Friday, May 08, 2009

My Larry Eigner

My Larry Eigner

Lately, the thought has come to mind. Can one fully appreciate the life and work of Larry Eigner without a deep understanding [or at least a sensitivity] of disability, what this means, and the current disability 'movement?''

Of course it is possible to explore Eigner's work while ignoring his disability, but it seems like a missed opportunity. Many insist that Eigner seriously downplayed his disability and never confronted it in his work. This seems completely impractical as a poet's body and 'breath' inadvertently go into the work. As James Galvin once told me, 'Don't write about your disability directly. It isn't needed. Your disability is there in every topic. It cannot be removed from your voice.'

Eigner's limited motion, along with the poetic mind, were what created his intense vision. People with slow or limited movement are forced to see the world, to examine, not to rush through.

In his so-called autobiography, What a Time Distance, one sees this wildly maniacal examination of place. A work where the body cannot move -- or is at the mercy of being moved by others. And yet the mind is able to examine and translate. Did Eigner have a high IQ? Not necessarily. He could and did write amazing poets like many other poets. Language and translation were his gifts, to question his IQ seems like beside that point for how many so-called able bodied 'genius' poets have their IQs questioned? To question his intellegence in particular seems to be saying that a 'crippled' body MUST be of superior intellegence in order to create.

I guess I want it both ways: I guess I want critics to treat him as 'equal.' AND to realize that, by society's standards he wasn't.

I have yet to hear people discuss the fact that Eigner probably could not feed himself or use the bathroom alone. He almost most assuredly had few romantic connections. If he hadn't had a doting family, he would have ended up in an institution like Willowbrook where most people with cerebral palsy in that age did. Few people seem to know about such institutions where people with cerebral palsy were basically disposed of and lived in their own shit and piss. Without a doubt, Eigner suffered daily prejudice and cruelty. Eigner, himself, said an interview that "physical exercise was the hardest part of his life, everything else was a vacation." It IS probably true that Eigner downplayed his disability in his work and life. That is what 'we' do. That is what we have to do.

I do argue however, that Eigner DID approach 'disability' in a concrete way throughout the poetry. I would argue that, although disability is not central to the work, it is all over it. It's only that someone without a disability may not be able to or may choose not to see it in this way.

Eigner writes:

But I grow old
because I was too much a child


I say nothing

when asked

I am, finally, an incompetent, after all
to have the time

And in portions of Open

But, I flower myself.
or can't change

As i dream, sight
I have been on all sides
my face and my back

o i walk i walk

the pavements
assume they are yellow

the flowers seem to nod


I am getting used to this
my shoes hve been the same

I wonder if people want to downplay Eigner's biography simply because, as impossible as it sounds, they are still uncomfortable with disabilities. But, I don't believe that Eigner's contemporaries denied or ignored his disability. I think they either accepted him or, more likely, as 'outsiders' and narcissists themselves, didn't really care.

Here is my primary point. If people can accept Eigner, this is stride in accepting so many others like him.


Curtis Faville said...


Eigner was some kind of genius. Psychology is still in its infancy: We haven't the tools, yet, to discuss mental powers and presentations with any authority.

There's a majestic study, waiting to be done, of how isolation and immobility affected Larry's verse. In one way, his poetry was his freedom; in another, it may reflect in some degree/way (that I'm not sure I could define, even if I tried) his limitation(s). It's a very complex question. But perhaps worth doing/exploring.

In any case, it isn't Larry's limitation (disability) that makes his poetry interesting. It does that all by itself. We don't need to see it as an expression of a disabled person. It has its own integrity.

Jennifer Bartlett said...


I am not trying to pigeonhole Eigner or his work. Yes, his work stands alone. The work would have been just as wonderful if he had not had cerebral palsy.

The point that I am trying to make is that people seem insistent on downplaying Eigner's disability. Why is this? I don't believe that Eigner would have been exactly the same poet if he had NOT had cerebral palsy because I believe each poet is informed by his or her body and experience. To deny (and I'm unclear whether you are doing this) that Eigner suffered daily frustration and prejudice seems odd to me.

I think that ultimately, still people are uncomfortable with the fact of Eigner's disability. They don't know any strong disabled people, and there are so few poets with disability writing in any complex way (for whatever reason).

I just would like to open the dialog to talk about Eigner's disability and explore whether it did affect the work in a real way -- and if not -- why not?

Jennifer Bartlett said...


Have you read Michael Davidson's essay 'Missing Larry?'

Kirby Olson said...

One could argue that in some sense of the world everyone is disabled. But the work has to be good -- quantifiably good -- as in getting at least three stars on a four-star scale from an audience that doesn't know anything about the author. That is, if you want to argue that the work is important, or great, it has to be quantifiably good -- for at least the majority of the ten thousand or so poetry readers who have read at least several hundred books of American poetry.

One star: dismissable.

Two stars: good in some ways, but you wouldn't pass it to another person, and say, you have to read this.

Three stars: Really excellent, and you would pass it to others. In this instance it has to have its own flavor, and it has to in some way expand the world of the reader significantly.

Four stars: So good that you will never forget it, and in spare moments you want to go back and linger over it, as it's just endlessly interesting.

