Jennifer Bartlett


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
And the moon comes out,
All the little fairies
Go hoping all about

When the moon is shining
When in bed I stay;
All the fairies show themselves
And all at once they say,

"Let us dance together
And let us play a tune
Beneath the little twinkling star
Beneath the silvery moon"

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
Clear, metallic; like a plate’s
Stems, animals, and incident
Held abstract in one element–
And outdoor cripple, elbow-oared
In the road lurched slowly homeward, towards
Where they could witness this alone
And ring up neighbors on the phone.

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:

and trees	
star guttteral ponds
Impact increases
And still they became familiar
elsewhere the flood started

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:


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!


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.
No pins. Not here, not there
But everywhere, at once. We think
It was, perhaps, the best way.
We phoenixes, unable to rise again.


In one point were we.
No pins. Not here, not there
But everywhere, at once.
We think

it was, perhaps, the best way.
We phoenixes, unable to rise again

Soon after, Eigner wrote in "For the Winds:"

Put together
the violin

lower parts, or

the oboe
    over the hill–
top in the strengthening tone
    and protracted stamp
       not    wood

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:

quoting quit it
quoted unscripted
quote script?


metaphysical physicist (string theorist)
psychoactive physicists
psychotic episode

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)


	of one 


but 		not lake

			not yet


sparse underpinnings of ferndale stone wall

sidewalk hill 


keep you up? 

stirring                 this stirring


				morning blue

				blurs absent 


keep you up? 

		not yet

vast clasps of old left outs


or otherwise

a getting to blur at 




sidewalk hill down the



		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:


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.


i. Cripping is a term used commonly in disability studies to refer to reading texts through a disability lens. Crip and cripping are not terms I feel entirely comfortable with, but the purposes of the essay, make the most sense.
ii. Projective Verse was first published Poetry New York in 1950 and had many following incarnations.
iii. This, however, became an issue when Creeley published one of Eigner’s early chapbooks From the Substaining Air on Diver’s Press in Mallorca. In setting type for the book, Creeley took the liberty of changing many of his friend’s line breaks. The collection was later republished.
iv. "Interview with Mark Burnhope and a poem from The Snowboy". Dasysofroses. Online.


Jennifer Bartlett was a 2005 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow. Her collections include Derivative of the Moving Image (UNM Press 2007), Anti-Autobiography: A Chapbook Designed by Andrea Baker (Saint Elizabeth Street/Youth-in-Asia Press 2010) , (a) lullaby without any music (Chax 2011), and the chapbook anything important enough has to get done (Albion Press). She is also an editor of Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. Bartlett has had cerebral palsy since birth.