On Cid Corman
breath never left off
I’m of two minds about selecting Cid Corman’s poems, and no wonder given the man!
On the one hand we all know his output was tremendous, but I don’t necessarily believe that means we have to measure our own scale by his dimension. Cid could be redundant in his explorations, and I find no fault there; it merely meant he was ever cutting away, searching, drawing, sketching. Think of a skilled woodcutter shaping a forest. It brings up for a great deal of wonderful reading.
At the same time, he was a sharp editor, razor sharp, and would produce his own journal Origin at an even sixty-five pages each issue. The majority of his books were backpack marvels — packed light for the long distance traveler and the narrow trail. Scaled down. Plus his domain and mind was Kyoto and his practice amongst the natives was humility, silence, space, less is more. He wasn’t always wise with it and would blabbermouth into whole scale marketing of thousands of poems, but he meant to be wise. And quiet. I’d like to think we are not making as much a representative selection here, but a philosophical one practicing the less is more and at the same time presenting the highest quality of Cid’s poetry summing up that force of goodness. It’s definitely an edgy approach. What’s 500 poem pages of expanse, compared to the experience of reading Cid Corman in one warm flush sitting. As a poet, he would forever advocate how one poem can be enough, providing space around that one poem, so resonance be allowed. We, as editors, are simply allowing Cid Corman to practice what he preached.
Cid Corman lived the last forty years of his life, last days, last very seconds in Kyoto, Japan with his Japanese wife, Shizumi. They resided in a tiny and marginal location that others who visited knew much better than I — having never visited, myself, except by letter, and quite often Cid and I exchanged letters two to three per week for years on end. This was long before email correspondence which Cid only learned to use sparingly. He was already a massive correspondent and daily writer of poems, and one day more of the world will know this through his vast unpublished and printed works. The books range up to two hundred titles (peanuts for a man who claimed to write a book a day), and the unpublished works are scattered amongst fine libraries and institutions. Get in on the secret: Cid Corman was a major poet, translator, and editor of the twentieth century. He was well over six feet tall, generally out of shape physically but immense with energy, strength, and character. His bald head was often capped over with a beret which looked quite bohemian on him, and this was correct since Cid spent some of his early years in France and Italy living out of a suitcase, slumming with poets and artists and sometimes souls of poetry who wrote nothing, but lived the poem. These were Cid Corman’s people.
Cid Corman was raised in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in a now dangerous neighborhood he would barely recognize. All his life he adored his parents, Abraham and Celia, and his two brothers Harvey and Len; strangely, his sister Sylvia is less spoken of in his poems and autobiographical prose. Nonetheless, they all played a major feature in his development as a poet. They each kept him alive, often financially, and particularly with his two brothers there was a shared existence. His one wife for life, Shizumi Konishi, would inherit the same love Cid gave to his mother and father and siblings and closest friends, and despite the often shabby treatment of Cid by some of his colleagues — if Shizumi was by his side, all was well.
Cid could be difficult, or at least singular, like all fascinating critters. Complex and simple. Grainy and smooth sailing. One moment ornery and glacial, the next moment pacific and nectar, it all depended on his axis. He seemed to think in the old Japanese tradition of the apprentice and the master — Cid of course being the master to many of the younger poets that arrived in his mailbox or at his door after the loudest wave of Asian influence came crashing the shores in the 1960s via the works of Gary Snyder, Kenneth Rexroth, Alan Watts, and the Vietnam War. There was something gem-like and sparkling to a Cid Corman poem, learned himself from the myriad of poems he translated from enriched world poets. He never stopped finding known (but made new) and unknown poets to bring to English.
Things to know about Cid Corman are that he never conceived any children, but he wrote wondrous poems completely fathered onto others’ children, so made his. The woodcutter and his son with waiting wagon in this book is one of Cid’s quick sketch beauties taken from one of my letters to him and shared from my family work scene. He was quite capable of receiving love and returning it just the same. He much enjoyed his Boston Red Sox throughout his life, Japanese baseball, and sumo wrestling. He never learned to drive a car. He hitchhiked, he walked, he waited. Almost every part of our letters had something to do with the Boston Celtics, world cinema (he enjoyed Bresson and much respected Meryl Streep, and Shizumi has a thing for Jennifer Jones), and so many differing steppes of books to love. We papered our letters and conversation walls with books; one or two or three always in hand, we may as well have worn books as deep fluffy boots and shoes. One time we stood together in Scribner’s Bookshop in downtown Manhattan during an impossible dream visit that was true (he from Kyoto, I from Vermont) and just flocked for a henhouse flurry hours flapping our wings over tons of books. What luxury. Two guys in from desert islands. He cared nothing about the books he already knew in that part of the conversation — he wished to know more and more about the new and younger poets he hadn’t read. He was the opposite of grandpa: everything fascinated Cid, if but for a few seconds. The ingredients may all reappear in a letter from him in a year, so best keep on your toes.
For a man who never wore a tool apron, broke a woods trail, connected down into a soft stump with an axe, or snarled with a chain saw, Cid managed to attract himself to some of the wilder portions of a poetry life. He translated old trail guide Basho one of the best. He published Gary Snyder’s first book of poems Riprap. He was friends for over a half century with the woodland and coastal Theodore Enslin. Louis Zukofsky was his own frontier, and Cid literally preached his poems to audiences traveling across America in 1960, about the same time Jack Kerouac was giving up on the road. Lew Welch, Philip Whalen, and Will Petersen were friends; so was Robert Creeley (despite more sensational rumors) who once raised pigeons in backwater New Hampshire. Cid wanted my book On Stone about stone building and woods life and made it an Origin title, then he asked for two more books until it was a trilogy. And perhaps the wildest part about Cid — the pioneer of the man, the wagon master and pathfinder — was his work as editor with Origin from roughly 1950 to his dying moment, December 31, 2003. Same dying day (but different year) as his discovery and friend Lorine Niedecker. And though it is true Cid hung on in a coma for three more months … he was elsewhere. He walked into the hospital a very sick man, and never walked out. The very last place on earth he ever wanted to die, that’s why he was elsewhere.
