A CRIPPING OF PROJECTIVE VERSEi
The purpose of a reading loop is to investigate how one poet, one poem, one concept leads to other concepts, other poems, other poets. In this case, I would like to examine the development of Larry Eigner’s early work considering the influence of his early correspondents [specifically Cid Corman and Robert Creeley]. In short, how Eigner became to be known as one of the exemplars of Charles Olson’s "Projective Verse" and what a cripping of Olson’s manifesto might look like. And, finally, how Eigner’s "form," or non-form as the case might be, has affected contemporary poets.
Larry Eigner, who had significant cerebral palsy, lived with his parents for the first 51 years of his life and was largely educated by his mother, Bessie. As a young writer, Eigner was primarily influenced by Bessie’s love of poetry, specifically Longfellow and Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. At age nine, Eigner won the Pen and Pencil contest in "Child Magazine" for "When All Sleep:"
When the sun is sinking
In 1949, Eigner began a correspondence with Boston poet Cid Corman. As their correspondence progressed, Corman encouraged his friend to get away "poetry in form" and explore the "blank verse" the latter believed was only for a "master." Eigner slowly began to step away from the poetry of his youth in what his brother Richard called "rebelling against my mother."
Bessie was not alone in her love "closed verse." In the earliest publication of "Projective Verseii" Olson declared, "what a French critic calls ‘closed’ verse, that verse which print bred and which is pretty much what we have had, in English & American, and have still got, despite the work of Pound & Williams."
Olson continued that he wanted "a poetry that…put into itself certain laws and possibilities of the breath, of the breathing of the man who writes as well as of his listenings." These poems would encompass the breath and bodily landscape of the individual rather than a preset form. In this way, poetry had the possibility of being organic. Although, certainly not Olson’s exact intention, the escape from "closed verse" would make way for poets of all genders, abilities, and dialects. Olson's own physical impairments, emphysema and alcoholism, could certainly be read as a form of "disability."
In 1950, Eigner sent Corman "Wintered Road," a poem of six quatrains describing Swampscott deep in winter:
Rain and the cold had made the street
The metaphor of "the cripple," or the ordinary becoming extraordinary due to constraints of weather, is particularly poignant. Here, the so-called "cripple" is not the one sitting in the house acting as the recorder, but the "outdoor cripple" – the one coming home from a job or other daily activity. The poem employs traditional form, an AA/BB rhyme scheme and is written in four iambs per line nearly throughout. The rhyme scheme employs direct and slant rhymes (street/plates, poles/almost, wires/layer) -- perhaps a reference to Emily Dickinson.
Soon after, Eigner wrote:
Robert Creeley was also in touch with Corman, Olson, and Eigner at this time and very well aware of the ideas floating around. Creeley was taking similar leaps in his own work. In the early poems in "For Love," he breaks apart the line and fusses with punctuation. In "La Fou,", the crazy or the madman, he describes and employs Projective Verse, to whose creator the poem is dedicated:
LE FOU for Charles who plots, then, the line talking, taking always the best from the breath (moving slowly at first the breath which is slow – I mean, graces come slowly, it is that way. So slowly (they are waving we are moving away from (the trees the usual (go by which is slower than this, is (we are moving! goodbye
Creeley, who was in his early twenties when he first corresponded with Eigner, was forceful in directing his friend. He went as far to rewrite the poems Eigner sent him. iii In 1951, a letter shows two versions of "Split in one point:" the original and Creeley’s rewrite:
Split in one point were we.
In one point were we.
Soon after, Eigner wrote in "For the Winds:"
This idea of "cripping" Projective Verse came to me after a discussion with my father, Lee Bartlett. After years of frustration a lack of command of English grammar in my poetry, he linked the poems to my speaking v oice. Suddenly work which looked impossibly corrupted on paper made sense when I read it to him. In 1956, Corman "accused" Eigner of something similar when he wrote:
Your feel of the spoken language in space, not abstract space but a very local place, is remarkable. And if you murder grammar all the way, it is fair enough --since you do it just as it is done in speech and you manage somehow to bring your people through by means of it…why don’t you put a note saying that all the queer grammar is right?
The key phrase here is "since you do it just as it is done in speech." As Mark Burnhope brilliantly points out, "His [Eigner’s] speech was laboured, and speaking his poems was also a struggle… His poems demonstrate those physical struggles by having short, fragmented utterances; no capitalisation or punctuation, just white space where speech is broken, and a pause for breath needed." iv
Eigner’s early poems were "written" before he received his typewriter, giving necessity to poems that could be easily retained and recalled to whomever was willing to type them up in a spare moment. Once Eigner learnt how to type, he was able to command the space in an alternate way (i.e. be freed from form). A margin of error has to be considered for someone typing exclusively with his left index finger on a Royal manual typewriter. However, this consideration can only take the reader so far. That Eigner typed in such a manner is even more testament to the diligence and concentration of his spacing; think of him sitting on his porch manically hitting the space bar until finding just the right spot to continue.
While many of Eigner’s contemporaries, including Creeley, abandoned Projective Verse as a method, Eigner went deeper into it. The lasting influence can be seen in the work of contemporary poets–both disabled and not:
Norma Cole’s poems that reflect labored speech after a stroke:
Sonata: a musical composition in contrasted movements
Brad Vogler works specifically honoring Eigner, using a date as a starting point.
2 26 2010 (after Eigner’s June 14 78) bird of one back but not lake not yet yard sparse underpinnings of ferndale stone wall sidewalk hill waiting keep you up? stirring this stirring stuttered morning blue blurs absent blue keep you up? not yet vast clasps of old left outs gone or otherwise a getting to blur at bird and hill sidewalk hill down the way passes/passing or otherwise
Sam Lohmann uses the page as landscape to record his observations of the city-scape.
staples sunk in torn paper dripping rust in loosened corners a black plastic bag flies straight up golden folded dentist’s chair out of thin air neon skull sweatshirt sun on phone pole side weird street to gap in ceiling rusty clippers
And my own work:
[Husband] letter to ann and jim note to the children letter to muriel dear muriel [girls can run, walk, jump, and eat] except when they can’t [birds fly] and this occurs often [boys sometimes, while at a party, find a gun near the river and it becomes their gun and they do not tell anyone] we, ourselves, burn, though not as hot as fire
Interestingly, many poets with disabilities are opting to write more traditional narratives. In the circumstance of poetry mixed with identity there always remains the tension of whether -- and how -- to tell one’s "story." Eigner decidedly did not tell the story of his cerebral palsy. However, in this way, the story of the breath and body is being told. And it is a story told through form.