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.

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