Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Movements in Eigner - A Working Hypothesis

For a long time, I've had in mind the project of applying some of the principles of cognitive research to the poetry (or the poetics, if you will) of Larry Eigner. Eigner was not given to making detailed or prolonged descriptions of his methodology as a writer, but those comments he did make suggested that his apperception of the poetic process was quite complex, and that his poetry probably constituted the best demonstration of the meanings of his experience of phenomena, both inside and outside of the process of poetic composition. Call it a working hypothesis.
In traditional cognitive research, abnormal or altered state conditions form an important area of inquiry. As we know, Eigner suffered a severe brain injury at birth, resulting in spasticity and clonus (involuntary muscle contraction), affecting his limbs, coordination, and speech. In early mid-life, he underwent a cryogenic procedure to terminate the clonus affecting one arm. In due course, it was apparent that in all other respects, he seemed normal and had suffered no cognitive deficits in any of the spheres of mental capacity, from the birth accident.     
However, as an area of probable interest, Eigner's work presents a non-traditional approach to poetic composition, incorporating modalities of expression, structure, and perceptual stretching or shifting, which suggest qualities of mental awareness or perception beyond the normal range. From an aesthetic point of view, Eigner's poetic investigations and demonstrations, constitute a fascinating inquiry into the potential applications of an expanded set of cognitive "tools"--derived from certain kinds of heightened abilities, or hypersensitivity, akin to those areas of research such as proprioception, synesthesia, apperception, and the "binding" issue (in segregation and combination in consciousness). 
This is not to suggest necessarily that Eigner's brain "injury" resulted in certain cognitive "gifts" or abilities. My interest is in working backwards from the evidence in the poems, towards a theory of poetic perception and interactive practice, to identify functionalities inside the work which point to mental states or apprehensions, which may have enabled higher levels of awareness (or consciousness). We know, too, that the conditions of Eigner's life, after the difficulties associated with his childhood schooling and socialization, was one of specific solitude and concentration--with long periods (decades) spent in an enclosed porch in the family home in Swampscott, Massachusetts--during which he was able, of necessity, to explore, under circumstances of tranquillity and stillness, the relation between controlled perception, imaginative evocation, and the interaction between these two through the medium of the typed page. 
The way the brain receives and interprets raw data transmitted through the senses is a learned process, involving confirmation and reinforcement. Deprived of sufficient stimuli, the brain will even furnish its own narrative of activity (as in dreams). Sensory deficits are a classic generator of alternative (or abnormal) kinds of perception. With respect to how the brain segregates elements in complex patterns of data, William James theorized the combination problem, to address the metaphysical implications of unified consciousness (or identity--the sense of separateness, of individual being in the world). 
How are clusters of data associated, organized, and activated in the mind? Is it possible to "short-circuit" bound clusters through the use of evocative signifiers, using the mind's language center to instigate sensations of experience, to lay bear the hidden relations between kinds of sensory data, in a kind of mimicking of the classic synesthesia of color/shape/sound/feeling?Through the creative use of language, could it be possible to demonstrate such "circuit-breakers" by cutting through a memory-sequence cluster, by shifting the expected sequence or proximity of the quotidian gestalt?
Descartes posited the existence of an internal observer, which would be like someone watching an integrated internal projection screen, yet much of brain activity takes place "outside" consciousness. How conscious and unconscious brain activity is synchronized remains one of the great mysteries of cognitive research. A schizophrenic relation between possible competing internal observers--simultaneously responding to observed data--and acting upon (projecting) discrete thought--might be one form of aesthetic displacement, conjuring a state of super-consciousness, expressed poetically as a series of imaginative "leaps" or shifts, implying dramatic repositionings or fourth dimensional platforms of view. 
In Eigner's mature verse--examples of which I take from the collection Waters/Places/A Time [Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1983, Edited by Robert Grenier]--the quality of these synesthetic/kinesthetic trackings is particularly evident. Eigner's poetry is most typically an observational practice, characterized by a kind of passivity to received data, punctuated by a resistant interposition of volitional shifts meant to pose event from different strategic platforms of regard. This constant shifting forces a realignment of address, in which the ostensible speaking voice enters or re-enters the stream of consciousness (of the poem), or withdraws, as the sequence of event or unfolding phenomena "takes place" outside of consciousness, but within the "global workspace" of the poem-page. Rather than being about experience, Eigner's poems are a form of experience as such--as evocations of the taking place of the conscious reception and interrogation of thought/feeling as it occurs.
Here are four poems--chosen randomly from those written during the early 1970's--as examples of the kinds of cognitive shifts I'm attempting to describe. Eigner's poems are usually self-referential, in that they are not an analogue for another situation, event or feeling--so they may begin or end "anywhere"--within the terms and contexts of their limits. Thus their formal properties are dependent upon the relations between specific perceptual isolates (words and lines and putative stanzas), set off from each other, syntactically "adrift" and subject to continuous rearrangement and realignment within the horizontal and vertical coordinates of type.           
                                                                                    July 18 71   # 5 3 8
broken cement
    all through the town
        earth smell
              out of the wind
          no, flowers
                  next in the cellar
            all over it
               took a bit
                    to fix it in space
In an Eigner poem, a word or phrase may exist as a thing, rather than as a statement. "Broken cement" is a physical fact, awaiting consolidation within a given context. This context is "supplied" as "all through the town" and followed in turn by "lumps." The third line is both a descriptive, as well as a summary of content of the stanza--the three lines are lumped together. Each line is an expansion of the context of the preceding one, and has integrity by itself as a separate condition of speech (or speech matter). Each of the lines is "seen" from the vantage of all the other lines in the poem, so that the sentiment, the address of each is placed in possible opposition or ironic address, to the others. This multiple positioning creates numerous possible "takes" on the set of objects, or actions within the poem. The poem breaks down into an array of types of statement, each co-dependent upon the terms of their possible interaction. "Earth smell" "out of the wind" is followed by a contradictory admonition "no, flowers" allowing a probable dialectic of perceptual increment--a smell, permitted by the sheltering from ("out of") the wind is adjusted towards a recognition of "flowers"--which is ramified by "pots"--as if the neural connection for flower/pots had been leap-frogged (or short-circuited) to salvage the sense of pots "left behind" by the intial connection between earth/smell and wind. The lines are worked to exclude the tracking of misplaced associations, or to re-arrange them into a syntactically