Essay

You Call That Poetry?!

How seven letters managed to freak out an entire nation.

by Ian Daly
On a cool autumn evening in 1965, a 22-year-old poet named Aram Saroyan typed seven letters that would amount to one of the most controversial poems in history.

Not that he knew it at the time.

It was growing late, and a waiting friend (Saroyan can’t remember his name) was getting antsy. He wanted to leave Saroyan’s little apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and head downtown to Le Metro Café where Lou Reed and The Fugs and Andy Warhol liked to hang out when they were still freaks, not superstars. But Saroyan held him off. Dead center on the sheet of paper curled in his Royal manual typewriter, he clacked out this single misspelled word:


lighght



Then they split. More than four decades after they shut the door, people are still talking about this word.

* * *


The mid-‘60s were a good time for new ideas. “In retrospect, it was sort of a Golden Age,” says Ron Padgett, a poet who spent much of that golden age in New York with Saroyan. “You could know Andy, and he’d put you in one of his movies or give you an art piece. Also, money in art wasn't the horrendous issue that it soon became.” He remembers hanging out with Saroyan at Le Metro, downing strong coffee and setting a course for how they were going to change poetry. Both were influenced by the Dadaists and the poet Robert Creeley. They’d been experimenting with “concrete” poetry, which is as much about the arrangement of words as about what they say. They were also creating minimalist poetry before such a classification existed. “There was a childlike delight in playing with words on the page,” says Padgett.

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.”

It’s also a valid question. “Lighght” is something you see rather than read. 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. “The difference between “lighght” and another type of poem with more words is that it doesn’t have a reading process,” says Saroyan, who lives in Los Angeles and teaches writing at the University of Southern California. His Complete Minimal Poems was published in June by Ugly Duckling Presse. “Even a five-word poem has a beginning, middle, and end. A one-word poem doesn’t. You can see it all at once. It’s instant.”

Just how precarious the whole thing is, though, might not be so immediately apparent. Take away one “gh” and it would pass straight through you—add another, and its starkness is lost. Repeating the “t” in the middle would be like dropping a rock in the ancient-lake stillness laid out by those four silent consonants. What you’re left with is more sensation than thought. The poem doesn’t describe luminosity—the poem is luminosity. That way of looking at language became Saroyan’s playing field for years. “I got intrigued by the look of individual words,” he says. “The word ‘guarantee,’ for instance, looks to me a bit like a South American insect.”

What’s so controversial about that, you may ask? Nothing, in fact. It wasn’t until the U.S. government got involved that Saroyan found himself the unwitting center of a hurricane that still hasn’t spun itself out.

A year after “lighght” appeared in The Chicago Review, George Plimpton decided to include it in the second volume of The American Literary Anthology, which he was editing for the National Endowment for the Arts, then barely five years old. Under the NEA’s newly established Literature Program, every author featured in the anthology received a cash award. Plimpton picked Saroyan’s “lighght,” so the NEA cut him a check for $750—the same as all the other authors in the anthology. The Review kept $250, and Saroyan kept the rest. All of which seems reasonable enough—that is, unless you judge the poem’s worth on a strictly cost-per-word basis—which is exactly what Congress did.

When Representative William Scherle, a Republican from Iowa, caught wind of the one-word poem, he launched a national campaign against the indefensible wastefulness of the newly established NEA, and urged the removal of its chairperson, Nancy Hanks. Jesse Helms had his hackles raised, too. Pretty soon, Michael Straight, deputy chairperson of the Endowment at the time, “was personally called to the offices of 46 members of Congress to explain the matter,” according to NEA documents. Mailbags of letters from fuming taxpayers clogged the agency’s boxes, most of them variations on a theme: We can’t afford to lower taxes but we can pay some beatnik weirdo $500 to write one word…and not even spell it right?!

“If my kid came home from school spelling like that,” one congressman said, according to the now-defunct arts and literature quarterly Sabine. “I would have stood him in the corner with a dunce cap.” Plimpton, for his part, wasn’t about to step out of the fray. After Scherle denounced the poem in the House of Representatives, Plimpton traveled to Iowa to campaign against him. Scherle ultimately lost his re-election bid in 1974. And when Plimpton was asked by a congressman to explain Saroyan’s poem. According to Sabine, he responded, “You are from the Midwest. You are culturally deprived, so you would not understand it anyway.”

