This essay from over a decade ago--today i might write it, work with the materials--differently--yet post here in hopes it might "turn people on" to the great poetry of Larry Eigner, one of my very favorite American poets of the 20th Century--
there are many of Eigner's works on line, including a very large selection in the issue of Passages journal in which this originally appeared--
complete books and a great many poems are online--to be found--for example at Light and Dust web site--among many others--
the essay originally appeared online at:
THINKING ABOUT LARRY EIGNER
for Robert Grenier
- (Note: the title here has in mind James Brown's tribute titled
album Thinking About Little Willie John and A Few Nice
Things—and this from Larry Eigner, in his "Statement on
Words": "and a poem can be assay(s) of things come upon,
can be stretch of thinking". What follows, then—a "stretch of
thinking"—as "essay"—) —DBC
Larry Eigner's writing presents an acute attention to and with
movement. It is a notation of events and things in passing—and in that
passing, opening out—
- the music
the bows, trumpets
and the red sunset
by the window
("the music/in air", Another Time in Fragments)
An indication of this is in the movement of the lines on the page—Eigner's poems may begin at the left hand margin—but they are only there momentarily. With each succeeding line—the movement is varyingly across the space of the page—the vertical movement presenting a sequence in time—and the horizontal, a movement in space.
- the tree
in the slight wind
the ways beyond it
and clouds in the clear sky
- Don't like to begin with a big B, as if I was at the beginning of
all speech, or anything; which may also have something to do
with why usually I've had an aversion more or less to going
back to the left margin after beginning a poem . . .
("Method from Happenstance," areas lights heights 6).
attention to particulars—made present in the written marks of letters
and punctuation—and the occurrence of the spontaneous—what Eigner
lovingly called "Serendipity". The poem does not begin with nor become
an act of attention—but is the movement of the act of attention among
particulars as a sudden awareness of a triangulation among marks and
spaces on the page and their relation with things and events in time and
- . . . a matter of getting the distances between words, and usage
of marks to conform as well as might be to what there was
to say, as spoken, then these typographical devices
entering themselves into the discovery and the initiation of
attention (areas lights heights 8).
In the relationships among the vertical and horizontal, the temporal and spatial—Eigner's writing presents a profound awareness of, attention to and insight into the movement of American poetry from Pound and Williams through Olson. Eigner makes use of the vertical and temporal structuring of sequences in Pound and Williams' work and of the horizontal and spatial movements of Olson's.
Eigner's writing marks a significant shift within these
movements in his use of the spoken word. Like Pound, Williams and Olson, Eigner is attentive to writing as a notation of speech. However, instead of converting the notation of speech into overtly emphasized musical or visual form, Eigner presents an attention to the particles of notation: letters, punctuation, spaces. Speech, via an attention to its notation, is pared down— not by a Poundian sculptural chiseling, but by a minimalisation of rhetorical devices. "I'm cautious, and come into things by understatement. Wary of exaggeration. Sotto voce has resulted in the suppression of words" (areas lights heights 8).
(An interesting and useful study could be made noting Eigner's sense of "the suppression of words" and Lorine Niedecker's "condensary" method, the Black Mountain and Objectivist understandings of
understatement and cutting of words.)
In a letter, Cid Corman notes the crucial influence of Robert Creeley on the development of Eigner's work. In "Arrowhead of Meaning" Eigner notes this from Creeley's review of Olson's Y & X: "The line is the means to focus, . . . says 'how' we are to weight the various things we are told" (areas lights heights 47).
Eigner's "suppression of words", the attention to the placement of individual words, spaces, letters and marks showing the influence of Creeley, are in turn found in Eigner's influence on the work of Robert Grenier.
