Going Electric

One poet’s beginnings—and interruptions.

Recently I reread copies of letters I wrote half a century ago as a young poet to several poet friends. Beginning in the spring of 1965, when I was 21, and trailing off less than three years later, in the winter of 1967, the letters show, I think, a nascent sense of vocation—and then, in the middle of the interim, comes a cosmic interruption: I was invited to fly to Los Angeles to read for the part of Benjamin Braddock, the title role in Mike Nichols’s new movie, The Graduate. This happened because my stepfather, Walter Matthau, had liked my performance in a school play and recommended me for the part to Nichols. 

I wasn’t an actor, and knew it, although I’d gone to a few classes at the Neighborhood Playhouse and auditioned for a play once or twice. But Mike Nichols was a genuine cultural hero—who could say no to him? Then too, there was the issue of money and where I might otherwise come by it. Case closed: I would be a poet-actor, maybe.

The letters begin when Tom Clark, a young American poet living in England who had recently succeeded Donald Hall as the poetry editor of the Paris Review, came across a copy of Lines, the little magazine I was editing, and wrote asking if I could fill him in on the poetry scene in New York. While I hadn’t met Clark, I knew and admired his poetry, which I’d seen in a recent issue of Poetry. I was flattered to hear from him and happy to let him know about the group in New York I was just beginning to know myself:

First, there’s C, a magazine edited by Ted Berrigan, centered in the work of the New York School (O’Hara, Ashbery, Koch) and then the work of younger writers who have been much inspired by it (Ron Padgett, Berrigan, Richard Gallup). C has also published a lot of work by a poet who is not too easily reckoned into any group, or even any broad “sense” of poetry—Joe Ceravolo. His lines have no literal “sense” sometimes but make it absolutely as the mark (marks) of feeling, much as say Franz Kline does that, i.e., the line is not descriptive.

The emphasis here—“the line is not descriptive”—was for me a mantra-like catchall and a big part of what made things exciting. We wanted to surprise each other and ourselves. Our luck was that our closest predecessors were pathfinders—from Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg to Frank O’Hara and Denise Levertov—so that our immediate inheritance didn’t involve battling entrenched powers that be. As far as we were concerned, that had already been taken care of. We were reading the writers who had done it, even if Time magazine was still arguing about the value of “Howl” or On the Road and hadn’t yet heard about Lunch Poems.

As 1965 went by, Tom in England was increasingly worried about his draft status, a concern I’d shared myself not too long before. I wrote him in November:

How do you feel about it? A year ago when I went down for my physical, if I hadn’t been preceded by a letter from a psychiatrist eliminating me from the regular proceedings—my papers all stamped “Refer to Chief” (psychiatrist, that is) so I was singled out and sent to a long line waiting for their interview, I wonder how I would have fared. I mean I think anybody can get out if they’re sure they want to get out. For instance, there was a small solid Negro boy I saw take his eye test. They held up the giant E to him and he said I can’t see it, they said come on, come on, stop fucking around but he just sat there and said no, man can’t see it. The orderly leaned down and asked him if he wanted to be in the army. He said no, and they referred him right away to the “Chief” line. I’m pretty sure he got out. That is, the “Chief” was an old, nice man and anybody who looked out of it probably got out. I sat down and stared out his window—I’d heard it was a schizoid trait not to look at him when he was speaking or when I spoke. He finally asked me if I wanted to be in the army, I said no, and he said what is it, fear? I said no, I just didn’t think I could make it in the army. “Well,” he said, “I don’t think we should force you.” Wow! I know I was lucky, with the letter, and with him.

Tom had chosen poems by several of us in New York for publication in the Paris Review, and he’d interviewed Allen Ginsberg for the magazine’s Writers at Work series. It was around then that I went out to Hollywood and read for The Graduate.

I was surprised by Mike Nichols’s laughter as I read, standing with my acting partner in the middle of the producer’s office at Twentieth Century Fox. It was the scene in which Benjamin came to Mrs. Robinson’s daughter’s college dorm room and tried to convince her to run off with him. Nichols later commented that I was the only one who read that day without shouting. Apparently he thought I might be a good match for the part, and I was asked to be prepared for a callback to take a screen test.


Aram Saroyan, Neil A. France, Los Angeles Times


That summer I abandoned my apartment on West 85th Street after 10 months, breaking a year’s lease, and took a plane to London. My father, a bachelor in his late 50s, had rented a one-bedroom apartment at Whitelands House, an apartment building just off the Kings Road in Chelsea. My sister, Lucy, was camped out on one of the living room sofas and I camped out on another one, while Pop had the bedroom.

I met Tom soon after arriving. A tall, handsome Chicago native, he was teaching under Donald Davie at the University of Essex, a train ride away, and often came to London. Over the next two months I also visited him a couple of times for an overnight at his tract house in Brightlingsea.

I see now that he was a literary wunderkind and at the same time a veritable workhorse. Not only was he choosing the poetry for the Paris Review, he was simultaneously and single-handedly editing and publishing, on an office mimeo machine at Essex that he had after-hours access to, a series of one-shot magazines with the successive titles Once, Twice, Thrice, Frice, Nice, Spice—a phenomenal feat accomplished in scarcely a year’s time. While troubled by his draft status, which remained up in the air, he had an easygoing, funny side no doubt bolstered by the marijuana or hashish that was daily fare.