When Cid wrote letters to me it was sometimes the only letter of the day in my rural mailbox, and there might be two in the bargain from him. Cid told me it was often the same case for him on his end: just my letters in the mailbox that day. What’s this — two lonely guys? Or two guys fully involved. “About what?!” you might ask. I can just see Cid’s beaming face coming through loud and clear and answering with the drama of a whisper: “it’s about poetry.” Like Orson Welles’s “Rosebud.” It was all about poetry. Breath never left off.
When Ce Rosenow kindly asked me to join her in preparing a selection of Cid’s poetry I offered two ideas: let’s make this collection for the poets who don’t yet know they’re poets (check yourself out, you may be unaware), and that I might work best traveling along as her passenger. The sidekick who asks, “Did we miss our turn off?” or, “What a beautiful day for a drive!” And, of course, a passenger may just want another passenger and that’s just where you, dear reader, fit in.
Cid was but one man, one neighbor, one friend. The last thing he cared about was recognition — it was either the Nobel Prize / or nuthin’. So truly: read these poems as yours. Share them with someone else to make them theirs. See if you can be nearly as generous.
From the afterword to The Next One Thousand Years, selected poems of Cid Corman, edited by Ce Rosenow and Bob Arnold (Longhouse, 2008).
Historically, the content of a text has generally been considered as having a separate existence from its physical manifestation as print. Western Literature was originally oral, and though later committed to written form, the spoken word — the conditions of its utterance (or performance) — was long thought to precede, or to lie outside the parameters of, the physical text. This regard for the text as a convenient repository was reinforced by the traditions of dramatic and public speech.
In the East, where wood-block printing preceded moveable type printing (in Europe) by several hundred years, there nevertheless developed a different tradition involving elaborations of calligraphic expression and design. Europe also had a calligraphic tradition, though it was primarily restricted to the evolution of the Roman alphabet, and was geometrical in its spirit and character. In the East, calligraphic characters were invented to express meanings through shapes and styles of design, which encouraged the elaboration of techniques, sometimes associated with, or related to, painting, and a tradition of poetic expression going back hundreds of years, in which the meaning of a literary work was both signified, and visually expressed by the brush (calligraphic) medium, either as an integral accompaniment to works of art, or through the expressive definition and shape of the characters themselves. There is no true counterpart in Western Tradition, to the various Eastern calligraphic traditions of China, Korea, and Japan, which were unknown, for the most part, in the West, until the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Printing from moveable type had a revolutionary effect on the production of literature, as it is credited with facilitating the spread of knowledge during the Renaissance, and of the Enlightenment in Europe. The enormous power of this mechanism tended to suppress the relationship between the means of text-generation and the artisan-writer, a division which continues right into the twenty-first century. This lack of a coherent tradition of calligraphic expression in the West, which contributed to a systematic alienation of the writer from the material text, fostered a skeptical regard for the visual possibilities and potentials of a literature based on the eye and the hand, instead of the mere conveniences of mechanized typographic generation.
The trend towards mechanization was accelerated during the Industrial Revolution, with increasingly sophisticated and efficient techniques of automated reproduction. A series of typographic machine inventions, beginning in the nineteenth century — including the linotype machine, rotary press, offset press, and the manual typewriter — transformed the traditional typeset model, driving the proliferation of print mass media throughout the twentieth century. Isolated exceptions to this historical trend would include William Blake (1757–1827), painter, engraver and poet extraordinaire — whose work has clear antecedents in the documents of medieval scribes — and his illuminated “visionary” manuscripts — integrating both custom inscription and illustration — are a direct attempt to resuscitate or restore a tradition effectively driven underground by the ubiquity of moveable print technology; and in America, where Walt Whitman (1819–1892) — who had worked as a typesetter early in his career — paid for, designed, and did much of the typesetting for the first edition of his Leaves of Grass (1855). Both the concept and feel of this original edition suggest that Whitman was attempting to unite the qualities of the material text, as an embodiment of visual and tactile object, with the rustic, nativist thematic content of his ambitious American poem sequence.
It was not until the invention of the manual typewriter — which may be seen, in an historical timeline of increasing elaboration of type technology (printing), as an intermediate step in the development of expression through mechanical textual means (media) — that efficient production of the print text was first made possible directly by the individual user, not depending upon any intermediate step for realization, freeing the writer/artisan from a dependence upon the printing press — permitting, in effect, a rapid setting of text, and an opportunity to express meaning through a medium controlled by the artisan/writer.
The manual typewriter, in the form that we now know it, was invented in 1867. It used the so-called “QWERTY” layout of keyboard letters (in English), which has remained standard through to the present day with personal computer keyboards. By 1910, after some minor mechanical adjustments, the manual typewriter achieved a standardized design. The dimensions of the paper — the familiar 8.5 x 11 “letter size” (as a field or visual surface) — is also a standard that is linked historically to the development of the typewriter.
Traditional typefaces were designed to set type with variable “proportionate” widths. Since mechanical typewriters could not “justify” type (that is, adjust the incremental movement of the platen carriage to accommodate the differing widths of the individual letters), monospaced typefaces were invented. The invention of the typewriter, with its equivalently spaced letters, created a two-dimensional grid of the paper field, consisting of the spacing between the individual horizontal lines of type, and the vertical equivalent spacing of the letters. Thus, the component materials for the personal typographic text were established and in place well before Eigner assumed their use in the 1940s.