“Lighght,” it turns out, was more than just a groundbreaking poem. It was the perfect metaphor for the often hairy business of mixing government with art—an antagonism that would be revisited when the Endowment later financed the likes of Robert Clark Young, Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe, and the artists Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck, and Holly Hughes, who became known as the NEA Four. While Saroyan was hardly the lightning rod these later artists became, “lighght” did become a pet anecdote for a cadre of conservatives who saw federal funding of the arts as just a few notches shy of setting tax-payers’ money on fire.

“‘Lighght’ provided a small amount of ammunition for attacking the NEA, but [the NEA’s opponents] used it all up,” says Padgett. “They never seem to pick on fiction. I guess they don't have time to read it.”

All of this was a little hard to take seriously, Saroyan says now, 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. However strongly the “lighght” controversy reverberated in the halls of Congress, it wasn’t exactly sending shivers down the poetry world’s collective spine. “The poets I knew didn't give a damn,” says Padgett. “We found the brouhaha amusing. And I think Aram did too. Imagine: we're wreaking havoc in Southeast Asia, our whole country's out of its head, and we're getting worked up about a misplaced consonant?”

In fact, angry politicos probably imbued Saroyan’s poem with more longevity than the art world ever could have. A quarter century after Saroyan first typed those seven letters—long after the sun had set on the Summer of Love and the poet had abandoned his minimalist experimentation to try his hand at prose—Ronald Reagan was still making pejorative allusions to “lighght.” That sparked Saroyan to write about the whole affair for Mother Jones in 1981, in a piece he called “The Most Expensive Word in History.”

But there is something uniquely enduring about “lighght”—a peculiar energy that goes beyond the realm of controversy or the resurrection of poetic taxonomies. That single word still manages to make people think—even Saroyan. Recently, he figured he’d make the poem into a Christmas card to send around to some friends—just the word, white on white, centered, and embossed into heavy card stock. “What I realized was that if you emboss it, you don’t need the extra ‘gh,’” he says. “So apparently the crux of the poem is to try and make the ineffable, which is light—which we only know about because it illuminates something else—into a thing. An extra ‘gh’ does it. Embossing it does it. Engraving it in stone, and letting the light play off the actual word, does it, too. It’s sculptural on that level.”

In Complete Minimal Poems, “lighght” is restored to its place at the center of a single white page. Minimalist poetry, Saroyan says, might be having another moment. But lighght isn’t the only word in there that should get people thinking again. “I realized recently that my poem “lobstee” was written in Stockholm, where the billboards in Swedish had more diphthongs, and I liked that look,” says Saroyan. “The double ‘aa’ in ‘aaple’ looked good to me. I love Gertrude Stein's line about ‘A rose is a rose is a rose.’ She said that was the first time the rose has been really red in English literature in the past two centuries.”
Originally Published: August 25, 2007

COMMENTS (66)

On August 23, 2007 at 6:49pm najii elllll wrote:
The word "word" loooks 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.

On August 24, 2007 at 12:05pm James Jordan wrote:
Now that minimalist poetry has come full circle, perhaps Saroyan will pick up his quill again and enlighghten us with more.

On August 25, 2007 at 11:43am Tim Cantey wrote:
I rememeber 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.

"Lighghgt" was written at the height 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.

On August 27, 2007 at 9:27pm Steven Eric wrote:
I love Tim Cantey! He is the powet we've been weighting for. " lighghgt " he says. It's one of the heaviest looking words I've ever seen -- a clever reversal. And to put in in the middle of his annoyingly heavy comment is perfect -- how can it be that our host has written an entire essay about this poem without thinking about it? Very clever man. He can't have thought about it, as Cantey says no one has thought about it in years. Or perhaps Cantey means "no one who matters." In which case he's even funnier. Hooray Tim Cantey! More please.

On August 28, 2007 at 12:29pm Bob Grumman wrote:
I've just written about it in print for about the twentieth time in my FROM HAIKU TO LYRIKU, due out in a week or two. I consider it one of the ten best American poems of the twentieth century. Ergo, I can't understand why the Poetry Foundation has an essay about it.

On August 28, 2007 at 7:23pm Max Fairchild wrote:

Ruth Sancho creates word portraits worthy of any gallery in memory.

On August 28, 2007 at 9:51pm Gurgitator wrote:
A complete wastewstew of paper...

On August 29, 2007 at 12:35am Chill wrote:
Wow, Steveven, aaren't you an ass. I'll be less sarcastic/witty and a bit more straightforward - no more of you please.

Thanks.