This was the last time I would share quarters with my father, and the scene of my fondest memories of him. He was in a decidedly lion-in-winter phase, and there were Faber paperbacks of his early short-story collections around the apartment, books I took to reading with great enjoyment. It seemed to me that they were like the 1930s equivalent of what the current Bob Dylan albums were for my generation.

I’d brought along my portable Royal typewriter from New York and set up with it at the living room table was writing a lot of minimal poems. In something of an apocalyptic mood about the unfolding ’60s, I must have been, at best, a mixed blessing to my gifted parent. Lucy liked to tell the story of how one afternoon she and Pop were in the bedroom when I exclaimed from my table in the living room: “This is the greatest poem I’ve ever written!”

“Did you hear the typewriter?” Pop asked Lucy.

On his own typewriter, he was working on the text for a collection of photographs by the Life photographer Arthur Rothstein, and from time to time I got to read a page or two. On each manuscript page was a single block paragraph, and while I expressed admiration, I wasn’t sure that these had the same verve as the early stories.

Back in America that fall, I moved into a two-story row house on Watson Street in Central Square in Cambridge, a house shared with several roommates, including eventually the poet Clark Coolidge. One day in the mail I received a copy of Pop’s book with Arthur Rothstein and opened it without much anticipation.

The text of each paragraph was set on a page opposite the photograph that had inspired it, and it had been broken into multiple paragraphs, each piece a kind of prose sculpture that he had carved out of the first-draft blocks I’d seen in London. So the devil-may-care William Saroyan of the 1930s who, so the legend ran, never revised had yielded to the master craftsman I saw in the published book.

When Coolidge moved into the house, he and I commenced a daily dialogue about the direction our poetry was taking—Clark’s work a kind of literary abstract expressionism while I worked at minimal or concrete poetry—and these conversations must have helped to shore up my sense of having found a vocation. It had been a year now since I’d read for Mike Nichols in Hollywood. Ron Padgett and his pregnant wife, Pat, had left New York and were living in Tulsa, their hometown, awaiting the birth of their child. In December 1966, I wrote Ron:

I’ve given up pot and drugs in general. They don’t work very well in the end. I’m too ambitious to be spaced out. I don’t think I’m going to go to Hollywood. I’ll know very soon, they’ve been calling again. BUT SUDDENLY I REALIZE I DON’T HAVE ANY DESIRE TO MAKE A HOLLYWOOD MOVIE, be a movie star or whatever I would be. What would I do in that world?? I’m an American poet. I’m working on something, and have been for years. It’s been a distraction. I’d like to be recognized for my work, not for theirs.

The pivotal decision happened within the week—I declined the screen test when the studio phoned to set up another flight out to LA.

A few months later came a remarkable, fateful turn of the wheel—in fact, several of them. It began with Ted Berrigan’s spring visit to Cambridge on his way to Lowell to interview Jack Kerouac for the Paris Review. Knowing Jack’s admiration for my father’s work, he invited me along. Clark, a big Kerouac fan, had meanwhile moved out of Watson Street and gone to San Francisco, where he became the drummer in David and Tina Meltzer’s rock band, the Serpent Power. A day or two after the interview I wrote him:

I think Ted has a genius for coordinating a work, so look for that Paris Review. Late in the night Kerouac, Ted and I read each other our poems. Kerouac was thrilled I was Saroyan’s son and for once I think I was thrilled too. It was the least I could do.

Before leaving Cambridge, Ted introduced me to his friend Carol Beckwith, and it was through Carol later that month that I met my future wife, Gailyn McClanahan. Around this time, too, I received notice that a group of my poems that had appeared in Poetry had been chosen for the inaugural volume of a new annual, The American Literary Anthology, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. That two of the three poetry judges for the anthology, Robert Creeley and John Ashbery, had both chosen my poems made a little stir and may have been what triggered an invitation from Random House to put together a book. On the drive down to New York to meet my editor, Christopher Cerf, I shared the backseat of Carol’s VW Bug with Gailyn, who had just graduated from Goucher College and happened to be visiting Carol, a college friend. I had an immediate sense that we might be a match.

That summer Gailyn and I became a couple and moved to an apartment on River Street in Cambridge. I worked at assembling the book, trying to understand how my minimalist works could be put into a coherent sequence. Eventually I discovered that there was a fundamental difference between a short poem, which involved a reading process, and a one-word poem, which had no reading process and could be read instantaneously. And this discovery gave me an organizational template for the book, which would move from linear into instant “electric poems,” as I thought of them.

It wasn’t long after this dawned on me that I stopped writing, having come to the end of something. As Random House published two collections of my minimalist poems and Gailyn and I waded into the deeper waters of our life together as a couple, writing went on hold. It would be five years before I started again. By then, the late summer of 1972, we had gotten married, become the parents of an infant daughter, and moved to Bolinas, a small town in northern California where a number of poet friends had already settled, including Tom Clark, his wife Angelica, and their little daughter. It was a special place, and the people in it were so welcoming that I felt a kind of release—my choices seemed to have made sense after all. It wasn’t long after our arrival there that I began to write again.

Originally Published: March 25th, 2015

Aram Saroyan is a poet, novelist, memoirist, and playwright. He attended the University of Chicago, New York University, and Columbia University, but did not complete a degree. The son of the writer William Saroyan, Aram made his debut as a writer with six poems and a review of Robert Creeley's novel The...

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