correct sequence, but are set to emphasize the experiential reality of the actual perception. Thus, "next in the cellar" captures the sense of flower / pots (under ground level), just as "rubbish" relates back to and links to the broken fragments of cement ("lumps"), metaphorizing the haphazard, random ("all over it") quality of the objects/surfaces the poem contains. Finally, the concluding two lines comment on the whole ("took a bit / to fix it in space"), while simultaneously standing in as abstracted observational (exploded) parts of the whole. The experience is "fixed" through the internal relationships of its constituent lines/phrases, and the nodes of its references. The poem is not an argument in favor of one way of seeing something in the world, but a record of the synesthetic relationships specific to one mind. The poem is a unified field of linguistic experience which is both inside and outside of the time of its composition, in the same sense that each experience we have in the world occurs both in "reality" and "in the mind." Thus, the homunculus--the putative inner "little man" working the controls behind the projection of experience for which the poem is one possible analogue, is thus synonymous with the "voice" of consciousness itself--the literate projector of the constellation of phenomena which the poem enacts.                        
                                                                                     January 29 73   # 7 5 7
there's movies
      like two billboards
                   the most beautiful
   up in the night
            towards the sky
      can't hear them
          you go and get
               a donut
                           framed in glass
                              some things drunken
                        all customers visible
                                     hazy weather
                                           plied walls
                                             soft stars
                                          modern times
                                                 is full of
The experience of driving by a "double drive-in movie" at night serves as the ostensible "subject" here. They can't be heard because the sound is piped into the car speakers wired to the rows of parked cars (patrons) of the projected movies. The disjunction of seeing them silently against the sky creates a "most beautiful" dislocation or displacement ("up in the night"), a bi-furcation of possible narratives for which the poem is, again, a kind of cinematic editing room. "A donut" is "framed in glass"--i.e., the movie frames, inside the experience of the poem, are analogous to a food display case; indeed, the whole poem is a kind of series of frames, or framing devices, emphasizing the discrete nature of each line's integrity within the proximal space-time coordinates of the page. This muscular separation between lines suggests a rebuttal of the quotidian syntactic expectations which propel each nominative, or kinetic, phrase within the poem. The defeat of that expectation sets up contests of discernment which oscillate with surprise and excitement. The "plied walls" may be a metaphor for the huge movie screens, reenacted in memory, as walls against which the tapestry of experience is portrayed: "modern times" "full of" "museums". Against this seeming precision of choreographed linear steps, some things may indeed seem "drunken"--with disorientation competing with the mind's relentless formality in which each thing must have a purpose. If only 20% of our experience of the world can even be consciously "accounted for" then poems may be our mediated compromise with indeterminate forces, chance, and naked volition. Experience, were our minds attuned to it in all its totality, would indeed be a staggering proposition.                     
                                                                                       July 17 71   # 5 3 7
             the night
                   the straight
                              ways   wide
The fractured nature of the line-break, expressed through a hyphenated noun signifying a particulate substance (broken or crushed rock) is followed by an impact. The act of breaking down the crystalline structure of igneous or metamorphic strata, scaled for use, propels the poem. Any aggregation of things--objects, fragments, the littered surface of the earth--implies the energy of their displacement, which can be measured, or described, or recorded. What's sailing to do with it? Has an eruption occurred, throwing fragments of burning rock and melted lava sailing through the night air? Pistons are small explosion chambers, and so is the poem. Any kind of arrangement is a fixed moment, an ephemeral stay against the endless transference of matter and energy. The extent of--the radius of--the initial explosion is another version of the limit of energy. The poem's quantum of initial energy, too, plays out along an arc of, the log of, its calculus. Space is wide enough to circumscribe, circumvent...infinite enough to eat everything the mind might conceive, and then some. Space is all.  
                                                                                      December 22 73   # 8 2 9
the force
          crash of a car
         dimmer than day
                    they were burning all night
                     it's raining
Another collision in space is the measure of energy of a particular vehicle. The "accordion" is a folded screen of possible images, or events, telescoped to accommodate matter squeezed together by velocity of impact. Metal in the mind isn't metal in experience. Is all experience a series of collisions, of the dance of matter? Streetlights occurring in strict increments, block by block, down an accordion'd perspective, are energy burning all night, dimmer than day. The refreshment of experience through the proximate, intervening violence both frames, and is framed by, the larger context of the sky, the stars and the weather. Scientists speak of astronomical "weather" as if anything blowing in otherwise "empty" space--at whatever scale--is simply a flow of astral "stuff" across an extent. These kinds of displacements of scale are endemic to Eigner's poetry, and are a constant reminder of the endlessly shifting, simultaneous, multi-valenced character of his imagination. We can be inside the careening automobile at the same instant we are watching its progress from an exterior vantage, while at the same time seeing the gyroscopic circles within circles which govern our progress through, and within, deep space. 
Eigner's poems map these cognitive leaps or displacements from within an immobilized vantage, but are freed by the impressive sweeping changes they enact. 
Dedicated regions of the mind are specialized for given functions. Increased cross-talk between cognitive regions specialized for different functions may account for the many of the kinds of changes we see in an Eigner poem. The experience of seeing objects when thinking in verbal terms may co-activate adjacent recognitions, enabling the altered states of perception which we see in his work. One way of thinking about this might be that a failure to prune synapses that are normally formed in great excess during the first few years of life may cause such cross-activation. In other words, the slowed-down pace of stimuli which characterize a mind starved of experience, along with the frustrated increments (progress) of projection, may engender novel types of connections, the very kind we seem to see in Eigner's poems. I have long thought that the objectified consciousness, and the evocative displacements in certain poetry, are the consequence of special training or reinforcement in perceptual or performance deficit. This might be one way to view Eigner's special gifts as a poet--how he was able to cultivate a super-awareness (of effects) which has been remarked as one of the most magical of poetic skills. Research into the relationship between brain studies and condensed matter (quantum) physics, ongoing now, may yield interesting keys to how poets achieve the super-penetration we associate with high end poetic insights. Eigner's work would certainly be fertile ground for further investigation along these lines.                