On August 29, 2007 at 2:47am casper de weerd wrote:
Reminds me of the 1954 parliamental riot about a similar issue; a prize for Jan Hanlo, creator of the immortal Oote. Although it is in Dutch, english readrs may enjoy it:

OOTE

Oote oote oote
Boe
Oote oote
Oote oote oote boe
Oe oe
Oe oe oote oote oote
A
A a a
Oote a a a
Oote oe oe
Oe oe oe
Oe oe oe oe oe
Oe oe oe oe oe
Oe oe oe oe oe oe oe
Oe oe oe etc.
Oote oote oote
Eh eh euh
Euh euh etc.
Oote oote oote boe
etc.
etc. etc.
Hoe boe hoe boe
Hoe boe hoe boe
B boe
Boe oe oe
Oe oe (etc.)
Oe oe oe oe
etc.
Eh eh euh euh euh
Oo-eh oo-eh o-eh eh eh eh
Ah ach ah ach ach ah a a
Oh ohh ohh hh hhh (etc.)
Hhd d d
Hdd
D d d d da
D dda d dda da
D da d da d da d da d da da
da
Da da demband
Demband demband dembrand dembrandt
Dembrandt Dembrandt Dembrandt
Doe d doe d doe dda doe
Da do do do da do do do
Do do da do deu d
Do do do deu deu doe deu deu
Deu deu deu da dd deu
Deu deu deu deu

Kneu kneu kneu kneu ote kneu eur
Kneu kneu ote kneu eur
Kneu ote ote ote ote ote
Ote ote oote
Ote ote
Boe
Oote oote oote boe
Oote oote boe oote oote oote boe

On August 29, 2007 at 10:22am degustibus wrote:
righght

On August 29, 2007 at 10:52am NEG wrote:
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.

On August 29, 2007 at 11:56am jesse s. fourmy wrote:
at least it's an easy one to memorize. righght?

On August 29, 2007 at 12:14pm Doodle wrote:
Maximal fans of minimal poetry may also enjoy the 153 meaningless 6-letter words at:

http://poeticinvention.blogspot.com/

(scroll down a bit)

On August 29, 2007 at 1:01pm endwar wrote:
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. Thanks also for providing the details on the circumstances behind how Saroyan got paid for the work -- it makes more 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 nightly news, according to the jacket cover copy on Saroyan's next book, _Pages_. Both books were published by Random House.

On August 29, 2007 at 9:31pm Joe wrote:
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.

On August 30, 2007 at 5:13pm deRoubaix wrote:
Joe, 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.

On August 31, 2007 at 7:24pm Majid Naficy wrote:
"It takes one mad man to drop a ring in the well but it takes one hundred wise men to bring it out." ( A Persian proverb)

On September 3, 2007 at 10:14am K. Christopher wrote:
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 souly on spiritual reaction? Maybe not. But good poetry leaves us aching, yearning, dazed, cold, terrified, anything, everything.

But this typo?

On September 6, 2007 at 9:42am Stephen Fraser wrote:
sweet

On September 6, 2007 at 12:55pm Beth St.Clair wrote:
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!

On September 7, 2007 at 11:45am Jim Finnegan wrote:
I love 'lighght'. As a poem and as a literary provocation.

To me the poem’s strength lies in its calling attention to the silence in the phenomenon of energy we call light and which pervades our existence. The 'gh' being silent is repeated and thus makes the new created word extensive in time and space, as light is, instantly and silently so.

Art is not a zero-sum game. The success and admiration given this poem, or minimalist poems 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.

On September 7, 2007 at 4:30pm Tad Richards wrote:
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.

On September 8, 2007 at 10:24am Neil Smith wrote:
His bloomers were tite, white, and
quite washed by Katrina! Let there
be lite.

On September 9, 2007 at 6:16am Mark Granier wrote:
This controversy reminds me of the fuss
generated over here when Irish poet Paul
Muldoon awarded first prize in a poetry
competition for children to someone who wrote
a one-line poem titled 'The Tortoise'. 'The
tortoise goes movey, movey', wrote the
anonymous child. 'Movey', as I understand it, is
not a misspelling but a neologism.

As far as I recall, when Muldoon was quizzed
about it he remarked that the poem had made
him look at tortoises in a different way. That
seems a valid enough reason to me, especially
where poetry written by children is concerned.

On September 9, 2007 at 5:39pm Samuel wrote:
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!

On September 10, 2007 at 6:08am G Funk wrote:
Paul Muldoon's poetry sometimes--maybe often--has no more meaning than "the tortoise goes movey movey." If that was the opening line of a poem, yes interesting. As the only line, well, whatever. Maybe it was the only interesting line in the contest.

I second the statement that while linguistic games and innovation can be interesting, poetry is much deeper. A one-second sound bite does not make a John Coltraine jazz solo.

