make light palpable?’” After experimenting with several options, Saroyan focused on the spelling of “light” and the potential power of the silent gh. “The extra gh gave the word extra weight. So, the question became, how many gh’s do you add?” As members of congress accused him of making a mockery of art and language -- and doing so at the expense of American taxpayers, Saroyan was sincere in his approach to the craft of his minimalist poetry. “ ‘Lighght,’ resulted from an aesthetic decision informed by everything I had done up to that point.” Saroyan explains.
Looking back, Saroyan remembers that he was not terribly concerned about the controversy surrounding his poem. More so, he was troubled by the darkness of the Vietnam War that threatened to snuff out the creative beacons of artists everywhere. “What troubled me most at the time,” Saroyan explains in “Flower Power” an essay he wrote some 30 years after “lighght” was published (www.ubu.com, 1999), “was a recognition that my work comprised a sensibility that was being fiercely challenged, not to say effectively obliterated, by the surge of world events.”
No doubt, Aram Saroyan, Saroyan’s first collection of poetry (published by Random House in the Spring of 1968) landed in bookstores at a critical period in American history. “My book appeared just after the winter that saw the heaviest American losses in the war in Vietnam---500 or more American lives lost each week---and arrived simultaneously with the murder of Martin Luther King,” Saroyan recalls. “It stood on the bookstore shelves when Robert Kennedy was murdered after his victory in the California presidential primary.”
As a result, there wasn’t much room for “lighght” in the American consciousness. “These events made it hard to entertain the innocently benign, anarcho-pacifist perspective at large in the pages of the book,” Saroyan notes. “A perspective nurtured in that decisively apolitical cadre of the sixties culture that didn't care a cracker-jack-toy-prize for politics. ‘Make Love Not War,’ we declared, but the way things worked out, we were summarily swept to the sidelines as the planet grew swiftly darker and darker that spring.”
Like so many artists in the late 1960s, Saroyan was left to deal with the impact of world events on his work and the influence these events might have on his future. “As a poet, I knew instinctively that I'd come to the end of something,” he says. “For a while I thought it was the end of being a poet at all--and it was another five years before I wrote again, this time in a decisively non-minimal mode.”
Since his dramatic and controversial entrance onto the American literary scene in 1968, Aram Saroyan has solidified his reputation as an internationally respected writer, poet, memoirist, and playwright. Among the collections of his poetry are Aram Saroyan, Pages, and Day and Night: Bolinas Poems, his largest collection of poems, which was published in 1999. Saroyan’s prose books include Last Rites, a book about the death of his father; Artists in Trouble, Starting Out in the Sixties; and Friends in the World: The Education of a Writer (Memoir). Saroyan, a faculty member of the Masters of Professional Writing Program at The University of Southern California, has completed his sixth play entitled “At The Beach House,” which is scheduled to debut in Los Angeles on October 7, 2005.
Aram Saroyan visited Lancaster in the spring of 2005 as part of the Lancaster Literary Guild’s 2004-2005 Lecture series. All who attended his lecture that evening – and met with him afterward – would agree that Saroyan’s demeanor is kind, thoughtful, and sincere. He speaks easily of his relationship with his father, the writer William Saroyan. “My father had a powerful impact on my writing,” Saroyan explains. “He gave me a big head start. I’d be headed down these cul de sacs with my writing and he’d be there telling me to turn around and go back! He was hell on wheels as a father though.”
The elder Saroyan is perhaps best known for his plays “The Time of Your Life” and “My Heart in the Highlands”, his novels The Human Comedy, and The Laughing Matter, and his collection of short stories My Name is Aram. His work also includes the memoirs Here Comes, There Goes You Know Who and Not Dying. A prolific writer, Saroyan had more than 60 titles to his credit when he died in 1981.
Looking back, Aram Saroyan is grateful for the time he spent with his famous father. He remembers fondly a time in 1966 when they were together in London. “We were working in a room together. I was reading his short stories. He was doing some work of his own. It occurred to me at that point that my father’s books were to the 1930s what Bob Dylan’s albums were to the 1960s.”
Today, Saroyan believes his father’s work is still relevant and important. “My father was a terrifically gifted artist. I believe he’s currently underrated in American letters,” Saroyan says. “The best of his works are first-rate contributions to our literature. My Name is Aram is an extraordinary stylistic achievement.”
Last spring, while visiting with a group of high school students at York Country Day School in Pennsylvania, Aram Saroyan was asked if he had received any advice from his father. “He was a wonderful teacher by example…not too much by explicit instruction. But, I do remember he encouraged me to pursue longer writing,” Saroyan laughed, the topic of the one-word poem controversy still fresh on the minds of the students. “And he did give me some advice that I follow to this day. He said, ‘Come up with a daily, achievable goal of writing – a page, or two pages…and try to do it at roughly the same time every day.’” Before the next student question, Saroyan added, quietly and partly to himself, “I was lucky to know him.”
Has the lingering controversy surrounding “lighght” been a good thing for Saroyan’s career? “I don’t think about it much,” he says. “Whether it’s a one word poem or a novel, I am still swimming against the current. Once you’re identified as a one-word poem writer, there is an inertia that takes over. But I feel privileged that I could write this poem. I feel lucky to be in America. Think about it as if this had been in Russia. Instead of being sent off to Siberia, Random House called.”
Saroyan doesn’t worry much these days about being remembered solely for his minimalist poetry – and for his notorious run–in with congress. “I am a much more traditional writer today,” he says. “Being older, the question becomes ‘where’s the adventure now?’ I have gotten a gratifying response for the past thirty years as a mainstream writer.” In spite of all the controversy, Saroyan still enjoys talking about his famous poem. “The poem has a rather pristine history -- the sincerity of it and of the award,” he says, appreciatively. “These poems remain part of a minimalist concrete modernist movement and some of these poems are now in textbooks.” Saroyan’s explains. “My poem ’Eyeye’, which was the predecessor of “lighght” by one year, for example, is currently included in Frances Mayes’ anthology, The Discovery of Poetry.” And in the August 1981 issue of Mother Jones magazine, George Plimpton said Saroyan’s “lighght” “…may be one of the most important poems of the 20th century.”
In this age of infinite electronic choices, Saroyan has discovered that his 1960s minimalist poetry remains accessible – though not always in the form it was intended. “…I recently found my thirty-year-old, long out-of-print book (Aram Saroyan), on the Internet in its entirety sans the first poem [a fourteen word poem entitled “a man stands”], which may have been considered too long-winded, as it were,” Saroyan explains in his essay, ‘Flower Power.’ “The book [entitled Aram Saroyan], appears as part of an international survey of avant-garde poetry in which it figures as one of three "historical" documents.”
Ironically enough, as Saroyan points out, “the book has been retyped and I was astonished to find the poem “lighght” misspelled” (lightght). And this, Saroyan explains, demonstrates a valuable lesson regarding the poem. “When it is misspelled, you see that it doesn’t work. It did not achieve what it was meant to do.”
Saroyan has continued to experiment with “lighght”. In doing so, he has discovered at least one possible alternative to his original approach to the poem. “Embossing the word light, without the extra gh, would also work to give it physical reality, heft as a noun,” Saroyan realized some years ago, while designing a family Christmas card. “It was a lesson to me that, if you embossed the word, the extra gh was unnecessary.”
Bill Diskin is Poet Laureate of York, PA and Director of Admission at York Country Day School. His last piece for Rapportage was a profile of writer Cathryn Clinton in the Spring 2005 issue.