Though originally invented to facilitate rapid and efficient recordation of physical text, the typewriter eventually supplanted handwriting for many kinds of writing, both technical and creative. Traditional typesetting techniques, as well as page and book design, both played a significant role in the assumptions and clichés regarding the formatting of prose, line length, paragraph dimensions, indents, justification, and so forth. The mechanical manual typewriter, however, despite its nearly universal use for nearly a hundred years, was largely ignored as a device with an inherent potential for creative expression. Typographic and book design styles and traditions were determined by the commercial publishing industry, which was in turn based upon pre-industrial, and later, industrial applications or adaptations of classic typesetting practice, and book binding. It has been commonly thought that the personal typewriter’s predominant characteristic, its equivalent spacing, and equivalently spaced type font(s), represented an inconvenient limitation, which could perhaps serve as an intermediate step in the generation of text (from which typesetters and composers made a finished product) — a necessary evil or unfortunate consequence of the limitation of the typewriter’s mechanical design. History would have to wait until the invention of the personal computer — with its automated justification programs — to liberate artists and writers from the typewriter’s dominant inter-position, as the sole alternative to either script or voice recording, to produce their art.
Early modern departures from the traditional presentation of distributed text formalities would include such deliberate examples as Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Des, or Apollinaire’s Calligrammes. In the fields of advertising and graphic display, of course, countless innovations took place, but these were primarily non-literary in origin, and visual in their intended effects. Meanwhile, the typewriter became the common medium across the spectrum of users, for composing, and fixing, written texts. For the first time in history, creative writers made their own textual versions directly in print form. It was inevitable, given this fact, that the new mechanical medium would influence the work of artisan-poets in the modern age. William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, and — most particularly — E. E. Cummings (each a major Modernist innovator), were all influenced or inspired by the typewriter’s facility to arrange, modify, and express visual and aural effects directly on the page. It doesn’t take much imagination to appreciate the precisionist’s delight in lines like these, of Marianne Moore’s, constructed out of the most arbitrary of syllabic structures —
through black jade.
Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
adjusting the ash-heaps;
opening and shutting itself like
The barnacles which encrust the side
of the wave, cannot hide
there for the submerged shafts of the
split like spun
— and so on, without also acknowledging that its mathematical efficiency derives from an acute sensitivity to the strict increments which form the basis of its measure, a count not just of its syllables, but of its vertical indents and the visual tensions of its line-breaks — all qualities which suggest a mechanical appreciation of nature and form. From Pound’s perspective, the inclusion of Chinese characters directly into the body of his texts (in The Cantos) implied a coincident respect for the symbolic evidence of original meanings, embodied in their original form(s). To Williams, the poem was dynamic and gesticular, his stepped movements dramatic demonstrations of purpose —
Sunday in the Park
there is a world,
he rumbled, subject to my incursions
— a world
(to me) at rest,
which I approach
The scene’s the Park
upon the rock,
female to the city
— upon whose body Paterson instructs his thoughts
— which expresses a kinetic motion through the placement of words — nervous, impulsive, and shifting. Such innovations of the free use of shifting parameters and coordinates in verse, however, reach a kind of crescendo in E. E. Cummings’s various “typographical” “experiments” during the 1920s and after. Though it is not generally known or acknowledged, Cummings had always conceived of his poems in monotype face — his famous entanglements with traditional typesetters notwithstanding — and had striven to achieve a kind of mediated compromised version of his poems by tweaking his work into “linotype-ese”:
am fighting — forwarded and backed by a corps of loyal assistants — to retranslate 71 poems out of typewriter language into linotype-ese. This is not so easy as one might think;consider,if you dare,that whenever a typewriter “key” is “struck” the “carriage” moves a given amount and the “line” advances recklessly or individualistically. Then consider that the linotype(being a gadget)inflicts a preestablished whole — the type “line” — on every smallest part;so that the words,letters,punctuation marks &(most important of all)spaces-between-these various elements,awake to find themselves rearranged automatically “for the benefit of the community” as politicians say.
As baffling as Cummings’s preferences regarding the appearance of his published pages may have seemed to his contemporaries, his insistence on the material realization of his original compositional methodology can now be seen within the context of a growing renewal of interest in the possibilities and potentialities of a closer relationship between author and medium, meaning and means. It’s easy to see how the setting of one of his typical poems — for instance, one such as his famous “Buffalo Bill”:
who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
he was a handsome man
and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
— presented here in equivalently set Courier font — would depend upon the precision with which individual words and phrases were placed in relation to each other, on the grid of the page. Attempts to mediate traditional proportional typesetting procedure to accommodate such settings usually result in distortions of one kind or another. Though Cummings’s work would not be published in the manner in which it had originally been conceived, until the appearance of the ambitious Typewriter Edition of 1973, some eleven years after his death (London: The Marchim Press, Ltd., George Firmage, editor) — followed by the subsequent reissue of the original separate books of poems under the Liveright imprint “typescript” editions — the promise of his interest in the creative potentials of the typewriter was soon to be taken up by others in the intervening decades.
In his 1950 essay “Projective Verse,” Charles Olson had proposed the typewriter as a conscious creative element influencing the generation of literary text:
from the machine has come one gain not yet sufficiently observed or used, but which leads directly on toward projective verse and its consequences. It is the advantage of the typewriter that, due to its rigidity and its space precisions, it can, for a poet, indicate exactly the breath, the pauses, the suspensions even of syllables, the juxtapositions even of parts of phrases, which he intends. For the first time the poet has the stave and the bar a musician has had. For the first time he can, without the convention of rime and meter, record the listening he has done to his own speech and by that one act indicate how he would want any reader, silently or otherwise, to voice his work. It is time we picked the fruits of the experiments of Cummings, Pound, Williams, each of whom has, after his way, already used the machine as a scoring to his composing, as a script to its vocalization. It is now only a matter of the recognition of the conventions of composition by field for us to bring into being an open verse as formal as the closed, with all its traditional advantages.
