Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Larry Eigner: Hope against Hope... and the Death of Print



Larry Eigner (1927–1996) wrote about 3,070 poems; here's how many appeared in Poetry magazine:

Six Poems
, Volume 100, September 1962, Page 359
("Piercing the wall the window..."), Volume 100, September 1962, Page 359
("They would not rent or sell..."), Volume 100, September 1962, Page 359
("The surgical waters..."), Volume 100, September 1962, Page 359
("Ply with chocolates..."), Volume 100, September 1962, Page 359
("the knowledge of death..."), Volume 100, September 1962, Page 359
("Walls or clear fields..."), Volume 100, September 1962, Page 359
Six Poems, Volume 103, January 1964, Page 227
("much space along the/wall..."), Volume 103, January 1964, Page 227
("stand on one foot..."), Volume 103, January 1964, Page 227
("The clock/breaks..."), Volume 103, January 1964, Page 227
("Where is an attic..."), Volume 103, January 1964, Page 227
("50 cars/don't matter..."), Volume 103, January 1964, Page 227
File, Volume 103, January 1964, Page 227
Five Poems, Volume 105, February 1965, Page 313
("the baby cries he..."), Volume 105, February 1965, Page 313
("to make myself a world..."), Volume 105, February 1965, Page 313
("the water dripping..."), Volume 105, February 1965, Page 313
("the green garage door..."), Volume 105, February 1965, Page 313
("empty the apartment..."), Volume 105, February 1965, Page 313
Seven Poems, Volume 108, April 1966, Page 39
("the earth you may as well..."), Volume 108, April 1966, Page 39
("newspaper circling..."), Volume 108, April 1966, Page 39
("blackbird/blue sky..."), Volume 108, April 1966, Page 39
("a penny/in the road..."), Volume 108, April 1966, Page 39
("The dark bird white bird..."), Volume 108, April 1966, Page 39
("the distances are shortened..."), Volume 108, April 1966, Page 39
("sliding down the/bannister..."), Volume 108, April 1966, Page 39
Three Poems, Volume 110, April 1967, Page 18
("the pipes how many..."), Volume 110, April 1967, Page 18
("the feet of Icarus..."), Volume 110, April 1967, Page 18
("the birds/risen to a tree..."), Volume 110, April 1967, Page 18
Eight Poems, Volume 111, March 1968, Page 383
("summer and winter..."), Volume 111, March 1968, Page 383
("The wind-bell..."), Volume 111, March 1968, Page 383
("shadows, birds..."), Volume 111, March 1968, Page 383
("varieties of quiet..."), Volume 111, March 1968, Page 383
("among various hills..."), Volume 111, March 1968, Page 383
("how/are things..."), Volume 111, March 1968, Page 383
("down there in the street..."), Volume 111, March 1968, Page 383
("the tree/roots water..."), Volume 111, March 1968, Page 383
Three Poems, Volume 113, January 1969, Page 256
("the strength of a wing..."), Volume 113, January 1969, Page 256
("dangerous/diving..."), Volume 113, January 1969, Page 256
("the air/stirs..."), Volume 113, January 1969, Page 256
#292 ("in the air"), Volume 115, November 1969, Page 105

Well, after much anticipation, Eigner's four-volume Collected Poems - edited by Curtis Faville and Robert Grenier - is here, and as the publisher's press release observes, his "output and productivity were all the more remarkable in light of the fact that he was confined to a wheelchair for his entire life, the result of cerebral palsy. His instrument (on which he typed with his right finger and thumb) was a manual typewriter, and his medium was the whole world imagined and gathered into the space of each sheet of paper."

The set, which is the most physically formidable collection of poems published in recent memory "preserves the appearance of Eigner's typewriter pages, presenting each poem on an 8.5" x 11" page in an equivalently spaced Courier font that mirrors the poet's own." A heroic decision by the publisher and editors. For aging readers like me, it's a blessing in ways beyond the merely hermeneutical! You can read Grenier's chatty introduction to the poems here. (You'll see what I mean by chatty - it's a change from the usual scholarly dry-as-dust intros we usually get in such books as these.)

Steven Fama has a bone to pick, however, with the way the poems are presented in the brand-new pages. Steven, to my mind, is poetry's most vigilant public defender, in addition to which he's surely among the most attentive readers in terms of the physical nature of poetry books and mags, so I take what he's saying pretty seriously. Make sure you read the comments section of his post if the appearance of poems on the page matters to you. I'd only say that this is a more or less - I'm dangerously generalizing here! - modern preoccupation. The poems of, say, Keats or Clare, came down to us looking the way they do because of decisions entirely entrusted not only to editors, but to compositors; these poets would be good case studies in the origins of our preoccupations with control over the printed page - now, perhaps, a fading issue. What I noticed myself is that there really isn't any "mirroring" of Eigner's page; that would require strikethroughs and other corrections, as well as other artifacts like stains, fingerprints... I mean, cookbook collectors PRIZE those things! - not stuff we'd want in a non-variorum edition, though, eh? Take Steven's critique into account, but if you want to read the man's poems, you'll need these books. (See also Geof Huth's rejoinder to Fama.) And happily, the publication of these impressive volumes helps to belie some of the death-of-print crudola we've been fed lately. Heck, even the president and CEO of Condé Nast - which recently killed off a few popular magazines - has just weighed in with a statement that print "attracts and engages" like no other medium. No kiddin'!

