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.

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