Despite Olson’s theoretical insistence on the typewriter as an accommodation of the writer’s desire to score texts for “performance,” his insistence on the importance of the typewriter as an instrument of composition did not carry that purpose over to the finished page in his own work. His dramatic, muscular, rhetorical verse is recorded on the page with a great variety of line lengths and arrangements, but in traditional proportional typefaces. In any event, by 1950 then, there had occurred a recognition of the crucial place the typewriter might play in creative composition, but aside from a handful of largely underappreciated experiments by Cummings (beginning in the 1920s), no serious poet had yet ventured into the visual/musical FIELD to explore what subtleties and effects might be achieved by using the equivalent grid to make poems radically set to their own specific measures and weights. In a statement Eigner made for publication in 1996, he said (in 1995):
Hindsight (experience) says people give meaning to the world by evaluating or emphasizing things strangely enough: I picked up from e. e. cummings that everything you do on the page matters. When you don’t have regular meter or rhyme, the slight pause provided by the line (/) or stanza (//) break, the turn from one verse to another, gives stress and emphasis. It seems that one thing may be given too much stress, sort of like getting too hung up, fanatic, about a thing, unable to continue until, say, you may lessen the stress by just having a line, instead of a stanza, break … It’s a course of thinking — unlike a piece of prose it can be very short or long, can stop anywhere or continue unexpectedly like a letter or a walk. But it’s different from either of these in that it has to have more coherence, more immediacy and force (I realized this before I saw Olson’s characterization ‘energy construct’).
Larry Eigner’s career as a poet could not have happened were it not for the invention of the manual typewriter. Though he was capable of a crude kind of handwriting, this was neither rapid enough, nor controlled adequately to have permitted accurate composition. Larry learned to type as a teenager, though his ability was limited to the use of a single index finger and thumb. The agonizing pace of this procedure — slowly typing one letter (key) at a time — was a determinative factor in his approach to writing. Thus the typewriter both facilitated and limited his approach to composition, restricting his access to its typographic qualities, while ironically affording him his only entrée into print. Beginning in the late 1940s, with the help of his Mother, he was able to make fair copies of his work, and to write letters. Though physically isolated, by the time of his first literary contacts, with Cid Corman and Robert Creeley, he was enabled by the typewriter to reach out into the world at large. The typewriter was thus the key “prosthetic” link between Larry’s disabled body and the universe of print media, facilitating his participation in it, while gratifying his hunger for contact and intellectual discourse.
By the early 1950s, Eigner had begun to survey the territory first explored by earlier twentieth-century writers, marking out parameters of scoring and placement — of words and stanzas — and testing the limits of syntactical progression, of visual massing, which would become the hallmarks of his mature style. This style bore an obvious relationship to traditional Chinese painting, as well as to pictographic brushwork, through the deliberate organization of the spatial arrangement of individual words and stanzas, a technique whose effects would variously be referred to as “floating” or “hovering” or as resembling the movements of the dance or birds in flight. Such metaphoric descriptives, though, fail to take full account of the essential linguistic sophistication of his poetic experiments.
The specific combination of factors influencing Eigner’s approach to the page can be conflated: A) physical and social isolation for the first fifty years of his life, largely confined to the rooms in his parents’ house, his access to experience of the world circumscribed by limited opportunities for travel, movement, working in an enclosed porch; B) use of the typewriter to create texts, either as reflexive meditations, or as communications within a growing social and literary sphere. In retrospect, it may be seen that the adaptations forced upon him by these conditions would lead, ironically enough, to a fulfillment of Olson’s predictive composition by field technique, with its emphasis upon the typewriter as creative instrument, as well as upon the incremental unfolding of perceptions, whereby the poem becomes an open-ended extension into space and time, without arbitrary structural restraints or closures, beyond those imposed by the typewriter page. It is the coincidental nature of this “opportunity by limitation” which is perhaps the most revealing and gratifying aspect of Eigner’s accomplishments.
Though Eigner would initially be forced to acknowledge — as Cummings had before him — the predominance of traditional typesetting procedures, he lacked alternative means of composition, and thus continued throughout his life to create his typewriter texts in the same manner, unchanged. Given the limitations of his circumstance, it is unlikely that Eigner would ever have been in a position to dictate the terms of his appearances in print; nonetheless, when afforded the opportunity, he usually did his best to mediate between the precision of his original typescripts, and the proofs or galleys of printed pages of distributed type, just as Cummings had. The history of the publication of Eigner’s works, in magazines, books and broadsides is the record of the appropriation of his stylistic exactitude(s) to the limitations of traditional print text models.
In poring over Eigner’s voluminous manuscripts, and noting the extraordinary range of various traditional typographical “versions” of his poems undertaken over the years, it became apparent that to add to this list of adaptations would not do justice to the central meaning of his artistic effort and significance, and would in effect perpetuate the subtle but troubling distortions to which his work had been subjected during his lifetime. Eigner regarded the setting of his poems, within the exact equivalent dimensions afforded by the typewriter grid-field, as organizations of precise spatial relationships. As anyone who has ever attempted to mimic or duplicate the shifting relations of his words and stanzas on the page with distributed (variable) proportional typefaces knows only too well, this task is impossible: Following left-hand placements of first letters aligned with subsequent letter increments from above, or below, results in lines and words — especially in longer poems — radically rearranged. Such distortions are self-propagating; as each subsequent resetting of text takes place, there is progressively less fidelity to the original design. The basis, then, for any determination of the correct (intended) set of relationships, must be the original text. In order to present a valid “ur-text” or model upon which future use could be based, for posterity, it was decided to present the texts in equivalent typeface, just as Eigner had “set” them. It is possible, perhaps even useful, to imagine, that, like photographic negatives, these poems will be reimagined (printed) in other typefaces — distributed or proportional — over time. No writer can completely control how his or her work is reproduced in the future, but in order that the original designs and settings are not lost, the first responsibility to Eigner’s text, as to his present and future audiences, is to establish a reliable benchmark.
All decisions regarding typeface, composition and layout are aesthetic, though they may masquerade as practical requirements: legibility, size, density, and so forth. In the case of Eigner’s work, determined by the manual typewriter’s equivalent spacing, and the traditional letter-sized sheet, these are a priori frames, within which other problems must be mediated. Eigner’s text itself is, therefore, in every sense, an “image” of itself — or, in William Carlos Williams’s sense, “the thing itself” — opaque and obdurate. It is not a version of something, but the thing itself. That is both its beauty and its potential.
