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Tom Hibbard

The Same Old Things:


The poetry of Larry Eigner

This piece is 3,000 words or about six printed pages long.

In an introduction to a 1970 Selected Poems of Larry Eigner, Samuel Charters wrote:

We don’t have enough towns like this, and we don’t have enough experience of these towns. There aren’t enough poets to give us a sense of these towns — not the intensity of the sensing we have in Eigner’s work. It is poetry that does hold place, measure distance, and finally gives us, in the object as the point of being, of intensely felt being, the point that is the beginning of poetry itself.

I’m not an expert on Eigner’s poetry. In reading it, studying it, I find so many biographical associations with other writers it seems it would take a book to unravel them. It would be a book worth reading. But it doesn’t take much reading to feel that Charters’ praise is accurate. If you come upon Eigner’s poetry at the right time, it’s clear from the first poem.

Photo of Larry Eigner by Ann Charters For anyone who is not familiar with them, Eigner’s poems are lean, brief. They are not narrative but take the form of the suspended, meditative moment. They give the sense of looking at something and noticing it in detail with appreciation (‘the less I/ take for granted’). They seem reverently sketched en plein air, outside, ‘on location’. They usually appear arranged on a page with minimalist care. One line can be one word. The following word can make a sentence with the first, as though teaching someone to talk for the first time.

how you
     stand

for your
          self

Many of Eigner’s poems, especially in earlier collections, seem to begin as descriptive, a view in solitude and in peace of a yard or a sky: ‘little more than what he could see from his bedroom’. Eigner’s is a poetry of observation. It sometimes recites, sometimes selectively, sometimes repetitively, objects in view. The point of this is that nothing be overlooked. This type of inventory can dispel the feeling of clutter and reveal manageability (‘the world depopulated’). Emphasize ‘in peace’ because the value, perhaps even the purpose of Eigner’s writing is finding restfulness over and against the disturbing hustle and bustle of other types of concerns.

I have written on a piece of paper while reading his poetry that what is ‘definitely good’ about Eigner and poetry similar is not what is in it but what is taken out of it — ‘lust of the eyes’, extraneous considerations. It seems to be Eigner’s policy to leave behind the worldly controversies upon entering the world of his writing. Eigner’s poems begin as a moment apart. They seem unpolluted by anxieties. His poems are not heavy in the way they are written, and they do not weigh on the reader. They are a moment not of forgetfulness but of becoming aware of thoughts one at a time. They are clean, and they cleanse. They encourage the reader to pause. Eigner’s poems begin in lightly allowing presences. They are a process of discovery.

A bird flies under
                leaves close
in the heavy day-long rain
    still keeping up
       the roofs glistening

I have not used the word ‘clarity’. The poet himself thought of poetry that ‘immediacy and force has to take precedence over clarity’. I’m not sure what Eigner meant by this, unless he is saying that immediacy and force are derived from inexactness. Jack Foley, a friend of Eigner’s, has written , ‘At the heart of Eigner’s work is a powerful, generating confusion, a deep uncertainty’. It is true that Eigner’s poems do not say what they seem at first to be saying. But this seems true of poetry in general. I think it is also the case that reality itself is at bottom inconclusive. Foley goes on to say that Eigner’s poetry is a ‘testing for the real’. For me, what is important about Eigner’s poetry is not what it is ultimately but what it is on its surface, the narrow carefulness and ‘measure[d] distance’. The poems’ deceptiveness is the deceptiveness of reality, but this is conveyed through a clarity in Eigner himself. ‘Force’, ‘generating confusion’, ‘immediacy’ are achieved in the clarity of the style.

