Larry (Laurence Eigner) Eigner Critical Essays

Eigner, Larry (Laurence Eigner)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Eigner, Larry (Laurence Eigner) 1927–

Larry Eigner is an American poet, short story writer, critic, and essayist. The subject of his poetry is immediate experience, which he renders sparely, with a few deft strokes. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

[Another Time in Fragments] is a major work for Eigner…. Recent thought on the making of poetry has often dealt with the physique of the poet, i.e. muscle into verse young man, the breath determining the line, the total body to be at one with the poem. Consequently, many poets have been fascinated by the apparently disjointed random notations scattered over the page in the poems of Eigner, the spastic. Some have hoped that his palsy enabled him to see as others have not. This notion links to the romantic aura of the madman, the privileged state of the psychedelic. A service rendered by this book is that Eigner in toto is neither invalid nor superior because of his confinement to a wheelchair. There sits a poet in a chair observing from the window of a moving vehicle or those of the world. He has, as Robert Duncan says, come into the full of his poetic voice. He is truly modern in his conception of reality. What he discovers to us is indigenous to mankind. It is uncommon; it is physical. While I welcome the cogent intervals, wish for personal commerce and less selfishness in the poems, I must insist that we have an important poet in Larry Eigner. (pp. 427-28)

Andrew Hoyem, in Poetry (© 1969 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), March, 1969.

In [Another Time In Fragments] the pieces, the fragments, of Eigner's perception have become clearly the elements of an inclusive, unified world. And it is a full, complete world, even if, for most of the poems, the world extends no farther than his front porch. The front porch, the streets near the house—air, winds, trees, sounds—from the porch a world of air, birds, and the mesh of sounds around him. Living on his porch—he is a spastic, forced to spend most of his days in a wheel chair—he has learned to see and hear with a sensitive, untiring coherence. The poems have a thinned feeling of language, a stark bare syntax, and what is left, when he has burned away the undergrowth of the poem, is the object within the poem itself, the thing that had come into his hands to be placed in the poem. As Dr. Williams had it, "No ideas, but in things." The undergrowth, in another poet's work, would be the poet's self, the identification of self, but Eigner has eliminated it for the object, which has become the poem. The spacing of his poems, as his style has matured, suggests his concentration on the things in the poem. The spaces have the feel, the shape, of the words he's cut away. Lines from almost any of the poems … in Another Time In Fragments … eliminate the useless words that would have involved him in the image. Anything else would have been superfluous. The poetry of China and Japan has this barrenness—and as a method of poetics has long and deep philosophic roots—but most of the younger American poets got it indirectly from the imagists, Pound, and Williams…. Eigner's glimpses extend as he looks from one object to the next, and the relationship between the objects often becomes complex; since he doesn't explain anything. He has burned off clarification in the same move toward intensification that burned off the statement of personal involvement in the poem. The work can be difficult—without clarification—but it is compelling. The word usage that colors the object with its sudden intensity can extend to the realization of objects in relation to each other. Since he gives you only the objects you have to follow his implication of the objects to have the whole poem. It becomes like a follow-the-dots puzzle in the Sunday paper. When he gives you enough dots the image emerges with immediate clarity…. Dr. Williams, in a letter to Robert Creeley,… spoke of Eigner's "perfect ear," then went on, "Not that his text is not at times incomprehensible. That is a minor fault that adds piquancy to the total picture."… Much of Eigner's most difficult work can be opened with a reference to its positioning, to its center on his porch in Swampscott, but this is only a single aspect of the poems, and their interior reference is a complex involvement in his emotional frame at the moment of composition. (pp. 107-11)

Eigner's poems, as a moment of his consciousness, have the intensity of that momentary experience. With each thought that becomes part of the texture of the poem there are dozens of associations and external comments. Some of them are close enough to the poem to be involved in it—in the most successful poems to deepen and amplify it—in others the relationship isn't as close. The things, words, objects, in the poem have only the involvement of being in his mind at the moment of writing. It would be misleading if someone tried to give a total coherence to all these passing inferences. Eigner is open to himself in so complete a way that anything is usable as poetic material. The best approach—with a poet who has so few exclusions—is to take the poem on this level of immediate use, and to let any of its more involved inferences develop casually from further readings.

With Eigner's work, to insist that there is a complex series of symbolic allusions through the poems is a confusion of Eigner's method of writing with the allusive poetry of an Eliot or a Hart Crane. His method—in much of the poetry—is of a series of inferences within the poem itself. The motif of the poem is developed through an involvement with the objects of the poem. As a technique it lies somewhere between Eliot's juxtaposition of ideas and Williams' "object in itself." Eigner uses the object—with the allusive inference that is specific with the object—in the kind of juxtaposition that Eliot used with ideas. A shorter poem—#34—[is] a beautiful poem, complete and intensely felt. Even within its small dimension it has almost infinite suggestion and inference. His small poems often have this sense of developing expression—developing from the concentration on the object and the multicolored spread of reference as the object moves through the intensities of his imagination.

