A Child Poet in the Public Sphere

From Poems (1941) (click on the image for a larger view)

One of the delights for longtime readers of Larry Eigner in the new Collected Poems is the extensive representation of Eigner’s juvenilia. The editors — Curtis Faville and Robert Grenier — have included a photographic reproduction of Poems by Laurence Joel Eigner, an eighth grade class project, and a section of “First Poems (1937-1950).” There are twelve pieces in the class project; the section that follows adds an additional thirteen, written when Eigner was 9 to 22 years old. All but one of these early poems was published, as Grenier points out in his headnote. He also points out that the earliest poems were dictated, Eigner receiving his first typewriter as a Bar Mitzvah present in 1940 and only slowly coming to master the typewriter’s use.

Poems was printed on a hand press by Eigner’s classmates at the Massachusetts Hospital School in Canton. Free verse was not yet the norm for child poets, so these are all cheerful rhymes, but that only makes for a sharper contrast with Eigner’s subsequent work. Here’s the second half of “Mosquitoes”:

The maddening jeers
Which come to my ears!
The mosquitoes are winning the fray.
They continue to bite,
I continue to fight,
For the rest of the unhappy day.

And here, from 18 years later, is the ending of “The Wandering Mosquito”: “he wanders miles and miles and / becomes aware of the window / where the moon is // … // and it’s raining outside // 94 humid // he hasn’t hurt me yet // I have to open the window // his head is a constant drop of blood.” What has changed between the two poems is not simply the poet’s form, but the poet’s world, which is larger now, and more elastic, no longer human-centered. The mosquito who gets lost in that world is no longer a mere antganonist; it’s now also a force of illumination, allowing the poet to feel his way along the elastic contours of perception, stretching those contours to meet the edges of the world, which even has an opening now — a window through which the amazing bloody mosquito might move safely beyond attention.

Eigner’s other early poems appeared in such local publications as the Hadassah News-ette (Lynn, MA), The Swampscotta (Swampscott High School Quarterly), and The Salem Evening News. He also published in the national magazine Child Life, a product of Rand McNally Corp. The September 1937 issue of Child Life, which came out just after Eigner’s tenth birthday, included the following prize-winning stanzas; they appeared as part of the “Child Life Pen and Pencil Club”:

When All Sleep

When the sun is sinking
And the moon comes out,
All the little fairies
Go hopping about

When the moon is shining
When in bed I stay;
All the fairies show themselves
And all at once they say,

“Let us dance together
And let us play a tune
Beneath the little twinkling stars,
Beneath the silvery moon.”

Especially interesting about the Child Life publication is the insight it yields into Eigner’s early sense of himself as a public person. A glance at the original page shows how closely linked creative writing was with citizenship in that context:

Click on the image for a larger view

The nursery rhyme quality of “When All Sleep” is so un-Eigner-like to me, except insofar as it shows him trying to please … that’s a constant. What does call his later work to mind is the legend of the “Good Citizens’ League,” printed in the left-hand column, to the far side of Eigner’s poem:

MOTTO: Responsibility.
CREED: I live in one of the best countries in the world and wish to do all I can to make it better.
PLEDGE: Every day I will do at least one thing to show I am a good citizen.

That Eigner took all this to heart is suggested by his later poem “The First Independence Day,” shown at the top of this post. And though the nationalism of the legend falls away in Eigner’s adult writing, the pledge still resonates. It can be heard, for instance, in a 1972 prose piece later titled “Arrowhead of Meaning”:

I once wanted to do big things and to try of course is the only way to begin, and to quite an extent continuing depends on it too. … I’m still naturally about as interested as I ever was in improving things, i.e., things in general, whatever that is.  …

I wonder about purpose, what priorities if not principles are possible, how to balance things.

Not that Eigner’s social conscience or work ethic are functions of Child Life … that would be silly. Only that Eigner knew himself to be a citizen at a very early age, and that this knowledge came — in part — from a public sphere he was already able to enter. [1]

All together, Eigner was published three times in Child Life. We’ll be posting images from those other issues in the coming days.

1 [Back to text] On a related note, see Steven Fama’s superb list and readings of Eigner poems drawn from the news (link).

Typos and Abbrevs.