The relationship of Eigner to his writing is somewhat subtle. In his early poetry he rarely uses the pronoun ‘I’ (‘the less I’). And yet it is difficult to read the poetry without thinking about Eigner. There is a predominant sense of the author. Restraint and humbleness in the poems depict him. Part of the reason for simplicity in the writing and minute attention is avoidance of presumption. Eigner is not detached from his poems; there is no intention to hide himself. The poetry is innocent and straightforward, without a mask. It has a reserved naiveté. The idea of the writing being clean has to do with its being descriptive, a decision of the observer/ writer, his belief. Eigner’s poems are without language device, rhetoric, wit. In terms of the character of the poem, expression of wisdom is permissible as it retains modesty, without a dirtying vanity or indulgence.

And what is the character of the poem? In a word, I would say temporal. (‘instances do not recur’.) The poems are constructed around a personae in time, especially momentarily. Like Superman, Eigner changes clothes to do his work. But Eigner changes from Superman to Clark Kent. Eigner the poet becomes Eigner the person. His change of clothes makes him weaker not stronger. Eigner becomes not super-human but ultra-human. By temporality I am referring to qualities such as mortality, error, inability to fathom and to know (what will happen), but, on the other hand, faith, sensitivity, eagerness, bravery. Paraphrasing Robert Frost, Eigner’s poems begin in delight and end in...not wisdom but tragedy, not a terrible tragedy but a Booth Tarkington-type tragedy of Penrod’s unattended dog eating all the donuts. Any wisdom in the poems is underscored by the possibility that it might be wrong.

the feeling of having to say goodbye

    the fine leaves    so many birds
    cross the trees in November

        or between the limbs,      apples
             also in the air

                 slight shift of a number
                                             flood through
                          from our time

                                then distance,   the wind moves
                                        twigs are
                                                clouds    o,    strange

                                          there’s mist above us
                                                    like an island        mass

                                                                such
                                                         directions of hills

This poem is an uncollected poem from about 1968. I feel it shows a weakness for or of its time (‘from our time’), a nostalgia, pride, loyalty. It shows a weakness not only for a time but also a place — ‘mass’, that is, Massachusetts where Eigner was born, Swampscott, and grew up. Other poems directly mention Boston and such attractions as the Red Sox. I sense the problem of protecting this time and place which is ‘like an island’, which is exceptional for the directions of its hills, its ‘fine leaves’, its apples and large populations of birds. But the poem is representative not exceptional. The objects in which Eigner’s poems begin are not to be admired only for themselves but for the values they reflect. Other poems, especially later, might not have as subject the same particulars, but they are similarly protective, quiet, discerning, adaptive and exemplary.

In a 1987 letter to an inquiring Ina Foster asking about his interests and style, Eigner wrote,

Feeling your way along, you can, it seems, discover the right value, so to speak, momentary as it may be — nothing lasts forever, the ephemeral is ok. It’s never quite enough, though (anyway there’s always an amount of concern abt the future, your own and x million others’), and like anything else the present isn’t to be exaggerated.

I wouldn’t call Eigner’s poetry philosophical, rather contemplative. It doesn’t seem to be an ontological reaching. It isn’t systematic or notably literate. Eigner’s poetry is as much painted as written. Especially it isn’t complex in its aspect. It’s concern isn’t some dogma or the invisible or solipsism or ‘reflexivity’. It’s concern is what can be practically known from a sincere, vibrant examination of what is seen. What does the visible tell us? Couched in the momentary, anchored in a breaching of ‘objects’, the poems quickly stumble into ideas. Often the ideas are implied in the relationship of one object to another. Eigner’s poems might be said in form to resemble Kandinsky compositions, with a cluster of bird-like lines hovering above a lone geometric shape or ‘natural’ recurring swatches. The juxtaposition of words can spring into concept. The names of objects, words such as ‘fog’ ‘tower’ ‘croak’ ‘notes’ and ‘branch’ widen to symbolic double-meaning.