Back to Eigner, I was surprised to see how early on his talent became evident. His early education took place at a Massachusetts General Hospital school for kids with what we now call disabilities (or do we?), where a booklet of his poems was printed (reproduced in facsimile in this CP). He went on in his teens to teach himself how to use a typewriter - and started producing some startlingly mature poems. I'm reminded of the early career of William Carlos Williams, which took off like a bottle rocket after a very unpromising beginning, i.e., the fizzy Keats imitations of his first suppressed book of poems. From first to last, Eigner's a poet, a person, who is tethered to earth - but keeps an eye on the clouds. He is, alongside Pessoa, a quiet king of the quotidian. As he once wrote in a letter to Ina Forster -

"I don't, at that, come across outstanding things in daily life so often, of course, things I put down are likely dull or almost, relatively dull (and I used to 'hope against hope' as a child, during exercises, physiotherapy, and other times, I'm inclined to try and see if I can make use of anything--besides taking comfort from toeholds, I took to all kinds of mottoes, like 'waste not, want not' ..."

Well. It's quite a luxury item, this collected poems. But I adore great big books with lots and lots of poems in them - and I save up plenty of money for books myself by not getting decent haircuts or new clothes. Is that stupid? Nah.

Sorry to have written this in haste; I've got lots of Eigner poems to pore over...

*
Speaking of death-of-print, I've not heard much response to the news that Shenandoah will cease publishing as a print magazine, and move online, à la TriQuarterly:

"Shenandoah will publish in its usual format in fall 2010. In spring 2011, there will be a limited-edition anthology of poems published in Shenandoah over the last 15 years. And then will come the biggest change of all. 'For the foreseeable future,' said [editor R.T.] Smith, 'that will be the last print issue of Shenandoah.'

Starting with the fall 2011 issue, it will be entirely online. A paid subscription will be a thing of the past. 'It is perhaps inevitable when we look at what has happened to other literary journals,' said Smith. 'Literary magazines per se are going to have to change their way of conceiving themselves and of reaching their audiences. And this is all tied up in the deep inquiry going on in our culture about the future of print. There is time to make that transition and be an innovator.'"

And speaking of TriQ, its soon-to-be-former Associate Editor, Ian Morris writes, in the new (and redesigned) Creative Nonfiction:

"If I were to found a new literary magazine tomorrow (a dicey proposition these days, no doubt), I'd urge the board to call it A Respected, Widely Read Print Magazine That Pays Its Authors to Publish Them. The enchanted readers of its first issue would open the cover to find this subtitle on the title page: That Also Has a Web Site That Posts Content (Some of It Exclusive) and Has a Lively Blog on Which an Insightful and Engaging Editor Frequently Posts."

He notes that the online journals all seem to be pushing a publication that might be called "An Online Journal That Hopes One Day to Publish an Annual Print Anthology of the Year's Best Work!" And continues...

"Ultimately, the little magazine continues to outlive its obituary not because of the medium or the editor, but because of the most confounding mechanism in any model of literary production, the writer, its perpetual engine of invention."

4 comments:

the unreliable narrator said...

This is all most wonderfully bright and refreshing. You should write in haste more! I think so.

the unreliable narrator said...

(By which, by the way, I don't mean that more considered pieces are TLDR or whatever. I just literally meant I liked this one.)

Steven Fama said...

Hi don --

Thanks for giving my thoughts re The Collected Eigner a thought or two.

One thing you are dang right about, is (to quote you):

"if you want to read the man's poems, you'll need these books."

And not only that, you'll have to read the books. Which is what I have been doing, and deeply, despite the difficulties. (Hard because I keep thinking of where the poems should be on the page, relative to the page edges, as typed by Eigner.) The poems draw me in,

and in!

I appreciate you calling me a kind of public defender of poetry, although that sounds sort of legalistic to me (yeah, I know it sort of fits). I think of me as an enthusiastic reader, sometimes blogger, and once in a while convincing.

In this "case" (there I go again!) -- by which I mean the Eigner -- it crushed me, it really did, to see how the poems looked on the page, compared to the manuscripts and the for example) Elizabeth Press or early Black Sparrow publications, with poems printed with fat left side margins in accord with how Eigner typed them.

I deeply believe the poet controls all, or should, including how the poetry is presented on the page. Every margin, every period, everything.

Don Share said...

Hi, Steven, and thank you for both your diligent blogging about all this, and for your comment here. And believe me, I meant the public defender thing in praise and admiration. The disposition of a poet's work is an essential matter, as you also showed recently with the Spicer collected. I like that phrase "enthusiastic reader" very much.

Yrs. gratefully, - Don