Distances quickly crossed

A review of Larry Eigner's 'Calligraphy Typewriters'

Photo of Larry Eigner © Alastair Johnston.

Calligraphy Typewriters: The Selected Poems of Larry Eigner

Calligraphy Typewriters: The Selected Poems of Larry Eigner

Ed. Curtis Faville and Robert Grenier

University of Alabama Press 2017, 334 pages, $24.95 ISBN 978-0817358747

In 2010, Stanford University Press published The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner and the book’s faithful editors, Curtis Faville and Robert Grenier, had every right to expect both showers of attention and hosannas of praise. Though Eigner did not win any awards in his lifetime, he enjoyed a remarkable succes d’estime, first amongst the Black Mountain poets and then with the Language school. On top of the excellence of his own work, then, Eigner served as an important hinge between two very different, though related, strands of American avant-garde writing.

The Collected was a remarkable labor of extraordinary love. Big-boned and sumptuous, it brought together in four volumes over three thousand poems from over five decades. It preserved Eigner’s idiosyncratic spacing and reproduced the distinctive font of his 1940 Royal typewriter. 

But the Collected didn’t get the reception it deserved. There were virtually no full-length reviews. (I just checked the MLA bibliography and came up with just one. I tried Google. I came up with another.) In the end, it might be that the Collected was just too big. (Eigner once asked how much is enough. The Collected might have been too much enough for any one reader to digest.) While Eigner was not a particularly difficult poet as twentieth-century poets go, he was a particularly demanding one. In the end, a stretch of three thousand poems was probably just too exhausting for most reviewers.

Calligraphy Typewriters: The Selected Poems of Larry Eigner weighs in at a mere (!) 334 pages and thus offers a less intimidating prospect. It is a lovely book to hold and to look at. It too reproduces the signature appearance of Eigner’s poems. It maintains their distinctive itineraries as they sally forth across the page from a lefthand margin to which they never return. The book is an essential introduction to Eigner’s achievement and allows us to begin to account for what he was up to.

Start with the way the poems look. Eigner’s debt to projective verse, to Olson’s notion that the writer composes on the typewriter, is enduring, but deceptive, because it is not clear — to me, at least — that these are poems that model either speech or breath. Olson’s insistence that the typewriter provides a score for the voice, that the poem imitates the course of the writer’s breath through the poem, is intimately tied to the fact that Olson’s project has everything to do with oratory, to his commitment to public address. I am not sure that the same can be said of Eigner. The issue is not address, but attention; not talking to, but looking at. I will test this on the pulse of poem, taken more or less at random (because once you jump in, it is hard to choose):

     Like  measuring light
speed     while the wind types
nothing,   the rain    flung    cloud fast
   huge,  the motion  world
                          flash of the towers 

     the street rolled
               on  the  hill  ,   past other slopes
  building forms,   odd lots

    the bridge once swayed 

   by its direction, the wind twisting

     the cloud flow    what land
  is a city   surfaces pile       flowers
   or parks  in crannies with
 traffic   distance   through the hills

    sun widening  the earth
     part of which light a
        quiet    chance    total

    an hour now
     is  clouds   they’re
                      the whole place
                        are level[1]

To say that these are lines that are hard to speak, or that one can’t quite imagine spoken, is not to say that they are not sonically patterned. The long “i” sounds in the first two lines (like, light, while, types) are indication enough that the ear is having a good time here. But as in many of Eigner’s poems, it’s the eye that is getting a workout — though, significantly, Eigner never actually uses the verb “to see.” The poem is constructed from atomic facts and forms a catalog of nouns and noun phrases. There are few verbs in the indicative here — things are happening, for sure, but agency gets blurred — and even fewer pronouns. 

The poem rushes by. Olson’s demand for speed is clearly at work (Olson: “keep it moving as fast as you can, citizen”[2]), but what gathers momentum here is the sense of distances quickly crossed and then just as quickly juxtaposed (the rolled streets becoming hills). There is also a tremendous leap in scale (the city opening up to the sun-widened earth). Ordinary syntax has no place in the poem, because the movement outwards through things great and small, near and far, is not about orderly rows, but vast propinquities. This poem, like so many of Eigner’s poems, is about things stirring together.

It’s clear that an Eigner poem is meant to be seen on the page. (Here — with his insistent textuality — rests part of Eigner’s attractiveness to the Language writers.) The poem describes something like a constellation, bound by invisible outlines. But as reading takes place in time, the experience of rushing through one of these poems is something like the experience of watching fireworks. The poem presents a configuration that hangs there for a moment in the reader’s eye and mind, only to dissolve again. An hour is clouds, he says. But no more than an hour. That is what makes the poems both striking to read and hard to write about. They are anatomies of moments as literal coincidences, as the play of quiet and chance. He remarked in an essay that “maybe the most a poem can be is a realization of things come to or that come together. At moments.”[3]

At moments. This explains one of the great oddities of Eigner’s poetry. For all its concretion, it can be awfully abstract, because the poet does not so much reflect on the “things come to or that come together” as limn their apparently (but only apparently) temporary relations. They are always related. It’s just that we don’t always bear those relations in mind: 

