That’s not a typo, the title. It’s a poem. To repeat it:
Yes, it’s the entire poem.
It was first published in The Chicago Review in the early 1960s, authored by a minimalist poet named Aram Saroyan, then in his 20s. The poem was subsequently selected for inclusion in the 1965 edition of The American Literary Anthology by George Plimpton, a world-renowned literary critic and the first editor-in-chief of The Paris Review. And then the poem — again, still one word — set off a political firestorm.
Something else notable happened in the art world in 1965. Congress created an independent agency of the federal government called the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), a grantmaking organization which funds all sorts of creative expression. Through 2008, the NEA has made over 125,000 grants totaling over $4 billion, and has an annual budget hovering around $150 million. Over the course of the NEA’s nearly 50-year existence, its role as a function of government has been hotly debated a number of times, with many questioning why the government is spending tax dollars on sculptures and paintings and, in this case, poems.
The American Literary Anthology was one of the first publications funded by the NEA, and each of the poems selected for publication earned $750. The first $250 went to The Chicago Review, but Saroyan took the lion’s share, receiving $500 for his one-word poem. That’s a lot of money for a word — especially one that’s either made up or misspelled, take your pick — and a Congressman named Williams Scherle took notice. He used the poem as evidence that the NEA was nothing more than government waste, and lighght became the unintended standard-bearer for that cause for decades to come. And these objections weren’t simply made by small-time politicians making do-nothing speeches, either. In 1980, when Ronald Reagan was running for President of the United States, he cited the poem as one of his reasons for wanting to close down the arts agency.
Saroyan, throughout all this, stood by his work. In a 1981 article (a response of sorts to Reagan) in Mother Jones magazine, Saroyan spent a thousand or so words explaining the art. “It is instant” — there is “no reading process at all.” It is “simultaneous” and “multiple” and “$107 per letter” (but only $71 and change net to him). Even though it is short, he explained, that’s where the beauty lies, and it’s a totally legitimate poem, even at $750 a word.
But in some sense, the poem is a bargain at $750. If you want to buy his poem as a limited edition, signed and numbered silkscreen, The Paris Review sells those in its online store — for $1,000.
From the Archives: Stichting de Eenzame Uitvaart: The poet eulogist.
Related: If you really want that screen print from The Paris Review, get it at Amazon — it’s 25% off and comes with free shipping. (And in case you wanted to see how it’d look in a room, Amazon has a picture of that, too.)