“These poems are works of great optimism,” Ron Silliman writes in his introduction to the second edition of Complete Minimal Poems by Aram Saroyan. In a quick flip through this book, one might find such poems as:
– with its orderly, symmetrical structure and its implied reminder to maintain an awareness of something much larger than yourself.
Or the infamously NEA-funded single-word poem
which Ian Daly in his article at the Poetry Foundation aptly describes as something you see rather than read: a poem at light speed. Like many of the minimal poems, “lighght” blurs the distinction between viewing and reading. These poems share as much with text-based visual art, like Christopher Wool’s large stencils or Ed Ruscha’s OOF painting, as they do with other concrete poems.
Each of Saroyan’s poems confirms Silliman’s assessment of their optimism: why write like this without trusting that even a tiny unit of text can carry great semantic weight? And why write a not-quite-anagram poem like:
My arms are warm
– if you aren’t having fun? Complete Minimal Poems offers a compelling reminder to write poetry playfully, joyfully, and with abiding faith in the tools at your disposal.
Ugly Duckling Presse compiled Saroyan’s poems written between 1964 and 1972, including the contents of four out-of-print volumes and a section of “Short Poems” previously uncollected. Complete Minimal Poems is an ideal addition to UDP’s catalog of lost works and art books. The order of the book is curious: not purely chronological by either publication or composition, with the fine addition of “Short Poems” stuck right in the middle of the five sections. It seems Saroyan and the editors were creating an anagram in the book’s form.
Although more information about this sequencing could helpfully orient the reader to progressions in Saroyan’s minimal styles over time, the collection rewards intermittent browsing. A close reading of poems like “children children,” from the last section in the book, induces semantic satiation – that sensation when you read a word so many times that its sense becomes decoupled from its form. This experience provides new perspective to revisit other poets who lean on concrete poetry and repetition, like Saroyan’s contemporary Hannah Weiner, a favorite of mine.
It’s in the newly published “Short Poems” that the volume reaches its peak. Poems like
A B C
Louder in the dark.
display the unique transcendence in these minimal works. The unwritten is a dark space, where these spare poems speak louder.
Or take the final poem in the “Short Poems” section, which appears under the title (or first line: it can be hard to tell) THE COLLECTED WORKS:
” # $ % _ ‘ ( ) * ! 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 – ¾
Q W E R T Y U I O P ¼ q w e r t y u i o p ½
A S D F G H J K L : @ a s d f g h j k l ; ¢
Z X C V B N M , . ? z x c v b n m , . /
This collection of every key available on his typewriter illustrates Saroyan’s assertion of its primary influence over his poetry:
I write on a typewriter, almost never in hand (I can hardly handwrite, I tend to draw words), and my machine — an obsolete red-top Royal Portable — is the biggest influence on my work.
Seeing “THE COLLECTED WORKS” nearly half a century after “lighght” was first published, now that a typewriter is more of a quaint artifact than a common tool, I wonder whether my iPhone isn’t an important influence on my poetry. And a poem like “waht,” resembling a frequent typo, seems even to prefigure the current practice of adopting online syntax into poetry.
While Complete Minimal Poems is an enjoyable and surprising reference for the smallest poetic forms, Saroyan eventually exhausted this minimalism. Richard Hell’s review suggests he may have exhausted his optimism, too:
[Saroyan has] written, in fact, that the disillusionments of 1968 — Vietnam, the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy — had a lot to do with why he stopped writing for the subsequent five years, and why he permanently dropped his minimal mode, which he associated with the innocent spirit of pre-’68.
As playful and perception-shifting as the minimal poems may be, this context underscores some other possibilities open to poems. Concrete text-objects like “lighght” or “children children” or “THE COLLECTED WORKS,” with their instantaneous visual availability and their resistance to interpretation, bring to mind the “poetry koans” that Kathleen Rooney cites in her essay at Coldfront on poetry post-Rumsfeld: “The point of a koan, of course, is that it’s unresolvable and leads to contemplation. An unresolvable poetic utterance does no harm, or does it?”
Do optimism and playfulness in poetry undermine its opportunity to be political? Is language play itself a political stance? Reading Complete Minimal Poems in today’s pretty dismal political context is a reminder that poetry offers novel ways of experiencing even the smallest units of text, expanding a reader’s receptivity to unresolvable koans or maddening rhetoric. Or it’s a break from rhetoric, an oasis of pure form. Either way, it’s a volume well worth its space on the shelf.
Complete Minimal Poems is available from Ugly Duckling Presse
Erin Watson is a Southern person in Chicago. She writes poetry slowly and lives online at torridly.org.