I forget the color

      upstairs, the aerial

  on the roof


                  the trees


       half-way to the horizon

         the seas

               falling beyond (152)

Now, it is tempting, though wrong, to write this poem off as a clever bit of trickery. Eigner has not forgotten anything: the poem enumerates shifting and widening perspective beyond the house — the roof, the aerial, the trees, and the sea. There is a nice ambiguity in the last line. Have the seas (the plural is an interesting touch) fallen beyond the horizon itself? Well, yes, because Eigner cannot actually see any of these things. The color upstairs is upstairs. The aerial is obscured by the roof, which you cannot see from the inside. In this way, the poem is not clever or whimsical. While Eigner does not forget the aerial at the moment of writing, the present tense of the poem is not about this moment, but about a continuous habit that the poem breaks. The moment of writing is a coming to consciousness of a form of habitual unconsciousness. The point of the writing, then, is to remind of what, downstairs, we tend to forget — the existence of the upstairs, of the outside, and of the broadening set of frames that is the world.

Emerson, Eigner’s fellow New Englander, enjoins us to show “respect to the present hour” and to “do justice to where we are.”[4] Eigner does this by stepping out in ever-widening circles to show exactly where he is at the moment of writing, that moment in which things come on and in which they come together. (Emerson instructs us to “husband moments.[5]”) Not for nothing, then, do Barrett Watten and Michael Davidson argue that the key to Eigner’s poetry lies with the motion of his noun phrases. Indeed — Eigner’s poetry is all about mobility. Eigner once described a poem as a “machine for walking.”[6] This claim, reminiscent of Williams’s claim that a poem is a machine made of words, is made even more complicated by the fact that Eigner himself could not walk any distance unaided; he had cerebral palsy that limited his movement and made typing very difficult. (That he could only type with two fingers gives his remarkable productivity a truly heroic cast. The fact that he did not hold down a job meant that he could devote his life to writing.) 

How are we to understand this “machine for walking”? For all the Futurist pathos of Williams’s formulation, his claim does not stray all that far from a familiar Romantic organicism. He is arguing that every word in a poem serves a function in the whole. To give him his due, though, the good doctor seems more interested in the way the poem works than he is in its integrity as an object. Eigner’s own interest seems to lie elsewhere. His emphasis lies less with the scandal of the poem as a machine than with its purpose — walking. Eigner once wrote in an essay that “a poem can be like walking down a street and noticing things.”[7

The poem is a prosthesis that allows Eigner to amble down a street. More importantly, it is an engine for noticing, for seeing what’s up. Eigner hews close to Thoreau’s definition of walking as “the enterprise and the adventure of the day,” that is, an unplanned “search for the springs of life.”[8]

Eigner has been rightly understood as an ecological poet, but what enables him to be one is his sense, critical for any kind of ecological thought, of relation and connection. His poetic walks are fascinated by coincidence, for sure, by the way that things come together. They also demonstrate that things actually belong together. His poems accord attention and respect to both the manmade and the natural:

what a beautiful sidewall truck

        you know enough about

             the water system

                        and sunlight

                and they go together

           of course then




       letters (242)


The debt to Williams’s fire engine with its “figure 5 in gold” is clear, though Eigner’s “of course” threatens to sink the poem with a cute little paradox. Eigner sometimes shows the kind of whimsicality that marks the Beats’ appropriations of Buddhism, but I don’t believe that Eigner is merely playing with paradoxes here. He is making a rather serious point. In our world, the water system does go together with the sunlight. In fact, that going together is precisely our world. The two are inextricably, though distantly, linked. They are mediated by the phantom totality that his poems attempt to delineate. If we take his poems together — in their full sweep in the Collected or in the more concentrated dose of Calligraphy Typewriters — we can see that they are more than a diary of a man who was able to devote his life and talents to poetry. They piece together — bit by particular bit — a map of cosmic immensities.

For all the audacity of that project, Eigner’s work is disarmingly humble. Malebranche claimed that attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul, and there is more than a touch of the Zen master to Eigner’s care for the everyday and for the apparently inconsequential.

Now, there is always the danger that a review like this — an attempt to get readers to notice a poet they might have missed — will turn him into either a hero or a saint, or both. I’m willing to flirt with that danger for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that so many of these poems are so good. I find myself shaken, almost in spite of myself, by the last poem in this admirable collection. It begs to be read as the gentlest elegy, not for the poet, but for our world, the one he will leave behind:

To go in sleep some day

with birdsong


                                          out the window


                        or at night the breeze

                         with stars shining

                                         rain, cloud (334)

After that, there is really nothing else to say.

1. Larry Eigner, Calligraphy Typewriters: The Selected Poems of Larry Eignered. Curtis Faville and Robert Grenier (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2016), 110.

2. Charles Olson, “Projective Verse.”

3. Larry Eigner, “not/forever/serious,” in areas, lights, heights: Writings 1954–89, ed. Benjamin Friedlander (New York: Roof Books, 1989), 25.

4. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Experience,” in Essays and Lectures (New York: Library of America, 1983), 479.

5. Emerson, “Experience,” 479.

6. Eigner, “not/forever/serious,” 25.

7.  Eigner, “not/forever/serious,” 26.

8. Henry David Thoreau, “Walking.”