Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Born from the Head - Larry Eigner's 1st Published Poem in 1952

According to Irving P. Leif's Larry Eigner: A Bibliography of his Works [Metuchen, New Jersey, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1989], Larry Eigner's first published poem--aside from a number of juvenile pieces published prior to age 14--appeared in the fugitive little magazine Goad #3 [Summer 1952], edited by Horace Schwartz. Schwartz was a connected participant in the literary world of the Bay Area in the 1950's and '60's, who knew Rexroth, Kees (both he and Schwartz had come from Nebraska) and many other local figures, and briefly ran a bookstore in San Francisco. Goad lasted for four issues, and also published early work by Creeley and Ferlinghetti (his Prevert translations). 
Larry Eigner had been a precocious youngster growing up in Swampscott, Massachusetts in the 1930's and '40's, publishing rhymed historical poems and greeting-card quality verse in local newspapers, and juvenile magazines [Child Life] as a boy. Confined to his parents home due to severe cerebral palsy, his contacts limited to correspondence with magazine editors and friendly poets, he nevertheless was able to fashion an unique, experimental style that would be the hallmark of his work for the rest of his life. Published here in image format, from the original periodical--the copy of which I found quite by accident at a local library book sale some years ago--it's in equivalently spaced typewriter face. Larry was not able to write efficiently in long-hand, and so taught himself to type, using only his thumb and index finger. His explorations of the spatial format of the typewriter depended to a significant degree on the precision afforded by the typewriter's equivalent spacing to locate his lines visually on the white space of the page.        

I can't transcribe this poem since my blog servant doesn't permit equivalently spaced face text characters. But I've approximated it below, in order to demonstrate some of the problems faced by anyone seeking to duplicate or imitate the arrangements and alignments of any text set in an equivalently spaced format.
           in the blackout
waiting for death, wanting sleep
and the walls had nothing more to reflect
                      the sea
a shock wave
  and fliers a mile away
were planes of another country
Afterwards the sun came round
and they say how
two stars will collide    
As a result of the variable widths of individual letters in proportional faces--an m is always wider, for instance, than an i--the horizontal increments of proportion are always changing the relationship between letters along their vertical axis. For anyone seeking to align precisely words and stanzas in relation to each other, such constantly shifting proportional adjustments present a barrier, since every alternative proportional face differs to some degree from every other one, depending upon design of the individual letters. With equivalently designed letters, occupying a uniform horizontal increment of space, there is no variation in the relationship between letters (and hence, words of equivalent numbers of letters). 
The design of words and letters in space begs the question: If composition involves using words as if their only function were external to the material text, then the material text must be regarded only as a casual, gratuitous convenience, a kind of repository of words in a certain order. As typographic practice and design change over time, the underlying existence of the non-material text acquires a shadow identity. If the non-material text is not fixed to a material realization, then where is it? Since Gutenberg, writers have been fashioning texts without precise conceptions of what their ultimate form may be. They have, in effect, relinquished perhaps the most important creative element in the realization of their art, namely the making of the finished form of their work on paper. 
But does it really matter whether or not the material text is an exact "copy" of what the writer wrote? Most would say not, choosing to regard free-hand texts, typewriter texts, or notebook "poem-texts" as intermediate steps in the process of translation of idea (expressed as sound or thought in language) from head to hand, and ultimately to the available technology of print reproduction. Traditionally, the translation process has involved a passage through an editorial membrane (editors, copyreaders, type and book designers). This passage--or these passages--have involved issues of taste, expense, potential readership, storage, popularly accepted usage (like spelling and punctuation), etc. In other words, the realization of a material text has involved the participation and judgment of a number of different hands, each of which exerts a formal influence on the potential finished materially realized text; has involved, in fact, a distorting, post-compositional, alteration of the original creative act. 
But again, does it really matter whether the letters in a poem line up vertically or not? Well, for a poet like Larry Eigner, it apparently did. If, as is common still in Asia, the original text exists as a brushwork or hand-made copy, the issue of fidelity to the original work becomes much more problematic. Is there a relationship between a contemporary interest in presenting unmodified texts to an audience (or reader), and the known examples of pre-technical, Medieval or Ancient, pre-codex manuscripts? The earliest examples of Sappho's verse exist only as papyri fragments, upon which hand-written texts survive. Prior to mechanized printing, the only way a material text could be known was through possession of the original manuscript, or by way of copies, made either by the artist, or by someone else.
In a given language, each letter should always be itself (though even this prescription is subject to augmentation in certain languages). In oral literature, a text is fixed only in the memory of the speakers or listeners. In material text, the language is set according to principles of design--in other words, letters are aesthetic products (or objects), just as paragraphs, or stanzas, or paper and paper dimensions, and bindings, etc., are, and have always been. 
In the case of an artist like Larry Eigner, for whom the free expression of the design of the material text was not a luxury that nature had granted to him, he was obliged to use (limited by) the available technology of his era. The typewriter was his metaphorical brush.
Looking at the poem strictly as a content, it's interesting to note that the ostensible setting of the poem is the London Blackout and Blitz, documented for example in the photographs of British Photographer Bill Brandt. The horror of enforced confinement has as its obvious simile the Author's own metaphorical confinement to a wheelchair, inside the enclosed porch in which he conducted his writing activity. The sense of detonation, or blast, is ingeniously captured by 
                       the sea
a shock wave   
which conjures up concentric wave patterns in water, visible from a great height--a fascinating image! Then, the leap of consciousness through the reference to the sun--the emergence from the underworld of the bomb shelters into the light of day, among the living--ultimately to the astronomical event (suns colliding--could this be a reference, perhaps even unconscious, to the nuclear explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki?) reads like vintage Eigner. What's perhaps most astounding about this poem is that it's the work of a 25 year old isolato, without practical access to forward ideas of composition or the visual arts, except through a few books--and that the style he employs, is nearly identical in most respects, to the style of all the work he would produce for the next 40 years! What works that he might have seen--in or before 1952--would have prompted this formal approach to the page?                          


