Saturday, March 13, 2010


                                               poet-readers
                                                                             on                   (a
                                                                                 the               gathering)

                                                                    P    O    E    T    R    Y

                                                                                                   of

                                                                        L   A   R   R   Y      E   I   G   N   E   R





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W.C. Williams / Denise Levertov / Robert Duncan
Cid Corman / Clark Coolidge / Barrett Watten
Ron Silliman / Charles Bernstein / Robert Grenier
Curtis Faville / Michael McClure / Benjamin Friedlander
Michael Davidson / Jack Foley

During the months of run-up to the release of The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner (Stanford, 2010), I kept busy – channeled the anticipation – in a couple of ways. First, I read previous editions of Eigner’s work, and sought out things he had said about his own poetry. I also searched around the house and elsewhere for comments that others – other poets – had previously made about Eigner’s work.

This post presents a gathering of what others – specifically, previous poet-readers – have written over the decades about Larry Eigner’s poetry. I do this as a kind of public service, for two main reasons.

First, I found that reading what others have said about Eigner whetted my appetite for the poems, made me want to read them and bad. Such reading also allowed me to travel more deeply in them when I did. Maybe others will find the ideas of others on Eigner useful in that way too.

Second, a collected edition – especially when, as here, so much work is published for the first time – naturally enough raises the question of whether previous ideas about a poet need re-thinking. I haven’t yet read all The Collected Eigner (there are more than 3,000 poems), let alone gotten to know them all. My guess is that there won’t be cause to radically re-do what previous poet-readers have written. If anything, those assessments will be further supported, and a number of nuances or less noticed facets of the work – perhaps regarding Eigner’s humor, for example – will be added.

With that, here’s the gathering of comments by poet-readers on Eigner’s work. I selected from what I had at hand or could find on the web. No doubt I’ve missed things. For example, I could not find my copy of the 1997 issue of Shadow Play devoted in the main to tributes to Eigner by poets, and only now [the day after putting this post up, with formatting not easily changed] came across Samuel Charter’s review of Eigner in Caterpillar no. 8/9 (1969). I also did not mine the eight large-paragraph blurbs (by Lyn Hejinian, Stephen Ratcliffe, and Kit Robinson, among others) printed on the rear dust-jacket of each Stanford volume, and have not included certain very brief (though important) statements made by poets regarding Eigner (e.g., Robert Creeley’s assessment of him as a “singular genius”).

From what I did find, I took excerpts that seemed most helpful to me, that served to either remind me about, or teach, something that seemed important in Eigner’s poems. Sources for quotations are given, or linked to directly. The matters are mostly presented in chronological order.

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[front cover]
Larry Eigner
On My Eyes
(Jargon Press, 1960)
[photograph by Harry Callahan]

Larry Eigner’s second major book, following From The Sustaining Air (Divers Press, 1953), was On My Eyes, pictured above. The prefatory material in that book quoted William Carlos Williams on Eigner’s first book. Williams remarked on the poetry’s lack of tension and “feeling of eternity.”

Denise Levertov, in her lengthy introducting “Note” to On My Eyes (she edited the book) observed that Eigner’s poetry requires “suppleness” in a reader, “an imaginative agility, a willingness and ability to leap with him from image to image . . . .” Levertov also stated that she “did not understand” some of Eigner’s poems, a laudably honest admission that to me suggests some of the mystery in the work.

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another time in fragments
(Fulcrum Press, 1967)

Robert Duncan wrote two long paragraphs about Eigner for the front flap of the dust jacket of another time in fragments (Fulcrum Press, 1967). Eigner, Duncan in part wrote:
. . . has created melodies of perception, fabrics of experience, spaces and times so intensely felt in his spiritual body – this poet so living by, in, and through, words – I know of no comparable focus. [ . . . ] His eye, searching into the depths of the visual field, his ear, attentive to sounds beyond, command the poem directly, his mind dances with them. [ . . . ] Eigner has suggested a new development of William’s line: his phrasings are not broken off in an abrupt juncture but hover, having a margin of their own – stanzaic phrases – suspended in their own time within the time of the poem: as in turn each poem, the immediate occasion of Eigner’s life consciousness, has a time of its own in the continuity of poems.
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Cid Corman

Cid Corman in the late 1940s and early 1950s had a radio show in Boston that was heard by Eigner, and it was a catalytic experience, re-sparking his poetic spirit. Subsequently, Corman in his magazine Origin published Eigner, including in the early 1950s.

