Sunday, March 28, 2010

Reading The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner (part 1)



Poems That Bring In The News

With its more than 3,000 poems there are plenty ways to get into, or at, The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner (Stanford University Press, 2010). Today I take what may be an odd, but I think interesting approach: taking a look at Eigner poems that reference or allude to – or are actually about – current events, of the well-known kind, and which he wrote within days or a few weeks of those events.

Poems which bring in a bit (or a lot) of the news of the day were somewhat unusual for Eigner. Not that he didn’t pay attention. To the contrary, Eigner kept his eyes, ears, and mind open, and (damn well) kept watch on what was a-happening. This included being, as he put it in a 1973 letter to French poet Claude Royet-Journoud, “a reader of . . . the newspaper, first accounts of the humpty-dumpty world’s events daily . . . .”

But headline news did not regularly find its way into Eigner’s poems. His focus was usually more personal, and closer to home: what was in, about, and immediately outside the room in which he wrote, for example, or that which he saw/heard while out in the neighborhood. He also wrote dozens of poems responding to music heard on the radio, something cultural seen on TV, or something he’d read in a book or magazine (including other poetry).

Compared to all those other kinds, Eigner poems that invoke or allude to an identifiable, well-known current event are relatively rare. I count thirty in total, even including a handful that refer only generally to world affairs or which were written in response to (but do not mention or allude to) something from the news. That’s only about one percent of the poems in The Collected Eigner.

I became curious about Eigner’s poems-from-the-news after noticing one in the Stanford volumes that directly refers to the Great Alaska Earthquake. Others are equally obvious. Still others were confirmed via Eigner’s habit of dating his poems, most of them to the exact day, which allows precise correlations when a major news story was involved. A few other poems-from-the-news were identified from Eigner’s written comments, quoted in the endnotes, explaining that he wrote them after or in response to a particular event.

If nothing else, looking at Eigner’s “current events” poems is a way to salute one of the great benefits of this (or any poet’s) collected edition, at least those done right: everything gets included, from the mainline and well-known work to the oddities and obscure. This all-in approach is especially fruitful for the Eigner, since poetry for him, aside from a few fallow periods, was pretty much a daily or at least regular practice. It’s incredible to have it all, even with the problem of the left margins (click here) and the resulting challenge of reading these books (click here).

Of course, on some level it’s not important that Eigner’s “current events” poems have a subject matter that’s for him atypical. It’s still Larry Eigner: his way(s) with words, his mind at work. These poems are worthy of attention for that reason alone. These poems, as any other sub-set would, validate what poet-readers have written about Eigner (click here to see) and illustrate what Eigner himself said about his work (click here, if you please, for that). And regardless of all that, these poems are pretty dang interesting, as I think you’ll agree after reading this post.

I discuss below ten (yes, ten!) of Eigner’s poems from the news. For each, I provide the title or first line, Eigner’s assigned poem number, as well as its location (volume and page) in the Stanford books. That information is in Courier font, as Eigner has it, with his spacing observed as best I can in Blogger.

For each poem discussed I also provide background information regarding the current event alluded to or mentioned. Some of that information may seem obvious; however, I enjoyed refreshing my recollection about these now historical matters, and setting it out here I think helps to appreciate Eigner’s work.

The poems-from-the-news that I discuss, from among the approximately two dozen that Eigner wrote, may not be the ones you’d highlight, or the ones that Eigner would want to emphasize. I selected at least one from each decade of Eigner’s mature (post-1950) work, to honor in that way the time(s) in which he wrote. Otherwise, I went with those that struck my fancy.

Near the the end of the post I provide a chronological list of ALL the Eigner poems I’ve identified as coming from the news, with capsule comments on each one. Yes, I should have discussed a few more in the main part of this post, but believe it or not I tried to limit the length of this thing. Via the list of all thirty poems, you can see the full scope of this sub-set of Eigner’s work and (if you have or can get to the books) read them all.

After that list, there’s a final (I promise!) note, not so much a summing up but a brief post-lude. That allows me to give Eigner, via his poetry, the last word on the subject. That’s the least I can do, I think.

And so off we go, back in time (we’ll start in 1953), to look at a few Larry Eigner poems in which he brought in, more or less directly, the headline news of the day.

Extra, Extra, Read All About It!

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The Execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg
June 19, 1953
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N i g h t  o f  E x e c u t i o n
(1953)
[# b 1, Vol. I, page 116]



Ethel and Julius Rosenberg

In 1951, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were sentenced to death after being convicted in federal court of passing atomic bomb secrets to the Soviet Union. Many believed the couple had been wrongly convicted. Others believed the death penalty was inappropriate. There was worldwide interest in the case. Protests and pleas for mercy were heard from, among many others, the Pope, Einstein, Picasso, and Sartre. But many in “red-scare” America supported the verdicts and sentence.

Legal appeals filed on behalf of the Rosenbergs were unsuccessful. This included a flurry (at least six, an extraordinary number) made to the U.S. Supreme Court in the months and weeks before the Rosenbergs’ scheduled execution date. The Rosenbergs were to die at sundown on June 18, 1953, in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison.

However, one more series of twists remained. On June 17, 1953 – the day before the Rosenbergs were to die – Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, acting on a claim not previously made, ordered the execution temporarily delayed (a single justice can issue such a temporary order). Under Douglas’ order, the full Court would have to decide the matter. That process would take at least six months, because the Court had adjourned for the summer.

However, the Eisenhower administration, nay, most of America, could not fathom further delay. The Attorney General on June 18th petitioned the Supreme Court, asking that it immediately convene an extraordinary special session and put the execution back on track.

And that’s exactly what the Court did. It met the very next morning (June 19th) in a hastily arranged special session and just after twelve noon issued an order allowing the execution to proceed. A key part of the Court’s ruling was that Congress when it enacted the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 did not intend to repeal the the Espionage Act of 1917, under which the Rosenbergs had been convicted.

After the Supreme Court ruling, the Rosenbergs’ lawyer telegrammed President Eisenhower, requesting clemency. The White House said no. Later in the evening on June 19, 1953, the Rosenbergs were executed, the first U.S. citizens to receive that punishment for espionage. The news, as with many earlier developments in the case, was nationally broadcast and front page, above-the-fold news:



The first four lines of Eigner’s Night of Execution (1953) are, in the aftermath of the state-killings, very telling:
The allusions here to the clemency telegram (“the last wire”), the method of execution (again, “the last wire”) and the reasoning of the final Supreme Court decision (“the ‘intent’ of Congress”) obviously relate to the Rosenbergs.

