Monday, May 21, 2007


Ron Silliman's blog post today finds him discussing the work of Aram Saroyan. In so doing, he closely examines two one-word Saroyan poems originally published in 1968, in a book that is either untitled or eponymous, depending on how you read its cover.

The first of the Saroyan poems in question, reprinted here in its entirety:


And the second, also in its entirety:


Silliman argues that the first of these is the better poem, noting that the latter "just sits there on the page doing not much of anything." In contrast, he judges the first poem "effective" in that it "calls up the double-image element involved in stereoscopic vision," which connects, and fulfills, the poem's use of the "graphic elements of language."

But exclusive attention to these poems' graphical components ignores — as Silliman does — their sonic dimensions. I'm not interested in disagreeing with Silliman, of course; his attention is focused on the visual by the parameters of his essay, and particularly by his comparison of Saroyan with Grenier. Rather, and nevertheless, I want to look at other ways of reading the poems to investigate them differently.

Read aloud — with an "eye" to its sound, rather than graphical presentation — the poem takes on, through homophony, a variety of other possible meanings. "eyeye" sounds the affirmative: "aye-aye." Or it can be read as "I I" — a doubling of the personal pronoun that, in turn, might be regarded as a doubling of the self, as in a split consciousness, or as an expression of plurality, of "we," taken as a union that does not suppress distinct subjectivity. The latter might, in turn, be read to recall Olson's "polis is / eyes," which relies in part on the eye/I/aye homophony for its meaning. And we could take this further still, substituting one homophone for each of the "eyes" that comprise the poem: "I aye," or "aye I." Operating in this fashion, "I eye" and "eye I" are also possible, as are "aye eye" and "eye aye." That some of these formulation defy grammatical conventions seems of little consequence, as we are dealing here in the realm of pun, rather than of sentence structure.

As I read it, there is no apparent connection between the poem's voicing and its visual appearance. I suppose we could look towards a reconcilitation by taking up the homophonic play between "eye" and "I," to return to Olson's statment, and suggest that we read our multiplicity, our condition as "we," in terms of stereoscopic vision, suggesting a more-or-less commun(al)istic and affirmative conception of society that emphasizes the ways we work together. But this seems, at the moment, a bit of a stretch — though I stand to stand corrected, of course.

The meaning of "eyeye" proliferates upon its utterance. "lighght" confounds its sounding. Where the former works through pun, the latter presents itself in terms of the impossibility of even the most fundmental form of interpretation that is reading aloud. It is not clear at all how to voice the poem's doubling of the silent "gh." Nevertheless, possible solutions come into view, despite its presentation: we could recall that "gh" indicates that the "i" is a long one, and draw the vowel out, effectively doubling its length. Or we could read the poem as a homophone for "light" — read the poem as a rejection of logocentrism, that is — and rely on the assumption that its difference from the conventional word exists solely on the page. Or we could recall that earlier versions of English in fact sounded the "gh" combination as the velar fricative /x/ (as in German "nicht"). This in mind, we could return to this sounding, drawing it out to honor its graphical doubling, or perhaps allowing the first "gh" to silently lengthen the "i" sound, and voice its second manifestation as either /x/ or the /f/ into which the former transformed prior to the completion of the "taut-taught merger" (as historical phonologists term the evolution of words like "taught" towards homophony with words like "taut").

As in "eyeye," puns begin to suggest themselves with these last possibilities. We can move between a short and long "i" while voicing the "gh" as /x/ or as /f/ to find: "lift," "licked" or "lick't" (if we allow a slight mispronunciation of /x/), and "liked," as well as the neologistic "lifed," which we might interpret as meaning "lived." And these might be superimposed upon the ambiguities that the conventional word "light" allows: when divorced from syntactic context, the word fluctuates between adjective and noun. And the varying meanings of "light" as adjective inhere as well.

None of these puns is, for me, as fulfilling as the working together of meanings in "eyeye." And each is somewhat unsatisfying, inasmuch as it solves the problem with which we are presented when we first look at "lighght." The very difficulty of sounding the poem reminds us — in a way that the ease of "eyeye" does not, because it moves this difficulty to the background — that one way of thinking ambiguity, uncertainty, and undecidability is in terms of impossibility. And the impossibility of reading interests me, not least because it problematizes the dominance of voice in our culture. But also because it confounds the most fundamental levels of interpretation. The verb "to read" means to interpret, but before it means interpretation, it implies a sounding that "lighght" has certainly complicated. Or, to return to Silliman's phrasing, "lighght" "sits there on the page," but doing so is doing something.

[NOTE: if you decide to read UbuWeb's reprinting of Saroyan's text, be aware that they've misspelled "lighght" as "lightght," a fact Saroyan has mentioned here. I mention this not to prevent the accusation that I've misread the poem, but to point to the difficulty of even transcribing the poem — a testament to what we might, variously, call its confounding poetics, or its poetics of impossibility.]

[ADDENDUM: There's another sense in which "lighght" does more than "sit ... there on the page." Silliman clearly intends to describe the poem qua poem — as it is on the page, if you will — but "lighght" has another life off the page that is worth mention. The poem became part of a decades-long controversy when it was discovered to have been awarded an NEA grant. "lighght" is regularly referenced in critiques of government arts subsidies, though usually without mention of its author, and has been referenced in the Senate as recently as 1997, by such luminaries as Jesse Helms (according to Saroyan) and John Ashcroft (according to the Congressional Record).]


phaneronoemikon said...

there's also the old phrase

seeing eye to eye

in which the e sound in see
becomes both an i and a silence

i think this is a comment
on the transpersonal hermeneutic

the e between
as a turbulence
or as you say
a referent of the impossible

between words
between beings

something like that.
but really it calls
to terms the provisionality
of the inscription surface
as a place of rules
and shows in small zen like
terms how words and by equal
measure ideas are so many
marks up a surface made to be
for whatever reasons

Nathan Austin said...

Of course! I'm not sure how I didn't see the "eye to eye" pun, with its attention to seeing together...

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