In a November 1969 review of another time in fragments, collected in At Their Word (Black Sparrow, 1968), Corman wrote of Eigner’s “acute and wandering” attentions, his “alert mind mingling ideas, facts, as wires, hinges, bolts, and sometimes just flashes.” Corman also pointed to the “play” everywhere in Eigner’s poems, their “dancing vision,” and the way “[o]ne perception moves upon another with that instantaneity Olson counseled in his Projective Verse essay . . . .” Corman also neatly characterized Eigner’s work as “juggleries of language as perception” that are presented with “the grace of one who sees what is given him.”

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There is then the deep interest in and appreciation of Eigner by the Language writers and those associated with them. Eigner’s work was included in the first five issues of This, a magazine published between 1971 and 1974, edited by Robert Greiner and Barrett Watten. Eigner was also published in two early issues of the Ron Silliman edited Tottel’s, published from 1970 to 1981 and issue No. 15 of that ’zine (newsletter of poetry, more precisely), published I believe in the late 1970s, was wholly given over to Eigner’s poems.

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L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E # 1
(February, 1978)
Bruce Andrews + Charles Bernstein, editors
[click image for a super-clear enlargement]

The first work in the first issue of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (February 1978) was an essay by Eigner (click here to read, if you please). In that essay’s first paragraph, there’s a parenthetical pairing “(things, words)” that perhaps suggests something about the materiality of the signifier, a concept key to Language writers and arising almost sui generis from the way words are arranged in Eigner’s poems.

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Clark Coolidge

The second piece in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E #1 was an appreciation of Eigner by Clark Coolidge, titled “Larry Eigner Notes” (again, click here to read). A few choice excerpts:
each line a new mind (focus)
rather than divisions determined by breaks
of sound, syntax, etc.

these “scenes” don’t exist, never have
these words comb them through mind.
The poem is built.

air, his medium . . .

each line
equals
its own completion

and every next line
its consequence

wholes are only made by motion

word-activation of the imagination in the act of seeing
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Barrett Watten
Total Syntax (1985)

Barrett Watten in his Total Syntax (Southern Illinois University Press, 1985), published a detailed essay on Eigner, explaining among much else that “Eigner’s work can be seen as one long poem, with the separate parts as autonomous instances.” Watten also emphasized how the poems proceed “word to word, line to line, and do not create an illusionistic space,” that reference and predication are suppressed or generalized, and that patterns of autonomy and connection, including of sound, are key.

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Ron Silliman, Editor
In The American Tree (1986)

Eigner was the dedicatee of the Language writing anthology In The American Tree (1986), edited by Ron Silliman. Silliman’s preface suggested that Eigner’s work (along with Robert Creeley’s) had “transcended the problematic constraints” of projectivitism and that it offered offered “models of rigorous and honest practice.” Silliman also wrote, ten years later, that the Eigner’s seemingly “‘light, airy’ poems are in fact the complex choreography of one whose total physical vocabulary is in use in the composition of the poem.”

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detail of Eigner poem-display on facade of
Berkeley Art Museum (1993)

For the 1993 Eigner celebration at the Berkeley Art Museum (at which an Eigner poem was displayed in large letters on the building’s facade), Charles Bernstein wrote a statement about Eigner’s work. He empahsized the “vivid[ness] of Eigner’s writing, how “the page becomes a model of the thinking field.” Bernstein also pointed to the poetics both of (quoting Eigner) “‘noticing things’ and “of coincidence, where ‘serendipity’ (contingency) takes its rightful place as animating spirit, displacing the anthropocentric sentimentality of much of the verse of our time.”