A most compelling thing about this opening is the first line. First, it’s a highly unusual for Eigner: a sentence, a complete one, including a concluding period. You can read months’ worth of his poems, from around 1950 on at least, and not find another one like that. Eigner used the period in that way only used it when it served a poetic purpose.

And the period here has a poetic purpose, for certain. The Rosenbergs – their case, the mighty hullabaloo surrounding it – is done: “Now there’s no more of it.” Period (period). The punctuation mark here signals and embodies the end.

Perfect too is how quiet and smooth that first line reads. It’s a direct statement, simply stated. How stark the contrast between Eigner’s words and the frenzied two-year build-up of the Rosenberg case, its insane crescendo of activity in the final days and then, [s]uddenly” its grim denouement of death. All that hyper-shouted madness gets reduced, in Eigner’s telling, to the single word “it.” And in the first line/sentence, all of “it” vanishes, into the near-vacuum of “[n]ow there’s no more.”

Night of Execution continues for twelve more lines. Immediately after the first four lines, there’s a double space, followed by a set of lines in which Eigner uses the word “peacefully” twice, references “a worker,fixer of power / or connecting lines” (possibly a reference to the electric chair?), alludes to ideas of chance (the word “accident”), and universalizes matters somewhat (I think) by stating, “like the end / at any one / likely death.” In short, the poem gets dense, quick, with matters moving through Eigner’s mind (and thus on the page), seemingly from his thinking on the Rosenbergs.

The poem’s final line returns to a more direct treatment of the event. It also seems to sum up an attitude, a point of view, but does so in a classic Eigner way. More than once over the years, Eigner explained that in his poetry he preferred coming onto things “by understatement . . .[s]otto voce [the lowered voice].” The last line of Night of Execution is a beautiful example of that trait. In what presumably was his full measure of outrage and disappointment at the Rosenbergs’ execution, Eigner simply wrote:
which in its conditional, speculative, open-ended (no period, natch) but emphasized assertion stands as a persuasive and poetic rejoinder to the rushed certainty of the State’s double-killing.

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The Great Alaska Earthquake
March 27, 1964
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“The stars turn the sky a head”
(March 30, 1964)
[# e h : Vol. II, page 559]




The Great Alaska Earthquake (and resulting tsunamis) took place on “Good Friday,” March 27, 1964. With a Richter Scale magnitude of 9.2, it was (and still is) the largest quake to strike North America. The newspaper headlines were huge (see above) and the photographic images of the damage were startling. Anchorage and other towns and villages about Prince William Sound were particularly hard hit.


Anchorage, Alaska - The Great Earthquake

Three days after the quake, on March 30, 1964, Eigner wrote an untitled, page-long poem that includes many direct references and allusions to the event. After a somewhat enigmatic opening line – “The stars turn the sky a head” – come the following fourteen lines, which seem obviously related to the disaster:
I’m tempted to make a big deal out of this poem, or at least this part of it (the poem continues for 17 more lines, some of which seem less directly related to the earthquake). My thought is that Eigner, as much as anyone, was familiar with forces from within shattering the relative calm of surface existence (as happens in an earthquake).

I refer here, of course, to Eigner’s cerebral palsy, which among other things caused him to have (as he himself once wrote) a “wild left arm and leg,” particularly before cyrosurgery in 1962 (at age 35) “tamed” the condition. This uncontrollable bio-physical condition had, I think, important implications for Eigner’s poetry, in that it as he explained it meant (particularly before the surgery), that to stay still or relaxed he “had to keep attention partly away from” himself, to “seek a home . . . in the world.” Such attention, in combination with the brilliant mind Eigner had, is a key quality in his poetry.

And so it’s interesting, to say the least, to think of Eigner, who developed ways to control the spasms of his body, thinking, in this particular poem, on the great earthquake roiling (to quote another line in the poem) “the surface of a planet.” The quake obviously resonated within him in a particular way – he wrote a poem on it, for goodness sake. And so I wonder if the poem’s final two lines:
refer in some way to Eigner himself. Is this a record of his own experience, at the time of writing the poem, with his hand (the fingers) staying still. Hmm.

Of course, Eigner may also have been compelled to write about the earthquake because such events serve as an example (a metaphor even) for how things sometimes happen, either in poetry or life in general. As Eigner directly wrote regarding a 1985 accident in which he broke some ribs: “Like geology – nothing too much over such years then for some minutes or second an abrupt sharp burst or shift or series.” Maybe the 1964 poem fits with that general (and to me accurate) perception of the ways of the world. Once again, Hmm.

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The Assassination of Martin Luther King
(April 4, 1968)
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“The world that was, the glass”
(April 2-5, 1968)
[# 183, Vol. III, pages 832-833]




On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated while standing on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. He had gone to the city in support of African-American sanitation workers, who for two months had been on strike over racially disparate wages and work practices. A single bullet killed King. The murder profoundly impacted the nation.



Allusions and references to this event are prominent in an untitled Eigner poem (first line = “The world that was, the glass”) dated April 2-5, 1968, meaning it was started before and completed after King’s death. However, and consistent with the poem being started before the assassination, the poem doesn’t seem to be exclusively about the current event. Here are the first fourteen lines of the poem which, at 48 lines spread over a page and one-half, qualifies for Eigner as lengthy, almost epic:
Of these lines, I can – how ‘bout you? – link only a few to King, even via the boldest associative leaps. The opening phrase – “The world that was” – does suggest with its past tense that an era had ended. However, the phrase “the glass” doesn’t for me resonate with the current event. So to “all the green / over the arm,” “open the jaws” and “academic my / dear.”

Most remarkable in the opening sequence is the repetition in the second line of the name of he who was killed. Repetition is a simple technique, but one that Eigner uses here to maximum effect. The words read – look and sound – like a cry, a cry of agony with shock and disbelief. He doesn’t capitalize “King” (his sotto voce habits prevent that), but it almost reads as if he does.

