You Call That Poetry?!
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:
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.”