4. Cummings, Poems 1905–1962, ed. George Firmage (London: The Marchim Press, 1973). Copyright 1923, 1951, © 1991 by the Trustees for the E. E. Cummings Trust. Copyright © 1976 by George James Firmage, from Complete Poems: 1904-1962 by E. E. Cummings, edited by George J. Firmage. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation. “Buffalo Bill” originally published in The Dial 1920.
The poets who appear in Donald Allen’s earthquake anthology The New American Poetry 1945–1960 got to write their own biographies. Here’s Larry Eigner’s: “Born in Swampscott, Mass. (out of the nearby hospital in Lynn); still living there, where after public school I took correspondence course from U. of Chicago. I’m a ‘shut-in,’ partly. In 1949, a couple months after finishing up the last course, I bumped into Cid Corman reading Yeats, on the radio, in his first program, I gather, from Boston. I disagreed with his non-declamatory way of reciting, and wrote him so. This began a correspondence in which I got introduced to things, and the ice broke considerably.”
(As I write this advertisement for Larry Eigner’s poetry to my left sits The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner edited by Curtis Faville and Robert Grenier. That is four volumes of Collected Poems each volume measuring 9” x 11 1/4”, all four weighing in at fourteen pounds and 1,740 pages plus “Notes” and “Appendices” sits there waiting to be named. Magisterial? That word has been used too often to do justice to these books and the passion and effort it took to produce them. Mount Eigner! Like calling Allen’s anthology an earthquake, a word that recognizes a change in the landscape, is needed. I cannot know what readers fifty years down the road will make of this Eigner, but today — the volumes appeared this spring — his achievement is big enough so that it will have to be ignored by going around it or, if your interest in American poetry is hardy you will want to scale this Mount.)
“Shut-in” refers to Eigner’s permanent cerebral palsy caused by brain damage occurring at birth. Although Eigner crawled as a child he spent most of his life wheelchair bound. The physical condition life assigned Eigner is part of the story, but his art is not a record of that condition. Robert Grenier sees Eigner’s poetry as “perhaps the best (and most varied) fulfillment we have to date … [of] Olson’s theory of composition by field.” Grenier’s “perhaps” is the modesty of an editor, poet, and man who has given much of his life to Eigner and his work, so much that he knows enough not to overstate his view. In any case, Charles Olson is part of what came into Eigner’s life and poetry when the ice broke.
In 1954 after meeting Eigner in his Swampscott home Olson wrote Robert Creeley, “The eyes most. And the wild whirling body, frothing at the mouth, listened to for the things come out of that head! So direct and witty and delightful.” Grenier begins his introduction, “Larry Eigner had great eyes …” And the poems, most of the pages in these volumes, presented as Eigner typed them with thumb and forefinger on his Royal portable typewriter, are, as the volume’s subtitle suggests, an act of “calligraphy typewriters” — eye music.
Eigner took the 8 1/2 x 11 sheets of typing paper he wrote on — for him writing was typing — as expressive space on which his machine made letters, words, and spaces at his command. (I can only imagine what he felt when he achieved even the shortest of his poems.) Unlike Wallace Stevens who could compose entire poems in his head as he walked across Hartford, Connecticut to his insurance company desk, Eigner depended on the keyboard. These volumes are, in one sense, a record of what Grenier calls the “perfect freedom,” the “whole world” that is there for the poet who works within limits, in Eigner’s case machine and typing paper. Take these as given and it’s all there if the poet has the imagination to see it.
Others will look at this book up close and write critical articles about Eigner’s poetry and what Grenier and Faville have given us. I feel no need to do that because their achievement seems an act living in the future. I have had these books for two months and still cannot measure how far I am “up” their height. Eigner for me has never been a poet I can spend hours of time with. I like to open these books at random and read until my head is filled with his poems, and I have enough to think about until I get the urge to open one of the books again. For me his poems read like one long poem, and Eigner is, with Philip Whalen, one of America’s supreme poets of consciousness. James Schuyler is another, but he did not, as Eigner and Whalen did, catch the pass Olson threw downfield. Eigner and Whalen did, and they are great in the open field.
That said I want to add, before having more to say about Faville and Grenier’s effort, that Eigner had big ears. He was housebound for much of his life, but this doesn’t mean he was shut out. Yes, he apprehended the world through his sharp, penetrating gaze, but he also heard more than most of us do because he had, I guess, a listening post. He lived the life Pascal wanted us to, the life in our own rooms, which meant for Eigner, I imagine, acute hearing that allowed him to separate out noises that blend together for most of us. I have yet to “understand” exactly what this means to me as a reader and writer. I am aware that where Eigner’s work takes me I have not gone before.
In his introduction Robert Grenier describes his work on behalf of Eigner as a “medieval apprenticeship.” Having spent thirteen years editing James Schuyler’s letters I know a little of what Grenier means. I emphasize “little” because Grenier not only typed all of Eigner’s poems and edited books by Eigner while he lived and edited these volumes; he was for some years Eigner’s housemate and caregiver. An extraordinary apprenticeship! And it must be remembered that Grenier did this at a time when few poets want to be apprentices. They want to graduate from writing programs with prize winning books and teaching jobs. Unlike Robert Grenier they want to have done for themselves and not do for others. His effort and that of Curtis Faville are models for those who understand the value of serving poets who have come before.
Eigner was always lucky in his publishers. Robert Creeley, a champion of his work, published his first book From The Sustaining Air under The Divers Press imprint. Jonathan Williams’s Jargon published On My Eyes with photographs by Harry Callahan. Black Sparrow Press, Stuart Montgomery’s Fulcrum in London, Oyez Press, Burning Deck and James Weil’s Elizabeth Press followed in their stead. And now Stanford University, Robert Grenier, and Curtis Faville add their names to this bright list. Their may be other editors who have done or are doing for other poets what Grenier and Faville have done for Eigner, but to these eyes their accomplishment is unparalleled.
