Minimalist Poetry


To: The Membership & Interested Parties
From: The Parole Officer, NBBPS
Subject: A Conceptual Roundtable

Fortuitous accident, chance, a throw of the dice, a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, call it what you will, is a kind of backdoor inspiration. Suddenly the sagging universe is given a shot of irony and the range of possibility is expanded.  Subsequent attempts at explanation or analysis are invariably misguided, overwrought, tiresome, and mostly miss the intent of the randomly generated.

Minimalist poetry is a poetry of opportunity, like finding a lucky penny on a rain wet sidewalk.  As Basho, no slouch as a minimalist himself, states “The basis of art is change in the universe.”  In this case, it is spare change.

A list of modern Minimalist poets or poets who have put into practice Minimalist tenets would have to include Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Robert Lax, Ivan Akhmetyev, Mikhail Faynerman, Alexsandr Makarov-Krotov, John M. Bennett, Lillian Van Den Broeck, Robert Grenier, Clark Coolidge, David Gitin, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Tom Raworth, Robert  Creeley, Ed Dorn, G.P. Skratz, judi goldberg, Eric Johnson, Pat Nolan, Steven Lavoie, Alastair Johnston, and that barely scratches the surface. The Dave Morice/Joyce Holland minimalist/conceptualist collaborations, especially their one word poetry magazine, Matchbook, the tiny pages of which were stapled to the inside of an actual matchbook, cannot be overlooked.  Anselm Hollo, Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, Darrell Gray used aspects of minimalist and conceptualist strategies that have now worked their way into the contemporary poetry skill set. And then there’s Aram “my arms are warm” Saroyan, whose one word poem, lighght, generated an awful lot of literary and political heat for such a tiny morpheme, particularly because the poem received an NEA award of $500 in 1965 which back then was real money.

Whether it is the appropriation of an object or a typo, the effect is the same, the recognition of an inherent absurdity and its specific ironic gravity.  And depending on its critical mass, it continues to hold attention and be assimilated.  What Marcel Duchamp taught with his appropriation of a urinal designated Fountain was conceptual as well as minimalist.  Certainly by the piece’s singularity in attracting attention that still resonates to this day, it was conceptual; by the fact of the negligible expenditure of effort in its actualization, it was minimalist.  Saroyan’s poem exists within the same framework: conceptual with a minimum of effort.

Not all discussion about the controversy surrounding the validity of Saroyan’s poem as a poem and the political furor that ensued is enlightened as the appropriation of this random sampling of opinion shows.  It is, however, authentic and a median indication of relative sophistication.  Think of it as a chorus of voices attempting dialogue in a crowded room. 

Caution: some of the opinions expressed can cause despair, sarcasm, ridicule, and bouts of disgust.  Trying to explain the meaning of a poem or poetry is often the playing field of platitudes as the following discussion more than amply illustrates.

—The Parole Officer

—I remember being blown away by lighght when I was a kid, just as I was by the word “Word”, as in In the Beginning was the… and Shit, the first word of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi. lighght was written at the heighght of the Pop Art use of onomatopoeia and is of its time. Now it’s just trite and no one’s thought about it in years.

—Now that minimalist poetry has come full circle, perhaps Saroyan will pick up his quill again and enlighghten us with more.

—The word “word” looks very much like lighght to me. I understand the ineffable mood. This reminds me of African literature when emphasis on a particular thing is increased simply by saying it twice. I suppose the emphasis can would triple if the words were combined somehow.  I see a poem in “word, I just wouldn’t expect other people to appreciate it.

—I love this guy! He is the power we’ve been weighghting for.  lighght, he says. It’s one of the heaviest looking words I’ve ever seen—a clever reversal. Very clever, man. He can’t have thought about it, as he says no one has thought about it in years. Or perhaps he means “no one who matters.” In which case, he’s even funnier. Hooray! More please.

—Wow, aren’t you an ass.  I’ll be less sarcastic/witty and a bit more straighghtforward—no more of you please.