The super-indentation of King King King King, I think, echoes the dislocation caused by the assassination to Eigner and the nation at large. It’s as if the news just intrudes on the poem, just as it did on life in general. The placement of the line towards the right side also links it to the similarly super-indented “sanitation / men” two lines below (and of course those lines also refer to the event).

This pattern suggested above – with allusions to King mixing with other matters – occurs throughout the poem, at least as I read it. In the dozen lines that follow those quoted above, mention is made of “the newspaper,” which while not specific might be imagined as relating to the assassination, as can the phrase, “ . . . something / that can happen / does.” But there’s also “how to assemble anything with // flowers in the hair”, which while possible to relate to the era in general can’t be said to concern King in particular.

Other lines in the poem, such as the following excerpt from near its middle, have more specific references to the event:
Obviously, the fragments “Nobel” and “on the bus” allude to significant biographical details in King’s life. The term “big shot”can also be read as a reference to both to what some derisively considered King, and the gunshot that killed him. I can also associate “outdoors” (King was on a balcony when shot) and even “the simple song” (perhaps a reference to “We Shall Overcome”).

Most powerful is the question embedded three lines from the bottom of the excerpt. It chills me, stopped me as I read. It requires (if you are a willing reader) an answer. For most, of course, the reply to the question is “no” but in so responding one does think of the alternative, of those who – such as the shooter of King – who would, if honest, answer yes. It’s a line that surely arises from or relates to the killing of King.

But phrases such as “clouds turn” seem to come from more personal observations of Eigner while writing the poem. And who knows about the two final lines quoted above, concerning the mini-skirted doll?

Here again, other things seem to appear in the poem. The poem continues for another twelve lines after this, and only two bits – the image “smashed light” (which perhaps metaphorically refers to the destroyed life of King) and the quasi-question, “what do you think of the garbagemen” seem directly related. The rest, including the poem’s concluding line (“I could perform”) again seem to bring other matters into the poem.

It’s not unusual to find matters in a particular Eigner poem that are not related to each other in some obvious logical way. In fact, it’s very common, and to me makes the poems richer. Eigner explained once that sometimes his poems are “a thought process or arc or course of thought or trace or artifact of the same . . . .” In that way, it’s quite natural for all kinds of things to come into it, since that’s – at least for me – how the mind works. “The world that was, the glass” is an example of such a poem, while also serving as a record of a tragedy.

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The First Moon Landing
(July 20-21, 1969)
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“The moon is cold”
(July 21, 1969)
[# 336, Vol. III, page 919]



The first “manned” landing and walk on the big pizza pie took place on July 20-21, 1969. To state the obvious, this was a huge deal, one of those events about which almost everyone then alive can tell you exactly where they were (it was broadcast live on TV).

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On The Moon

Eigner gets at Neil and Buzz’s big adventure allusively, and that may overstate it. What there is, is an untitled poem dated July 21, 1969. It doesn’t mention the astronauts or the Apollo mission specifically, and so arguably maybe it has nothing at all to do with the event. And yet there’s the date, and I can’t believe that the first “image” in the poem, by which I mean its second word, is just a coincidence. Here’s the poem (forgive, please, the slightly akimbo scan):
In addition to the first line, I read allusions to the moon-trip in “hardware” (the massive Apollo rocket system) “more miles” (earth-to-moon is almost 250,000 miles), and “buoyant motion” (think of walking on the low gravity lunar surface). But obviously this ain’t no (to invoke TV journalist Walter Cronkite’s sign-off) “that’s the way it [was]” recounting.

Is there a criticism here of the moon mission? I can read, maybe read in, a disapproval. All that hardware and miles and effort (“more and more”), to get someplace “cold.” Hmm. In this way, the “restless imagination” is “poor” because in this case its perpetual peregrinations bring about nothing but a landing on the cold, cold moon.

Sound off on this one, dear readers of the glade, if you please. But let me orbit a bit first around the concluding couplet. That image blasts me off, let me tell you. It just seems so well put and interesting. It’s classic paradox, motion in stasis, and makes me wonder whether it came from a photograph, a frozen TV image, of the moon-walkers bouncing across the lunar surface. But leaving that aside,


also beautifully suggests ideas motile in the head. Floating, animated words, lit in the mind of a human sitting (or lying, or standing) still, anywhere at anytime. And reading this broader metaphor in the lines causes me to re-visit other lines in the poem, to wonder if other matters mentioned – such as, for example, “in little pieces” – also allude to bobbing thoughts in the mind that are pinned down by Eigner. Which leads to the question of whether the concluding couplet (allow me to repeat it):


also describes a poem, the movement in our mind of words and ideas that are fixed forever on the page? Hmmmmm.

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WATERGATE

The Revelation That Nixon Had Made Secret Tapes
July 13, 1974
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“watergate / washing”
(July 19-21, 1973)
[# 793 : Vol. III, page 1161]




A key element of the political scandal and constitutional crisis known as Watergate were tape recordings that President Nixon secretly made of his White House conversations. The existence of these recordings was revealed on July 13,1973, during testimony by a presidential aide before a U.S. Senate committee investigating the scandal.

The revelation of the recordings was a stunning development. Months of guess-work about “what did the President know and when did he know it” apparently would end, with the answers finally provided by the White House tapes – but only if Nixon would release them!

A few days later, in an untitled poem dated July 19-21, 1973, Eigner wrote the following minimalist, almost haiku-like response to the then current events, the first time the scandal was alluded to in his work (please again excuse the slight tilt of the scan):
This seems more than a bit puckish to me, with the splitting of the capitol’s name obviously done to play off the “water” in “watergate.” The word “washing” perhaps suggests the agitation in the situation, and maybe even something of the “spin” being put on develpments by everyone, especially those in charge.

The final line, with its “ton,” open parenthesis, the letter “s” and slighted spaced right question mark, is difficult to explicate. Maybe “ton” suggests the weight of the matter, the unclosed parenthesis the ongoing, unresolved state of affairs, and the question mark the mystery of where it would all end up? That makes some sense, since as of the date the poem was written, it was quite uncertain where Watergate would end up.

I’m puzzled by the “s” and the open parenthesis that precedes it. Does the punctuation mark serve as a kind of surrogate apostrophe? I dunno. This part of the poem is compressed as heck. Heck, the whole little poem is compressed as heck. Anybody help?

