I went all across the country
A sense of humor
The size of farm animals.
or from Third Floor Voices/ Fall 1965/ New York
the radiator, the radio louder
The above poems are excerpted from PAGES, a beautiful collection of minimalist poems by Aram Saroyan available on ubu. I am assuming that most, or many Canadian poets, and most younger poets haven't heard of Saroyan. He's a name that kept popping up, but I confess to not having read much of his work myself until stumbling across him on UBU.
These poems made me consider the relationship between sincere, naive and clarity. There is something crystalline about the minimal, the concrete, the conceptual. When this poetic gesture is subsumed into a lyric sensibility however, something happens. What is that something, precisely?
Here's a piece on the seven letter poem:
Apparently it caused quite a fuss, which you can read about over at Poetry Foundation. When concrete poetry works, it works, and it's powerful, and, as Ian Daly points out, instant. This poem makes me hyperaware of the representation of light. Visually the two bulbs like track lighting make the word into sculpture. It acts as a kind of hiccup. It lets the word stutter and stumble into something else, and then more itself. It has "isness". Of course, all good poetry is evidently good "instantly," and a sure sign is the instant spinning of thoughts often accompanied by resistance (cue brake sounds). Good poetry then requires a lot of assembly or unpacking, or some kind of engagement over time. Good poetry is perplexing. Embrace it:
One day another of Saroyan’s friends, the poet Ted Berrigan, got a look at his latest one-word poem, eyeye, on a sheet of typewriter paper. “He said, ‘What the fuck is this?’” Saroyan recalls, “which I thought was a promising response.”
Promising indeed. On the other hand, these days of over-thinking, of poetry becoming, not just about the wrapper, as Kenny Goldsmith says, but about the thinking, make me long for the clarity and the simplicity of these minimalist poems. It's so hard to have a line like "incomprehensible birds" these days. Everything has to be sticky with thought, with layers and strands of thinking packed in like the densest, purest truffle.
I don't say I decry the above poetry, just that when it happens with the clarity and impact of image and whitespace my heart leaps, and my mind is most thankful for the space to sort my own thoughts out.
On the one hand conceptual poetry is not afraid of silence. On the other hand it aggressively handles that silence. It takes that silence, charges it, then hands it back as neutral.
Is any silence neutral?
Is any white space neutral?
on this machine.
Ugly Duckling published the Complete Minimalis Poems poems of Saroyan recently. Can't wait to get my hands on it. Meanwhile, listen to Saroyan read Crickets, or watch "The Street," based on Saroyan's innovative autobiographical novel, over at Ubu. Here's the synopsis:
Aram, a young writer of playful one-word poems, searches for intimacy while living in a small New York City apartment on W. 85th Street. What he finds are awkward romantic encounters, including a one-night stand with a waitress and a humorous brush with amateur porn. A decision to begin therapy and Aram’s quiet connection to the homeless man living on his street help him make sense of his misguided attempts at intimacy. Meanwhile, a chance opportunity to audition for a remake of “The Graduate” takes him to Los Angeles where he briefly flirts with becoming an actor. Instead, unexpected insights inspire Aram to begin writing an autobiographical novel and embark on a new life