Friday, February 25, 2011

Editing Larry Eigner's My God the Proverbial [1975]

I had first known about Larry Eigner's work after discovering a copy of his book another time in fragments [sic, all lower caps] [London: Fulcrum Press, 1967, 141pp.]. That was a substantial collection covering several years of work, but there was precious little information, either in the poems, or on the dustwrapper, to indicate much about the poet's context or life condition. There was a quotation by William Carlos Williams, and one by Duncan, and something about the author's being disabled. But it was the poems themselves, floating majestically in space, eccentric, inviting, and frequently weird and surreal in their effects, which immediately caught my attention. This book was my introduction to his work. He had, of course, published earlier collections: From The Sustaining Air [Palma de Mallorca, 1953, edited by Creeley], Look at the Park [Lynn, Massachusetts: Privately Printed, 1958], On My Eyes [Highlands, North Carolina: Jargon/Jonathan Williams, 1960]. But none of these books was generally available anywhere by the mid-1960's. Except for a handful of literary insiders, another time in fragments was really the first major collection of Eigner's work to be made available to the general retail market. I can't imagine what "most people" might have thought of it, but to me it was a totally liberating experience.

I had read avant garde verse before, of course. I was an English major, and had matriculated to UC Berkeley. But contemporary poetry in the academy usually "stopped" at William Carlos Williams or Robert Lowell, and ("horrors!") wouldn't have had the least interest in something so "out there" as Larry Eigner's poetry. This was "recreational" poetry, a private indulgence which I could no more have shared with any of my professors or fellow students than I could have gotten on a plane and flown to Boston to meet the poet himself, who lived in his parents' home in the seaside town of Swampscott, Massachusetts. But my growing sense of what it might mean to live a life devoted to the production of literature, a living breathing literature, in the present, was still too unformed for me to imagine that I might have any place in it, either as a writer, or a critic, or as something else like a publisher or editor. In the English departments in those days, anyone who imagined a life "outside" the academic rigmarole of doctoral degrees, staid monographs "in one's area of chosen specialization," and qualifying for "tenure" in some chummy little humanities department (probably off the beaten track), was probably regarded as an alien from another planet.

But by the time I'd left Berkeley, and spent three years at the University of Iowa, first in the Workshop, then in the regular English graduate division, ostensibly to resume work on the Ph.D., I'd become familiar with the alternative world of contemporary writing, and writers, and had begun to publish a little, and start my own magazine, called, simply, L, and to publish some books too. In editing the magazine, I determined to ask Larry Eigner for some contributions. Larry had by this time removed from Massachusetts to Berkeley, where he lived in a "group" household with Robert Grenier, the "professor-poet" whose writing courses I'd taken beginning in my junior year at UC. As I began to correspond with Larry, it became obvious that he had a lot of work available for publication, and I offered to expand my request into a small book (pamphlet) proposal. In due course, we worked out a selection of poems which became My God the Proverbial [Kensington: L Publications, 1975]. I visited Larry a few times at the house on McGee Street where he lived, and experienced my first attempts to communicate with him. Larry had cerebral palsy, and it affected not just his physical coordination, but his speech. It took some getting used to.

Larry was very literate, and his talk was a combination of vernacular slang and "high" literary language--you had to keep on your toes or he'd leave you behind! And he was a non-stop talker, even when you tried to draw a train of thought to a conclusion, he'd keep right on going, and when it came time to leave, he wouldn't stop. I simply had to rise from my chair and depart, whilst Larry was still carrying on. I worried about this but soon discovered that it didn't seem to bother him. When he had an audience, he just clung to you and wouldn't let you escape! He seemed starved for company, or maybe it was just that he couldn't get everything said that he needed to.

Not long after I published the series of books and magazine issues by the late 1970's, I more or less gave up trying to be a poet, or an editor. Working in the city was becoming more and more distracting, and I was actually making a living in the real world, something I don't think I'd ever have been able to do in the "academy" or by living by my wits as a "writer."

Still, I think I was very lucky to have had the experience of editing a book of Larry's, despite the difficulties it entailed. Larry's typescripts were "a mess," typically they had numerous typeovers and cross-outs, and he'd make corrections in his hand (crudely), or would type the end of a poem (or a correction) turning the page sideways, or putting the ending lines to the left of the ostensible end of the poem. Then there were his letters, or postcards, jammed with type, sometimes ending up typing the end by circling around the paper counterclockwise! But it all made perfect sense if you paid attention and said the sentences out loud as you read them. Larry was always qualifying things, and sometimes his subsidiary phrases would go on and on, and he'd almost lose the thread of an initial statement (but not quite). He thought tangentially, or on several levels at once, and tried to reproduce this process in his prose. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn't.