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The White House Refuses to Release the Tapes / Subpoenas Issued
July 23, 1973
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“get into leeway”
(July 24, 1973)
[#794 ’’: Vol. III, page 1163]

About one week after the testimony that revealed the secret recordings, Nixon announced – this was on July 23, 1973 – that he would not hand over the tapes. He asserted that executive privilege, rooted in principles involving the separation of governmental powers, allowed him to keep the recordings secret. That same day, both the senate committee chaired by Sam Ervin (a southern-drawl Democrat from North Carolina, a self-described “simple country lawyer”) and the appointed Special Prosecutor investigating the matter served the President with a subpoena (a formal legal document) demanding he give up the tapes.


Senator Ervin (center) and Committee

The presidential defiance and congressional and prosecutorial demands were another momentous development. As the Washington Post wrote, it “set the stage . . . for a major constitutional confrontation,” one that “ultimately would have to be decided in the Supreme Court” with the outcome “unknown.”

On July 24, 1973, the day after the President said no and the subpoenas were issued, Eigner wrote the following short poem that I think can be rightly characterized as in part enigmatic and in part very direct, in terms of the then current Watergate events:
The first line is the enigmatic part, but I think it can be parsed, and actually is quite apt in terms of the news that the poem arises from. Nixon’s decision not to give up the tapes, essentially forcing the issuance of subpoenas, had the immediate effect of buying him more time in which to operate – “leeway” in other words, just as Eigner puts it in the first line of the poem. And “leeway” also works, if its meaning in aeronautics is considered – “the amount a plane is blown off its normal course by cross winds” – as a more general description of the situation. With the President’s decision pushed the country, its system of laws, onto a turbulent and uncharted path.

The guts of Eigner’s short poem is the repetition of “papers and tapes.” I think doing that emphasizes how much that matter dominated his – the nation’s – consciousness. The four sets also have obviously alliterative vowel sounds, and there’s something to be said about – although exactly what I can’t, I’m afraid, put into words, all those “ape” combinations embedded in the two nouns.

And then there’s the final line – “us too” – which points again to how everyday people (not just elected officials) and (because “us” also brings to mind “U.S.”) the nation as an entity had been pulled into the brinkmanship of refusing to turn over the tapes. The way Eigner sets “us too” at then end, almost (but not quite) entirely away from the repeated “papers and tapes,” emphasizes the sense that the people, the fate of the nation, were but an afterthought to those in charge.

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In late 1973 and early 1974, the immense legal and political battles of Watergate raged on, all centered on the tapes, the contents of which remained unknown. The story had periodic major twists and turns. These included “The Saturday Night Massacre,” in which Nixon fired the special prosecutor and the U.S. attorney general and his top deputy resigned, the infamous “I am not a crook” declaration, the spectacular revelation a key tape had an 18 ½ minute gap, and the issuance of more legal subpoenas, including by a federal district court.

Many of these developments were HUGE news stories, but Eigner wrote no poems about or alluding to them. That he did not (and he wrote plenty of poems during the days and months these events took place) emphasizes the point I made near the top of this post: Eigner didn’t routinely respond, via poetry, to the news of the day, and in fact mostly did not.

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The Edited Transcripts of the Tapes
April 30, 1974
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“real time / records”
(May 7, 1974)
[# 857 : Vol. III, page 1205]

Apparently seeking to defuse and control matters related to the content of the secret tapes, Nixon on April 30, 1974 released edited transcripts of some of the recordings. The President made a big show of it, announcing his decision in a televised speech while sitting next to a big double-stack of approximately two dozen bound volumes of transcripts.


The Edited Transcripts

The release of the transcripts did not have the intended effect. The President’s point was that the transcripts, all those words in all those volumes, showed he was not involved in crimes and cover-ups. However, since the transcripts were edited versions, many were dubious.

But more than that, the transcripts transfixed the country because in addition to the edits, the released texts were full of redactions, most of which had the phrase “expletive deleted” inserted for the missing language. And many of these “expletive deleted” markers showed up in the President’s side of the transcribed conversation!



The effect was profound. The veneer of high-toned pious authority was stripped away: Nixon was one goddamn son-of-a-bitching vulgar-talkin’ bastard! The country had a friggin’ frackin’ field day guessing what expletives had been deleted.

And it’s at this point that we return to Eigner. On May 7, 1974, about a week after the release of the edited, “expletive deleted” transcripts, Eigner wrote the following poem, which clearly pertains to the matter at hand:
This is straight-forward, and perhaps not much need be said. Except that I think the last three lines are sweet, and deserve attention. First, I like their rhythm and balance. As they step across the page, the next-to and second-to-last lines (“so things go // as they come”) are a relatively quick and easy six syllables. Best yet, those lines are poised, perfectly I’d say, against the final line (“voluminously charged”), which in contrast moves in its convolutions more slowly in the mouth – but which is also six syllables.

I also like the almost biblical tone of “so things go // as they come.” It reads to me as a sort of a necessary reversal (the flip-side) of Ecclesiastes’ “to everything there is a season.” Eigner here seems to suggest, that at least insofar as Nixon is concerned, nothing ever changes.

I am also fascinated by the closing phrase, “voluminously charged.” It’s unusual as . . . well, I’ll put it like this: thirty-five years after Eigner wrote it, you can’t find another use of that exact adverb-adjective-noun combination anywhere!

Of course, “voluminously” refers not just to the extent or large size of the mess, but also (via the word’s sub-meaning) to convolutions and (via an even more associative path) to the stack of books or binders (the volumes of transcripts) piled on Nixon’s desk. Similarly, the word “charged,” while carrying a primary meaning of intense, controversial, and fraught with emotion – which the edited transcripts events most certainly were – also indicates matters related to the prosecution of crimes, which also certainly was in the air. As such, given all these double and associative meanings, Eigner’s “voluminously charged” is one dang smart, clever, and funny poem-closing phrase.

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Nixon’s Resignation
August 9, 1974
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“musing o / idea that”
(August 8-17, 1974)
[# 882 : Vol III, page 1219]




Contrary to the apparent hope of the Nixon White House, the release of the edited transcripts did not stop the legal and political battles of Watergate. It all reached a climax on July 24, 1974, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion requiring the President to turn over the tapes.

