Saroyan Minimalism

I don’t know that I’ve mentioned it before, but as this blog has been getting increasingly personal, I might as well talk about the fact that for the last four years I’ve been plodding my way toward an MFA at USC — one class per semester, because I don’t have time for more than that.

This semester my class is “The New Poem” with Aram Saroyan, whose recent book, Complete Minimal Poems, is currently #1 in the small press poetry rankings.  I’ve been familiar with Saroyan’s work for a long time, at least that from his concrete minimalist phase, but one week in my view of it has already been completely transformed.  A lot of that work has to do with the physical creation of a mental experience — while most poetry, traditional or contemporary, takes place simultaneously on the tongue and the internal projector of the mind’s eye, these poems act as the textual embodiment of thought.  For example:

something moving in the garden a cat

Or:

having

swum

Or this still-baffling piece:

ly   ly

ly   ly

Since the poems resist being “read” in the usual sense, I always assumed Saroyan was a deconstructionist, a precursor to the Language School, where the recurring point seems to be that there cannot be a point — the slippage between the signifier and the signified meaning no words, in the end, can have meaning.    Or perhaps more accurately, language dictates meaning rather than the other way around, so all texts are interactive.  Math has Number Theory, and poetry has the Language School.

When asked what his influences were, I thought Saroyan would have said Lacan or Derrida, or someone more obscure. Instead, he said Andy Warhol.

With that one comment it all suddenly made sense.  Warhol’s pop art was of course interested in mass production and repetition, but it can all be described with the concept of instantaneousness.  Warhol was responding to the broadcasting era, a million TVs all tuned to the same show at the same time: information at the speed of light.  The experience of his soup cans or Elizabeth Taylor isn’t just the repetition — its their appearance everywhere at once.

And what Warhol was doing on the canvas, Saroyan was trying to work into the page.  For a poem to be instantaneous, it can’t be “read” — because even a single sentence has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  An instantaneous poem tries to capture a single moment of awareness.  This is easy to see in the first example, where “something” moving in the garden becomes the specific “cat” before the thought is even complete.  And even easier to see in “ly” when you compare it directly to Warholishness.

So I’m learning already, and looking forward to going back and reading the minimal poems with a new understanding.

I’m excited for this class as a whole — I haven’t read much experimental contemporary poetry at all, let alone in a formal setting.  Hopefully I’ll be able to glean a new appreciation for other poets as well.  I’ll keep you posted.

9 thoughts on “Saroyan Minimalism

  1. I don’t mean to pry, but is there a reason why you’re enrolled in their MFA but didn’t go for their PHD in creative writing? Just curious because I considered applying but the odds of being accepted seemed outrageous.

  2. I thought about it, but taking one class at a time to get the MFA (MPW) takes up a lot of time. Working 60 hours a week already brutally assaults my ability to write — I couldn’t handle the rigors of a PhD program at this point.

    As far as poetry goes, the PhD at USC is much stronger than the MPW. There are some great poets in that program.

  3. I can explain the “ly ly ly ly” poem – at least, to my own satisfaction!

    But think of it as four posts in the stream (or river) of consciousness. Adverbial type material floats downstream (quick, quiet, cool, foolish, for example), and gets caught on the four posts, so you get “quickly, quietly, coolly, foolishly.” The river of consciousness flows on – that adverbial material breaks free – time passes – then there’s a big storm upstream, and more adverbial flotsam and jetsam comes down the river, and catches on the posts – slow, loud, warm, intelligent, so you get “slowly, loudly, warmly, intelligently.”

    Well, that explanation satisfactory to me, at least! Next! 🙂

  4. And then, think of all the millions of people on earth, and the millions of rivers of consciousness, and maybe some people have 100’s of posts in their rivers, and some only 4, or 27…all the time simultaneously, there’s adverbial flotsam and jetsam coming down the river, getting caught on the posts…what are the posts? I couldn’t tell you exactly…

  5. Andy Warhol and Mao

    I saw a documentary about Andy Warhol, in which someone criticized his famous silk screen of Mao – the critic was pointing out that Mao was a really ruthless totalitarian dictator, so it was wrong to present him as some kind of pop culture icon, “prettily” – but isn’t it interesting that now China (at least in its major cities), is getting to be kind of “pop culturized” – the “benign” face that capitalism presents of itself (bright, well-light, fun) now appearing on Chinese streets – and so the image of Mao himself, under the pressure of Western capitalist investment/exploitation of China, undergoes a similar transformation. And so Andy Warhol’s silk screen of Mao from way back when isn’t distorting and dishonest, but prescient…

    If that makes any sense.

  6. HI Timothy,
    The Warhol image you are linking to is a digitally reproduced image of myself taken in 2007 at the Brisbane Muesum in Australia and is not a real Andy Warhol piece.
    But thanks for the promotion!
    kind regards
    Jeanette

  7. Hi Jeanette,

    Oops! I mistook you for Elizabeth Taylor! I changed “Warhol” to “Warholishness”, which should help the accuracy of that statement:)

    If you want me to delete the link, though, I
    will. I doubt my handful of visitors are cutting into your bandwidth, but just let me know!

    Thanks,
    Tim

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