—A complete wastetsaw of paper…


—I seem to remember (having read about) Robert Duncan having something to do with the selection of this poem for NEA support, and Duncan saying something along the lines of an angel telling him to choose it.

—Robert Duncan did say that the repeated gh is the “Silent stutter in the Presence of the Light.” He thought it brilliant to incorporate that sense of awe in the one word. If you were to transcribe ‘light’ phonetically you would only have the “l” sound, the vowel “I” sound, and the “t” consonants. The gh is silent, a leftover from a Middle English pronunciation. To find that silent sense of awe in the letters themselves is remarkable. Like a lot of things, once you’ve seen it, you GET it, but it took Aram Saroyan to Get it first.

—To me the poem’s strength lies in its calling attention to the silence in the phenomenon of energy we call lighght and which pervades our existence. The gh being silent is repeated and thus makes the new created word extensive in time and space, as lighght is, instantly and silently so. Art is not a zero-sum game. The success and admiration given this poem, or minimalist poems of its kind, in no way takes away the luster of other poetry. Value is not a limited resource that needs protection. Value is created by an aggregation of taste that gathers around any art object, no matter how humble or how grand. Much of the time, that which we may not value as art, and which may not have the lasting power that’s probably the best measure of art (and lighght has been around for a while) can still add to the vocabulary of artists. Each is a tributary to that vast riverrun.

—Strictly speaking phonetically, gh is not completely silent; it represents a sound of exhaling. So in that sense lighght “breathes.” “…and God said, ‘Let there be lighght‘” ?

—Being silent, gh is transparent, i.e., transmits radiation fully and faithfully between media, hence a metaphor for efficient transmission of idea between minds.  Still in the mind, the extra letters gh interject thought, or minimally a pause, disrupting and discouraging a literal interpretation (not unlike poetry).  In short (sorry!), a poetics in seven letters, reminiscent of certain works of Modernist Art.

—at least it’s an easy one to memorize. righght?

—I think part of the genius of lighght is that the repeated letters are silent. So it is different, yet the same.  In certain circles (e.g. spidertangle and other visual poetry discussion forums) this poem gets described, discussed, and cited as much as John Cage’s ground breaking silent musical composition 4’33”, and for the same reason: it showed a new way of looking at language. It is one of the most, if not the most effective, of Saroyan’s minimal works, though there are lots of other interesting works in that book. It makes sense that he was paid as a contributor to an anthology rather than through a standalone grant identified for that work. Of course that didn’t stop the brouhaha from the yahoos. It may also be worth mentioning that the entire book lighght was in, Aram Saroyan, was read on the NBC Nighghtly news, according to the jacket cover copy on Saroyan’s next book, Pages. Both books were published by Random House.

—C’mon, guys and gals. Call it fun, call it mystic, call it word magic, call it thought provocation, call it whatever you like. But if you insist on calling it “poetry”, language ceases to have meaning.

—FINALLY!!! Language ceases to have meaning!

—I am interested to learn about a definition of poetry that does not involve “word magic”, “thought provocation”, and potentially “fun” and “mystic[al]” qualities. Regarding these descriptions, I believe that “word magic”/the skilled use of language represents the most fundamental aspect of poetry.  In addition, I do not understand your argument that “language ceases to have meaning” if the word lighght is described as poetry. You are making the argument that poetry and meaningful language are connected. This argument is valid, but if you acknowledge that the word lighght represents a skilled use of language/”word magic” and thus gives meaning to language, you cannot logically argue that the word does not represent poetry.

—We are so hungry to validate our art (not that it needs it). We now bear witness to (and praise) another futile attempt.

—Is the measure of a poem based solely on spiritual reaction?  Maybe not. But good poetry leaves us aching, yearning, dazed, cold, terrified, anything, everything.   But this typo?

