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Seth Forrest

The Body of the Text:

Cerebral Palsy, Projective Verse and Prosthetics in Larry Eigner’s Poetry

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In “Who Speaks?,” the Afterword to Close Listening, Ron Silliman writes that “the test of projectivism’s commitment to voice must be the poetry of Larry Eigner”:


Due to a birth injury, Eigner suffered a severe case of cerebral palsy that rendered speech difficult. Kept largely at home in Swampscott, Massachusetts, until he was over the age of fifty, Eigner’s physical limitations and simple lack of practice talking to people outside of his immediate family made his speech all but unintelligible to any but the most experienced, dedicated, and careful listeners. Even though his contributor’s notes and biographical data often mentioned the fact of his palsy, Eigner’s difficulties were generally not understood by readers who had not met the person. When he began to “give readings” once he moved west, visual copies of the texts to be read had to be produced, either in photocopy or as overhead projections. In some instances, other readers voiced the work, with Eigner sitting alongside [...] But on the page, at least, particularly in the early books, Eigner’s work appears superficially as a demonstration of projectivist method. (372)


I find myself agreeing with the letter of Silliman’s evaluation, that “Eigner’s work appears superficially as a demonstration of projectivist method,” though I would omit the caveat that this demonstration is only superficial, on the surface. “Eigner’s work appears superficially as a demonstration of” projective verse when we think of projective verse as Silliman does, as “American poetry’s most aggressive argument for the text understood as a form of speech” (371—372). Silliman states that:


[i]n the Olsonian world, the text substitutes for the body of the poet [...] The physiologic and textual idiosyncrasies of both performer and text are simultaneous signifiers aimed ultimately at a sensual conception of mind: “Is it not the PLAY of a mind we are after, is not that that shows whether a mind is there at all?” In the Olsonian hierarchy, it would seem that the best poem would be that which most reveals the identity of text, body, and mind. Agency is almost a transcendent force: pure will, that which moves the mind and thus creates a text written on and by the body. (370)


The problem with this understanding — that the “projective” poem is one in which writing is inspired, made by the breath of the poet as an index of his present speech and his spontaneous, unfettered thought — is that it misses the complexities of the poetry, that whatever Olson’s poetics might be, the poetry of this group of writers seldom demonstrates such a direct relationship between text and body.


Silliman’s statement above assumes Steven Fredman’s “grounding” argument, in which Olson’s prose makes possible the poetry it wants to describe and contextualize. In the majority of published criticism on the Black Mountain group, the poetics have taken priority over the poetry for so long that only a brief quotation from “Projective Verse” is needed to justify the assertion. The prioritization of Olson’s poetic statements over Black Mountain poetry has resulted in the near complete eclipse of the poetry by the poetic statements in any cursory discussion of the Black Mountain School. Daniel Belgrad uses “Projective Verse” in his examination of the culture of spontaneity that, he argues, characterizes much American art in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and similar generalizations are made by Martin Duberman, in his comprehensive history of Black Mountain College, and by Douglas Kahn, in his historical account of sound in the arts of the twentieth century, Noise Water Meat. Each of these three books takes a broad historical view of the place of the Black Mountain School in the aesthetics of the period, not entirely unlike Charles Altieri’s conceptual map in Enlarging the Temple, but again, none of these studies makes an attempt to test the claims of “Projective Verse” by examining poetry. In a comparative analysis of Olson’s poetics and Stan Brakhage’s experimental filmmaking, R. Bruce Elder exemplifies the reliance on poetic statements that obscures most opportunities to analyze the poems, making very specific claims about the similarities in form between Brakhage’s experiments in film and Olson poems without quoting more than five lines of poetry.


Silliman’s comment makes perfect sense when viewed through the lens of the accepted approach to the Black Mountain School. Indeed, a study of the Black Mountain poets could quite usefully start with a chapter on Larry Eigner, taking the case of a poet — as inextricably linked to the Black Mountain School as any other poet by way of his extensive publications in the Black Mountain Review, Origin, and Creeley’s Divers Press — whose difficulties in speaking go far to complicate the usual primacy afforded to “Projective Verse.” If my argument in the following pages is successful, though, it should be clear that we need not think of Eigner simply as a kind of spoiler for the otherwise tidy conception of a breathy, speech-based Black Mountain style. Rather, Silliman’s assertion that “the test of projectivism’s commitment to voice must be the poetry of Larry Eigner” gets to the heart of a revised conception of Black Mountain poetics.


