Saroyan’s Silent Letters
Alexander B. Joy on the world's shortest poem.
I thought myself well-prepared to resist the boredom of quarantine. For I have never been what one calls the adventurous type. Familiar comforts often entice me more than stimulating novelties, and staycations always appeal to me over travel. Nevertheless, I was unprepared for how pernicious unrelenting sameness can be. My otherwise congenial surroundings risked souring after a few months. If a blackbird is good for only thirteen different looks, household objects bleach of interest even sooner—unless one cultivates a different way of seeing.
This is why, under lockdown, I’ve developed a newfound appreciation for an Aram Saroyan poem so concise that I can reproduce it for you here in its entirety:
That’s it. That’s the whole poem.
It resembles one of those textual accidents you might glimpse before autocorrect intervenes. You do not “read” it so much as apprehend it all at once, like a sculpture or a painting. It seems to encompass both the word “light” and its shadow; both the image and the afterimage of a bright thing too long beheld.
In our time of confinement, the poem has proven invaluable to me because it teaches how to find moments of astonishment and delight in things one takes for granted. In Saroyan’s poem, the surprise is the point. You need nothing deeper than that momentary jolt to grant something new life and light. A single word, rote and routine under standard spelling conventions, can flower into unexpected complexity with a simple typo. (Here, wordplay is not far removed from worldplay.) A commonplace item like a sink faucet, caught in an unusual slant of sun, can unfold into a vision seen for the first time. The key is less the object of fascination than the attitude: receptivity to small changes can register thrills of seismic upheaval.
I am reminded whenever I see the poem’s doubled “gh”—a consonant cluster elided in speech—that magic happens in places easily overlooked. Beautiful, meaningful things hide in those silent interstices we might dismiss as uneventful. We may console ourselves that our isolation—however long, however uncertain—will also contain its treasures.
Alexander B. Joy holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is writing The Art of Thinking, a series of articles about aesthetic philosophy, for Critical Read.
Aram Saroyan (1943-) is an Armenian-American writer known for his minimalist poems. Written in 1965, “lighght” was selected twenty years later by George Plimpton for inclusion in The American Literary Anthology.