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.