Rather than privileging the oral dimensions of language, Olson’s sense of “speech force” in “Projective Verse” or Ginsberg’s “bardic breath,” I contend that the Black Mountain poets share a poetics that is centered on aurality, as distinct from orality. Theirs is poetry that emerges from what Walter Ong famously termed the period of “secondary orality,” a revival of oral culture brought on by technological innovations in audio recording, playback and broadcasting. But as the work of the “projectivist” poets, and of Larry Eigner in particular, shows the poetic utterance is not the same living, breathing animal it is in a non-literate, oral culture; rather the poem relies on a new concept of speech that is hybridized, as Michael Davidson has argued. The spoken word takes on the qualities of acousmatic sound, as tape and radio separates the voice from its source.


Although the poem has a bodily sort of materiality, its visual appearance and its aural qualities, these elements of the poem’s body do not necessarily demonstrate traces of the poet’s body, at least not in the ways we might expect, and the materiality of a poem does not necessarily refer to a point of original orality. Olson’s line breaks seldom follow the famous “breath-oriented” model; instead, as tape recordings indicate, his breathing regularly carries over multiple lines. Olson’s lines turn out to be no more indexical of “the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes” than any other poet’s lines. Paul Blackburn’s reflexive use of tape recording and playback serves to illustrate that the poet’s body can be determined by text as much as text might index the body, the poet writes and listens to his text in complex ways. And at any rate, the performed poem is always, in the case of these poets, a performance of text; the voice, in any poem, is taken out of the realm of presence by way of its textualization on the page and its inscription on the recording tape, and this is particularly true of Black Mountain poetry regardless of the assertions of “Projective Verse.”


This poetry is not the direct correspondence between body and text that the poetics (and the critics who follow the poetics) suggest it is. For Robert Duncan, the body poetic is not so much “force field,” as Anne Day Dewey has recently described it, as it is a textual field of endless reference and repetition. The folded field of “Often I am Permitted...” may be read as an acknowledgement of the textual sources of Duncan’s poetic energies. Creeley’s syntax and word play might be read as the index of a troubled mind taking pains to resolve conflicts through their linguistic expression; or they might as easily be read as a craftsman in language laboring to produce “cliché-free” expressions that convey emotional experiences even as they embrace the very material and paradoxical opacity of language.


Though his work has been too often ignored in major works of criticism on the Black Mountain School and the New American period more generally, Eigner’s poetry is crucial for understanding the sense of poetic aurality being developed during the post-WWII period. In order to fully “test” the challenge posed by Larry Eigner’s poetry and his physical condition against “projectivism’s commitment” to orality, we need to ask larger questions about aurality and orality and about the prosthetics of writing.


In this article, I want to synthesize the two strains of what little critical writing has been done on Eigner’s work — on one hand, the strictly formal analysis of Barrett Watten in “Missing X,” and on the other, Michael Davidson’s analysis of Eigner’s formal innovations as they reflect the symptoms of his cerebral palsy — seeking to analyze Eigner’s very influential formal innovations and attempting to understand the role of cerebral palsy without going so far as to cast Eigner as, above all, a disabled poet. But I want to respond also to the questions raised by Ron Silliman. Thinking of Eigner’s poetry as a “test” for projective verse is certainly an important place to begin, as the notion of “speech-based” poetics is automatically complicated if not outright contradicted by Eigner’s poetry, composed in spite of the difficulties he had in speaking. Turning our attention to the aurality of Eigner’s poems on the page, I hope to extend this line of thinking to gauge what Eigner’s work can tell us more generally about the relationship between poems and bodies. “Speech / is a mouth,” says Robert Creeley’s poem, “The Langauge.” In Eigner’s work we find that poetry is more closely associated with ears.


In the article, “Missing Larry,” Michael Davidson argues for the transformative effect that a “poetics of disability” might have on the history of American poetry in the twentieth-century, which is to provide a test of the poetics of embodiment that dominate the American post-war period against the “actual bodies and mental conditions” of the poets. Specifically, his essay reads the Eigner’s poetry in an attempt to diagnose the degree to which Eigner’s unique and unmistakable style is a symptom of the cerebral palsy he developed as the result of a botched forceps delivery. Davidson writes that “the absence of [cerebral palsy] as a focus for critical examination of [Eigner’s] poetry leads me to ask how we might theorize disability where it is least apparent and retrieve from recalcitrant silences markers of a neurological condition that mediated all aspects of Eigner’s life” (Davidson, 10). He reads form in Eigner’s poetry as a rejection of the “sentences” of the dominant ableist rhetoric of the 1950’s and 1960’s.