quiet
   as a bird

            the sky fades

                  the stars    out
                         all this time

                   air through
               the houses

                 a dog is barking
                             should there be memory

                                        the moon wanes too
                                        to some appearance

This poem is from a 1968 collection titled Air The Trees. The first word of the poem is an observation. But it could also be an imperative. To me it is evident that Eigner is up late, intent on the neighborhood around his family home. The setting of the poem is this dewy near-by night setting. But Foley is right. Eigner’s words find confusion. I think ‘the sky fades’ is ambiguous. It suggests the sunset. But ‘sky’ can be a symbol for the road to another place, as in ‘the sky was rolled up like a scroll’. So the phrase is descriptive, but it also could mean: 1) the quiet is so meaningful to the observer that thoughts of going somewhere else are defused and 2) the means of departure disappear. ‘Should there be memory’ and ‘to some appearance’ are simple word constructions, but they introduce important and, to my mind, advanced conceptual considerations. I would say these introductions are even startling. Where do they come from and to what do they allude? Yet everything in the poem is connected in the moment of the night. The conceptual insertions and the troubles to which they refer are a part of the tranquil neighborhood.

An added note emphasizing what I call the momentary quality of Eigner’s work: Cid Corman wrote ‘the random quality [of Eigner’s poetry] is often due to the brevity of the poet’s attentions, acute and wandering. Finding every distraction a focal point [he gives] glimpses and glances, queer connections of the most familiar’. Partly due to its descriptiveness, to its piecing together of unconnected pictorial threads, the poetry becomes suspended outside time. By ‘random’ I feel Corman is saying that Eigner’s poems have no temporal arrow.

Another influence that needs mentioning is William Carlos Williams whose ‘no ideas but in things’ is central to Eigner’s poems. Like many other ‘younger’ poets of that time, Eigner stays close to the factual. In this Eigner is similar to his friend Robert Creeley, who describes his idea of speech as ‘to say as little as possible as often as possible’. Richard Howard writes of Creeley that ‘the only possible reason of [his imagery’s] existence is that it has, in itself, the fact of reality...’ It occurs to me that this is an important part of modern poetry. Like Creeley, like Lowell and Jarrell, like Merwin, like many others, Eigner’s poetry on its basic, defining level is not rhyme or meter but the truthful embodiment and relating of experience. Poetry issues from the inseparability of reality and ideas.

Eigner was born in Massachusetts in 1927. He got interested in poetry listening to Cid Corman on the radio to whom he introduced himself. His first mature book of poems, From The Sustaining Air, was published in 1953 by Robert Creeley at Divers Press. Eigner became associated with the Black Mountain poets by publishing early poems in the ‘Black Mountain Review’. In 1978 he moved to the Berkeley, California, area, near his brother, where he lived until his death in 1996. Many of the titles of his many collections emphasize his interest in the temporal. In 1983, Black Sparrow Press published a selection edited by Robert Grenier titled Waters/ Places/ A Time. A 1994 collection published by Black Sparrow has the title Windows, Walls, Yards Ways. And a selection of Eigner’s critical writing was published by Roof Press in 1989 titled Areas/ Lights/ Heights: Writings 1954–1989.

One thing I have not yet mentioned about Eigner. As quoted in the Samuel Charters introduction, written by Eigner himself, Eigner was ‘palsied from a hard birth’. He lived in a wheelchair all his life. He received his high school education at home where he lived with his family. Though he participated in poetry readings and cultural life of the Berkeley-San Francisco area, he was difficult to understand in speaking. Robert Grenier was a caregiver of Eigner’s as well as editor.

For me, without being too surmising, this disability is significant in considering the work of Eigner. The qualities of the poetry I have described above take on a more pointed meaning in the context of it. The carefulness of Eigner’s writing relates to his physical immobility. In other words, carefulness relates to immobility. Charles Olson writes of poetry in general,

What really matters: that a thing, any thing, impinges on us by a more important fact, its self-existence, without reference to any other thing...

And of Creeley, Richard Howard writes, ‘Experience, then, is for him a matter of separation’. Both of these pieces of criticism could mean many things in relation to Olson and Creeley. But in relation to Eigner, self-existence and separation are to some degree literal. In the context of Eigner, the idea of factuality and the experience of it are specifically linked to limited mobility. Self-existence, factuality, separation, heightened experience from a point of view of being without reference to other things, that is, limited or confined are underscored and embodied in the life and poetry of Eigner.