Our conversations were adventures. Once, we got off on a tangent trying to decide if William Carlos Williams was anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitism was a big preoccupation of Larry's, and had been for many years. Another time we got off on Pound, along the same lines. Sometimes, if I didn't understand a sentence he'd spoken, I'd lose the thread, and we'd have to double back and get that clarified before we could get back on track again. I'm not sure he "heard" a word I said, so preoccupied was he with his own thread. Others have spoken of Larry's "selfishness" in this respect--that he sometimes would "hog" the conversation. But I thought it was because he'd been so deprived of intellectual intercourse the first half of his life, that he was trying to make up for lost time by getting more said in the second half. I think in some respect he did, though I wasn't around for any of that, having "dropped out" as I said, from the literary "scene" between 1980 and 2002.

In 2005, I obtained the unbound copies of My God / the Proverbial from Small Press Distribution in Berkeley, and designed and had printed a new cover for its reissue. Larry had died in 1996, but I think he would have approved of the look and feel of the new edition, with its big block letters, understated grey paper stock, and hand-sewn binding.

Below is the title poem which contains the title, which you can read directly in the photo by clicking on the image so it displays larger. The quality of a literal "neighborhood" of images or events, is typical of Larry's work, which was "confined" by his immobility to what happened in his immediate environment. The literal world was his true subject, though his flights of imagination would take him to amazing places. Perhaps the real subject, for a poem like this, is his own mind, where all these impressions and feelings intersect and intertwine. There is something deeply "proverbial" about these elements, though Larry's phraseology clearly indicates an ironical, even humorous, point of view towards them. Oftentimes, the contrast between the deceptive "casualness" of his tone or word usage belies a profoundly metaphysical transformation of quotidian event. "the fire truck//this distance//scream" is a penetrating proximate metaphor for the sense of emergency implied by the truck's siren, and the probable peril or hazard it signals, the "distance" an acute measure of a degree of risk. This kind of relationship--poised, unresolved--but presented, without verdict, is very common in his work.

Happily, Larry had a number of shorter poems which I found completely exciting, and took as many of them as Larry could find among his stacks of unpublished material. I could tell that Larry had a filing system, a system of dating and numeration for all his poems, but this didn't signify anything to me at the time. I probably thought of it as having value to him as a filing system, rather than any significance in the overall structure of his total oeuvre.

These three short poems, for instance, each says something quite astonishing, but have no "context" other than their own scintillating
sense. They don't say "I saw this" or "while looking at a program on spelunking on the television last night," or "as I lay in my bed this afternoon" or anything like that. They simply record the barest essential of a single observation, without any dressing or introductory setting or explanation. This reduction was one of Larry's powerful techniques for abstracting something which gained power from its apparent lack of context; its isolation and weirdly passive mental stasis was often hypnotic in its quality.

There's something subtly suggested in these poems, but which nevertheless "sounds" quite determined or convincing, even when what is being implied is quite peculiar. "life underground/river//a stretch in the sun" could have many vague connections in the mind. Is he talking about lava, or aquifers, or merely the feeling of stretching on a warm day, after the confinement of a long winter. Or does the underground signify something much more psychological, such as the buried life of the mind, which flows, beneath overt consciousness, in its own courses? There's an analogous process of thought and sensibility which takes place in the subconscious, to which the poem's content refers, but which may have only a symbolic connection to any actual phenomena in the "external world." Consciousness itself, as a living thing, flowing in/through time and space. Larry's short poems always set me thinking along these lines.

What is sleep, and what happens when we close our eyes? Does closing the eyes mean the mind is closed? Or is it like turning out the lights? Why is the ceiling "suddenly" white? Is this like a kind of fainting feeling, as if the mind, for its own pleasure or necessity, just decides to "black-out" for a while? Can consciousness itself "get tired" or is it literally always awake, never really at rest? The eyes are like the curtains of consciousness, except that the theatre of event takes place on both sides of the proscenium. Each of us carries on a dual life--inner and outer selves--simultaneously, though most of us (I suspect) tune out most of what is happening "inside" or put it on automatic pilot. It may be that poets, like Larry Eigner, can be aware of both simultaneously, and carry on a dialogue between them, with the poem as medium. That's my take anyway. Thanks for listening.


Geof Huth said...


Thanks for these words and their insights. Among your best, I'd say. Quite a beautiful remembrance, and quite beautiful poems. I love your own last line.


Anonymous said...

Your statement, "Larry had by this time removed from Massachusetts to Berkeley," is confusing at best and wrong at worst, coming as it does between references to editing "L" magazine. Ditto the mixing of the publishing of My God the Proverbial and you visiting Eigner at his house on McGee Street.

"L" magazine appeared between 1972 and 1974. My God the Proverbial was published in 1975.

Eigner moved to Berkeley in 1978. He didn't move to McGee Street in that city until December 1979 / January 1980.

Why would you mix all those things one after another, as if it all happened simultaneously? That when you were editing "L", Eigner had moved to Berkeley? Or imply that you worked out the manuscript for My God in part through personal visits?

Memory is a tricky thing, I suppose. But this stuff you could have looked up. In the Stanford books you edited, no less.

Curtis Faville said...