Kirby Olson said...

Is there any chance that the carriage-return malfunctioned, and that, having had that happen, and the poem accepted, he decided not to lay out the expense involved with getting it fixed?

Curtis Faville said...


Have you ever considered making an original work, i.e., one which didn't require the intervention of, or reliance upon, a secondary technology to "translate" the work into its "finished form"?

If you've never tried that, consider what the decision-making process involves. You have to be committed to a form that is fully realized, and bears the full and complete blessing of your impulse--no fair letting someone else become your conscience or your guide! If you don't make your own pages, and your own books, then you're just a drone, cranking out copy for some kind of promotion, or funding a reproduction facility.

Why let yourself be co-opted? Why play by someone else's rules? Be more creative. Be more inventive. Get involved.

Phanero Noemikon said...

if you mispell
material test
do they castrate you
in a qabbalist's

and Y =

X with a beard
or a



All architecture
is crippling.

Ed Baker said...

I certainly could say a lot
to this
however ,CV, you did
just fine

I prefer showing/doing
rather than

going into some 'tight-assed' formuleiics of triteness

that wouldn't be polite, eh?

you also left out "heart" where I don't separate "heart" from "mind" when someone asked me "where IS your mind?" I pointed to my cest..

so "we" (those of us who do) go from heart/mind to hand/tool to page..

nothing is differentiated

the publication of the Complete Eigner has been delayed a couple of weeks.


where the hell is the
d i n g ! at the line's 5-spaces from the end place?

J said...

typewriter texts

Older, type-written text---via selectric-ized, or Royal, etc--possesses, or emits some...vibe...that mere word processing, or most hand-written scrawls don't have (tho' some scribe's hand's can be sort of interesing). That may be noted with prose--even, say, Kerouac's butcher block, or Hem.'s manuscripts, with all the corrections and notes--as well as poeticizing. Not sure how that vibe would be quantified, but readers, at least sentient ones respond to the text, the font, even the paper, differently than they do to text online, or in a newspaper, or mass produced potboiler. The text-manipulation goes too far with some poets, however. I'd rather read an old beer-stained copy of Hammett's Maltese Falcon or Hem's In Our Time than ee cummings being cute, or a Brautigan's three-line stoner haiku . Lo siento..........

Steven Fama said...

Most excellent here, Curtis.

This will hold me over until February, a fact I especially welcome since Stanfurd has just announced that the Collected Eigner -- previously scheduled for December 2009, then delayed until this month -- is delayed yet again, until "February 1st."

Let's hope!

Steven Fama said...

And with regard to equivalent space fonts -- I believe you get that if you use the "courier" option on your font, when you compose the post. Stephen Ratcliffe, in his on-going pose-post a day project on his blog, uses that. You can switch back and forth within posts as well.