Peace out peace frogs!

On September 10, 2007 at 3:50pm Tom Ritchford wrote:
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 flavour and stillness.

On September 12, 2007 at 7:32am Ed Kirkpatrick wrote:
Art is a provocation of thought and discussion and as such lighght is perfect.

I is telling that the ones to complain the loudest are those least likely to create art and thus validate it.

On September 12, 2007 at 10:29am edgewise wrote:
A saltine cracker is not food because it is not
jambalaya. And yet, a little jambalaya goes a
long way, and nibbling on saltines can bring me
back to sick days at home with my mom when i
was a kid, smelling soup, reading Mad magazine
as the floorboards creeked under the rocking
chair.....

saltine

jambalaya

On September 12, 2007 at 12:13pm G Funk wrote:
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 Night 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 Provide, Provide 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 ouvre for instance of Max Beckman or Salvadore Dali is far more significant than the perfection of a technique or maybe in this case, a mere gimmick.

On September 13, 2007 at 12:14pm poemdujour wrote:
lighghght
R oui dun?
Wannanutter?

On September 14, 2007 at 10:42am G Funk wrote:
In addition, the hyberbole of this article borders on ridiculous. For instance, this quick idea "would amount to one of the most controversial poems in history."

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 "lighthth," then watching some American Idol, then hearing about more war casualty facts, then voting, then maybe eating some nachos.

On September 18, 2007 at 8:56pm jgLittle wrote:
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'" ?

On September 20, 2007 at 6:48am Barry Gabay wrote:
I'll give it to my students, as it's a form with which they are unfamiliar. Some know minimal painting, and others have had me play "Nixon in China" for them. They also like flash fiction. As poetry though, I can't wait to experience their reactions. Here's mine from a miserable recent Monday afternoon department meeting.

the meeting: them eating

On September 26, 2007 at 12:51pm Christina Davis wrote:
Poets House invites you to attend "POETICS OF THE CONDENSERY: Elaine Equi & Aram Saroyan on Minimalist Poetry" on Thursday, October 11, 7:00pm at Poets House, 72 Spring Street, 2nd Floor, New York City. Information: Visit www.poetshouse.org or call (212) 431-7920.

On October 31, 2007 at 9:11pm sayanoa blue wrote:
Aram Saroyan is not a poet, he's a fad.

On January 2, 2008 at 2:22pm david wrote:
'lighght'

man is this a great poem. forget it's 'faddyness' or it's '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.

eh, whatever. i think it's great. no need to argue. just my opinion.

On January 9, 2008 at 12:02pm Leo Burns wrote:
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... thats what intrigues us right- 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...

On March 8, 2008 at 12:53pm j m whelan wrote:
Poetry is all about the concise use of language; from that perspective lighght is arguably a poem.

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".

On April 13, 2008 at 10:26pm neo wrote:
lighght is failing, but I'll fite for your rite to capitalize ON IT.

On November 3, 2008 at 5:32am Marty wrote:
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 realise....or maybe he is a genius, way above anyone's head!!

Marty

;-)

On November 6, 2008 at 8:41pm wrote:
o these r poems?

i thot tht these were comments posted bi other kisd and adults

LOL

ummmmmmmm

enyway hav fun riting all thse stupid poems tht nobdy reeds

On November 13, 2008 at 5:03pm German wrote:
Are these people for real? Here's a poem for you: BULL****! People that pretent 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.

On November 20, 2008 at 6:53pm Tom Young wrote:
Publish what? When I give you permission to publish my work I will say so. I will not give you permission through inuendo. Otherwise I will not wright. TY

On January 24, 2009 at 10:27am John Scherle wrote:
My dad was Bill Scherle, the Congressman referred to in this article. I was about 15 when this all happened and I remember it well as I spent summers in his office giving tours of the Capitol and taking in the demonstrations, protests and mass arrests of the late 60's. He did seize on this as an example of what he saw as wasteful government spending, and he certainly was a conservative, but it was really no different from any current politician finding a "real" example of outrage and parading them in front of Congress. My dad was certainly not a Neanderthal and thought that taxes should be used to tackle real human problems in this country, and from the discussion above I think that even among the "intellects" there is debate as to whether or not this effort was legit or something like Fluxus or whatever. I know that part of art is pushing the envelope and the celebrities involved used this to get publicity and provoke a fight. But face it, folks. This is more like performance art or something rather than poetry. And, if this can get by the censors, remains as a perfect example of complete bullshit that is sometimes passed off as art. Finally, my dad was the victim of Watergate fallout in 1974, which also took out like 3/4 of the GOP congressmen that year and his defeat was certainly not due to campaigning from a D-list celeb like George Plimpton. I'm a child of the 60's, but Bill Scherle was right on and this is indeed crap.