It is the web of suggestion that spins out from Eigner's close cropping of word objects that gives the poetry its immediate use, in a sense gives it feeling of poignancy at the directness of the response to the small things like winds in off the ocean, and the large things like death in the knowledge of stars. The same structured use of object extends into most of his longer poems. Their development is only partially through the pattern of a logical thought process. (pp. 113-15)

Eigner's poetry is so complete, so fully realized, that I don't think he even is concerned with the difficulty of an American, or a vernacular discourse, in the sense that Olson means it. The modern battle for a contemporary idiom has been won so completely that a poet like Eigner doesn't have to consider it. Every poem that he's published breathes in the rhythms and sounds of an American speech, and part of the sensitiveness of the poems is in their use of vernacular expression. The immediacy of an impression is most vividly communicated in an immediate poetic language, and he has always responded with the most direct speech patterns. I don't think a poet has to be "original," since a culture's responses are built into every aspect of its artistic expression, but there are poets who are so individual that their work has a strong personal identity. Eigner, I think, is one of these poets—at least he has the feeling of originality that we associate with the handful of poets whose work is extremely skilled and highly individual. No one else has so successfully combined his use of the small object within a longer, more elaborately developed poem structure. For most of the poets writing in the late 1960's the allusive detail is usually an illustration of one of the poem's concept motifs—or if it's left as itself usually the poem is short. In the intensity of his concentration Eigner is able to develop the longer poem unit, and with his sense of what Dr. Williams called his "ear" there is, at his clearest and most expressive, an underlying sense of unity, even if it's a unity made of fragments.

But Eigner's approach to the poem would be almost useless to someone else as a technique; since he writes with an emotional suddenness. The poem is conceived and written at almost the same moment. He writes many poems, and most of them have the abrupt, gesturing feel of the way they were written. The term he uses himself is "hot"—and the writing process he has described in letters is of immediate excitement in his perception. (pp. 116-17)

Eigner's view as poet is so entire and so complete that he often seems to be unaware of the difficulty. He is involved in the moments with such intensity that he has none of the heaviness of a poet who has to think in terms of the entire range of the poetic experience. Eigner can be laconic when he is most serious, and there is an appealing freshness in his lack of pretense. The object is, after all, only itself, and if it has any other meaning it is only in the poet's conception of the object. With an object you can respond or not—and Eigner leaves you open to make the choice. (p. 118)

Samuel Charters, "Larry Eigner," in his Some Poems/Poets: Studies in American Underground Poetry Since 1945, Oyez, 1971, pp. 107-18.

When … free verse looks to the poet's inwardness, it may be clear and jagged or imagistically obscure. Such poetry often assumes or speaks of the impossibility, or extreme difficulty, of understanding our experience, yet attempts at least partial understanding, and may reach toward essentializing understanding.

Two poems by Larry Eigner, whose Anything on Its Side offers some pleasing examples of the kind, will illustrate respectively the elusiveness and the essentializing….

"An object/words/air/motion/elusive/again." The poem tells of the genre, whose elusiveness is the subject and method of the poem. The relationships, since syntax is absent, are unstated (the "again" is a subtle touch), hence capable of being differently and glancingly seen.

His poetry perceives, drifts, puzzles, suggests, often nicely. It does less well when it attempts to essentialize, as in the poem "Oil at St. A Barbara": "grass-roots/sky-high/violence/earth mined." The "earth mined" suggests analogies between coal- or gold-mining, offshore oil wells, and military landmines set to explode; the rest of the poem lacks that epigrammatic force. The poem relates, with some guessing, to the oil spillage; but the reader has to do the syntax's job; meaning is what syntax is for. (p. 349)

Paul Ramsey, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor, © 1975 by the University of the South), Spring, 1975.

Larry Eigner is often successful in manipulating spareness of diction and reticence of statement. His poetry proceeds by ellipsis, indirection, delicacy and precision, for as Eigner says in the introduction to his Selected Poems, "I'm cautious, and come on to things by understatement."

The poems focus on the natural world—trees, birds, shadows, clouds, the sea that rolls near his Swampscott, Massachusetts, home. Eigner usually eschews punctuation and capitalization and indicates rhythmic changes by line breaks and a meticulous placing and spacing out of the words on the page. The poems, many of which give me much pleasure, move rapidly; they call to mind the darting motions of birds, which Eigner often writes about. They suggest, often with sparse elegance, far more than they seem to be saying. (p. 173).

Mark Perlberg, in Poetry (© 1975 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), June, 1975.

Perhaps because he has spent his life confined to a wheel-chair (in his own words, "palsied from hard birth"), Eigner has seemed to be … [an] enigmatic personality…. Yet his poetry is extremely personal in its imagery, vocabulary, and concerns:

          in the space age
                 possibly white paper
                 the tree's upward branches like
                          a cone
                      what lines cast shadows
                          birds fly around
                          inside of us
                              and the small tree

Eigner's attention to the independent qualities of language makes him a favorite among the poets who object to the dominance of poetry that depends on referentially oriented writing, who call for a new poetry based on the uses of language for purposes other than representation (there have been similar tendencies in the other arts). But Eigner's work is still easily accessible, though often subtle…. [His work is] delicate and refined, though his imagery is as concrete and precise as the best descriptive prose.

                     time flies
                         in odd corners

On rereading, it's clear that Eigner's work will last; it is truly distinct and memorable poetry. (p. 90)

Michael Lally, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1978), February 20, 1978.