— Typesetters, typographers, anyone who has ever hand-set type, since the beginning of printing have found entertainment value in the odd anomalous and random manifestations of alphabetically composed language.  Saroyan’s poem is just a quantum glimpse into a vast junkyard of typographical hiccups that has existed since Johannes started the Print Revolution in 1439.

—I don’t rate this poem. For me it is an example of a con and when poetry like this is admired and esteemed it seems to me that it devalues real poetry. Is this some kind of literary Picasso? No it is not!

—I love lighght. As a poem and as a literary provocation.

—What definition of poetry excludes single words?  Prose tries to convey information through sentences and paragraphs; in poetry, the individual words are more important. What could be more important than a single word?  lighght is a fantastic poem (and I never saw it before). It’s not a “game”—it’s a miniature. It has its own very distinct flavor and stillness.

—Art is a provocation of thought and discussion and as such lighght is perfect.

—The same argument that this single word is poetry is the same argument that a trash can with debris on it is art if it is in a museum. Yes, it provokes thought. No, it does not provoke interesting, ennobling, or deep thought—like Jack Handy did on Saturday Nighght Live. The same people who like this stuff have warped the visual art movement beyond recognition. To see this word as profound, makes me question one’s depths. Robert Frost’s ProvideProvide is profound; Gwendolyn Brook’s We Real Cool, Robert Hayden’s Frederick Douglas, and T.S. Eliot’s Preludes all are profound.  Don’t get me wrong—I enjoy my Rothko postcards, but the oeuvre, for instance, of Max Beckman or Salvador Dali is far more significant than the perfection of a technique or maybe, in this case, a mere gimmick.  T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in all its implications remains a much more controversial poem. That is if you think about it. Our culture today in America would be much more receptive to this lighght, then watching some American Idol, then hearing about more war casualty facts, then voting, and then maybe eating some nachos.

—Aram Saroyan is not a poet, he’s a fad.

—lighghten up, people!

—man, is this a great poem. forget its “faddiness” or its “minimalist poetry aesthetic” or whatever. . . just forget all that stuff and go back to the word/poem, and read it in the same way that you’d read any other “poem” and you’ll (hopefully) find in it exactly those things that you can find in any far-less experimental (read: narrative) poem.  and controversy around it is also what makes this an amazing and intriguing poem.  it totally nails the argument about “what makes poetry.”  it’s not the only controversial poem, but it is one of them—the waste land isn’t the only ‘controversial’ poem, in the same way that there isn’t only one strand (style) of poetry at any given time.

—Oh wow! This is pure brilliance… YAY! Thanks for putting poetry in a lab!!! YAY! Poetry it may be—in the way that anything can be poetry—but not Verse.  I’d love to go to a reading of this by the way…  This is really controversy more than poetry though… that’s what intrigues us righght—controversy. But in my generation: NOTHING IS SHOCKING—so just let it go already. . .CBGB was lame power-chording etc. Don’t mistake deconstruction for destruction. Or vice versa.

—Poetry is all about the concise use of language; from that perspective lighght is arguably a poem.

—With a first look it appears to be an early form of … typo!  But then looking/reading it again, you kinda get the feeling that he was keeping his friend waiting while he tried to get something down on paper…only to be rushed….thus typing far too quickly to realize….or maybe he is a genius, way above anyone’s head!!

—Are you people for real? Here’s a poem for you: BULL****! People that pretend to know what they’re talking about praising an idiot like Aram Saroyan for “writing” an inspirational poem like lighght. Proof that people will go along with anything that others say just to be part of the crowd.

—when I say the word in my mind it sounds like gargling.  Calling this poetry is a bit of a stretch don’t you think?

—“calling this poetry is a bit of a stretch don’t you think?” Not really. Aram Saroyan was a poet. He wrote this poem. It was published in a book of poetry. You likely think it’s a BAD poem, or doesn’t meet criteria you think all poems should have, but if you judge it purely by intent and context it’s certainly a poem.

—There are no BAD poems, only bad poets.

