Sunday, July 01, 2007

Larry Eigner

Less marginalized than Rukeyser and Wheelwright, but still not as popular as Duncan, Olson, & co. was the great poet Larry Eigner. Eigner was born in early August 1927 in Massachusetts Bay near Salem and Gloucester. He "got" cerebral palsy during a birth accident. He had a amazing number of books supported and helped by the most know poets: Levertov, Grenier, Watten, Creeley, and Silliman's "In the American Tree was dedicated to him." Eigner has an extensive archive Buffalo's EPC, including audio of interviews and readings. Levertov refers to Eigner's work as a "Wide open field of vision in which objects disparate themselves." Or what Bernstein means when he says "it meant a luminosity of every detail." (Bernsteins' obit to Eigner on the EPC)

While I am stiil uncovering the details, Lisa Jarnot said that Eigner got cerebral palsy during his birth due to the fact that forceps were used in his delivery. This is one, among many, ways that CP can occur. CP isn't a disease. It's merely a catch-all phrase to descibe any number of motor problems that can derive from brain trama during or shortly after birth. Eigner's CP was severe. Cared for by his mother, Eigner spent the first fifty years of his life basically sitting on his parents porch. Jarnot notes this and urges her students to look at Eigner's particular way of looking. In a post on the EPC, Silliman writes that Eigner actually began to write (as a teenager) before he learned to speak & wrote on a typewriter. (He did do minimal handwriting -- I received a book signed by him last year for Christmas!) His limited physical ability and energy help account for his short lines and short poems. I hope Silliman won't mind me quoting him. Of Eigner's lines he writes, "the complex choreography of one whose total physical vocabulary is in use in the composition of the poem."

After his father's death, Eigner moved to Berkeley to live with his brother. He was 51 years old. My father, Lee Bartlett, who was an undergraduate at Berkeley remembers seeing Eigner "rolling down the street." Eigner says in the EPC interview that "physical excercise was the hardest part of his life, everything else was a vacation." I was surprised to find that the many of the people in my workshop were naive about Eigner's disability and still considered in a "disease."

I can imagine Eigner's life well, and where the poems come from. His body was completely non-functional. Yet, he was an absolute genius. One way to look at such a disability is that Eigner was not burdened by things like a job, family, or housekeeping. This is not to glamourize such a position, but to say that one wouild be able to devote one's entire time/life to poetry and thinking. I am sure he suffered great lonlinesses though. And while he was revered within the poetry community, he probably was rejected by mainstream society.

1 comment:

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I went to an Eigner (birthday?) tribute at the UC Art Museum 20(ish) years ago. One of his poems had been worked around the facade of the building and stayed up for some time. I remember Eigner was asked a few questions and he had someone there who repeated his answers for the audience. Eigner's writing put me off at first but when I finished my first Eigner I had to read another. If I see one show up in a Berkeley bookstore I grab it.