Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Shortest Poem

Do long poems make you yawn? Here is one that you can read in a jiffy:

 by Aram Saroyan, 1965

You read that right! It qualifies for the "minimal poetry" category, sure enough. Not meant to be pronounced, its impact lies in the seeing. By manipulating the spelling of the word "light," Saroyan created something which seems to radiate forth in the same manner as light waves. Do you see it?

This poem not only emits light waves, it also created waves of controversy back in the 1960s because the poet was awarded $500 from the National Endowment of Arts when it was selected to be a part of a published anthology of poetry. An Iowa congressman thought it wasteful and reckless on the part of the government to be paying out good money for one word, and a misspelled word at that! He tried to get the chairwoman of the NEA removed. George Plimpton, the one responsible for selecting the poem for inclusion in the anthology, reportedly said, "You are from the Midwest. You are culturally deprived, so you would not understand it anyway." [OUCH! says this midwestern girl.]

The "it" to be understood was the style of poetry called "concrete poetry," in vogue in the 1950s and 1960s. Concrete poetry was structured in a way to create a visual impact. Since George Herbert employed this device in his poetry back in the 17th century (see "Easter Wings" here), it could hardly be called avant-garde. Lewis Carroll, ee cummings, and Ezra Pound also played with the visual sculpting of words on paper. Why then, a firestorm over this little one word poem?

Timing. Our nation was experiencing deep division during the 1960s over Vietnam. The older generation didn't understand the shaggy haired hippies. There was cultural upheaval brewing, and "lighght" brought to light the differences in thinking: traditional vs. outside-the-box thinking, government support of art vs. private support, status quo vs. "flower power."

I think it fascinating that one little word--if it can even be called a word--could stir up such strong feelings! Lines were drawn over whether this word symbolized the degrading of culture or the expansion of culture. What do you think?

One thing I think we can all agree on : words are powerful. Language is the gift that sets us apart from all other creatures, and wielding words wisely calls forth a maturity that few can claim to possess. As the ancient writer James declared, " For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body."

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