One of the nicer aspects of working on the Collected Eigner edition was the inspiration I derived from sharing time with an amazing, and unusual consciousness. Editors who labor for years over the work, or the life, of a single author get to know their subject very well. This isn't always a blessing; authors aren't always the nicest people, and authorship doesn't necessarily make people happier, or companionable personalities.
In the case of Larry Eigner, we were privileged to entertain a mind, an imagination, which was highly original, unpredictable, but emotionally easy-going. In all the ways in which it counts, Larry was a born writer. For some years I used to speculate--a natural tendency I've thought--about the degree to which Larry might have done something else with his life, had he not been born with what is commonly regarded as a physical "affliction." But after a while, you begin to see that disability is just a variation, a different given fact of existence; a disabled person's life doesn't exist as a separate, perpetually alienated entity; it just is, in the necessities it presents, in the rituals and rhythms of its endurance and occasion. Seen from this perspective, Larry's life work as a poet simply presents as the use and opportunity of a given life.
There is a tendency to associate the condition of the life, with some aspect or other of the work. I once had a conversation with Marvin Bell, one of my poet-instructors at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, in the early 1970's. "What do you think of the work of Larry Eigner?" I inquired. "Well, he's okay, but you do know, don't you, of the condition from which he writes?" "Yes," I replied, "but it's fascinating work, don't you agree?" What Bell was saying, of course, was that Eigner's work was somehow compromised, formally, or emotionally, by the restriction of his physical life, that the range of possible kinds of experience to which he had access was limited, and therefore, somehow, suspect, not fully formed, disabled. I used to wonder to myself, to what degree this might be true.
Poets whose work is difficult, or strange, or eccentric may cause us to ponder, to what degree the condition of a given life produces, or informs various kinds of difference, in their work. Do some people have eccentric minds? How about Ashbery, or Coolidge, or Eigner? Does the original quality in their respective compositions suggest that they literally "see" the world, or hear language, or experience reality, in a strikingly idiosyncratic way? It may seem so, at times. Psychology, as a discipline, is largely based on the empirical observation of behavior, or of the products of behavior and performance.
People whose perception, or expression, of the world seems strangely different, may suggest that they possess special powers, or some unique experience or radical viewpoint. In the history of psychology, there are instances in which people who had undergone some kind of trauma, or misadventure, were changed in some remarkable way. Society's attitude towards difference--especially difference as an expression of some kind of "damage" to a presumed physical or psychological norm--may color our apprehension of the meaning of originality, or of unconventional behaviors or formalities. There's a temptation to think of highly original artistic or literary works as having almost a clinical interest. Sylvia Plath, or Robert Lowell, or Marianne Moore, or Ezra Pound, for instance, may be considered as producing works whose originality and intriguing power are the result of an abnormal vision of phenomena.
One of the hallmarks of any great creative artist is originality, though the degree of such originality may vary according to the case. A great work may be the result of the brilliant appropriation of a given form, or it may arise out of a formal innovation, which is either an ingenious insight, or a canny manipulation. We tend to associate a powerfully original voice, in literature, with a special aptitude or gift, which is then nurtured in the crucible of a specific life context. Writers who manage to produce compelling works usually possess an original view of reality, which is then expressed in an original, effective way. They see. And then they exploit this vision through a mediation with a form, i.e., language.
Larry Eigner's life story begins with an "accident," a difficult birth event in which his cranium is squeezed by the obstetrician's calipers during emergence. This determines in large measure the course of much of his future life. He's "perfect" in the womb, but he's also "perfect" once he emerges into the light and air of separateness. He is whole, though his physical body and motor skills, are compared to "normal" individuals, compromised. Still, he is what he is, just as each of us is, as defined by what our native capabilities are, at whatever stage of life we may be. Life is, in one sense, a series of accidents, of various kinds. Life is also an accident of consequence, of context, of the culture and conditions into which we are born.
Larry grew up in a close-knit middle-class Jewish household on the New England coast. His parents cared deeply for his welfare, and sacrificed selflessly on his behalf, to bring awareness and possibility and opportunity his way. They nurtured him and provided a setting compatible with his potentiality. In due course, with the realization that he suffered no mental impairments, he was allowed to develop intellectually, and to establish an identity through language, which transcended what were regarded as obstacles to his social and personality development. We tend to regard Larry's identity as four parts language--poetry writing, and epistolary exchange--and one part "real" first-hand experience--in other words, we tend to regard such a fate as a kind of loneliness, or segregation.
For anyone so located, so placed, the immediate reality is practical. Existence differs to the degree of one's perceived dependence, reliance upon, a given set of supports. But the supports are the given set of parameters which any of us lives inside of.
How would one in Larry's circumstance differ from that of someone in a more "popular" condition? For one thing, there are longer periods of solitude. Unless one is confined in an institutional setting, in which enforced commonality and interaction prevail, the freedom to speculate, to meditate, to read and think and cogitate, might be many times greater than that afforded to an "active" unimpeded individual.
It is probably useful to observe that the single most important factor in the formation of Larry Eigner's life--and the formation of his qualities as a writer--was this prolonged gestation of semi-enforced solitude for the first half of his life. People may voluntarily choose this kind of almost religious devotion and retreat from the profane intercourse of the outward life, but to assume it as a natural condition may seem perfectly natural, perhaps even inevitable, to one so placed.
