If we can speak of poetry and painting in the same breath, perhaps it's possible to compare the techniques of each medium as being complementary. This is not a new idea, but one which hasn't often been explored. Since the birth of Modernism at the turn of the last century, degrees of abstraction have been taken to various limits in all kinds of art. Representation has been abandoned and rediscovered, and fragmentation and dimensional obscurities of all kinds have been rendered in predictable and unpredictable ways now for over a a hundred years.
The work of Larry Eigner presents an instance in which the visual dimension of words on a page was explored in considerable detail, to exploit the possibilities of both syntactic relationships, and purely proximal ones--frequently presenting both kinds of relationships at the same time. In Western languages, reading occurs from left to right, and down, and it is these inertias which Eigner employed to define his sensibility (both visual [descriptive] and cognitive [meditative]). There is, in addition, a kind of immediate visual arrangement--usually at a smaller scale, since the eye isn't able to comprehend more than about a half a dozen spatial word groupings at one instant--which may be apprehensible in much the same way a work of art (painting or sculpture or photograph) is, initially, all at once. Writing doesn't have texture, or color, or surface quality range, or scaled dimension, the way painting does, though typographical and graphic qualities may be (in fact, always are) a part of the formal presentation of every text. Still, we think of writing as having a certain transparent quality which should be apprehensible throughout various applications, in a way that visual imagery can't--at least to the naked, unimpeded eye.
It would go without saying that Eigner was familiar with the range of Modernist art, and derived a good deal of his literary methodology from it. The work of Cezanne presents the most vivid example of the historic "break" with the tradition of representation, and is itself a classic example and satisfying demonstration of the possibilities of employing abstract techniques to the portrayal of familiar forms and perspectives. Out of Cezanne came Pointillism, Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, and Abstract Expressionism. Cezanne's work is in many respects the window through which the possible interpretations of visual data were first conceived and realized: He's a key figure, a bridge between Impressionist and Modernist painting.
But I'm not interested in rehashing art history here. I'm more interested in how poetry such as Eigner's responds to, imitates and transforms the discoveries of Modernist painting into language. From his earliest experiments with broken sequences of speech and visual description, Eigner was interested in how seemingly disconnected fragments of syntax, of naked nouns and floating verbs, could be set in such a way as both to mimic cognitive leaps or turns, and to portray fixed proximal relationships among visual arrangements of words, either as "things in themselves" or as stepped movements of the eye or ear through space/time. For anyone familiar with Eigner's work, these are common themes and techniques. And in the context of Modernist and especially post-Modernist poetry, they're almost clichés. But Eigner was among the first to refine these techniques, and his practice of them became, if anything, more astute over time--quicker, lighter.
If we can speak of an Author's palette, Eigner's not particularly "primary." Movements, and shapes, and feelings--along the vector of the poem's progress--are almost always more important than secondary spectral qualities, such as color. Objects, and situations, are usually generic, and two-dimensional, rather than detailed, and unique. This approach conforms to a vision of the literary art which coincides with the flatness of applied surfaces. Eigner usually intended to evoke, and invoke, familiar relationships which were then manipulated or examined from various angles or positions (in space, or abstractly, through conceptual language). This is roughly analogous, for instance, to the way Cezanne sometimes sought to evoke shape, mass, density, and position with just a few discrete touches of color, as here--
This is really nothing more than a charcoal or pencil sketch, "touched" in certain areas, to "suggest" the material qualities of the fruit, bowl and surface upon which it in turn rests. Without the colored patches, the lines are "flat" or translucent. The objects are not simply "clothed" in their color, but are made whole by it. The pleasure we feel in this partial in-fill of discrete objects in space, is inhanced by the witty reserve implied by their incompleteness. Just enough, Cezanne seems to be implying, and no more, to make you feel and see them. Their representative quality hovers between weight and weightlessness, meaty solidity and empty transparence. They're unfinished, but finished. The mind flexes delicately to resolve them into the shapes of actual things (fruit, bowl), seeing that the generic forms are being offered in shorthand, rather than completely syntactical visual realizations, which we take as touchstones for ideal (universal) things. The fruit of the gods. An analogous evocation, in words, is this rather atypical poem of Eigner's (atypical, in that it uses a "hard" left-hand margin)--
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If we compare this verbal "equivalent" of Eigner's evident still-life description of a pot of flowers near a window or on a porch, available or adjacent to ambient "winds," we can see how both the discrete separation of the flowers, the "air / shaft" and the winds, and the clearly paralleled dimensions, distances and directions function in much the same fashion that Cezanne's sketched-in physical shapes do. Cezanne's apples and grapes don't ask us to take them literally, though we're in no doubt about their meaning, and in the same way, we're not at liberty to assign any ulterior name or meaning to Eigner's flowers, which have a purely generic and generalized quality, which is employed for their potential use in the dialectic the poem sets up. The "descriptive" vectors "dimensions//distances//directions" are like dramatic brushstrokes intersecting at the focal point of the flowers, not unlike the archly faux-cubistic diagonals in a Demuth or O'Keeffe flower painting. The simplicity of the structure of the description has an architectural forthrightness and declamatory force which is not intended to explain or metaphorize, but to indicate and evoke senses of perception. The poem has a Platonic simplicity which is deliberately naive and basic, much as Cezanne's still-life. What does either work tell us about life? They seem to exist in a shadow world of mental distraction, cool cocktails of elevated surmise, from which the superfluous connectives of explanatory "content" have been removed. They're astonishingly clear and brilliant.