Friday, April 18, 2008

I was planning on running this note next Tuesday, after the awards ceremony dinner on Monday. But as Ugly Duckling Presse has already posted a notice on its website & sent an email to its list, I’m running it today.

Here is my statement, as it will appear in the awards ceremony program on Monday, April 21st, giving the William Carlos Williams Award to Aram Saroyan for Complete Minimal Poems from Ugly Duckling Presse of Brooklyn:

The world was not ready when William Carlos Williams first published Kora in Hell in 1920 and the complete version of Spring & All three years later. Those books had a profound impact on American writing, even though they languished out of print for decades until they were brought back by City Lights in 1957 and Frontier Press in 1970. Aram Saroyan's minimal poems were even more of a scandal when they first appeared in the 1960s, foretelling not one, but several of the directions that American poetry would take in their wake, even as they too went out of print and stayed that way for over thirty years until Ugly Duckling Presse of Brooklyn seized the opportunity to make them available again. Like all miniaturists, Aram Saroyan uses the poem as a giant magnifying glass on the language of our lives and the processes we use to understand this. A work like "Blod" - that's the entire text - calls up not merely the words blood and bod, but all the sexuality that truncated latter term conveys, refusing to settle on one side or the other. Reading Complete Minimal Poems, we are struck by just how sturdy these poems have proven to be and just how brightly Saroyan's sense of humor shines through these pages. These poems are works of great optimism, and are as radical and strong in 2008 as the day they were written.

As I noted when I submitted this to the folks at the PSA, I think that the William Carlos Williams Award is the perfect prize for this book, and that this book is the perfect selection for this prize. The synergies just don’t get any better.

Here is a poem from the book that I recommended also be included in the awards ceremony program:

That borders on being visual poetry, as do a number of works in this extraordinary book. I wondered at the time if a visual poem had ever been included in a PSA program before. And I wonder even now if readers will recognize the ways in which this very brief poem engages the oldest of literary devices, rhyme. One of the things I like about it is the way it makes clear that visual poetry & “poetry” are not entirely separate genres. Other poems here echo the shorter works of Louis Zukofsky:

Not a

ticks a

Nor am I imagining the connection. There is at least one work in this volume explicitly dedicated to “L.Z..” One thing this larger collection really accomplishes is to spell out just how rich & various Saroyan’s different strategies were with such a densely compact canvas.

Complete Minimal Poems contains the work from three books that appeared between 1968 & 1971, two of them from Random House. A fourth section appeared as part of the New York School anthology, All Stars, in 1972. A fifth is gathered into book form here for the first time. When Saroyan received an NEA grant for his work, he was the subject of fulminations from various Babbits on the floor of Congress. Indeed, it was probably the NEA’s first scandal.

As a result, Saroyan took the heat for an awful lot of writing that would come after, which could not have been fun. By the early 1970s, he’d done what he wanted with this form & moved on. But these works stand on their own almost shockingly well. Since I’ve never met him (I suppose it’s conceivable that we’ve been at the same event at some point, tho I’m not aware of it) I’ve never had the opportunity to thank him for opening up the landscape so broadly. I was only one of dozens & dozens of poets who benefited from these poems. The William Carlos Williams Award seems like the perfect opportunity to note just how important these poems have been.