Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Eigner and Painting - Installment #1

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 clich├ęs. 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)--

April 25-8 72 # 6 7 5

for flowers

the air





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.


Ed Baker said...
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Curtis Faville said...

Well, thanks, Ed.

I'll take your perceptive comment under advisement.

Ed Baker said...
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Curtis Faville said...

Was my premise a stretch?


I do think that Cezanne has been important to a lot of people. Something about the Frenchman's daubing and dabbing, building up masses and areas of density which seems like a kind of incremental descriptive mosaic. Some of Eigner's poems often seem to be just such accretions of fragments which make a whole, together.

I'm afraid Corman usually seems like "fortune-cookie" haiku. It's a danger that all imitators of Japanese poetic traditions risk. Corman was just an ordinary man, trying diligently to make small, modest, careful little bits--often painfully awkward or inadequate. Since I never knew or corresponded with the man, I have no fleshed-out sense of his personality. He affected many people, but I believe this to have been the result of personal contact, rather than through his own writing. The only one of his books I ever found anything in was Sun Rock Man, and that's probably because he was writing about his own "people" from the Italian hill country.

Ed Baker said...
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Kirby Olson said...

Ginsberg said he got some big breakthrough from Cezanne. I've never been able to figure out what this was.

Not sure I like Eigner's poems, not sure I don't.

In general, the one B. Mountain poet I get is Olson, perhaps because of the namesake. Dorn is very good, too, especially earlier on.

I've never been able to understand the discursive arc of an Eigner poem (what's he saying?).

Does that matter to him?

The one poem with Kenya in it was factually wrong, which threw off any import the poem might otherwise have had for me.

I grant there are pristine spaces, but I don't see any argument in the poem. Corso's poetry had argumentation. So did Ginsberg's.

Does Eigner have arguments?

Paintings don't need arguments. Narrative arcs usually do.

shakespeare's plays and even sonnets always have arguments in them.

Even Suckling's poems have arguments.

If Eigner's poems have arguments, what are they? what's the argument in the poem above?

J said...

shakespeare's plays and even sonnets always have arguments in them.

yeah, ones you, Sir Faville and most in Lit-land don't understand, like about...the sin of hubris.

Anyway yr mistaking Thema for argumentation. Not the same. Corso doin' his Bomb watusi is not arguing whereas Bertrand Russell discussing the potential nightmare of nukes izz.

J said...

OK-- Sir F. Grazi for posting--hopefully you won't go Silliman or Kirby on us. KO, it should be known, sits on comments for like hours and days at times, and usually doesn't post anything which like doesn't fit his Eric Cantorish agenda--about one out of four of my comments gets through (and no "marxist" am I. Not even a registered Demo).

What's the use of blogging unless there's a certain ..freedom of expression, however trite or dull it sounds. Might as well join the mafia. Beat writers also insisted on that phreedom, however fugly they often were

Kirby Olson said...

Corso is arguing in the Bomb poem, but it's a very complicated argument, far more so than anything Russell could ever understand. Read it again, and really read it. Try to sink down into the imagery and put it into a whole. Remember too that he wrote it on the same day he wrote Marriage. So read that, too. They reflect on one another brilliantly.

J said...

Does the Kirby know what say modus ponens is, or what a valid argument consists of? Doesn't look like it.

Moreover Russell was not unacquainted with Lit-Land. He was a son of Shelley in a sense:

and then one day I came upon Shelley, whose very name was unknown to me. I took out from a shelf the Golden Treasury volume of selections from Shelley and opened it at Alastor or the Spirit of Solitude. I read on
and on entranced. Here, I felt, was a kindred spirit, gifted as I never hoped to be with the power of finding words as beautiful as his thoughts.
(google for it)

Res Ipsa Loquitur!

Now, yr bleatnik heroes including Corsito also read Shelley did they not? But whether they understood the ideological--and philosophical roots of Shelley's writings, or say Ezra Pound--I doubt it. I'd say that's par for the course for many bellelettrists (including the imagistic/minimalistic sort): they may have the style at times, but don't quite understand the content IMHE, ie...the argument. Instead of Shelleys or Pounds (or osiris forbid, Russells), we get...Corsos, beatniks.... Sillimans

Kirby Olson said...

Poetic logic isn't the same thing as logic per se. You'd have to have a different kind of mind to enter it. My book on Corso would of course help you!