When I first reckoned the project of writing about Gerrit Lansing’s work, poems that for a long time have been very important to me and influential upon my own work, and possess erudition far beyond anything one is likely to encounter in contemporary poetry — I felt a sense of intimidation. How could I, a product of the late-twentieth-century public education system, still a young poet by comparison, write anything of any profundity about a body of work so vast in subject and so catholic in its influence, drawing upon sources Eastern and Western, arcane and academic? Upon further consideration, however, I realized that this reaction was wholly inappropriate; for Gerrit’s poems, like all things sublime, invite.
I realized that my trepidation comes from having come of age at a time when the shibboleth of transparency was held in high regard, due to a reaction against High Modernism, and the influence of the Confessionals and the newly-burgeoning MFA culture on US poetry. Despite my disdain for many of these institutions, those of my generation cannot help but be dumbstruck when we face an oeuvre rooted in traditions predating or transcending those grounds of our initial instruction. Whether we flee in fear from perceived “difficulty,” or gravitate toward it, we cannot help but be seized by a sensation of being “out of our depth,” because the depths in which we learned to swim were indeed shallow. Like those reared in the desert, we come upon the sublime sea and are rendered mute by it. Woe to us if today’s poets had been explorers, who upon seeing said sea said, “this is beautiful and dangerous, it cannot be crossed.” But the crossing is not the only gauntlet, as evinced by the brutal consequences of so many explorations, so many discoveries. “Of the godly uncanny it is wise to beware.”
The ego longs to be obliterated. Friedrich’s “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog,” looks out upon the morass and hears the call of the sirens therein, the crash of the waves on rocks become the pulse of the life force; he is master of himself, only and that self would fain dissolve. The ego looks upon Mount Vesuvius, and would swim in lava, with the salamanders, and be “as molten gold and molten gold.” The real reaction to the sublime is not so much fear as longing. This longing is ever-present in Gerrit’s work, longing for you, longing for me, and longing for the loss of self that occurs when one is left by the god to “dream with eyes open all night long.”
The Industrial Revolution and the resulting age erected great barriers between the individual ego and the sublime, replaced longing-fear with fear-fear and compelled us to sheathe our bodies and mind in armor, forming what Wilhelm Reich called “mechanistic civilization”: “It is just this freedom intrinsic in nature which makes our mechanists anxious when they encounter it.” Reich was outspoken in his criticism of the paradigm of Western thought in the twentieth century, though it is no surprise that we armor ourselves in the midst of those shrieking warplanes and rattling machine gun emplacements that eat young men quick. Modern man has wandered far from the animism that Reich advocates as the fundamental force in the universe; Gerrit speaks to a similar animate cosmos, but instead of admonishing us, Gerrit seeks to teach — by invitation, by example, by song, by “salvific toot.”
If Reich is unforgiving, Gerrit forgives, for we are those unforgiven for whom he appeals to the universal mother, his own mother wearing the mask of Marpessa who jilted abstract divinity for functional reality:
Our Lady of the unforgiven of this world
forgive us out of darkness and the warmth of summer nights
and let our benedictions echo in the body’s cave.
It is a mistake to call Gerrit a metaphysical poet, for his vision is an intensely physical one, eschewing what Reich calls the physics of the mechanist, whereby “all physical problems are essentially solved,” but nevertheless engaged with the animistic physical properties of the real reality. What Gerrit espouses is a kind of intercourse with the world, for he knows that when one is ridden by a daemon, it is not a possession but a union. Likewise, when one is but observing, knowledge is also sexual union, as was Adam’s task in the garden — to find his mate by way of experimentation.
In Eden, where our dreams of happiness are carefully conserved,
stored as juicy essences the virgin of the world put up,
we eat each other endlessly,
apples sadly rarely shared in what is unjust history.
“To name is to count. You will hear a golden bell.”
Insofar as all who are quick are involved in this congress with the universe, Gerrit’s homoeroticism, while personal, political, and anecdotal, is also universal, for we are all engaged in that process of congress with the universe, our own image, and the holistic gem of our fractured selves. Gerrit portrays the universal force as both masculine and feminine and gradations thereof balanced in alchemical harmony. The milk of the universal mother is manifest in the seed of male lovers:
The sweetness of men is also her bounty
the milk of the stars from her paps runs sweet in their first jaculations
in automobile cowboy privacy of nights in Dogtown
where the sweet smell of clethra
along the woodlots road
fills the moonlit air where her nectar falls on the fires of spring
and the gusher of spirit exults.
The impetus towards orgasm (Reich’s “orgone energy,” though the man himself was quizzically hostile towards those he perceived as “sexual deviants”) is not procreative, but rather reflexive, the mechanism whereby we come to know — and by knowing lose and transcend — the universe and ourselves.
Our mechanistic world sees only through a lens, be it glass or corneal. Those seers of other kinds of sight having been stripped of their laurels and labeled first heretics and later fools or insane — the Halloween party witch, the party magician, the schizophrenic oracle. First by the sociopolitical designs of Christianity and then by the dynamo-fearing acolytes of mechanistic science, the character of the Magus has been marginalized and maligned for centuries — mere centuries — for some have drank from the well of noumenon for countless centuries prior and countless hence. It is that aspect of Gerrit’s work that some may be tempted to label “mystic” (although animistic is the better appellation) that perhaps will give the rank-and-file contemporary reader pause, compelled so by those two competing modern dogmas of “Religion” or “Science,” despite the fact that the worldview embodied in this work unites elements of both in holy matrimony.
This may be because the Magus is indeed all he is cracked up to be: charlatan, trickster, rogue, liar, demagogue, hedonist, and more, for the Magus is the wielder of paradox just as the prophet is the wielder of supposed “truth,” although “prophet” has its root in “prophecy,” which is the demesne of the oracle. The Magus makes a mockery of the notion of knowledge as finite and transparent (“this naming / is gaming.”), and is likely to make a fool of those seeking finalities and transparencies. Which is not to say his truths are lies, but rather, his lies truth, since truth and lie lie together in the bower of the universe.