Steven Fama left a comment yesterday that I thought to bring front and center. He’s referring here to the Larry Eigner text on the cover of Sagetrieb 18.1 and also to my transcription of it (both are reproduced in the previous post):

to what degree should we, in reading the typescript (or transcription thereof), add to Eigner’s shorthand and (more importantly) correct his typos?

In the first set of lines in the pictured text, I want to read “from” for “frm” and correct “weiting” to “writing.” And similarly near the bottom, I read “people” for “pple,” “glimpsed” for “glimsed” and “emphasis” for “emphasos.” And yet there’s the puzzling “unreacjanle”

There are maybe three dozen odd (not in the dictionary” words in The Coillected. for many, the endnote for the particular poem indicates that the word is intentional, based on margin notes by Eigner or other matters.

For other odd words, however, there apparently is no information. The poem of course is what it is; the question is what should we as readers do — how far to insert, given Eigner’s habit of typing in shorthand and not always accurately (for the record, I am a worse typist).

(I have a particular poem I am thinking about, and will probably write about, once I write about two or three other Eigner-things, that presents this question front and center, I think. I’m not at home, so I can’t give the poem #, but it sticks out pretty obviously, and is in Volume IV. )

These are good questions! And I can’t wait to see his list of neologisms, not to mention his reading of a poem that uses one. As to an answer…

I wd hate to be responsible for dealing with Eigner’s typos and abbreviations in the absence of his advice.

In my experience with the prose — and Eigner was more cavalier with prose than poetry — the abbreviations were time-saving devices not meant to be retained … except with conventional abbrevs. like “wd” and the like.

But Eigner liked inventions too, and sometimes he considered the abbreviations (or typos) to be such. And he was open to suggestions. For instance, with “Blurb for Disabled Calligraphy” (in Areas Lights Heights: Writings 1954-1989), I suggested we keep his typo “mirrr” for “mirror,” and Eigner, after giving it due consideration, agreed. Of course, if I was editing the piece on my own, I’d supply the missing “o,” no question.

Another, somewhat different example that comes to mind is the poem “What Next (To Do?),” also in Areas Lights Heights. Here, Eigner mistakenly typed “philosophy” as “philosophyl.” I loved the suggestion of chlorophyll in this, and Eigner did too when I pointed it out, so he added the additional “l” to make the word “philosophyll.” In this instance, the typo was not so much preserved as used as the basis for a further revision. Needless to say, this sort of revision can only be made by an author.

Intermediate version of Eigner's "Rambling (in) Life," showing Eigner's additions to the editor's typescript. Click on image for a larger view.

By and large, Eigner loved editing as collaboration, in the sense that he loved the relationship as much as he did the project. He was lonely! And I did think retrospectively that this gave me an undue influence, which makes me squirm a little in memory. (Maybe “mirrr” really should be “mirror”? Maybe “philosophyll” should be “philosophy”?) On the other hand, the most basic way my editing prodded Eigner to rethink his work makes me glad I got involved: I would give him neatly double-spaced typescripts of his typescripts to proofread, and Eigner would then add new writing at the end of the page, even when the text was a decade old. I enabled a revision process he couldn’t or at least wouldn’t have undertaken on his own, since his own typescripts left little or no white space to work with, and retyping would have been a horrible chore.

But all this is dancing around Fama’s question about corrections. My “diplomatic transcription” (an exact copy of the text — spelling, revision, spacing, line endings) is the right choice, perhaps, when the transcript appears alongside the original … when the goal is to aid in the reading of the original. But when the transcript is the only version available?

As it happens, I’ve been reading Emerson’s journals this past week, comparing the different ways a single passage was presented in the Riverside Edition edited by Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes and then in the Harvard Edition edited by Ronald A. Bosco and Glen M. Johnson and then in the new Library of America Edition edited by Lawrence Rosenwald. Each of these editions served a unique purpose.

