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Flower Power (1969)
Aram Saryoan in UbuWeb Sound
Aram Saroyan in UbuWeb Films
Aram Saryoan in UbuWeb Historical
Over thirty years ago, in the dark, violence-riddled spring of 1968, Random House brought out my first book of poems. Actually, that's not quite the case; I should say that they published my first mainstream book of poems, since, like many New York poets of my generation, I was active in the small press scene chronicled recently in the New York Public Library's exhibit and book, A Secret Location on the Lower East Side. What was distinctively different about that April publication was that now I could walk Manhattan with my typewriter-page-size book, printed in typewriter facsimile, in virtually every bookstore that I passed. The book, called only Aram Saroyan, comprises thirty minimal poems, also without titles, and can be read easily from cover-to-cover in a minute or two.
Soon after it appeared, in fact, the book was read from cover-to-cover, on the local Six O'Clock NBC News, by Edwin Newman wearing his cultural commentator hat. My editor at Random House, Christopher Cerf, alerted me to this unprecedented phenomonon---which I had missed---with a certain astonishment but with his perennial good cheer. In the Art News Annual of that year, John Ashbery noted his surprise at catching the event, and then remarked ruefully that, since the media was wont to pass from "put down to panegyric without an interval of straight reportage," he expected that I might soon be appearing on the Johnny Carson Show with Andy Warhol and the rest of the avant-garde.
That was not to be, needless to say. I was
24 years old, just wading into the deeper waters of a relationship
that would lead to my marriage that fall, regularly seeing a psychoanalyst,
and more than a little troubled by the phenomonon of my book.
For one thing, in stalwart sixties fashion, I wasn't certain
whether it was correct to be published by a mainstream publisher
at all. Simultaneously, and in seeming contradiction, I was troubled
by the fact that while the book was selling well for a book of
poems, the ratio of copies sold to the numbers of readers who
read the volume cover-to-cover while in the bookstore, as evidenced
by the increasingly soiled condition of many of the unbought copies,
was easily ten to one. While one might congratulate oneself on
thereby undercutting corporate profits, at the same time one was
a near-penniless young poet who could have used a royalty check.
The longest poem, the first, goes:
a man stands
This fourteen-word opener is followed by 29 more poems, scarcely any of which exceed a dozen words, and a number of which are only one word. Of the latter, the most notorious is probably this one:
Awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Poetry
Award of $750 after its appearance in The Chicago Review, this
poem seems to have induced in Jesse Helms, among others, a state
of apoplexy that has yet to abate in, lo, these thirty years hence.
In my own defense, one wonders if Mr. Helms and other members
of Congress who haven't taken kindly to my minimalist exposition
of light in the sixties, are more warmly disposed in the universally
celebrated artistic precincts of, say, Picasso.
But what troubled me most at the time was a recognition that my work comprised a sensibility that was being fiercely challenged, not to say effectively obliterated by the surge of world events. My book appeared just after the winter that saw the heaviest American losses in the war in Vietnam---500 or more American lives lost each week---and arrived simultaneously with the murder of Martin Luther King. It stood on the bookstore shelves when Robert Kennedy was murdered after his victory in the California presidential primary.
These events made it hard to entertain the innocently benign, anarcho-pacifist perspective at large in the pages of the book, a perspective nurtured in that decisively apolitical cadre of the sixties culture that didn't care a cracker-jack-toy-prize for politics. Make Love Not War, we declared, but the way things worked out, we were summarily swept to the sidelines as the planet grew swiftly darker and darker that spring. As a poet, I knew instinctively that I'd come to the end of something--for a while I thought it was the end of being a poet at all--and it was another five years before I wrote again, this time in a decisively non-minimal mode.
It came as something of a shock, then, when I recently found my thirty-year-old, long out-of-print book, on the Internet in its entirety sans the first poem, which may have been considered too long-winded, as it were. The book appears as part of an international survey of avant-garde poetry in which it figures as one of three "historical" documents. Historical indeed. You "click" on each poem to see the one that follows it.
There is, of course, no uncertain joy in finding your words from decades ago still at large in the near-new millenium. If the book continues to be read from cover-to-cover gratis, that's an old story, and maybe someone can fix it one of these days. Maybe someone can even get American writers a small royalty each time a book is checked out at the library. Would Mr. Helms prefer that subsidy to the NEA? Well, then, why not legislate for it, sir? In the meantime, however, let me take this opportunity to invite the reader to type my name into the Alta Vista search engine and have a look at Aram Saroyan. Virtual reality, as they say. An alternative universe. 1968 without the immediate heartache of that April, May and June. A late resurgence of Flower Power, even.
For the past thirty years, Aram Saroyan has written primarily prose, including the books Trio, Last Rites, and The Romantic. His new book, Day and Night: Bolinas Poems, has just been published by Black Sparrow Press.