Even after the ruling, many wondered whether Nixon would obey the Court’s order. There was a fear of some extra-legal power grab or end-run around the law. But Nixon released the tapes, including one – “the smoking gun” – showing his very early personal involvement in a criminal conspiracy to obstruct justice. That tape become public on August 5, 1974, and essentially all remaining political support vanished.



On August 8, 1974, Nixon announced, via a TV address, that he would resign. The next day – August 9th – he made it official. After a farewell speech to his staff, he and his family walked out of the White House and across the lawn to a military helicopter. In a moment that seemed odd to many, Nixon struck his archetypal arms-upraised “V for Victory” pose at the copter’s threshold, smiling like a kid on the last day of school.



Larry Eigner, as did most everyone, presumably took it all in, and apparently gave it some thought. Here’s the poem dated August 8-17, 1974; contemporaneous, in other words, with the resignation and days immediately following. The allusions to the current event here aren’t entirely direct, but I think they exist:
What do you think? Obviously, Watergate and Nixon are here, in the word “bugging” and the phrase “history // will judge.” I also see the news in the phrase (and this does take an associative leap) “on the green” (a reference to Nixon walking to the helicopter across the White House lawn). Finally, I see it (and here again is Eigner understatement, I do believe) in the poem’s final lines: “some pretty // happy times.”

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The Resignation of C. Everett Koop
May 4, 1989
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T h e S u r g e o n - G e n e r a l h a s r e s i g n e d (May 4, 1989)
[# 1659 : Vol. IV, page 1621]

We now fast-forward a decade and one-half from Watergate. If you were around in the 1980s, I’m pretty sure you remember C. Everett Koop. President Reagan’s 1981 nomination of Koop for Surgeon General – the top public health official in the country – was strongly opposed by some, who considered him too conservative because of his “right-to-life” views. But mostly the appointment flew under the general public’s radar. The Surgeon General position, after all, was not considered a particularly important governmental post.

Koop, however, quickly becoming a prominent cultural figure. Part of it was his unusual appearance: with his beard sans moustache, and habit of wearing the ceremonial military garb accorded his position, he looked a bit like a salty sea captain.

But it was Koop’s blunt talk on public health issues that really caught the nation’s attention. In1984, he pounded hard against cigarettes, including an unusual for that time declaration on the dangers of second-hand smoke. He railed against obesity and emphasized the importance of healthy eating.

Even more of a flash-point was Koop’s 1986 report on AIDS. It was stripped of politics and unusually explicit, shocking Reaganites with calls for grammar school sex education, the widespread use of condoms, and needle exchange for IV drug users. It also strongly recommended against mass testing and quarantines.

Conservatives also flipped when Koop, citing scientific evidence, refused to assert that abortions had a negative long-term effect on women’s health. A former pediatric surgeon, Koop also championed policies to protect disabled new-borns and infants.

With his medical/scientific authority, Reagan and all could not touch Koop. However, after George H.W. Bush was inaugurated in 1989, Koop was given the silent treatment by those in charge, and on May 4, 1989, he resigned. It wasn’t a hugely noted event; the evening news gave it all of twenty seconds.

Larry Eigner though, noticed, and took the time to write a poem, consisting of just a title and a single line:

Well, what do you think of this one?! It’s title reads like a headline, and it was taken right from a newspaper or radio report. And there’s a comment, of but four words. It’s a simple, garden-variety rhetorical expression whose meaning is plain enough: you really don’t have to imagine much of anything because the matter being considered is so totally obvious. As such, I read this poem as an arch comment on the resignation. Eigner seems to be saying, in his typical understated way, “Those Republicans finally got to him.”

There’s no endnote about this poem, however, so Eigner’s exact motivation and views can’t really be stated with certainty. The poem’s brevity is an example of a kind of poetry that Eigner wrote more often, I think it fair to say, after arriving in Berkeley in the late 1970s. He sometimes called such poems, at least when written by others, “smallies.”

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The Crash of El Al Flight 1862
October 4, 1992
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A m s t e r  d a m  !
(October 8-9, 1992)
[# 1707 : Vol. IV, page 1651]


On October 4, 1992, a 747 cargo plane operated by Israel’s El Al airlines lost the two engines on its right wing and subsequently crashed. The plane at impact was flying at a nearly 90 degree angle and sliced directly through a large high-rise apartment complex in Amsterdam. Forty-two people were killed, including the three person crew, and many others injured. Dozens of apartments were destroyed.


The Crash of El-Al Flight 1862

I can’t tell you why Eigner wrote a poem after this particular air disaster, as opposed to the dozens of others that occurred over the nearly half-century he wrote. The muse can be a curious thing. What is clear is that the news of the tragedy spurred a very moving poem. Its 18 lines are spread over three main sections; in the spaces (the silences) between, Eigner takes us from the very personal, even mundane, to the crash, and then from that event out to considerations as profoundly cosmic as can be imagined.

Here are the poem’s title and opening six lines, scanned from the book (and like the other scans here, enlarged for ease of reading on the screen):
This seems to me a straight-forward report of Eigner-at-and-in-a-moment. I assume he was traveling, in a hotel room, stretching out on a bed, relaxed. These lines are followed by a double space, within which the poem pivots such that in the next section (four lines, variously spaced) the news comes in, and hard (the scan below attempts to, but only very roughly, approximates the alignment of the text in relation to that set out above):
The essential facts are concisely and directly presented here, with the focus squarely on death. The use of commas, including the spaced or stand-alone commas of the section’s final line, seem to mimic stunned thought, a mind taking in but stuttering as it gulps at and processes the horrific scene, or the (news) report of it.

The final word of the section – “volatized” (which I read as a friendlier on the tongue variant of “volatilized”) – begins to pivot the poem again. In context, of course, the word signifies the thermodynamic conversion of solids into gas, a highly likely if grim outcome of a high speed plane crash. But the explosive force within the term, and the image of something more ethereal than a solid, also opens the poem out. Eigner then lets that energy ride, through a large swath of silence that amounts to five sets of double-spaces.