The Riverside Edition, coming a generation after the philosopher’s death, was proposed as an opening up of Emerson’s inner life, and it came with occasionally extensive narrative bridges. For instance, the spare entry for July 24, 1872, “House burned,” is followed in the Riverside Edition with five pages of biographical information. The Harvard Edition is scholarly, with a full apparatus. It gives us the entirety of Emerson’s “pocket diaries,” lists of readings and appointments and to-do lists and the like. (The Riverside Edition very nicely uses these to compile lists of authors or books quoted or mentioned for each year.) The Library of America Edition makes a reading version of the Harvard text, no longer identifying notebook name or manuscript page, no longer recording all the vagaries of the manuscript.

So what about Eigner? For a scholarly edition, of course, everything should be recorded, so that even if correction is made, the original can still be reconstructed. But a reading edition? Of the poems? My gut feeling is that some editorial intervention is needed. Eigner’s mind and writing have an elegance that shouldn’t be sacrificed in the name of a too-faithful transcription. The editor’s task, I should think, is to reveal the elegance of Eigner’s occasional idiosyncrasy, which requires that idiosyncrasy be distinguished from inelegance (i.e., error). Except … that acceptance of error is part of Eigner’s elegance, his adherence to thinking as a moment-to-moment engagement with language and the world. So … does that mean that error needs to be distinguished from error? Yeah, I think so. Which means, alas, that the editor, following Eigner, is apt to make errors every step of the way. A thankless task!

Click on image for a larger view.

How easy it would for correction to get out of hand! I’m glad I didn’t have to make such decisions on my own — that I had Eigner to consult. But in bringing my decisions to Eigner, my policy, I guess, was that changes should be minimal: obvious typos needed to be fixed, but abbreviations I tried to leave as is. This then left a short or long list of puzzling words that may or may not have been typos and may or may not have been inventions, which I myself preferred to leave as is. Eigner, I found, was more inclined to normalize. With “Eureka,” for instance (see the text to the right), which Eigner and I never got around to editing, I suspect he would have seen “weiting” as an error for “writing.” But is it, in a text where “weight” and “meaning” are treated as synonyms? Perhaps “weiting” is writing that weighs meaning. And what about those typos that may be abbreviations, like “wrds” for “words” or “mch” for “much”? And what about the beauty of Eigner’s process, which the errors and corrections seem to be a part of? I mean, if writing is “rliza- / tion” and “assay, assessment,” shouldn’t we see that realizing take place, or fail to take place, as Eigner assesses his own wording, as he adds the “ings” above “thns” or fails to realize “no” by typing “np”?

It’s a puzzle, all right.

(That’s a quote, I think, from Eigner.)

Missing Larry

Michael Davidson‘s keynote address at the NPF’s 2000 summer conference on North American Poetry in the 1960s, “Missing Larry,” was first published in Sagetrieb 18.1, and later as part of his 2008 book Concerto for the Left Hand. The essay is also available online, courtesy the Museum of American Poetics (link).

“Missing Larry” has become a central document for readers of Eigner’s work — and an important contribution to the field of disability studies. The essay deals in part with Eigner’s still-unpublished fascicle Dance, put together in response to Charles Olson’s Plan for a Curriculum of the Soul. The Dance poems include a long one written in response to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (see vol. 4 of Eigner’s Collected Poems, pg. 1612). Writes Davidson:

Eigner thought of titling his series “Gyre / (scope) / loop the / loop,” as if to condense the metaphors of stability (gyroscope), perception (“scope”), historical cyclicity (Yeats’ gyres) and vertiginous movement (“loop the / loop”) in one figure. It is an ideogram that merges Eigner’s primary concerns with perception and place, but sets them against the backdrop of historical vertigo, the rightward shifting margin marking the stumbling movement of movements under duress.

The Shoah poem largely concerns a boy — now a man — who returns with Lanzmann to the river in Poland where he was once forced to sing while running with chains around his ankles. Notes Davidson:

The incredulous testimony of survival (“I can’t believe I’m here”) is measured against an act of physical awkwardness that resembles a dance of death, not unlike the coffle songs and shuffle dances developed by black slaves in the antebellum South.

And he adds:

Such powerful mergings of physical grace with carceral control turns “Dance” into a personal signature for Eigner’s proprioceptive position.

The Sagetrieb issue with Davidson’s essay features an Eigner typescript on the cover, an otherwise-unpublished fragment that may have been the beginning of a prose note … or perhaps a poem. A diplomatic transcript appeared on the issue’s first page. Click on the images below for larger views:

The issue is still available for sale. Click on the Ordering tab above for more information.