Above all else, the Magus is artist, creating or dispelling illusion or shades of both. We have become unaccustomed to seeing him as such, particularly in the light of the Modern eschewal of trompe l’oeil and art that misleads or fools for art which distilled abstract truths, although the speech of the oracle does the same. Who once commanded fear and respect has been relegated by the mechanistic paradigm and its intimate relationship to the former to the object of skepticism and scorn. However, such things are of no consequence to him.
While some modern writers have understood his character (Ursula LeGuin’s Ged comes immediately to mind), few have depicted the Magus as artist and scribe better than Shakespeare in his Prospero. It is said of the character that he is the avatar of the author himself, but he is also the model for the pre-mechanistic Magus, wielder of Baconian science and illusionism alike, master of ceremonies, and pivot of disparate narratives. The revelations of the play are also his undoing. “Now I want / Spirits to enforce, art to enchant; And my ending is despair,” for Prospero is also the trinity of he and his agents, Caliban and Ariel: civilized man, humus and ether. The Magus is equal parts cthonic wisdom, whimsy and human rhetoric and is most powerful as the conjunction of these, the functional human — “Let your indulgence set me free.” As in the unsundered Prospero, these elements form the pith of and are given free reign in Gerrit’s work, the next great characterization, and fuller realization, of the mage-artisan in English literature:
Mournful angels spire down his black syntax
To health. Mad and warm as children, they splash
and couple in the joyous summer sea.
In the above-quoted “Dark Grammarian,” Gerrit names himself by way of a pun, “His garret overhangs the green subtle slum / where nothing culminates,” and depicts himself, Prospero-like, as agent of the various forces that come to life in his work. This Grammarian is dark not in the sense of the Western binary of the goodness of light and the darkness of evil, but rather as one who has engaged in the hero’s katabasis — the plumbing and subsequent return from the underworld, as Orpheus has, and more particularly the speaker of Nérval’s “Les Chimeres” has “two times crossed & won the Acheron” and that of Tammuz, who appears in “The Cutting of the Lotus,” “Underneath the underground tree / Shamash and Tammuz in the Shade.” Katabasis is the process by which potent enigmas are internalized, intellectually and bodily by the perceiver. We proceed to the underworld by going the “Wrong Way,” by subsuming our knowledge in anti-knowledge, closing eyes to see the clearer. “His right hand takes the left hand path, the Sign / Is born and flowers in the sudden damp.” The act of flowering, and the flower itself in its omnisexual purity comprises another important element in Gerrit’s cosmology.
This descent is emblematic, also, of the seasons and of terrestrial order — katabasis is the process by which one intuits the knowledge of the earth and its phenomena, the scientific method insofar as it applies to the empirical, the Humanities, insofar as to be “human” is to bury the dead in the earth and to be buried in turn:
Who bury the dead
must from the grave
establish a habit …
Who bury the dead
to rise again.
This katabasic knowledge is a persistent theme in Gerrit’s work, from “3 Poems of the Underworld(s),” to “Dark Grammarian,” to “The Soluble Forest,” where again the descent/ascent is named Gerrit’s own name:
From the center of nothing something spreads out, that then
there now. From zero jumps two, two being how something is appre-
hended. Only a stone’s throw from writing to root. The rite of winter is
the root of spring.
The house stands on its cellar and grows up. Also grows down
from its garret invisibly, as the crown of a tree flourishes the idea of its
The ego seeks obliteration to know its own name, and to name and thereby make agents of its deeper, truer urges. To grow forth must first be swallowed by the dirt, from whence arises the “thousand-petalled sun.”
Knowledge is not austere. Static hubris is the enemy of sight. To be mercurial is to be as quick (“living”) silver and likewise resist containment always. To be as the spirits of the air and to “Do as Thou Wilt.” The whim is sacred, divine fancy. The oracular tradition bedecked the profound with riddles, and knew that that purest intuition is perceived sidelong — the eclipsing sun and moon through a pinhole, “the first darkness blinds the human eyes.”
In the “Soluble Forest,” the wisdom of katabasis is couched in riddling terms:
“Spelt from the mummy’s tomb:
a cereal poem:
it die and be
it comes as it goes
The poem is an onion of puns, double entendres and riddles. The opening line puns on George Manley Hopkins’ “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves,” as well as the definition of “spelt,” being an archaic spelling of “spelled,” but also the grain spelt, giving rise to the “cereal poem,” not to mention the “spell” itself, the text of the Eleusinian mysteries of the cult of Demeter, recalling Hopkins’s own prosody-cult of the meter, prefiguring Jack Spicer’s metaphysics and serial poems, which give rise to the next line. The line is both a refutation of and homage to the Berkeley Renaissance, a (too) obvious precedent for this poem, which is indeed serial and cereal insofar as it is seminal and germinal.
The second stanza puns on “be / ing” and the “be / coming,” and the “it,” which literally comes (orgasms) as it goes — into the underworld, bower of Demeter’s daughter. Going down, coming. The right hand taking the left-hand path.
The wisdom of Gerrit’s poems most often operates in this manner, by way of the left-hand path, and a network of associations — sonic, intellectual, and contextual. Trickster wisdom is an affront to the mechanistic model of “knowledge” and “accuracy.” That which is unheimlich is not of necessity profound or similar — as evinced in “3 Anecdotes of the Uncanny,” whereby accounts are given of an encounter with an extraterrestrial Old One, a traveler who gets a surprise stepping on some unexpected fauna during a “melancholy-romantic” ramble in the dark, and a tiger disguised as a man hoping to crash a mountain tryst. What lies at the limits of human understanding is not H. P. Lovecraft’s quivering chaos, but quelle surprise! “Over the hills and far away / Teletubbies come out to play.”
The universe teems with life, and life’s motility is ecstatic expansion, “It begins and ends in bamboozle / fuming in delightful delusion.”
auto-erotize, tune in, not forget,
and emerges a new decisive property
and your multiverse
as former parts, PONG, cohere anew.