—“…it does not provoke interesting, ennobling, or deep thought.” Clearly it hasn’t provoked that in you, but it has provoked deep thought in some of the other comments here. I’ve enjoyed reading what others have to say about this. I believe that with all art (writing, film, music, etc), we have a visceral response first, and then try to rationalize that response afterwards. And when we have no response–or a negative response–but other people have a positive response, it can be very frustrating. So I understand where some of the negative/hostile comments are coming from: you don’t LIKE the poem. It doesn’t do anything for you. That’s perfectly reasonable, but you shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that people who like the poem are shallow thinkers, sheep, or con artists. We just have different aesthetic sensibilities. Like one of the other panelists said, assigning value in art is not a zero-sum game.  What I find fascinating is that Saroyan has made the word “light” do something: it flickers. When my eyes scan the word on the page/screen, I get a flickering sensation, like a passing motion of lighght. I think that’s cool. And he’s gotten me thinking about the relationship between how words look and how they sound, and the differences between reading something aloud versus reading it on the page.

—Most of the controversy over this “poem” is due to the wide praise it receives from pseudo-intellectuals/hipsters, the type who are quick to attack so-called “mainstream culture” (Hollywood, et al), despite the fact that no matter what you mighght think of people like Michael Bay or Dan Brown, at least they put actual EFFORT into their hack material, unlike Aram Saroyan, who is just as much if not more of a hack than those two, only difference being that while they churned out feature-length movies and novels, all he could muster up was a one-word typo, and at least Bay and Brown fans don’t analyze and intellectualize their work like Saroyan’s in-denial followers do. Also, the fact that this “thought provoking work of art” earned the man $500, which is more than a full time minimum wage worker makes from a whole week’s worth of work, only contributes to the outrage, and righghtfully so.

—I first encountered lighght when a favorite professor told our class in literary archetypes about it. He presented the poem to us with the usual details–the author’s name; the $500 prize money, but also with God as the title!

—Fine poem. Breathe with it. Wasn’t there an earlier Saroyan book? I remember Richard Kolmar as co-author?  No matter but interesting.

—Original, pithy, minimalist, provocative, thought-inspiring, emotion-provoking, the poem is all of that. It certainly is art. But it is bad art, in the same category as a Budweiser commercial. Then the question is whether it’s just plain bad art or tongue-in-cheek bad art, just as John Cage’s music never totally lost its function as a parody. I can’t help but think of lighght as a parody, and I feel sorry for all the members of the self-reinforcing intellectual community who try to find deeper meaning in it by calling something that’s entertaining for its risibility “important.” George Plimpton was at his best hosting Mousterpiece Theater on the Disney Channel, and
that’s where this poem belongs as well.

—I think it’s evident that the poem inspires a lot of frothing outrage, which in and of itself is a commentary, and in turn makes the poem important. Say what you will, but the offense that some take this as to their sensibilities is momentum enough to get this whole thing spinning on its axis again, wouldn’t you say? Sometimes you need that dorky huckster and his friend to decorate a toilet and call it art. lighght mighght seem like jibber-jabber, but it’s important merely for the fact that it pushes at the parameters of what a poem can be. Stare at a lighght. Any lighght. Go look at the sun. That resonance, that lighght blur that catches in your eye and casts a wide net of wobble in your lens? That’s lighght. It’s what lighght does that’s being described here, and in a word at that. Hence it’s minimalist. Hence it’s minimalist poetry. So it increases the parameters of what can be said in a poem. Otherwise, the parameters are saying anything in a poem that the status quo disagrees with, and censorship’s no fun. (And there are a$$es in the world who would say Gwendolyn Brooks didn’t write poetry. If this isn’t poetry, it would only be a matter of time before her words were cut for not following a meter or talking about skylarks.)