Dear whoever you are:

This is an instance of anonymity which really confuses me. If you know enough--or think you do--about the chronology of the period, one would think you wouldn't need to hide behind a mask to accuse and attack me about something that clearly is irrelevant to the point of the post. Perhaps you already know that the pamphlet wasn't "actually" published until after Larry moved to the West Coast, a fact that really has nothing to do with the account.

Why would anyone be "concerned" that the editing process didn't occur "through personal visits"?

You're pathetic.

Anonymous said...

why are you-all blurring the distintions between

The Poet (bio), The Mythology of The Poet (bio-fantasy,
and The Poetry?

not important (to me) whether or not this poet (or any-other-poet)
could or could not
wipe his own ass.

stick with the poems.... please.

Anon #2

J said...

Whaa happened to the natives?!

J-k, Sir F. (and Anny, try to be civil). Some of us never got the minimalist bric-a-brac jass. Then some of think WC Williams belonged in a madhouse along with most of Beat-Co for that matter (WCW one of Pound's errors IMHE).

Black Elk Speaks, though--had a certain integrity however tres sauvage. And no Miltonic moralistic bullsh* t as with anglo-Merican lit. since...Milton.

Honkeys can't write as a rule---Well, the...germanic sorts do a bit. Where is an Amerikan Rilke? .

Rilkefest on! Voonderbar

Kirby Olson said...

I like knowing more about Eigner.

I didn't realize that you had met him. When you said that he spoke non-stop, it reminded me of a poetry prof I had at Evergreen State in Olympia who did this, too, and later he told me it was something that came out of jazz, talking brilliantly non-stop was meant to be the equivalent of the saxophone solo.

Ed Dorn also spoke like this when I met him.

Was it something that Black Mountain in general did?

I felt it as an invasion of the rules of give and take in a conversation, or even as HOGGING the conversation. At Black Mountain there must have been a lot of this kind of thing where one guy just starts blabbing, and the others are awestruck by it.

I guess I saw it as rude and egocentric in the case of Dorn and also in the case of my poetry prof at Evergreen, but maybe it was a widespread phenomenon of the period, at least within certain circles.

J said...

One positive to Minima: it's brief!

So like 20-30 odes, total 10-2o pages. Biff and Bunny get Kultur, in an hour or so. As opposed to like Ron Sillyman-- 1000 pages of Vacaville level chaos . Cacaville!

Really Sir F. reading many of these freaks poetical you wonder if they ever finished like Great Expectations. or a Poe story. Or the op-ed page of the lokal paper.

Kirby Olson said...

This close focus on consciousness is very similar to what you and the language people were interested in.

There was a neat article in WSJ last week by John Searle, who teaches philosophy at UC-Berkeley. He ends with the contention that the computer that won Jeopardy last week didn't "understand" that it had won on Jeopardy.

Understanding: "to grasp the meaning of..." -- Webster's

With many poets I get a sense of an overarching structure of meaning, something they are SAYING about the world.

I don't get that with Eigner, or with language poets, or even your poems.

Why aren't you saying anything about the world?

Curtis Faville said...


Your admonition to "talk about the world" is fulfilled in my blog pieces, among other places. Poetry isn't merely a description of the world, or an argument in politics, or primarily "about" anything. It's a thing in itself, with its own reality, and its own mediation, its own form, its own self-referring processes. Once you understand that, all the 3rd rate poetry in the world just becomes irrelevant.

J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kirby Olson said...

Some critics think Stevens' is referencing the Hartford area up through Maine in his poems, which makes him come alive for me to an extent. I cannot stand poetry without content. Ginsberg had content, and lots of it, including generally a date, and a place of composition. I prefer that kind of grounded poetry as an engagement with the things of the world. I suppose I'm going to have to agree with J here. Feels weird, though.

When I read Eigner I'm surprised at the mistakes he makes. He thought for instance that people were starving in Kenya, when they weren't. Kenya has always been one of the stable countries in Africa, since it never went Marxist or ever got into the hands of the Islamic nutcases.

It's had a robust economy.

I like the idea that the war in Troy actually happened.

Ok, it can be made into a good story by a little neatening, but I don't read science fiction because it's way too neatened up.

Something like Terminator is ok (I just forget about how poorly conceived the notions are and enjoy instead the depiction of the drainage tubes are whatever they are running through desertified LA).

We haven't got STUFF like that around here.

I haven't written Eigner off, though. In fact, he's growing on me, the leach.

J said...

Yes Reason does tend to weird-out fundamentalists.

I wasn't thinking of KO's amigo Ginzo (content maybe, but Form? non). Poet Im not (grazi a Dios) but what seem like anglo classics--not necessarily rhyming--show an understanding of form--metric. No? Larkin had it, though he was pretty gloomy content-wise..

Those who want to scribble vers libre should learn french o espanol (then...most latin writers know the latin metrics as well). Anglo's more germanic than latin, IMHE. As Coleridge sort of understood. Kirk, kirche, church. Not a iglesia