Corso's mind was very complex, but his language is very unique unto himself. You have to read all the poems, let them settle, and then sort it out.

I don't think he has any if-then type of arguments such as you'd find in a logic course, but there are things like that: I Dream In Daytime has something like that, but it's covered over in roses and hilarity.

Pound has if-then arguments. Kill the Jews, and the economy will recover.

But it doesn't negate his poetry entirely.

Not sure if Eigner himself had arguments of any kind. That's why I'm asking Curtis.

Curtis Faville said...


I don't think it would be accurate to say the Eigner family was particularly devout, but they practiced Judaism.

Larry was very conscious of his "race" and followed the "Jewish question" closely--kept abreast of events in Israel, etc.

I had a conversation with him about his feeling that William Carlos Williams was anti-Semitic. I had trouble following the thread, but apparently Larry had found a quotation, or a reference, that showed WCW's prejudice. Which of course was much more common before WWII, in America, than anyone would like to remember (or admit to) now.

I remember my own stepfather once telling me about how when he was in New York in the 1920's, he was revulsed by the sight of orthodox Jews in full dress, beards, long hair, etc. I think the idea of a pure Jewish ghetto bothered him. Again, he was by no means a racist in the common sense of the term--in fact, we were the only family on the block who ever entertained "Negro" people to the house. But he had a distaste for ethnic purity--he was raised to think Americans should act like Americans, and throw off the old traditions.

There are few poems of Larry's where he overtly addresses political questions, or racial prejudice. But when he does, he's clearly aligned on the side of tolerance, and--when the occasion demanded--indignation as well. Kirby, if you want to talk about Eigner's work, you'll simply have to read more of his work to address it fairly.

But the reasons I like his work have little to do with politics, as you know.

Kirby Olson said...

Arguments don't have to be political arguments, or indictments for racism.

I have read a book of Eigner's. It had a poem about a turd in it. I was standing on a soccer field with a bunch of other parents, watching our kids. I went around to about 12 of them, and showed them the poem. It was two lines. Something like sausage/

The parents and I all laughed.

Kirby Olson said...

Do you think his poems are primarily aesthetic?

How do they differ from Charles Olson's?

Are his poems projective, and therefore also about space, rather than time?

Curtis Faville said...

Eigner's work is an investigation into the metaphysical implications of pure perception. The relationship between perception and language. He had a very unusual sensibility, which is what makes his poetry very interesting. He early on abandoned the traditional approach to form--which is evident in his earliest attempts as a boy to make rhymed poems--in favor of his unusual style--which he stuck with for the rest of his career (50 years). No mistaking an Eigner poem!

Updike had a number of poems about scatological subjects--penises and cunts, turds, etc. But they're always "polite" and witty, so I suppose that was permissible. And of course the Beats addressed a lot of subject matter which is much more repulsive. Burroughs...well, enough said.

J said...

AS far as philosophical poesy goes, few if any p--ts have surpassed Shelley (and Coleridge, perhaps). Not to say PBS was ...infallible-- he's not Plato (but had read the greeks). He died young of course. But PBS had some understanding of "metaphysical issues" and science of his era (Newton, certaintly).

I doubt most 20th century p**ts or beats or the minimalist types understood metaphysics or science, or history for that matter. (TS Eliot, perhaps--though via Chr.--, and Pound, one of Santayana's palsies, though EP was scornful of modern philosophy). They are all expression, emotion, pathos.

A Shelley's not...Pathos, primarily. At times he might have hinted at romantic tragedy, but it's the ...filosophe's tragedy, the tyranny of King, church, and state--the failure of Logos, or something like that. And also concerned with perception, reality vs appearance, as in Mont Blanc. Thus the romantic mind quite different than the Atascadero angst school of beats, or some soft-porn, ugly realism such as Updike.

Granted Shelley, like Russell was a product of British aristos, to some degree (though hardly Windsor like royals) and so many marxist hackademics might consider them suspect, or at least...white--though IIRC Marx and Engels actually praised Shelley and Byron (though not Russell's people--the PM Russsell was BR's granddad, a bit too whiggish for Marxy Marx, tho' still "liberal"-- Millian actually)

Kirby Olson said...

I think I see something now about Eigner's poems. I now have a framework through which to view them. Thanks for this, Curtis.

J said...
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