Attention is impacted in notation: what Eigner called "immediacy and force". The energy is transferred not so much to the reader, as in Olson's model—but to the Serendipity of the conjunction of notation and that which it presents. Attentiveness to the particles of notation—their placements and markings—simultaneously presents an attentiveness to the placement of things as ongoing events in time and space. "In writing you can have more thoughtful spontaneity or serendipity than in talk, a more accurate realization of things? . . . Accuracy of the moment, whenever one comes, is the greatest you can have" (a l h 50). Understatement in writing, rather than fixing "the world and its streets, places" within the poem—opens:
- P a s s i n g R o a d
the neon sign
bright day now
the bird in the tree
While combining elements of Pound, Williams and Olson's work, Eigner does not make use of their juxtapositions, their collage techniques—perhaps the most significant method made use of by all three writers. Eigner makes use of spaces instead of masses and lines. "For the sake of immediacy and force, I got to be elliptical" (areas lights heights 15).
In Pound, Williams and Olson, the space of the page is used increasingly as an all-over visual arrangement of signs—what poet and :that: editor Stephen Dignazio calls a "signic event"—from among whose elements there will emerge a picture writing: for Pound, the Ideogram, for Williams a Modernist painting, for Olson a hieroglyph. The juxtapositions function the way a classical Eisensteinian montage does in a film: they move towards an accumulative synthesis of elements, a
In Eigner's work—the fragments do not fit into a an over all pattern—they move outward—indicating neither an origin nor an ending. Another Time in Fragments—perhaps in some way, given Eigner's altruistic bent—presenting an analogy with Walter Benjamin's Utopian "chips of Messianic time".
This fragmentation, while not attempting "A Special View of History" (Olson) nor a reexamining and rearranging of it as with Pound and Williams, does bear witness to the events of history. Eigner was a
continual reader of histories and a close follower, via radio and television, of world events. In the particulars of these events, he indicates an ongoing wave rather than an overall pattern. Among the
historical concerns in Eigner's work are the ongoing presence of hunger, over population, global warming, environmental destruction and civil war, both abroad (in the former Yugoslavia) and in the USA.
- The Confederacy, you have to
to be denied
lines there down the map
(opening lines of a poem from air/ the trees)
- Whitman's cry at starvation
in a land of plenty
prison camps the mean
of saying it
the big problem is
consumption and conservation and population
population consumption conservation
conservation population consumption
population conservation consumption . . .
marrow of the tragedy
one vast central hospital
with fighting on the flanges in
how much of importance is
buried in the grave
in eternal darkness
(Larry Eigner Remembered 45).
Eigner's titles continually bear witness to movement: an analogy
may be made with the movement of light—which is both particle and wave. In Eigner's book titles there's the particular—and the ongoing movement:
- Air, the Trees The World and its Streets, Places
Windows/Walls/Yard/Way area lights heights
Things Stirring Together
or Far Away
There's another movement as well in Eigner—one across space through the time of his living: the movement in the late 1970's from the East Coast to the West.
(The work written on the West Coast, where Eigner lived with and participated in a community of other writers close to hand, as well as carrying on a steady correspondence with others faraway, is more engaged with a sense of particular people —noted in essays and the dedications of poems—and social events. A documentation of this may be noted in the work as well as in Larry Eigner Letters, written to the French poets Joseph Guglielmi and Claude Royet-Journoud. With time, there's sure to be a more comprehensive account and analysis of the move and its effects than possible here.)
In a sense, this is a continual movement among Easts—from the Eastern seaboard towns of Massachusetts, with their heritage of Eastern goods and culture brought in by ships of the China and whaling trades—to the Western seaboard, the San Francisco area and its tradition of mercantile and cultural exchange with the East.
While living on both coasts, Eigner did many versions of Japanese poems:
- the lark tilts
up the sky
(late 18th century)
the moon runs
Something "of the East" may be noted in Eigner's presentation of particulars. Rather than naming a specific tree or bird or hill—as might be demanded by both the English Romantic and Emersonian
traditions—Eigner's trees, birds, hills are, as in Chinese Shih poetry and the Japanese poems Eigner worked with,— general:
- the wind masses such birds
green inside the tree
("Heat", A Line That May Be Cut)
- It is difficult to suppress the inclination to remark that there is something improvisatorially 'Eastern' about these verses, which may have to do with that coast of Massachusetts' long- standing 'interest' in the Far East (e.g. Hawthorne's post at the Custom House, the Peabody Museum in Salem, "Bowditch," etc.). (8)
In and with this sense of place—Eigner may be thought of as a New England writer along with Hawthorne and Dickinson, Creeley, Olson and Corman. (With Olson among the poets being for the most part the one marked exception to the use of New England reticence in writing. It's worth noting as well that Pound's Eastern "connection", Fenollosa—was a New Englander and that Cid Corman has been in Japan for over thirty years.).