So there is nothing inherently propitious in the events of Larry's life which may be said to have facilitated it. Larry Eigner was a man who would not live the life his brothers Joe and Richard did, would not "grow up" and matriculate to college and career and family living. This was a given. What he would do was explore the field of literary composition, an opportunity afforded by time, materials and support--which were supplied by his family, his parents.
But there is nothing "in" this context, this background, that necessarily leads to the life of an artist, or indeed of a creative individual at all. That must come from the interaction between the aptitude, the circumstance, and the stimulation. Whether or not Larry had been born "normal" or impaired, his aptitude would certainly have enabled him to appreciate the phenomenon of language, and creative writing as an endeavor. Had he grown up "normally" it's probable that he might have followed a different creative pathway, leading from the polite, "greeting card" verse of his adolescence, to a craftsmanly, but traditional, kind of poetry-writing, perhaps not unlike that of William Meredith or Stanley Kunitz.
But the conditions of his existence decreed otherwise. My surmise is that Larry's physical condition cannot be held as a simple causation leading to the aesthetic proclivities he showed; on the contrary, I would suggest that it was his long, quiet days of enforced meditation on the enclosed porch of his parents' home in Swampscott, which led him to write the way he did. Countless hour on hour spent watching the sights and hearing the sounds of a quiet suburban neighborhood, seeing the day's progress, the shadows moving, the birds passing by, the time slipping unremarkably under consciousness of change. Stillness. Echoes. Isolated events. Interruptions. Catalog of small occurrences. The mental chess game of artistic solitaire.
Larry's comfortable isolation--as opposed to those more notorious, difficult kinds of isolation, such as monks, and prisoners and wilderness explorers experience--enabled him to work through the layers of mental habit and preconception which cover our neurological gestalt, masking perception and a sense of vivid being in the world. In addition, his sense of the passiveness of his situation, a perceived inability to "effect" event or consequence in the world, led to a compensating expansion of the intuitive. A coincident frustration with the pace of his procedure--of the slowness with which he was able literally to record the sequence of his perceptions in sentences and "clusters" (stanzas) on the typewriter--encouraged an ability to summarize, abbreviate, and imply, efficiently. The combination of 1) a sense of passivity (physical isolation)--a prevention from bodily involvement and effect--2) a frustration with the retardation of the means of recordation, and 3) long blocks of uninterrupted time within which the mind--freed of the distraction of engagement--could focus on otherwise "empty" experience--produced a poetry, or an approach to the poetic "moment," that was in many respects unique and original within its historical context.
In other words, Larry's disability was in no sense an active generator of literary genius. But the circumstances of his condition established the parameters of a setting, within which an apprehension of the possible uses of time, materials, and imaginative perception could be organized and directed toward an integrated poetics of transcendent awareness. Thus, disability is neither a defined limit, nor an inspiring measure in his work. As an identity in the world, his station (his condition) is not definable in such terms. In the end, Larry created his own identity, of necessity, in the world, through his work. This was both difficult--in the sense of overcoming obstacles of one kind or another--and easy, since much of what he was given to do as a writer seems to have come naturally to him. He was a born writer, but this aptitude was enabled by circumstances largely beyond his control.
By acknowledging the unique quality of his work, we're not honoring disability, or the courageous overcoming of barriers and impediments. We're celebrating a mind.
"Literature is my Utopia. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourse of my book friends." --Helen Keller
Editing Larry Eigner's complete work, which spanned over half a century of productive activity, Robert Grenier and I delved more deeply, exhaustively, into the chasm of one man's sensibility, sense of the world, than is very often permitted, or likely. In Bob's case, this included living with, and serving as custodian to, Larry, for over a decade. Our sense of the condition of his writing life was intimate, and comprehensive. In many of the ways in which it is possible to "breathe with" or to accompany another (writer), we shared that with Larry--in my case, primarily through the experience of reading his life work, from day to day, year to year, end to end.
The habitual address--the dailiness of Larry's approach--incorporating the minutest quotidian event--the minutiae of chore and instance and delight--gave to Larry's work the illusion of familiarity and immediateness, which is one of the miracles and strengths of his poems. Through his work, he was enabled and empowered, rather than being the victim or helpless object of fate. It is not as a "wheelchair" person that Larry's example encourages and heartens us, but through our experience of an ingenious mind.
When I was a boy, my stepfather used to take me hiking up on Mt. St. Helena near Calistoga in the Napa Valley where I grew up. There was a stone tablet in the shape of an open book, commemorating the site where the novelist and poet Robert Louis Stevenson lived briefly during 1880, spending his "honeymoon" with his new wife Fanny in a bunkhouse at the abandoned mining camp up on the mountain--an experience he would eventually write about [The Silverado Squatters, 1883]. The old mine shaft was still open in those days--an old cinnabar mine, if I recall correctly--and the hole went briefly at an angle before turning directly down into a dark cavern. I knew Stevenson had been the author of Treasure Island, and Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which we read. That a British Author of world renown should have spent time in this little rural area seemed improbable, and joyous.
Could I even have begun to imagine, then, that one day I would end up editing the work of an avant garde (disabled) poet in Swampscott, Massachusetts, who, just then was beginning to publish his work in little magazines like Origin and Black Mountain Review? How strange!