In my opinion, this makes his poetry that much more relevant to problems of society today. Eigner’s immobility puts him squarely in opposition not only to ‘hustle and bustle’ but the whole ethos of freeways, ‘running errands’, commuting, mini-vans, the gasoline industry, cosmopolitan grandeur, being ‘on the move’, ‘urban sprawl’, suburban life in general. I would say it puts him if not in opposition to then in the path of some even more basic concepts in our society such as impulsiveness, ‘spontaneity’, freedom itself. Eigner forces us to examine ideas about which we might be glib and careless. There is lots of evidence in the poems that these themes are on Eigner’s mind. Writes Eigner, ‘...much more than enough, boggles, downs the mind and empties it’. Onward for enough! ‘...the words fade out, for one thing anyway when there’s been so many...’ From a poem, ‘i want room’.

massing goods and swarming people

(a play on ‘missing’?) and

when you slow down there’s sound

and

                 you lie down
the sky is clear

These lines contain the confusion to which Foley refers, but, even so, they delineate a basic quality of separateness. Foley mentions Eigner’s ‘themes of ecology’. Eigner’s life and work are a setting apart. This relates to originality, but for Eigner originality isn’t a complicated notion. You start from scratch. You don’t do what other people are doing. Eigner’s words are separate on a page, just as people are different. They shouldn’t influence each other too much. They shouldn’t even relate to each other too much. They should be more ruggedly on their own, like it was in the old ethnic Boston neighborhoods. Eigner’s words use little grammar so that they are more distinct from one another. Poetry should be like the people of the old neighborhoods, in Charters’ words, ‘strong, immediate, open, direct’. Poetry should be like the Normandy heavy cream and butter Kerouac described in Satori in Paris.

This separateness also puts Eigner in opposition to another important concept: interconnectivity. Interconnectivity is extolled in modern lifestyles and in modern writing styles. Interconnectivity to some degree comes from music, especially jazz, but it is also a term from the computer world. I myself am attracted to interconnectivity in writing and computers. But it is a concept, like others, that should be examined. It isn’t a virtue when it means a diluting of individuality or a contempt for the purity of experience. It isn’t a virtue if it means the harried disbursement of replicated of values in society at the cost of their having any meaning and strength. It bears saying even these many years since the popularity of Marshall McLuhan: There are obvious and serious drawbacks to mass media. Though it is impressive in demonstrating possibility, interconnectivity sometimes seems to imply that you can’t say anything definite. There is a difference between fast-moving information and short circuitry. Knowledge isn’t a contagious disease. Knowledge prevents disease.

Eigner’s later poems incorporate interconnectivity. There are much greater spaces between his words than in his earlier poems. It seems too that his content is much more implied, much less carefully stated. The poems aren’t as descriptive. In place of unobtrusive clusters, the words form daring arc-like series. I think living in the San Francisco area in the 1980s might have been difficult for Eigner because his style of writing was quite different from the instinctual, probably drug-influenced, that is, subconscious, stream-of-consciousness style that seems to have predominated, the sovereign four-hour Grateful Dead migrations through smoky West Coast libido.

But the later poems are still brief. They still seem to be brightly grounded in objects and the momentary observation of them. They still talk about ‘mass’. As would be expected, they show more confidence, are more comfortable within their self- or otherwise imposed limits. And there seems to appear a few new philosophical concepts. But in place of everything — separateness, immobility, modesty, clarity or confusion is the person himself, the same old Eigner.

  Head full
of birds    the languages
     of the world
          switching the scenery   the same
        old things

a crow   momentary
    thickness of the air
are hills  shadows
           below waver
         some clearness   now these trees

           level the lawn
            across the street

    the sun there
             shift the world up out

                      whistle in snow

Photo of Larry Eigner by Ann Charters
from the cover of the 1970 Selected Poems


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