In "Rambling (In) Life another fragment another piece" Eigner notes:
- . . . and came back home to Swampscott on the north shore of Massachusetts Bay. It has borders with Marblehead and Salem, where my mother's parents lived (first I knew directly opposite the House of the Seven gables a little ways back from the sea wall overlooking the beach at the end of Turner Street, then a couple of blocks inland on the same street in a building with a corner store just at the intersection) . . .
Elsewhere Eigner points out his mother's appreciation for the New England respect for learning:
- My mother came with an immigrant family to Massachusetts. They lived very close to the landing from which the clipper ships sailed. She was the star pupil according to her account, which I believe, in Salem High School. And she completely absorbed the Puritan ethic and the work ethic and the high valuation of literary culture. My mother, and my father, too, really connected with literary culture (Larry Eigner Remembered 57).
Describing Salem, Hawthorne wrote in his American Notebooks: "...its long and lazy street, lounging wearisomely through the whole extent of the peninsula, with Gallows Hill and New Guinea at one end, and a view of the almshouse at the other..."
In "A View" Eigner opens with this: "At one end of the bridge is a state prison, at the other the naval hospital. A mile or so away, there for one to think about, on a hill, is an Old Soldier's home."
From the Sustaining Air (Eigner's first book, published by Robert
and Ann Creeley's Divers Press) has this poem, presenting "Parts of Salem":
- down to the fold
I saw the upper halves of cars
moving around my corner, . . .
last among the marble sites
and the brick exchanges
rises of earth
filled and massed with human stone
parking space alleviates
ancient commons which were lonely
and magnificent prairies breaking the heart . . .
Girls and mothers of one hour
in passing in tender hair
and men counting silently
The poem seems closer to Williams than Eigner's later work—the details are more prosaically connected and descriptive than metonymic—though there is the acute attention to and with
movement—and, in movement—the sense of fragmentation—the particles in ongoing wave . . .
In interviews and statements Eigner frequently noted his mother's emphasis on clarity—and his own on "immediacy and force". "Writing first and foremost was to be understood, had to be clear, while then I figured immediacy and force take priority, too bad you can't be both or all three too often, not long before I read Olson's "Projective Verse" essay in the 1950 mag Poetry New York." (areas lights heights 135, Larry Eigner Remembered 27).
The last poem in Eigner's first book, "From the Sustaining Air", indicating a tension between clarity and "incompetence", "understood" speech and writing:
- from the sustaining air
There is the clarity of a shore
And shadow, mostly, brilliance
the billows of August
When, wandering, I look from page
I say nothing
I am, finally, an incompetent, after all
the "accuracy of the moment". "If it's big and/or complicated enough, you don't get enough of the detail so you can appreciate the present" (Larry Eigner Remembered 33).
An apparent "incompetence" gives onto a shifting of the frames of attention:
. . . most things were always tantalizingly beyond reach 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 . . . in order to relax at all I had to keep my
attention away from myself, had to seek a home, coziness in the
world . . . (areas lights heights 26).
The shifting of frames as a movement of the attention among details, fragments, "makes actual the gift of the possible" in Robert Grenier's words—opens to "the accuracy of the moment", serendipity.
Clarity and work ethic for a moment aside, to the background ("and now I think of a return to amateurism"—a l h 26):
- If you're willing enough to stop anywhere, anytime, hindsight
says, a poem can be like walking down a street and noticing
things, extending itself without obscurity or too much effort . . .
Rbt Frost, saying a poem takes its own course, remarked how "Step by step the wonder of unexpected supply keeps growing . . .
While the future is inescapable, near or far in the background or
over the horizon, maybe the most a poem can be is a realization of
things come to or that come together." At moments (a l h 26).
