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).

8 thoughts on “A Child Poet in the Public Sphere

  1. Beautiful to see the Child Life scans. I love poets’ first appearances in print, even when as here there may not be much relation between the kid and adult poems.

    I suggest re-writing Eigner’s eighth grade poems in his adult style. For the example “The First Independence Day,” the poem you scan at the top of this post, becomes:

         the sun

      glorious

        glowing

     never ceased

       hearths

     the sun

       page

      memory

     love   liberty

       free

        keep

  2. Ah shucks, I forget the poem title, and did put in enough html code for spaces, so here’s take 2, Eigner’s “The First Independence Day” channeled through his adult approach:

         i   n    d   e   p   e   n   d   e   n   c   e

                    the sun

           glorious

                  glowing

          never ceased

              hearths

             the sun

              page

           memory

     love    love    love    love    liberty

              free

                 keep

  3. How is it that you can put spaces in comments but not posts? That’s backward!

    Your revision reminds me of Basil Bunting’s Shakespeare: he went through the sonnets and crossed out all the (to him) superfluous verbiage. Well, this is a little more radical … though less sacrilegious.

  4. Hi Ben,

    Wow — your “blogger” (wordpress?) program doesn’t “take” the html code for spaces? That’d be hard!

    Permit me to note that the second version here of my fun with Eigner’s poem repeated “love” in the third line from the bottom due to a cut and paste error with the html code. I went and turned Eigner into some kind of a gushing hippie-romantic!

    Doing this fun stuff with others’ texts isn’t for me at all “sacrilegious.” There are at least four — maybe five now — do-overs of Shakespeare’s sonnets, all in the last 20 years, and of course parts of Paradise Lost has been done over at least twice, and Ashbery’s “Europe” took from a pot-boiler novel, and Yedda Morrison took apart Heart of Darkness just last year. And Mac Low and what he did with any number of texts, including Woolf, I think James Joyce too, and the dictionary. I’m probably not remembering here many other examples.

    But I don’t want to get too far from why I first commented here: I LOVE this post, the beauty of it, with the visuals, and best of all the way you take in (discuss) both Eigner’s kid-work and adult writing. It sent me back to the kid-poems, to start thinking about them again. Thanks!

  5. Ben:

    Thanks for this rendering, and your emphases.

    We so hoped that others would see the value and surprise of Larry’s early efforts, and find in this mysterious transformation–from the early boy poet of rhymed verses–to the mature, and unusual and intriguing vision of his adult voice, which first appears in the early 1950’s. How he made this leap still confounds me. How did he accomplish it? Surely it wasn’t simply letters with Corman or Creeley. There wasn’t anything like it “in the air” in 1952.

  6. All kinds of amazing “leap[s]” are from childhood to adult. Many, many people do it. In any event, Eigner and the record couldn’t be much clearer on how he came to his “adult voice.”

    It’s all in his “Rambling (In) Life.” I’ll condense it, as it relates to the question of how the “adult voice” came about: (1) Eigner was a brainiac of the most astute kind; a high IQ was id’ed at young age, he later took correspondence courses from the U of Chicago, for goodness sakes; (2) his brain worked hard, at everything (see his mention of baseball and doing math in his head), and he was insatiably curious and imaginative — he “tried to look through factory wall, just about, to see how machines . . . worked”; (3) cummings’ Collected Poems and some good modern anthology; and (4) Cid Corman (who pointed him to Williams + Pound) “anyway in the next year I started writing again,” so Eigner tells it.

    “Rambling (In) Life” appears in areas lights heights (Roof Books 1989), edited by Ben Friedlander, natch.

  7. “Many, many people do it. In any event, Eigner and the record couldn’t be much clearer on how he came to his ‘adult voice.'”

    What an incredible trivialization of my comment, and of Larry’s accomplishments as a poet.

    There was nothing typical or casual about Eigner’s poetics. It wasn’t simply “growing up” the way all intelligent people do.

    An aesthetic sublimation or synthesis is the consequence of native skills, in combination with influences of one kind and another.

    The question I posed was much more specific and directed: We know what Eigner was reading, but there are few clues as to how he arrived at his style. You can see Cummings and Olson, in a general sense, but not in specifics.

    Try reading the Eigner collected poems, and then thinking about the question in terms of the historical context circa 1952.

  8. Curtis,

    I began (numbers 1 + 2 on my list) by specifically pointing to Eigner’s (your term) “native skills” (his intelligence and curiosity), yet you imply I am entirely dismissive of such things with respect to his creative work. That’s just not true.

    Of course things like cummings aren’t seen “in specifics” in all of Eigner’s poems, and I didn’t write that they were. I simply pointed out the things that Eigner himself pointed out (including cummings’ Collected Poems had been important in finding his poetic voice. I did so in response to you writing that you were “confounded” about how Eigner moved from his eighth grade work to his adult poems.

    Your final comment that I should read The Collected Eigner and think about 1952 is odd. That’s just what I did in pointing out four things that he brought to the typewriter. I am in awe of creative achievement, and the mystery of it, including of Eigner’s. His achievement though, given what he was and what he saw, isn’t a totally confounding mystery.

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