A collection of 42 poems and two prose pieces, published by Curtis Faville's L Publications in 1975

Curtis Faville, editor with Robert Grenier of The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner, has posted a three-party essay on his blog, The Compass Rose, on his relationship to Eigner’s work (part one), his approach to editing the work (part two), and his thoughts on Eigner as person (part three). These considerations form a sequel to his essay in the fourth volume of Collected Poems, “The Text as an Image of Itself.” That essay situates Eigner within a broader context: page design and poetics after the invention of the typewriter. All of this makes for a generous addendum to his editorial work.

Two competing ideas stand out to me in these prose notes. On the one hand, the poem as material fact. On the other, the poem’s printed text as interpretation. The first idea is emphasized in “The Text as an Image of Itself,” where the particulars of Eigner’s process are cited as a constraint on the editors’ exercise of aesthetic will:

All decisions regarding type-face, composition and layout are aesthetic, though they may masquerade as practical requirements: legibility, size, density, and so forth. In the case of Eigner’s work, determined by the manual typewriter’s equivalent spacing, and the traditional letter-size sheet, these are a priori frames, within which other problems must be mediated. Eigner’s text itself is, therefore, in every sense, an “image” of itself — or, in William Carlos Williams’s sense, “the thing itself” — opaque and obdurate. It is not a version of something, but the thing itself.

The second idea is emphasized, with an important qualification, in part two of the blog essay:

There is no evidence to suggest, finally, that Eigner wished that the overall shapes — the envelope or spacial outline of his set poems — were to be positioned precisely as they appear on his original holographs. Neither the corrective annotations and adjustments, nor the organic waywardness of his “journey” across the page, were intended to be slavishly replicated; nor could they be.

The qualification here is that Faville distinguishes the shape of the poem as set by the typewriter from the disposition of that shape on the page. The latter is subject to interpretation; the former ought to be preserved. In this sense, the balance is clearly tipped toward material fact. Still, having allowed for an adjustment of one aspect of Eigner’s “a priori frame” (i.e., “the traditional letter-size sheet”), the possibility arises that a departure from the other — from “the manual typewriter’s equivalent spacing” — might also be managed, at least under certain circumstances. If the page is not crucial, perhaps the proportionate spacing isn’t either. A different edition might legitimately tip the balance in the other direction, toward interpretation.

The issues Faville raises are familiar to me from Emily Dickinson scholarship, where competing notions of faithfulness — of what constitutes a substantive or accidental feature of the text — have led to radically different transcriptions of the manuscripts. What those radical differences teach, moreover, is that a definitive edition is not, finally, possible. What is possible: an edition where the decisions are explained and options shared, so that readers can share in the editing as well as in the poetry.

Which makes Faville’s reflections especially welcome.

Of Proper Margins…

Steven Fama’s blog, the glade of theoric ornithic hermetica, has recently featured several posts on the new Collected Poems of Larry Eigner. One of these was a manifesto on margins. And if “manifesto” seems strong in this context, consider the following passionate sentences:

Dear readers, I feel as if I’ve been had, as if a grand fraud has been foisted on the world of poetry. It’s an extreme disappointment, a real outrage. It’s an error so grievous, with respect to Eigner’s magnificent poems, that it almost makes me cry.

Editors Curtis Faville, Robert Grenier, and the publisher (Stanford) should be ashamed. It’s so bad – and I’m not kidding one bit – the publisher should recall all the books, pulp the entire edition, and start over. It’s that bad, it really is.

The argument, in brief, is that Eigner’s typescripts show a penchant for wide left margins, and that this is an intrinsic feature of the work, something a print edition should respect. But go read the whole post (and read the comments too — they include a response from Curtis Faville).

