Larry Eigner, an advertisement

Photo of Larry Eigner © Alastair Johnston.

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; hewas 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.