Within that relatively large space (approximately replicated in the scan below) the poem (Eigner’s mind) turns again, this time focusing on matters related to the immediate eternal and the cosmic moment. I know that sounds a bit vague, but it’s hard to convey the brilliant poetic exploration of experienced reality that Eigner lays out in the final eight lines. So here they are, with a the interceding blank space preserved (but with the alignment with the previous excerpts only very roughly approximating the actual poem):





In a characteristic Eigner “move,” the word “instants” works (resonates against) on both the preceding “living / dying” and the word “eclectic” that follows. Instants (moments in time and perception) end, are born, and are various and non-systemic. Those four words, elaborated (faceted) further by “collaging” (the mosaic of experience in time), the Einstein equation (mass and speed (of light) equals energy, sometimes explosive), and the word “super–” (which via the hyphen seems to forever open out), and it all creates a dense poetic rendering (in Eigner’s mind, and thus ours, as readers) of moment-to-moment experience.

And it all also acts (and so too in particular “super–” with its open hyphen) as a prelude to the poem’s pièce de résistance. You know what I’m talking about, yes? Forgive the rhetorical questions, but is this ending the most brilliantly conceived and executed final visual-poem/line(s) ever? Could the interlocking quality of the particular continuum named there by Eigner be more perfectly depicted? This is one of the few examples in all of Eigner where he crowds letters or words together in the spaces between lines, and I must say the ol’ typewriter calligrapher extraordinaire really machine-stroked a masterwork on this one. Here it is again, out of context, yes, and super-sized, but wow how fun to see it one more time:



I’ll also say that the entire poem – A m s t e r d a m ! – is also a masterwork, compelling and moving as its language takes us from the most personal matters, through the disaster, to considerations of the most eternal and cosmic of questions. This is a poem from the daily news that I’m certain will stay with us for the ages.

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Larry Eigner
Poems From The News
A Chronological List

Untitled poems have first lines in quotation marks.
Actual titles have no quotation marks.
Eigner’s spacing is preserved, I think.

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N i g h t  o f  E x e c u t i o n
(1953)
[# b 1 : Vol. I, page 116]

Although not specifically dated, this 16 line poem appears to concern the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on June 19, 1953. Discussed above.
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T h e  D e a d  D o g
(December 1957)
[# 2 b : Vol. I, page 266]

With its title, use of the term “mutnik, ”and reference to something said by exiled Soviet figure Alexander Kerensky, this poem must be read as a response to the Sputnik 2 flight, of November, 1957, which sent a dog named Laika into orbit. The dog died in flight. U.S. pundits promptly dubbed the mission “Mutt-nik.”
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K   in the u s a
(1959)
[# 7 k : Vol II, page 338]

The endnote for this poem states the “K” of the title is Nikita Khrushchev, who took a two week tour of the across the USA in September 1959. Even without the note, there are numerous references in the poem to events seemingly related to the visit, including a mention of the “Spanish Speaking” . . . “president / of the Assembly” (at that time the President of the United Nations’ General Assembly was Víctor Andrés Belaúnde, of Peru). Just beneath the poem’s surface, it seems to me, is an awareness of the possible consequences of the then current nuclear arms race / Cold War. Khrushchev proposals are termed “foolish,” and the poem with a humorous jab about what a farmer said, and what that might mean, “for the cows / that will survive.” (Thanks to Stephen Baraban for pointing me to this particular from-the-news poem of Eigner’s.)
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“members of the family”
(March, 1962)
[# c-i : Vol. II, page 498]

On February 20, 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth (he went three times around). In addition, by this time President Kennedy (approximately a year after being inaugurated) already had a well-earned reputation for traveling abroad (click here). This poem includes matters related to both these matters, as Eigner indicates in an endnote to (this gets almost confusing) another poem (see endnote at Vol. IV, page vii, regarding II, 500).
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T o  D i e  /  T o  S l e e p
(February 17, 1964)
[no number : Vol. II, page 551]

The first words of this poem – “a martyred president” – can be easily read as a reference to the JFK assassination, which occurred not quite three months before the poem was written. In addition, the poem’s last lines – “ . . . massively // a campaign to // remember this” – also seem to be a description of the national mood of the time.
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“The stars turn the sky a head”
(March 30, 1964)
[# e h : Vol. II, page 559]

A poem with much about the Great Alaska Earthquake of March 27, 1964. Discussed above.
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“All wrapped up in herself”
(November 25, 1964)
[# h z ’ : Vol. II, page 608]

An endnote in The Collected Eigner states that Eigner in a bottom margin note on the typescript of this poem identifies it as being “about the girl who got killed in NYC – Kitty Genovese – while many looked on . . . . ” Genovese was stabbed to death on March 13, 1964, about eight months before the poem was written; there’s little if anything about the event readily identifiable in the poem itself.
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“The world that was, the glass”
(April 2-5, 1968)
[# 183, Vol. III, pages 832-833]

The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Discussed above.
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“the governor / california”
July 22, 1968
[# 227 : Vol. III, page 858]

After the first line quoted above, the poem continues “always / a favorite son.” When the poem was written, then Gov. Ronald Reagan was heading to the Republican convention (held August 5-8) in control of California’s delegates, having run (and won) in the June primary as a “favorite son.” Despite the explicit reference to the current event in the first lines, this poem (a full pager) does not otherwise seem to concern that or any other “in-the-news” matter.
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“Life / puzzles”
October 29, 1968
[# 256 : Vol. III, page 875]

An endnote to the poem quotes a typescript note which states, “about photographs of two napalmed girls in Caterpillar # 3-4.” The poem mentions “Those two girls.” It also asks, among other things, “What is Viet Nam / past life / now?”, “Should we / contemplate [. . . ] If we can’t act”, and “how long”. This poem, although based on two photographs in a literary magazine, obviously concerns a contemporary current event (the victims of the war).
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oil at st.a barbara
(February 23, 1969)
[# 291 : Vol. III, page 897]

A very short (four line, five word) poem no doubt spurred by the oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, which began on January 28, 1969 and continued for 10 days.
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“The moon is cold”
(July 21, 1969)
[# 336 : Vol. III, page 919]

The first moon landing. Discussed above.
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“birds take / further in the air”
(November 19-20, 1969)
[# 358 : Vol. III, page 928]

The date of the poem, plus two references to “the moon” and the phrase “picking up rocks” suggest that this poem at least in part concerns the Apollo 12 lunar landing, which took place on the dates the poem was written.
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“this is / this”
(December 9, 1971)
[# 585, Vol. III, page 1062]