Conrad DiDiodato said...


much as I'd like to, I can't comment on your application of cognitive research to Eigner's poetry. Not really qualified to. But I'd like to draw your attention to Bob Grumman's work on how the brain processes visual poetry.( You might find some fruitful insights there to help you along with this 'physiology of Eignerian poetics', an attempt to reduce poetic expression to brain processes.

Interesting stuff!

Curtis Faville said...

I'm not interested in reducing art to science, or vice versa. I am interested in considering Eigner's work in relation to research on how perception occurs in the brain, and what that may tell us about the poetic process.

Poetry criticism has in the past been pre-occupied with either the technical side of the craft, or the biographical aspects of authors' lives. I would like to see more attention paid to the phenomenon of composition as it relates to cognitive ability and different ways of seeing and thinking.

That's not a reduction, but an expansion of possible approaches to art.

My blog essay is just a dipping of my toe in the water. I think other people need to get involved.

steven said...

fascinating discussion. perhaps you should read Deleuze.

Steven Fama said...

Interesting observations, especially with the poetry.

I'll nitpick that you leave an impression -- via your comment of "long periods (decades) spent in an enclosed porch in the family home in Swampscott, Massachusetts" -- that LE didn't get out much. From what I've read, and specfically what I've read from him, while he spent much time in the front porch at home, he did regularly take trips about via motor vehicle, or in his wheelchair, with assistance, in the immediate neighborhood (down to the water).

Curtis Faville said...


Thank-you for the comment.

You understand, I'm sure, that I'm a bit out of my depth here, not being educated in the alchemy of psychology. Nevertheless, I'm intrigued by the notion of a special consciousness in relation to Eigner's poems, which often seem like demonstrations of a sort of 6th sense, or fourth dimension. There's a tantalizingly easy tendency to think he was somehow "altered" to some degree, which I reject categorically. Contrarily, I ascribe his atypical consciousness to a kind of Zen setting, using his isolation those long years to hone his perceptual and cognitive skills to a very fine edge. Few writers visit that sphere very often; Eigner seems to have been able to summon himself into that place with regularity. It was miraculous. The evidence is in the poems. I'm trying to suggest that we work backward from the evidence to the event--a surmise, perhaps, at best.

Watten mentioned something about Eigner's relation to "cybernetics" in his lecture a few years ago.