The emphasis on margins brought back to mind Walt Whitman’s very different perspective on white space, preserved for posterity by Horace Traubel (whose service to Whitman has a parallel of sorts in Robert Grenier’s decades-long devotion to Eigner … but that’s a topic for another occasion). Whitman’s thoughts are spread across more than one volume of With Walt Whitman in Camden, but Gary Schmidgall has very helpfully redacted them to a single paragraph in Intimate with Walt: Selections from Whitman’s Conversations with Horace Traubel, 1882-1892 (a book I heartily recommend, even to those who have worked through Traubel on their own). The title here, and the narrative bridges, are by Schmidgall:

Of Proper Margins and Stubbornness

This exchange occurred when Traubel arrived to find Whitman had pasted up a sample of the margins he wanted for November Boughs: “That may given them an idea — but I mainly leave it to them.” Horace breaks in: “What nonsense, Walt: you mainly leave it to nobody: you want it your way and you’ll have it that way though the heavens fall.” Walt smiles and replies: “How did you find that out? you’re damned cute — too damned cute to live!” Whitman finally says of the margins: “We want the margin the narrowest that comports with decency … not as broad as he chooses but as close as he chooses: like the hair on the head of a prize fighter: close enough to get rid of superfluities but not close enough to expose the scalp.” Earlier, this little debate transpired when Traubel asked Whitman why he “resented margins in books.” “Do I?” he responded, and asked Horace’s opinion, which was: “I like open-spaced leaded liberal margined books. … For the same reason maybe that I like lots of windows in a house: they let the air in and the light.” Whitman: “It’s a picturesque argument even if it fails to convince me.” Horace: “I didn’t present it as an argument but as an impression. I couldn’t prove it. I could only feel it.” Whitman, relenting a little: “I admit that ‘feeling’ goes way beyond ‘proving’ most of the time.”

Does that ever capture the feeling of the conversations!

On another note, Fama left a very kind comment yesterday, so let me return the favor: his recent collation of “remarks by poets on Larry Eigner’s work” and his followup “bouquet of Eigner’s own words” are two of the best introductions to this poet you will find.

Four Books Larry Eigner Would Have Liked

Most everyone who loves Larry Eigner’s poetry will have heard the news by now: Stanford has brought out four large-format volumes of Eigner’s collected poems, some 1,800 pages in all (link). The books were edited by Robert Grenier and Curtis Faville, and needless to say it was a labor of love. An extraordinary labor, all the more so because undertaken without institutional support. The four volumes gather up more than 3,000 poems and establish for the first time a complete chronological sequence. The first volume includes a photographic reproduction of Poems by Laurence Joel Eigner, an eighth grade class project; the last gives a representative sample of Eigner’s typescripts, the beauty and interest of which can be glimpsed from the four dust jackets reproduced on this page (click on the images for larger views). The books are expensive, yes. They list for $150 at the publisher’s website (Amazon is presently offering a 20% discount). But then, the course books for a single college semester generally cost much more — and Eigner’s work is a whole education. It was for me.

This will be the first of at least a few posts on the subject. For now, I only want to share my first thought about the books, after sitting with one of them open on my lap.

It’s actually less a thought than a memory.

Once, when I was visiting Eigner, he was wheeling around his living room with a paperback copy of The Maximus Poems on his lap, which — when I asked him about it — he began to criticize. Not the poem, mind you, but the physical object. The book just couldn’t stay open on its own. It needed two hands; without that, it flopped shut. And Eigner didn’t have all that much dexterity, because of his cerebral palsy. One of his hands — I think it was the left — was curled; he had to use his wrist to turn pages. (Which had a tendency to make the paper wrinkle. You could always tell a book Eigner had been reading, even when it was shut: the whole thing had a worn look, like an article of clothing that someone had slept in. I heard tell once of a rare-book dealer who came to scout out Eigner’s library, and went away in dismay. Myself, I like to think of those wrinkles as a form of marginalia, as something that added value.)

A lot of commentators have noted Eigner’s unique use of the page, and the importance of that use for his poetics. What hasn’t been noted, as far as I can tell, is that the pages were almost always loose. Translating those loose pages into a bound book — which is something Eigner wanted — requires as much thought from the editor and publisher as the translation of Eigner’s typing into print.

Anyway, all four volumes of The Collected Poems stay open on their own. Which is something Eigner would have liked. If a paperback edition ever appears, I hope Stanford springs for a sewn binding, so the books will continue to stay open. It’s a minor point, but it speaks directly to the issue of use — a central issue for Eigner.