Davidson’s article is a response, at least in part, to Watten’s chapter on Eigner and Hart Crane in Total Syntax. In that chapter, “Missing X,” Watten contrasts the way in which Crane’s grammar works to constantly reinforce a poem’s treatment of a central image or idea with Eigner’s “suppression of predication and syntactic closure,” which results in an avoidance of centralized reference that opens the possibilities of signification within the poem (Davidson, 10). Davidson, interested in the “implications for the disabled poet,” asks “Is the mobility of noun phrases strictly a function of indeterminate syntax, or a register of alternate modes of mobility and cognition in a world based on instrumental performance? (11).

Moment form and radiophonic listening


I want to begin, then, with a brief formal reading of several poems from across Eigner’s prolific career. The most cursory glance at a typical Eigner poem, in this case “The Fine Life” from On My Eyes, reveals a strikingly visual style. The poem stretches horizontally from the left margin even as it extends vertically down the page space. Spacing, between lines, between words and towards the center of the page, builds on the visual layout of Pound’s Cantos and Williams’ late experiments with triadic line structures:


The Fine Life
when you search the spontaneous thing
objects the belief shuts the air
like the whole world, wanting to be serious but how can we in the future
the parts to the whole
I saw some sparrows today disappear in a slope of dirt below the road
the trees were bare like clouds
that’s true we appreciate children the confused harbor (Eyes, 2)


The first line presents what sounds like a subordinate clause; “the / spontaneous thing” might well begin the necessary independent clause, finding its verb in the next line, “objects,” and a parallel clause in the following two lines, “the belief / shuts the air” (1—5). Line breaks and spacing, however, confuse the syntax, making the grammatical relationship between these lines indeterminate: is “objects” a noun or a verb, does the verb “shuts” belong with the subject, “belief”? Lines 6—10 could connect to and complete the ongoing hypotactic sentence (if we supply some missing commas), “When you search, the spontaneous thing objects, the belief shuts the air, like the whole world, wanting to be serious, but how can we in the future.” Or they may not.


The remainder of the poem certainly becomes more paratactic and discrete. The poem hovers between a paraphrasable, coherent statement if we read lines one through nine as a hypotactic sentence, the disappearing sparrows suggesting an image that bears out the impossibility of “search[ing]” for the “spontaneous thing.” But such a reading is made that much more difficult by the hesitations generated by line breaks and spacing, not to mention the very mobile word choice. Making sense of the lines, “the belief / shuts the air // like the whole world, wanting / to be serious,” proves next to impossible, and making a coherent reading of the entire poem is out of the question when the last four lines take us far from the idea that might be represented in the image of the sparrows.


This poem is typical of the way Eigner’s work extends and pushes to its limits the modernist sense of collage. The paratactic arrangement here offers just enough for the reader to get a glimpse of coherence, but spatially, aurally and syntactically, the poem does as much to ensure an excess of signification. The pleasure, as Roland Barthes would put it, of Eigner’s writing comes in the tension, active on all levels — visually, aurally, and semantically — between continuity and discontinuity. Eigner’s paratactic arrangements also call into question a frequently quoted but seldom explained assertion of “Projective Verse,” that “ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION” (“PV,” 59). To expect that Eigner’s poetry can be broken down into a series of “perceptions,” one leading into the next, would largely lead to frustrated reading.


For music theorist Jonathan Kramer, much of twentieth-century music operates on the tensions between continuity and discontinuity. Citing the early twentieth century as a period in which “the dissolution of triadic tonality after about 1910 removed the a priori of continuity,” he argues that composers have experimented with ways of combining “implications” of continuity with outright disruptive stretches of discontinuous sound (Kramer, 177—180). He goes on to say that this experimental play between continuity and discontinuity has radically altered musical thinking about time, resulting in the development of what German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen called “moment forms” that separate time into a series of present moments. “Moment form” abandons the idea that “ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION,” particularly the implications of the verb “lead.”