All things advance towards the naught of The Fool, who is no dummy.
The shaman lives at the edge of town, but he is of the town. The oracle did not merely tell but shaped the destiny she scryed. Prospero stewards his domain; it is a mistake to say that one who is above and below is one apart. The oracle’s is also the orator’s art, and likewise Gerrit speaks, like Maximus, to the Polis — cosmo, metro and meta. The citizen looks to the will of the order of the Law, which is Love, and the oracle is avatar of the will of the heavens, which is also Love. It is a mistake to say the object of metaphysics is a place apart, rather it looks to a place within, and each within begins in the without of the Polis. Likewise Gerrit speaks to and for same. He sings the song of Amphion, who raised up Thebes, “Open to darkness, open to light, a muse / in the shifting, a shape in the hands of the winds”:
Here are the tenements
Yet green in their cerements
These are the gay movements, benedict
Music of the city of earth
City of earth
“The Wizard of Oz in the Blizzard of Oz” maps a route for the erstwhile liege through said blizzard, which is the stupefaction of this United (“Disunited”) States by the stink tanks of filthy lucre (so named in the poem): “American Enterprise Foundation, Heritage Foundation, CATO Institute, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Competitive Enterprise Foundation, Council for Social and Economic Studies, Center for Security Policy”). Here is the Whitmanian project of political reconciliation of self-knowledge, veneration of what is human in the city and the city in the human. “The Curve” recommends “making the place by placing the place, live / (or live, change vowel eye, heart” in order to brook the burden of the city for the land belongs to he who would make the best use of it:
it is to smell
to dig with the hand
and at least
to come in
on this curve
from the ravening wood
to a city
we once could be citizens of.
The restored Eden, wherein the names have liquefied and rejoined the soluble forest, congeries of unarmored bodies at the work of breathing and breathing together — “polis is / eyes.”
There is nothing solemn in this house, so do not come solemn-eyed. Gerrit’s poems travel a great distance and the way is sometimes uncertain, and indeed at times there is no way at all. But Gerrit is always at the crown of the hill, perhaps disappearing into the pines with a peal of fox laugher, the white fox of “Annisquam Nights.” Not the shaman, but the spirit-guide itself, of no fixed form or inclination. That cannot be understood, which is the knowledge of going under, ununderstanding in the big lap of the loss of ego. “Running in blue light / the hunter’s moon will eat his mind at night.”
A section of Heavenly Tree, Northern Earth is named “Portals,” and this is indeed what is offered therein. There is no destination. Each is an opening of language into a field beyond language. The Aum — a resplendent syllabary whereby the fetters of material consciousness are shooed and eschewed. Fundamentally, the Magus is teacher, guide and lover. That knowing is a verb, to do is to be. What Gerrit gives us is a steadfast being, the keys to a library that is also a greenhouse, each book being a flower that is a flowering of a human mind, the author’s or otherwise.
Who is rich in love will lay
An autumn table for his guest
And shape in autumn ornaments
The shapes and omens of his love
For a poem is more and less than an author’s mind, “The graveyard overgrown and memory effaced,” where play the “cats of many colors.” Gerrit’s is the rain that deepens the hue of our own stones, which are hewn from that standing herm somewhere under verdant canopies, “Enceladus-immense,” a silent, knowing God. In this herm is a gate that Gerrit has made, an opening of words, blessed be the travelers who go to the gate that Gerrit has given us, and blessed be the gate, the aperture by which that which is within looks out, upon us and our silly universe.
1. I use the given name here, because it is the name that Gerrit himself offers us in poems such as “A Red Ghazel for C.B.L.,” “The Dark Grammarian,” and “A Ghazel of Absence.” All poems from Gerrit Lansing, Heavenly Tree, Northern Earth (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2009).
15. Gérard de Nerval, “The Chimeras,” trans. Mark Lamoureux, Fascicle no. 1 (Summer 2005).
The title is “wrong”; alchemically it is right; but the essence of purpose is not downward. It is upwards toward heaven. These books of poems reach that way; reach many ways.
It is not downwards; it is toward the sky, we go there if we are to reach heaven. These poems reach that way.
And the devil steps between each word.
The “poetic process” here is toward heaven; it is a cleansing of life so that we may strive toward perfection. Pound says the love of a thing consists in the understanding of its perfection.
For me to write with intelligence is a difficult thing. For Gerrit Lansing to write without it is even more difficult.
Metaphysics is a difficult subject; it springs out of the mind without control, much as passion does. It is a different arousal. It centers on different cells and causes a different action in the brain. Nothing else kindles such red-hot coals in the mind as a line of poetry. You will find quite a lot of them here. Dynamite.
You will be dismayed at the new. You will reject it; regret it.
The discontinuity of image, the “confused” mind you will think you will find here. You will not. The obtuse is clarity.
You will find the continuity of rhythms, of image without process; in the use of the words as bent spoons gash hounds bright cock flame, much as rain falls in different drops; these poems fall in the mind. As wind blows through the rain will you rhythm enmeshing these pieces.
Rhythm is the elegance of thought the Greeks called paradise in their apple orchards. It is that flowering of thought; so many petals blow through the mind; the wind of imagination.
This is not a book of poems to read by; it is to live with. The heavenly tree does grow downward. Into the mind, new thought.
It is a cleansing perfection we encounter, without the poet knowing it. Let us hope he continues. Complexity of perfection is found here, simple, pure, and purposeful.
The complications of formal statement, of familial relations would be diminished if we were to remain naked longer in our lives. Without them we would be naked too, but in a different way. These poems force us to this. I thank their presence and creator in my room.
Now I have to learn to carry them with me over the streets of the city; and dismay the madness of a nation with their magic.
Note: Preface to the first edition of Gerrit Lansing’s The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward, published by Matter Books, 1966, not reprinted in subsequent editions of the book. — Kevin Gallagher