Kirby Olson said...

To be honest, I was knocked out by the poem, especially by the ending.

I was just teasing.

Wonderful powerful leaps. Poets don't do enough with astronomical data. There are thirty trillion galaxies with thirty trillion stars in each one.

I find it freaky. But cool. Eigner was right to get after some of this data, as it's mindblowing.

This is his first published poem, and it's already a doozy. I'm afraid I'm becoming a convert.

J said...

Thirty billion galaxies of Gott, goldangit

Accordin' to Mormonic doctrine, when a good LDS-Nephite dies, he'll heads out yonder to spread his starseed in a new galaxy, with some holy mormonic star-concubines.

Kirby O, fan of Glenn Beck/Mitt Romney/FoxCo has probably been readin' a bit from the Book of Mormon---sort of the WASP fundamentalist's last resort. Ode to Brigham Dung, pilgrim.........

Kirby Olson said...

But that's only insofar as I like the content of the poem.

The form may still be due to a rickety carriage-return.

I'd have to see the actual machine on which he composed to be certain.

It seems to me to be a very slight innovation at best if he's doing it consciously.

I demand to see the carriage-return on his machine, to be sure if he's consciously manipulating the spacing.

Kirby Olson said...

Wouldn't it be more likely to be Japan, since they were the ones hit with the A-bombs?

Kirby Olson said...

What's missing in the poem is a moral component.

Ed Baker said...

Curtis today is 2/18/10
and I just found this (chapter 5 of this guy's book):


I skimmed through..and

in favor of working a new

"shortie" of my own:


cheers< K.

Curtis Faville said...


The essay you reference is by Michael Davidson. Michael was a figure in the Language School movement going back to the 1970's, but he actually pre-dates that by a few years. I associate him with Michael Palmer. He works as a librarian of special collections in San Diego. He developed a serious hearing loss in early middle age, so that's the connection to disability. He wrote a series of essays on literature and disability, one on Larry. I haven't read it, but people who have say it doesn't really explicate Larry's work formally, at least in a way that sheds any light on it.

I'm interested in how Larry's circumstances contributed to his approach to composition. I hope to write an extended essay on how that influenced his style and cognition (in the work).

Ed Baker said...


I have astigmatism and am near-sighted... maybe I should do my art wit glasses/bi-focals removed?

I've noted that without my glasses on or getting very close to the key-board I can't spell exactly correctly.

for LE's comment (in his own hand) re: his view on this see cov

(guest editor John Martone..

on cover is note by LarrY Eigner his "self"er of Shadow
play Number 5

I could scan and send?

what he writes:


-not 'handicapped' (underlined)

R . l . tv

tee - pee (underlined


type (underlined)
see the world

thought dwell

Shape the Page (or Rage)"

reflector AND reflected
can not be separate




( there is also some neat photos in this Issue Number 5

a view of the outside from his porch
a shot of his desk


still waiting delivery of The Complete LE .. must be held up by the blizzard of two-thousand-and-ten!

Curtis Faville said...


I'm unfamiliar with "Shadow Play". Is it a poetry periodical? I'd love to see this!

My take on Larry's writing habits and skills isn't about limits, per se, but about using limits ("overcoming" them is one way of describing this, but not perhaps a useful way) to define and frame and perceive.

There's something about the passivity of being isolated and confined that made his work interesting, he learned to use his perceptual equipment to explore and demonstrate relationships which were mysterious--no one else comes close to its quality. It was very strange. In my view, the imposition of his condition made this possible--there's a literal connection which is difficult to describe, but it's the key to his vision.

Ed Baker said...

Shadow/play Number 5 1997

Landside Press
Grand Island, Vermont, 05458

guest editor: John Martone
Series editor: Jan Bender

fotos by John Martone and Beverly Eigner

(photo of LE's desk-a jumble reveals his typewriter...

looks to me like a standard ROYAL (w elite type?)

the cover piece via Bob Granier

Bob Creeley's opening setts the tone and temper...

then LE's opening poem:
(as a facsimile..just as it/he typed it July, 2, 70 #406:



no open window
in sight

a while

the weather

hot brilliant


as we say, the air
filled with light

blinds down

(hope this fucking machine formats the piece as it is on thwe page

I'd scan the cover for you but if I did I amd absolutely sure that w my computer skills I could not figure out how to put it in the box

Oliver Harrison said...

Thanks for this, very interesting and much appreciated.