On March 7, 2009 at 4:28pm zainab wrote:
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?

On July 10, 2009 at 6:03pm Tom Mott wrote:
"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.

"...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 commenters 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 commenters 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 light. 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.

On August 26, 2009 at 9:22pm Of Fail and Jenkem wrote:
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 might think of people like Michael Bay or Dan Brown, at least they put actual EFFORT into their hack material, unlike Aram Sorayam, 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 Saroyam'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 rightfully so.

On September 10, 2009 at 5:11pm Judith Roche wrote:
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" consenent.
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 Soroyan to Get it
first.

On February 17, 2010 at 6:57am J. Patrick Lewis wrote:
The Hangman's Lament

Neckckckckst!

On April 7, 2010 at 5:27pm Ann Cleary wrote:
I first encountered "lighght" when a favorite TU professor, Dr. Winston Weathers, 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!

On January 3, 2011 at 1:34am gittl wrote:
Fine poem. Breath with it. Wasn't there an earlier Saroyan book? I remember Richard Kolmar as co-author?

No matter but
interesting.

On February 4, 2011 at 11:26am Win Corduan wrote:
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.

On February 6, 2011 at 11:42am Could be wrong about this, but... wrote:

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 might 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 light. Any light. Go look at the sun. That resonance, that light blur that catches in your eye and casts a wide net of wobble in your lens? That's lighght. It's what light 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.)

On January 8, 2013 at 2:06pm Dr. Winfield Scott wrote:
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 the Metropolitain 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 pallette, 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 restaraunt where we were having dinner, and where the smell of the steamed clams they'd orded as an appetizer was making me nauseus, 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 Wright. 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 posie pink, would that be a great work of art? It 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 it's intrinsic aesthetic properties. To me, this seemed absurd. However, I was at the time, beginning o run a high fever, as I had contracted strep throat after the long walk in the cold rain.

lighght

Perhaps it does not intrinsically lift the spirit, or convey specific exultation, but this is not required. often, the most inspiring rt is entirely in the eye of the beholder. Art is not the medium, or the creation itself, but the middle ground betwen art and it's appreciator, the nebulous inbetween where each individual's emotional reaction to the artwork is unique and undefineable. As such, art itself does not simply defy definition, it must, by it's nature remain undefineable. 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 Wait's "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, the author of this article, or these responses to it.

On February 4, 2014 at 10:00am Jordyn wrote:
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 definition 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
lighter. If taken as an extra breath, it can be spoken as a slightly 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.

On February 5, 2014 at 8:29am Kesi wrote:
I still find it amazing how that one misspelled word, lighght, changed
poetic history. Not to mention that Aram Saroyon 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.

On February 5, 2014 at 8:35am Strambles wrote:
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
highlights from Tomas Hertl's four goal game against the NY Rangers back
in October of 2013. #mindblown

On February 5, 2014 at 6:02pm Olivia wrote:
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.

On February 5, 2014 at 10:33pm raz wrote:
It's fascinating that so many are agents the idea of poetry as written art.
People describe beautiful things as poetry but but can't fit "lighght" into
poetry

On February 6, 2014 at 2:09am kchick wrote:
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.

On February 6, 2014 at 10:17am Ashley wrote:
"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.”

On February 6, 2014 at 10:46am Navy wrote:
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 poster 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 sight of my argument; for which "lighght" may take some credit.
Poetry. I guess.

On February 6, 2014 at 12:18pm shelly wrote:
I think that the word "lighght" is poetry but also such a visual thing. Its
the median of art and poetry together by how the word is written and
also how is sounds. I think its 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.

On February 6, 2014 at 1:02pm Julia wrote:
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 looses 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. Therefor, "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.

On June 26, 2014 at 1:09am B. wrote:
hmmmm..... this poem - and all the discussion about it - reminds me of a book I read about visual art called by Thomas Wolfe called "The Painted Word." This poet is very "clever," IE contrived. Some people like that.

POST A COMMENT

Poetryfoundation.org welcomes comments that foster dialogue and cultivate an open community on the site. Comments on articles must be approved by the site moderators before they appear on the site. By submitting a comment, you give the Poetry Foundation the right to publish it. Please note: We require comments to include a name and e-mail address. Read more about our privacy policy.

Related

Authors Books

Biography

Ian Daly lives in New York City and is senior writer for Details magazine. His work has also appeared in Esquire and the New York Times.

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.