Friday, January 06, 2006

Larry Eigner, 1984
Photo by Alistair Johnston


In his roster of “neglectorinos” on Tuesday, Larry Fagin includes Larry Eigner, specially wishing for a republication of Eigner’s first three books as a single volume, noting that “I don’t think LE improved after 1960.” I, for one, am not at all sure about that factually, nor do I think that the relationship of poetry to the world, or to an individual life’s work, is a question of, as Bob Perelman once phrased it, “how to improve.”

Eigner’s poetry does have distinct phases to it, ones that I expect to show when Stanford finally issues the Grenier-Faville edition. Initially, Eigner’s poetry was written fully within the context of Olson’s projectivist poetics, with its concept of the line as a “breath unit” and the text as a score for spoken rhythms, an approach that was ironic, at best, for someone whose speaking skills were severely limited by cerebral palsy and considerable social isolation. After Larry moved to Berkeley in 1978, some 18 years before his death, he found himself increasingly active in a world of poetry &, perhaps most important, poets. While his speech was never fluid, it did improve as he worked to make himself intelligible to a large number of diverse people, not all of whom understood his importance as a poet.

At some point, tho – it would be interesting to figure out when exactly – his own poetics evolved from a mimicked speech, which is pretty consistently what you find in his first books – the pieces in the Allen anthology are not atypical – toward a composition on the page that is more cognitive & spatial in its focus. Reading the 2003 reissue of My God / The Proverbial, Eigner’s 1975 volume – i.e., pre-Berkeley – first published by Curtis Faville’s L Publications, now out once again from Compass Rose Books, an imprint of L (this time without the pinstripe cover & on better paper), one finds Eigner already in transition. The one poem that qualifies as a statement of poetics focuses not on speech, but on measure:

a poem is a
     length of time

Yet the very next poem poses itself spatially:

O what



Another sounds at first like a snatch of overheard language until you realize just how much weight Eigner has given to each one-word line, so that even the lone preposition – one normally accorded to spatial representation, but here given over to time – shines:





Again on the facing page – this time to the left – is another poem even more careful (and provocative) in how it uses such terms:

as slow


  as time

   here’s snow

     fall while the sun

          goes back and forth

I dare you to read the above poem and not hear the word now hiding there in snow, even as the tongue sends the vowel out on a different wavelength – that divergence of the two O sounds hidden in a single letter is very nearly this poem’s point – that’s why the sun in the next stanza operates like a pendulum, rather than a reiterated cycle.

No poet, before or since, has paid so much heed to the question of spacing on the page – Blackburn might be a distant second – particularly noteworthy given Eigner’s limited physical palette, the ability to grasp with one hand & to hunt & peck on the typewriter with the other. Some of Eigner’s poems come perilously close to being “mere lists,” at least if we’re willing to forget for a moment that the list is the oldest genre of writing known, but in fact are nearly pointillist articulations of cognitive data – bird sun sky treecategory category categoryas if life itself were the endless shuffling of possible combinations of these very basic terms: synapse synapse synapse.

Which brings me to the second half of Fagin’s assertions – that Eigner doesn’t “improve” beyond a certain moment. That, of course, is an argument we’ve heard made about many an older poet, as in “Creeley never evolved beyond Words” or “Ashbery stopped at Three Poems” (or Flow Chart or Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror or The Tennis Court Oath, take your pick) or “Pound peaked at Mauberly,” ”Eliot should have stopped with The Waste Land,” “What did Ginsberg write after 1968?” & on & on & on.

Rather, I think a minimum of two dynamics are at work, the first of these being that functioning as a serious poet – let alone a major one – is not at all unlike being an athlete. It’s extremely rare for any poet to be “in peak form” for more than a decade. But what does “peak form” mean? Most often, I suspect, it means that the poet’s evolution of formal means has crossed over into that rare territory that proves useful not just for him or herself, but for all poets – and for a period of time, whatever this poet does, whether it’s Gertrude Stein, Harryette Mullen or Lee Ann Brown, is enormously fertile not just for them, but for all of us who get to read them. But it is inevitable, also, that they will continue to develop – every poet does – and that beyond a certain moment their development will mean more to them than to you or I. It’s not so much that their evolution has become more personal (tho we may experience it as such, as with Creeley’s later poems), as that the orbit of change of their poetry has moved out of whatever orbit we happen to be in. One could articulate a history of poetic form out just such orbits crossing – their respective gravities impacting one another as they do – not unlike the game of “the solar system” that Wittgenstein used to play, with different players representing sun, the planets, various moons, all circling in their different paths & tempos across a field.

One might then say that, at a certain moment, Larry Eigner passed through the gravitational space of Larry Fagin, possibly as early as 1960. But my own experience would be that Eigner’s greatest work was at least 15 years still in the future at that date. Which is really to say that as his writing exited Fagin’s orbit it had yet to enter into my own. If you read Eigner at all closely – and I own 29 books & have read every word in each, including both editions of My God / The Proverbial – you see that Eigner is almost never lazy – his extraordinary focus never lets up over the 45 years of his writing career, but the gaze shifts, his sense of what a poem is & means is not the same in the 1990s as it is two or four decades before. In what sense here can we really use the word improve?

Consider, for a moment, all the connotations that hover in the word proverbial in the title poem:

My god      the

  we drive in

     all are mowing the lawn


              snip snip

        the firetruck

          this distance


         my town   a giant



           the day of the party

             trees in the wind