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
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
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?