The endnote regarding this poem states that Eigner’s typescript margin note states, “India / Pakistan War.” This conflict is generally considered to have begun on December 3, 1971. The poem, while written in response to the particular event, includes no direct references to it.
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“watergate / washing”
(July 19-21, 1973)
[# 793 : Vol. III, page 1161]

Written shortly after the revelation that Nixon secretly taped White House conversations. Discussed above.
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“get into leeway”
(July 24, 1973)
[# 794 ’’ : Vol. III, page 1163]

Written the day after Nixon stated he would not release the secretly recorded tapes, and was served with subpoenas by Senate investigations and the independent prosecutor. Discussed above.
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“real time / records”
(May 7, 1974)
[# 857; Vol. III, page 1205]

Written shortly after the White House released edited transcripts of the secretly recorded tapes of White House conversations. Discussed above.
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“musing o / idea that”
(August 8-17, 1974)
[# 882, Vol. III, page 1219]

Written before and in the days just after the resignation of Richard Nixon. Discussed above.
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A f t e r  V i e t - N a m
(October 12, 1974)
[# 891 : Vol. III, page 1124]

This does not appear to correlate with any particular development in the war; although it presumably concerns it, given the title, and the closing lines “eternity is // all // blind / ends”.
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s w i n e  f l u
(February 9, 1977)
[# 1004 : Vol. III, page 1608]

This short poem (two lines) is a ditty, asking two straightforward questions, about the flu referenced in the title, which was widely (and wildly) publicized during the 1976-1977 influenza season.
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“it’s too bad / what can you do”
(March 30, 1977)
[# 1016 : Vol. III, page 1313]

The endnote for this poem informs that Eigner’s typescript margin note states, “flop of SALT talks that night.” SALT = Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, the long-running negotiations between the U.S. and Soviet Union regarding the control and reduction of nuclear weapons. The poem, while written in response to the particular event, includes no direct references to it.

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O  J e r u s a l e m
(September 28, 1981)
[# 1288 : Vol. IV, page 1441]

This short (three lines, plus the title) poem does not appear to concern a specific event, although it was written at the end of a month in which there was much Arab-Israeli news in the headlines (conflicts involving the Wailing Wall earlier in the month, and a mid-month visit to the US by Israel’s Premier). The “dispute over a graveyard” mentioned in the poem may be a metaphor, as nothing from the news of that time period appears to correlate with it (am still researching, however).
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1  /  B i g  w h a t
(May 22, 1983)
[# 1395 : Vol. IV, page 1490]

The endnote for this poem informs that Eigner’s typescript margin note states, “Article on ‘inflationary universe’ theory, N[ew] Y[ork] T[imes], Tue. 3.29.83, Sec. C, page 1.” The miracle of the internet will permit you, right now, to read that article yourself (click here)! Eigner’s mention of a specific issue of the NYT also serves as evidence of his daily paper reading habit.
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H e r e  a n d  t h e r e
(June 22, 1986)
[# 1563.x : Vol. IV, page 1572]

The endnote for this poem (see Vol. IV, page xxii) sets out Eigner’s extensive (approximately 250 word) typescript margin comment, which indicates that the poem largely arose from a half-hour interview heard on National Public Radio regarding “the Greenhouse effect.” Eigner’s note includes many specific facts, and makes clear that he was concerned about (what we now call) global warning and the then existing opportunity to take measures to lessen its impact. The poem itself is mostly concerned with broad matters (e.g., “down to the wire”). The final line presumably records what Eigner was doing at the moment of writing, but also serves as a call to action – of certain kind – for the rest of us:
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“yes, here we are by now”
(October 6-7, 1986)
[# 1580, Vol. IV, page 1577]

The endnote for this poem (Vol. IV, page xxiii) includes Eigner’s margin note, which indicates the poem was written in part on a story “heard over Nat’l Public Radio abt the water supply of Provincetown MA, cleared up now 9 yrs after gasoline from an old storage tank under a gas station leaked into it.” Eigner’s note provide further details about the news item. The poem includes the line, “news about water” with each word underlined (something Eigner’s note says he picked up from Robert Grenier).
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s o m e  R e p u b l i c
(July 31 - August 1, 1987)
[# 1625 : Vol. IV, page 1597]

This full page poem responds to the news, reported in July 1987, that the world’s population had reached five billion.
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s t a r r y  f i g u r e s
(August 9-15, 1987)
[# 1625.0 : Vol. IV, page 1598]

This full page poem includes references to the population milestone (see poem above), the Pan-American Games then underway in Indianapolis, and other matters.
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T h e S u r g e o n - G e n e r a l h a s r e s i g n e d
(May 4, 1989)
[# 1659 : Vol. IV, page 1621]

A very short poem written the day C. Everett Koop, M.D., quit. Discussed above.
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A m s t e r  d a m  !
(October 8-9, 1992)
[# 1707 : Vol. IV, page 1651]

The poem concerns, in part, a plane crash in Amsterdam. Discussed above.
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n e w s  n e w s  v i e w s . . .
(September 9, 1995)
[# 1776- : Vol. IV, page 1688]

This poem, one of the last written by Eigner, mentions Yugoslavia and Vietnam; while I cannot characterize the references as minor (NATO had on August 30th begun what turned out to be a three week campaign of massive airstrikes in Bosnia and Herzegovina), it is also true that the make up only two of seven parts of this poem, which in the main seems to involve matters not related to current events.
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A Final Note
(with the last words given to Larry Eigner)

The above list of Eigner’s poems from the news causes me to think about what events did, and did not, make it into his poetry. Some of those that made it in would be on anyone’s list of the top news stories of the last half of the 20th century. These include Sputnik, the assassination of MLK, the moon landing, and Watergate).

Others news stories that made it into Eigner’s poems are decidedly idiosyncratic (the resignation of the Surgeon General and the plane crash in Amsterdam, for example), while still others, in my opinion at least, have only become more important in the years since Eigner wrote about them (over-population, climate change, and environmental degradation, for example).

There are also news events that are more-or-less, or totally, missing. There are no poems, that I’ve seen at least, that bring in anything contemporaneous with the actual assassination of JFK, or of any major event (at home or in the battlefield) related to the Vietnam War (although there are, as mentioned above, two poems that concern matters related to it). There’s also nothing on the fall of the Berlin Wall, the approval of the birth control pill, the polio vaccine, the Civil Rights Act, the rise of the Web and personal computers, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Roe v. Wade, Glasnost, the women’s and gay liberation movements, the test tube baby, Chernobyl, or any number of other major stories that took place in the decades in which Eigner wrote.