The jazz musician Don Cherry often noted that only a superbly disciplined musician could play Free Jazz. A serendipity of Eigner's work is that, beginning with an "incompetence" and insatiable curiosity
applied to the New England work ethic instilled in him by his mother—the writing makes use of what it is given; "Incompetence" is worked with and makes the "accuracy of the moment". A "Method from Happenstance" . . .
Eigner's sense of discipline in relation to extension, serendipity is present in a comment contrasting the work of Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins:
- As to her use of dashes, varying length (not apparent from the books)—and there are her ways with capitals too—could Dickinson have possibly been more careless or less? How regular was her handwriting? Was Gerard Manley Hopkins a contemporary of hers, before the advent of the typewriter, or anyway the realization and use of its potential, who's known to have come up with a calligraphic system graphing more specifically, accurately, how to speak a piece (in the mind)? (areas lights heights 55).
(It'd be interesting to know what Eigner, sharing Williams, Olson's and Creeley's interest in the use of the typewriter—would make of Grenier's "scrawl poems", his recent four color handwritten rhymms
and the 45 page "Poem for Larry Eigner" at Karl Young's Light and Dust web site http://www.thing.net/~grist/homekarl.htm Larry Eigner's air/the trees, long out of print, is also at this site.)
The disciplined ellipses and fragments of Eigner's "barely managing to reach/grasp things" make for a playful thinking "of a return to amateurism". The reached and grasped for, the work ethic—and the
serendipity in writing: "A poem extends itself like you're walking down
the street. And you extend the walk sometimes, unexpectedly" (Larry
Eigner Remembered 33):
- a book
winds in all quarters
(Larry Eigner Letters 6)
Open any book of Larry Eigner's—and there's the world—attentively presented in the movement of writing in conjunction with the movements in the world, "things stirring together or far away".
- a d o t
a glimpse is space
a time is a long
thing to see
Larry Eigner's work—inimitable—is exemplary—a presentation of conjunctions among discipline and serendipity, words and things as events extending, opening in a stretch and Williams' "No ideas but in things" and "Only the imagination is real".
- same book
a different page
(from poem in Windows/Walls/Yard/Ways 82-83)
"In this way a poem will extend itself, naturally, quietly, and be like taking a walk, light, in the earth".
1. Eigner was much interested in numbers, from baseball statistics to calculus. See for example "Some Figuring Work" in areas lights heights 18-22 and the collection A Count of Some Things published by Crag Hill's Score Publications (1015 NW Clifford Street Pullman, WA. 99163). In a letter Crag Hill notes conversations with Eigner frequently turning to mathematics.
2. Eigner's concern with waste was both on the global and the daily, at-home scale. Robert Grenier in conversation notes Eigner's need to make sure all the lights were turned off in the house at night. And in a letter to Claude Royet-Journoud dated "Samedi le deuxieme septembre 1978", Eigner writes: "Well, a party going on here constantly enough,; and the wastefulness and programs to little purpose also, is a depressing thing, ah! Like a couple of people here are convinced that the more you turn the tv off the faster the picture tube wears out, so they leave it on for an hour or more while they go eat supper in the kitchen". (Larry Eigner Letters 19).
A Count of Some Things Edited by Crag Hill. (Pullman, WA: Score, 1992)
air/the trees (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow, 1968; Light and Dust Books http://www.thing.net/~grist/homekarl.htm 1997)
Another Time in Fragments (poem cited here from Selected Poems Edited by Samuel Charters. Berkeley: Oyez, 1972)
areas lights heights writings 1954-1989 Edited and Introduced by Benjamin Friedlander (NY: Roof, 1989)
Country/Harbor/Quiet/Act/Around Selected Prose Edited by Barrett Watten. Introduction by Douglas Woolf. (This, 1978)
From the Sustaining Air (1953; repr. Oakland: The Coincidence Press, 1988)
Larry Eigner Letters Edited by Robert Kocik and Joseph Simas (Paris: Moving Letters, 1987)
Larry Eigner Remembered Editor Shelly Andrews. (Detroit: Gale, 1996)
Things Stirring Together or Far Away (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1974)
Windows/Walls/Yard/Ways Edited and with Introduction and Note on the Text by Robert Grenier. (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow, 1994)
—David Baptiste Chirot