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.