The Poem As “Thing”

Mark Yakich ponders “poetry’s contemporary predicament: a poem that is so strange, so other, is also a poem many feel they might as well ignore”:

Here’s a poem from the 1960s by Aram Saroyan:


Yes, that’s the whole poem. I know, it seems asinine. When I wrote it on the board and asked my students to examine it, one said, “How do you even read it aloud?” When we tried, we began to understand the intent of the poem. The word “light” seems to be implied, but what’s with the apparent typo? After a long silence, another student said, “That’s the point—in the ordinary word ‘light’ we don’t pronounce the ‘gh’—the ‘gh’ is silent, and the double ‘gh’ makes us realize that even more.” The poem calls attention to the system of language itself—the stuff of letters in combination—and the relationship between sound and sense. The familiar—a plain word such as “light”—has been made new if only for a brief moment. In Saroyan’s own words: “[T]he crux of the poem is to try and make the ineffable, which is light—which we only know about because it illuminates something else — into a thing.” When we come across a poem—any poem—our first assumption should not be to prejudice it as a thing of beauty, but simply as a thing.