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Robert Grenier and Curtis Faville, of course, are the editors of The Collected Eigner (Grenier was also Eigner’s housemate for approximately a decade, a friend, editorial organizer/assistant, and caretaker). In his introduction to the books, Grenier remarks on Eigner’s “extraordinary ability . . . to synchronize the progress of the writing itself with the actual occasion progressing.” Faville, writing pre-publication on his Compass Rose blog, stated that in certain works Eigner creates “a poetry carefully constructed out of a constellation of perception(s). Event and imaginative play are interwoven seamlessly into an integrated meditation.”

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Michael McClure

After Eigner’s death, Michael McClure in Sulfur #38 wrote that he had always seen Eigner “as a kind of astronaut.” McClure explained that Eigner was “always exploring” the space the rest of us take for granted. As such, when Eigner wrote of things, “he returned them . . . in a different measure” and “in a different structure” than what others, including McClure, had perceived and imagined them.

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Benjamin Friedlander

Benjamin Friedlander
, following Eigner’s death, wrote a concise and informative obituary for The Poetry Project Newsletter. In it, he wrote:
The gestural clarity of Eigner's poems—their verbal modesty and perceptual acuity, their signature shape and utilitarian use of typewriter and page—are utterly without precedent. Superficially they resemble the staggered stanzas of Williams and Marianne Moore, the acrobatics of cummings, the random spill of Mallarme. But Eigner's achievement is less a matter of formal innovation than an attitude about life. Eigner took Modernism's hard-won freedom from mechanical reiteration of shape and sound to a necessary conclusion in the freedom to follow his mind wherever it might go, however near or far. Poetry hasn't looked or felt the same since.
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Michael Davidson

Michael Davidson, in his essay “Missing Larry” (available on the web (click here) and as part of the in-print collection Concerto for the Left Hand (University of Michigan Press, 2008)), wrote:
Eigner’s is decisively a poetry of the page, a field of intense activity produced entirely with his right index finger, the one digit over which he had some control. The page––specifically the 8 ½” by 11" typewriter page––is the measure of the poem, determining its lineation, length and typographic organization.

So attentive is Eigner to the processes of measuring thought and attention that the subject often dissolves into its acts of perception and cognition. This gives the work an oddly unstable feel as lines shift from one location to another, never pausing to conceptualize a scene but allowing, rather, the play of attentions to govern movement. What might be regarded as a form of impersonality turns out to be an immersion of the subject into his perceptual acts . . .
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Jack Foley

Finally today among poet-readers of Eigner, I think of Jack Foley, who was his close friend as well as fellow poet. One story that Foley relates has especially stuck with me when thinking on Eigner’s poetry. Eigner once handed Foley a 25 line poem, a poem loaded with observed or heard details, and asked Foley to write a story from it, telling him that the last four lines (which mention a parked car and railroad crossing near-by) “were fiction.” This made-up element in the poem wasn’t an isolated instance. Eigner, in an October 22, 1973 letter to Claude Royet-Journoud, also mentioned that an image (“waves”) in another poem was “nowhere, imaginary.” To me, this was not only interesting, but important. Eigner’s work involved not just the presentation of actual, experienced facts, but at times the envisioned, the independently created, as well.

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Are you hungry to read Eigner poems? Well, I hope so. As the above-presented excerpts from the poet-readers make clear, there is much original, intriguing, interesting, and moving in his work. You know what you need to do.

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The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner
Volumes I - IV
Curtis Faville and Robert Grenier, editors
(Stanford, 2010)

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I have twice before posted on The Collected Eigner. The first post concerns the left-side margins and other matters (click here). The second serves as a kind of coda to that first post, and which also discusses an unfortunate although fixable production error involving a single page in the books (click here).

Planned for the near future is a post somewhat similar to the present one, presenting excerpts from Eigner himself about his poetry [add-on: that post is now up, click here to read, if you please!]. Also in the works is a post or maybe more about the poems in The Collected Eigner, including on the two poems I consider the most unusual in the books.

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2 comments:

Curtis Faville said...

Steven:

Thank-you for this.

I'm anxious to read what younger generations of readers will have to say about Eigner's work. Will they find it as intriguing as we did? Will they be any better at explicating its technique, its underlying meanings?

STEPHEN RATCLIFFE said...

Steven,
Thanks for this "gathering." See also "Eigner's Scores" in my Listening to Reading (SUNY, 2000).