But let’s remember that Eigner wasn’t a news-hound poet. He did not regularly versify the headlines. The poems in which he included something from the news are the exception, and I’m not criticizing that he didn’t cover every or even most major stories. As I already indicated, inspiration is a fascinating thing, and Eigner’s poetry no doubt is better because he went wherever it was his mind took him each day, as opposed to conducting rote poetic exercises with the newspaper.

Plus, how could anyone put every news story, or even only the “major” ones, into poetry, or really, into anything? There’s no one who could keep up. And that leads to the last words here, which will be Eigner’s. It’s a comment on the reality just mentioned, in the form of an untitled poem, written October 28, 1993 (it’s # 1773, at Vol. IV, page 1665):



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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Larry Eigner on . . .




Before, within, and after any readers’ responses to Larry Eigner’s work – including those of poet-readers (click here) – are the views of Eigner himself. A poet’s statements aren’t the be-and-end-all, but should be given serious thought. They can also serve as a kind of lens, an often clarifying one, through which to read the poetry. (Some of that is done in another post, on Eigner’s poems form the news, which you can find here, if you please.)

I present below a kind of bouquet of Eigner’s own words, more or less directly about his poetry. Perhaps this will be a joy to read, show something about Eigner and his poetry, whet the appetite, and provide a kind of platform upon which to read at the poems. Get thee, if you can, into the gardens (the poetry itself), and see what you think. Here’s Eigner, on Eigner:
I thought myself that immediacy and force have to take precedence over clarity in a poem . . .

. . . so the poem does become a thought process or arc or course of thought or trace or artifact of the same, maybe more than a machine made of words.

. . . the poem (piece of language) as a full realization (well, not in a majority of 2500 poems all told!) or recognition of things come to (me) . . .

I'm cautious, and come onto things by understatement. Wary of exaggeration. Sotto voce has resulted in the suppression of words.

. . . eliminating connective words (more and more in my head, automatically, less and less after writing them down) to keep up the movement, the force . . .

. . . the less of a margin the less set and rigid a poem appeared, the more easily it seemed, seems, to come off the page into speech, into the head: so too, I've generally chosen not to put a word flush with the word above it, even a few lines above it . . .

And writing a poem has often enough been like discovering things.

. . . a poem can extend itself pretty much unexpectedly, like a walk you're out on . . .

. . . a poem can be assay(s) of things come upon, can be a stretch of thinking.

And beyond technical skill have felt some good poems from my life, which is likewise a matter of luck. I try to make the punctuation, including spacing, distancing, as good as I can. Else I am dissatisfied.

If you are willing to stop anywhere, anytime . . . a poem can be like walking down the street and noticing things, extending itself without obscurity or too much effort. [ . . . ] Trying too hard gets you nowhere, you can only do about the best you can . . . .

What kps me interested (overload or not)? Ears and eyes, I guess. Being alive . . . .

And writing a poem has often enough been like discovering things.

Accuracy of the moment, whenever one comes, is the greatest you can have.

My eyes still big for my head, most things were always tantalizingly beyond or almost beyond sight and hearing, out of reach, I’ve had quite an impression of this anyway, and often enough of barely managing to reach/grasp things when I have, no doubt due to inability to explore much on my own from babyhood on, my curiosity exacerbated, as I got cerebral palsy when I was born.

Especially before the cyrosurgery that tamed my wild left arm and leg – in September ‘62, 5 or 6 weeks after I turned 35 – in order to relax at all I had to keep my attention partly away from myself, had to seek a home, coziness in the world.

. . . serendipitous spontaneity . . .

. . . for quite a while I’ve realized the priority of immediacy and force over understanding, as to a poem, you don’t have to get every detail, reference, in order to get a lift or whatever from it . . .

A poem can’t be too long, anything like an equatorial superduper highway girdling the thick rotund earth, but is all right and can extend itself an additional bit if you’re sufficiently willing to stop anywhere.

. . . with a poem, there’s no or relatively little need to attain length: it can be five or ten words, even fewer . . .

Distances between words are not negligible elements of a piece: pauses or silences.

Immediacy and force take priority over notes clarifying allusions.

. . . the indents and other spacings becoming distancings, not in a derived way, but directly realized. [ . . . ] You play and feel your way by eye and ear.

And no poetry can raise anyone’s hopes for a medical cure, say, or any sort of miracle. Just “refresh the eyes / against the abyss,” as I’ve said in a poem . . .

I can’t skip about, yet curiosity pulls me about. It has led me on to see what’s next.

. . . what happens in one man’s head is always dialogue enough . . .

Poems now seem spin-offs from life . . .

. . . as far back as I recall, I’ve had dbts what’s engh sd or trop peu, how much to make of anything, to find // the weight // of things.

. . . by chance amid abundance . . .

I in brownian motion, attention given according to occasion, serendipitously . . . .

I'm still kind of tantalized in all directions.

And to name is to destroy, yes, or at least to transfix or petrify. Mentioning or referring to things is better than naming them.

. . . people, occupied with one thing or another (cars, stereos) look around them less and less.

. . . the inadequacies of language aren’t constant or relentless, wholly unrelieved, unyielding.
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The above quotations, in which Eigner’s spelling has been preserved, are gathered from three main sources: areas lights heights (Roof Books, 1989), an invaluable collection of Eigner essays, statements, and interviews; Eigner’s “Unpublished Letter to Ina Forster,” February 11, 1987 (available on-line here); and Larry Eigner Letters (Moving Letter Press, 1987), which collects about 15 letters to Joseph Guglielmi and Claude Royet-Journoud.

Obviously, I’ve not sourced each specific quotation, but would be happy to do so if anyone’s curious about something in particular. Although I tried to not duplicate matters, a few things are repeated or almost so. Eigner sometimes quoted himself, and my view is that if Eigner said something more than once, or in slightly different ways, it was probably particularly important to him.

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The image at the head of the post is adapted
(read PhotoShopped)
from the cover of the beautiful Burning Deck
edition of Eigner's poetry, titled
lined up bulk senses
and which was published in 1980.


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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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