—Some years ago, I was visiting friends in New York City at Christmas time. It was cold and raining, but we wanted to go the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We walked in the rain, only to find that it was closed on Mondays. So one of them suggested that we instead go to the Guggenheim. All seven floors were featuring a tribute installation of the life’s works of Robert Rauschenberg, an artist with whom I had been previously unfamiliar. All of it looked like scrap from a textiles plant to me, except the works that looked like they were intended as a joke on the art world. the most notable (and apparently most famous) piece in the exhibition was a wooden palette, splashed with pastel paints and scattered with various items of discarded trash, upon which stood a stuffed angora goat, who wore a truck tire around his midsection, painted white.             Later, at an Italian restaurant where we were having dinner, and where the smell of the steamed clams they’d ordered as an appetizer was making me nauseous, I got into a rather fierce debate with them over whether that could even be considered art. I, frankly, had taken much greater pleasure from appreciating the Guggenheim building itself, which was created by Frank Lloyd Wrighght. They insisted that it was great art, and that Rauschenberg was a great artist. And then I posed a question, using as an example the style of myriad similar pieces in the exhibition: “If I leaned a painted plank against a wall, and draped from it a rectangle of muslin that was dyed half lime green, and half posy pink, would that be a great work of art? Is it only worthy of being called great art because Rauschenberg did it?” My friends informed me that yes, it was art because of who created it, not because of its intrinsic aesthetic properties. To me, this seemed absurd. However, I was at the time, beginning to run a high fever, as I had contracted strep throat after the long walk in the cold rain.


Perhaps it does not intrinsically lift the spirit, or convey specific exultation, but this is not required. Often, the most inspiring art is entirely in the eye of the beholder. Art is not the medium, or the creation itself, but the middle ground between art and its appreciator, the nebulous in between where each individual’s emotional reaction to the artwork is unique and indefinable. As such, art itself does not simply defy definition, it must, by its nature remain indefinable. For me, walking up seven floors looking at Rauschenberg after Rauschenberg was puzzling tedium. Walking back down, looking at the Guggenheim itself, was as much a spiritual experience as listening to Mozart. What’s more worthy of being called music, Mozart’s Twelve Variations on Ah vous dirai-je, Maman, or Tom Waits’ Dragging a Dead Priest? Art cannot be measured in degrees, nor compared in scope or scale to judge it “worthy” or “unworthy.” It IS the response it provokes. And it can be noted, concerning lighght, that seldom have seven letters ever PROVOKED such a reaction as that of the government, or these responses to it.

—People argue that lighght is not a poem mostly because it defies traditional convention; poetry must rhyme, poetry must have stanzas, poetry must contain more than one word, etc. These definitions are narrow-minded and exclusive, and disregard the fact that a single word, real or invented, can sound or look like poetry. When spoken, there are many words that could be called poetry, the way they roll off the tongue, the feeling they evoke when spoken. “Evanescent” comes to mind in particular. When simply looked at, lighght extends two silent consonants, giving the viewer more room to breathe, making the word itself even lighghter. If taken as an extra breath, it can be spoken as a slighghtly more drawn out “light”.  It may be unconventional, but in its own very unique way, lighght is poetry, and the extreme range of responses it has provoked could be used as validation that at the very least, it is worth talking about.

—I still find it amazing how that one misspelled word, lighght, changed poetic history. Not to mention that Aram Saroyan typed the word out of impatience. I find the history behind the word even more interesting due to the fact that I can relate to misspelling a word out of impatience. lighght is a one word poem you can read once or even more than once without missing anything, where as they say in the essay, a five word poem has a beginning, middle, and end. Overall lighght does not describe luminosity, but instead is luminosity and I personally feel that has a strong concept in being a poem.

