This book collects nearly all the poems Aram Saroyan wrote in the 1960s, when he was in his early 20s and, as he put it, “the only person available at a typewriter who didn’t have some predetermined use in mind for it.” The resulting pages, tapped in Aram Saroyan by his typewriter, were succinct. Saroyan was the master of the one-word poem. But his works were as musical and meaningful as more conventional poetry, too, and a lot more amusing. The minimal poems were eye openers, ear openers and mind openers, and no one else was doing anything much like them at the time, and no one has since.
Granted — as Saroyan has — he was smoking a lot of grass at the time. But every second person in the United States was, and is, on something or other often enough. The grass factor is interesting because: 1) it’s typical of the era, always an interesting dimension of art; 2) one realizes it couldn’t be an unfair advantage, since no one else wrote like he did; and 3) the reader’s knowledge of it confers a nice extra little psychedelic ting to the pages.
Saroyan and his poetic cohort mostly lived in New York, and it was an exhilarating time for poetry — one of those extended moments, like the advent of Cubism in Paris or rockabilly in Memphis, where the artists who got it could do no wrong. Even the least writers of this Second-Generation New York School, as it’s sometimes called, were gorgeous and exciting for a while there, in the general vicinity of the St. Mark’s Church Poetry Project circa 1966-71. Most of this material appeared in mimeographed pamphlets, but for a short time some of the wildest books were brought out by uptown commercial publishers too. Holt, Rinehart & Winston published Ron Padgett’s starry, blue “Great Balls of Fire” (1969), and Ted Berrigan’s “Sonnets” (1964) went into a second printing at Grove. Clark Coolidge’s “Space” (1970) — he treated words somewhat similarly to the way Saroyan did, but more abstractly — was published by Harper & Row. Saroyan’s 1968 volume “Aram Saroyan” was published by Random House. Its format was a nearly full-size representation of its contents as they would have been in typescript (or mimeograph), in the classic Courier typeface, looking unevenly inked, printed on one leaf-side each, for a total sheaf of only 30 poems. The book could be read in two minutes or so (as it was, aloud, by Edwin Newman on the “NBC Evening News” in New York), but one could look for a long time at its pages as well, repeatedly, and with great interest and pleasure.
Some of Saroyan’s poems could only be looked at; they couldn’t be pronounced.
Some of Saroyan’s other poems were about real-life phenomena made of words, so to speak, like the Joycean whistling in the street a car turning in the room ticking.
Others were more about the effects of the sounds of the words, as well as their appearance (similar sounding words tending also to look alike), tangled up with their denotations:
My arms are warm
You could feel him in a room at his typewriter, like a monkey or a cat with a little extra brainpower.
Saroyan was known as a “concrete poet” — that is, he was writing poems meant to be looked at as much as read. His poems aimed to be things as well as words, and they used all the resources of the alphanumeric page (or slab of stone, as Ian Hamilton Finlay did, or poster or other medium) rather than being merely linguistic expression of pre-existing ideas or perceptions. All interesting poems do this to a degree, poetry being a recognition that consciousness is made of language, but concrete poems are an extreme example, which accounts for a substantial part of their poetic pedigree (and high-class license).