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CHIROT: "Thinking About Larry Eigner"--essay


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:


                                                                       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
     in air

            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

           perfect stillness
        the ways beyond it

       and clouds in the clear sky
        (Windows/Walls/Yards/Way 49)

     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).
     This "unmooring" as it were—brings into conjunction the
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

     flash across
           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
dramatic effect.
     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
          was  real

                  to  be  denied

       lines  there  down  the  map

       (opening lines of  a poem from air/ the trees)

     In "Whitman's Cry at Starvation in a Land of Plenty", Eigner emphasizes the continuum of his interrelated concerns by opening with his own lines and following these with a stark paring down of a well known passage in the Civil War sections of  Whitman's Specimen Days:
     Whitman's cry at starvation
        in  a  land  of  plenty

           prison camps    the  mean

               six  ways
          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
                 the flesh-

            how  much  of  importance  is
               buried  in  the  grave
                 in  eternal  darkness
         (Larry Eigner Remembered 45).

 The paring down of Whitman's lines—following on Eigner's mathematical/verbal permutative chant ("six  ways/of  saying it") *1* —indicating both increasing population—and its wasteful consumption *2*—a starving down of historical poetic prose oratory as "another time in fragments" . . .  and the fragments bearing witness perhaps to a conjunction of the Utopian elements in Pound, Williams and Olson and to Benjamin's "chips of messianic time" . . .
     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

      nobody    a


      enough  song

     from  Ampu
      (late 18th century)

           summer  dark


             the   moon  runs


                        Ranko  (1726—99)

                        (Windows/Walls/Yard/Ways 55)

     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)

     Poet Robert Grenier—who met Eigner while teaching in Franconia, New Hampshire and lived with Eigner for many years in the Bay area and typed and edited three collections of Eigner's poetry—notes the New England/Eastern "connection" in his introduction to Windows/Walls/Yard/Ways:
     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."
(Country/Harbor/Quiet/Act/Around 7)
     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

     fresh 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
          when  asked

     I am, finally, an incompetent, after all

     For Eigner, clarity is a movement away from detail to generalizations, planning, a priori theories.  There's no room for the present, for the detail, the fragment, that presents the serendipity of
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   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


               spring  tree

         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

          (Windows/Walls/Yard/Way 120)

     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




                              up as

                               world goes



               (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).

                                WORKS CITED

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  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

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