—Saroyan is like the Gordon Matta-Clark of the poetry world. He tears down the mental fabric within us, which are pre-disposed to accepting traditions, and flips that script on us so we be all like “whaaaaaa?” Dude’s gnarly about them poetries and writings. Reading his poems is like watching the highghlighghts from Tomas Hertl’s four goal game against the NY Rangers back in October of 2013. #mindblown

—I’m confused. Confused in a positive way and a negative way. I want to know how to pronounce lighght and I also don’t really want to ever know. I wonder if by merely adding a few letters to a word is really making it something that transcends linguistics, or if it was just made to bewilder people. And in that case, maybe Saroyan is laughing at the fact that we have fallen for this puzzle.

—It’s fascinating that so many are against the idea of poetry as written art. People describe beautiful things as poetry but can’t fit lighght into poetry

—Poetry is playing with language. Whether that means creating a traditional poem that rhymes, something that doesn’t rhyme, writing a list, transcribing your phone notes, or compiling all your drunk texts into one document. As long as you’re playing with language and rhythm, then its poetry.  The poem lighght is a poem. lighght plays with language in that the viewer gets a mental image from it, even though lighght isn’t a real word. And even though lighght isn’t meant to be read aloud, the reader can still get a sense of rhythm from this one-word poem.

lighght has been said to defy “traditional” poetry, and people have doubted and questioned the veracity of such a poem, but then again, can poetry be defined as anything “traditional?”  Can poetry be bound and placed specifically in a box based on what people say it has been, and what it should be?  Why be restricted to “traditional” words as a form of expression?  lighght becomes more than a word that was uttered on a page. It becomes a mood, and it becomes a feeling. There is a heaviness to it.  lighght tested (in my opinion) the laws of language, and how we can communicate with one another. Everyone that has acknowledged this poem, regardless of their acceptance or complete disdain for the piece, has understood (to some degree) what was being thought. Despite the “misspelling”, the audience ultimately knew the original “correctly” spelled word. That is the power of language.  To try and assimilate poetry, or language, (to me), is foolish. A favorite quote of mine from the article that I think sums up things quite nicely is: “They never seem to pick on fiction. I guess they don’t have time to read it.”

—I’m conflicted. I’d like to say that a single word can be poetry, especially when it has ignited such a (mostly) thoughtful conversation amongst strangers, but my human nature wants to agree with the panelist who called it “word magic” in replacement of poetry. I say “human nature” because our species have been indexing and categorizing and defining things for centuries: science, math, literature. It brings us comfort to place things together that make sense. To say, “this is poetry because xyz” feels good, validating. Then again, aren’t all these ideas (systems and classifications) just a bunch of theory anyway? Wasn’t all this arbitrary at some point in time? Why do we use the decimal system instead of a binary one? Why don’t we use “!” to mean “and” or “&” to signify excitement. And now, I’m spinning out of control and lost sighght of my argument; for which lighght may take some credit.  Poetry. I guess.

—Not only is lighght more of an image than a spoken word, but it’s also more of a feeling that’s difficult to describe. When you try to pronounce lighght, it loses everything and sounds like a stutter, at most. When it’s read silently off a page, however, it makes so much sense. I keep finding this a synonym for a feeling that one has but can’t describe. A feeling that’s strongly felt, but difficult to explain to another individual. Therefore, lighght was the first time an emotion was created that was impossible to explain through verbal language. It was so controversial because explaining it’s relevance was nearly exhausting, and ambiguous as well.

—hmmmm….. this poem—and all the discussion about it—reminds me of a book I read about visual art by Thomas Wolfe called The Painted Word. This poet is very “clever,” i.e., contrived.  Some people like that.

—I think that the word lighght is poetry but also such a visual thing.  It’s the median of art and poetry together by how the word is written and also how it sounds. I think it’s strange that the people were mad at him for the word, but I also think they were just jealous that they didn’t win the money.

FROM Nualláin House, Publishers OCTOBER 2015

Poetry For Sale

Haikai No Renga (linked poetry)
Introduction by Pat Nolan, Haikai no Renga with Keith Kumasen Abbott, Sandy Berrigan, Gloria Frym, Steven Lavoie, Joen Eshima Moore, Maureen Owen, Michael Sowl, and John Veglia

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