I've only read two of Eigner's poems, but right now I am giving him two stars, but I am still reserving my judgement and may yet bump him to three. The one on Curtis' blog a few weeks back was good: it had a weirdly even tone, and jumped about alot, but he said that Kenya was about malnutrition, which is simply wrong. I'm taking a whole star off for that. Kenya is one of the breadbaskets of Africa, not one of the basketcases.

Eigner's star quantity may yet change, but I think his leap of mind went wrong in at least that one instance (Kenya). This is not unforgivable, but it is at best, inaccurate, an dit made me wonder about how edifying he really might be for me as a reader. Right now his books are still too expensive at to buy a whole one. They are out of sight.

Also, the quote at the bottom of the poem that Curtis wrote belongs at the top -- but that is in itself perhaps a sign of innovation. Still, I couldn't figure out the relationship between the quote and the rest of the poem. It may well have been a parody of the purposeless quotations inside of Charles Olson's work, a kind of straight-faced joke. I didn't know for sure. I will have to read a few hundred of the poems to be certain where he was going with that quote.

I think he had some of the merits and some of the defects of his whole school of poets, of which he is to some respect, the best of the lot. Charles Olson also attempts to say something historical about Gloucester, but doesn't really manage to do this.

Olson has no real permanent insights into Gloucester, its people, its history, or its relationship to Tyre, or to Maximus of Tyre.

He's finally Tyresome, as a result.

All of the Black Mountain poets were finally two-star poets, with the sole exception of Ed Dorn (I'm not counting Denise Levertov, because I'm not putting her into the BM poets -- her final Catholic poems are just very moving -- and I cherish them, and will call them four star poems).

Eigner is certainly far far better than Joel Oppenheimer, who was quite simply a lousy poet with no ear and no brains.

Let's just face it: Oppenheimer gets one star.

Nothing will salvage his work.

Charles Olson is finally a giant flop: two stars, or two and a half. He had a giant idea in mind, but it flopped.

Robert Creeley has a few flinty moments. His criticism is good. But I would never dare to introduce him to students. They would rightly object. There's nothing much there.

Eigner is almost certainly the best of the lot except for Dorn. Dorn is very keen, and has unusual insights, and by far the best brain of the lot. Eigner has a more curious tone -- his work has a little more quality in the tone, but he gets his facts wrong, or so it seems.

Maybe he's doing that on purpose, though. If he is, he will get one more star, or maybe even two. I just haven't been able to find the time and money to pursue this further.

thanks for your note on Eigner.

as you can see: I'm an Eigneramus, but I'm intrigued.

Jennifer Bartlett said...


I love your post. I highly suggest that you try more Eigner. It took me years to 'get used' to him and now I'm hooked. I have to Selected, and will post more poems here.

I wonder how many stars you would give my [Husband] poems!?

Kirby Olson said...

Sometimes it takes a while to enter into a poet's world. Bukowski is really easy to enter into, but then you get bored of the wine, women, and violence.

Eigner may just be something very special. I don't know yet.

It's interesting: I met a young woman with cerebral palsy this last weekend and she wins all kinds of academic achievement awards, and sets businesses in motion, and I thought of Eigner.

Post more of his stuff. I'm glad you liked my post. I want to try to read more of Eigner: Eigneramus that I am.

Post some of your poems and I'll give you stars, too.

Of course it's the aggregate of readers that matters. I'm only one reader. You need a thousand readers, and then you need to find the mean.

Eigner is too little read. One of the ways to get read is to constantly stand on street corners, spouting your stuff. Ginsberg was really good at that: he'd even stop traffic and cause jam-ups.

Eigner didn't have that opportunity, so news of his work may get out more slowly. It's good of you to back him.

Jennifer Bartlett said...

Hi Kirby,

Do you teach at Evergreen? I'm friends with David Wolach. I was out there for a conference last year. I will post more Eigner poems soon. For some of my own, peek in the current Raleigh Quarterly ;

More of this series is out next month in June's New American Writing.

Kirby Olson said...

Jennifer, I got a B.A. in Letters from Evergreen in 1979.

I teach at a small branch of State University of New York at Delhi (it's about 2.5 hours northwest of Montclair State). I teach literature and philosophy here.

I got a Chancellor's Award yesterday for Scholarship and Creativity.

I published three books of literary criticism: one on Gregory Corso, one on Andrei Codrescu, and one called Comedy after Postmodernism.

I have also published a novel called Temping from Black Heron Press.

I will look up your work! Thanks!

Kirby Olson said...

Jennifer, I looked at your work in Raleigh Quarterly. I was cheered up by the fact that the speaker has a pleasant attitude toward the husband. It wasn't like that unpleasantness with Medea and her husband, Jason. That's a good start. Maybe the poems in the aggregate would be really good. I don't know yet.

I just liked that the speaker actually seemed to like her husband, and even like him a lot.

That was a new tone, and it made me cheerful.

Two stars so far. I might go to two and a half for the new tone -- the idea that a woman doesn't just have to put a man down. How cheerful!

Unless I missed something.

Thanks for letting me have this look.