Eigner’s work comes closer to a sense of moment form than any of the other Black Mountain poets. The “perceptions” in his poems rarely “lead” to any other perceptions, rather they simply follow each other in time and space. My analysis of the poems of Eigner, Olson and Creeley leads me to believe that Olson’s assertion above is actually an endorsement of moment form, though it admittedly suffers from bad choice in verbs.


Taking a look at a longer poem, “clouds complicated as stars,” from Look at the Park, we see that Eigner surpasses even Olson in the irregular appearance of his poems on the page:


clouds complicated as stars
high in the air
like mountains, one in the middle
the evening, because of the sun
above the swimmers, the beach men
those free relations mirror the moon in the west
ah, those bird-watchers have a new object
the sign of the earth after a rain
colors November
the road curved
the road straightened that coast lifted off
another brief shower the earth seas
history is tall
clouds the lost space clouds, the moving doors
the wind breaks on the corner
the day in the house (Look, 6)


In this poem double-spaces break the poem into discrete groupings of lines that move unevenly away from the left margin, making it visually disjunctive. The disjunction occurs semantically as well. Eigner’s lines do not come near grammatical completion here except in small two or three-line groups — “clouds complicated as stars // high in the air // like mountains, one in the middle,” for example. Here the three lines complete an image that may or may not be related to the subsequent lines, “the / evening because of the sun.” Lines 22 and 23, “sound // history is tall,” refuse assimilation into any of the nearby syntactic clusters but without seeming to depart altogether from the field of associations, semantic or aural. “Sound” finds consonance with earlier sibilants, “shower / the earth seas,” and assonance with the repetition of “clouds” in lines 24 and 25. “History is tall” fits, if loosely, with the associations of verticality, clouds, mountains, birds, the sun and moon, to the point that the line feels climactic. Again, the shifting of the lines away from and back to the left margin along with the inexorable movement down the page make the comparison to moment form in music an attractive one.


Incomplete hypotactic clumps mix with paratactic associations in another poem from Look at the Park, “Do it yrself,” offering somewhat more continuity than Eigner offers in “clouds complicated as stars”:


Do it yrself
Now they have two cars to clean the front and back lawns bloom in the drought
why not turn the other radio on the pious hopes of the Red Sox
yes, that’s a real gangling kid coming down the street
he’ll grow up
He’ll fill out
sponges with handles
we got trinaural hearing
-they are taller than their cars (Look, 8)


Here a number of observations are thrown together paratactically, the neighbors with their cars and their overwatering, the proposal to listen to the game on the radio, the awkward boy walking by, back to the cars, to a very oddly-placed reference probably to a hearing aid, and then back to the cars again. The spacing on the page reinforces the cognitive and grammatical distances between the lines in the poem, and typography and lack of grammatical cohesion work together to avoid what Watten calls “illusionistic space.” That is, the poem is at all points open.


Watten argues that the discrete, grammatically-fragmented even-handedness with which the poem moves from one object to the next suggests the destabilization of the lyrical subjectivity that might be associated with Crane or even Williams in his shorter poems, the “I” or “eye” that focuses closely and singularly on the object or event that is the poem’s primary concern. Watten celebrates the lack of grammatical closure and syntactic cohesion from line to line in Eigner’s work for exactly this reason, saying that the subject-less predicates and predicate-less subjects that comprise the poems are evidence of a new poetic idiom that embraces the suppression of reference within the poem.


From Watten’s formal perspective, then, Eigner’s poetry represents a conceptual framing of objects, the meaning of which is severely limited in the poem. The context necessary to complete the meaning lies somewhere outside the poem’s frame. As such, Eigner’s poems are perhaps the purest demonstration of the Black Mountain poetic. Creeley’s equation of form and content finds its most literal manifestation in Eigner’s paratactic distribution of grammatical and semantic units, as does Olson’s notion of “Composition by Field.” The appearance of black typescript sprawling across the page space demonstrates the notion that the poem can be an open field, and the arrangement of disconnected objects, observations and quotations of found poetry evince a poetry that embraces an open field of thought not a closed, focused system.


Because the “content” of Eigner’s poetry is so often clipped from its context, any easy distinction between what are usually terms form and content is complicated. Is the clipping and placement of words and phrases in “clouds complicated as stars” a function more of content or form? In Eigner’s work, Williams’ “machine made of words” has become self-sustaining and autonomous, unconcerned with referring to any “absolute object” outside the poem (179).


For Davidson, the formal qualities we have been discussing are not absolutely separable from reference. The reference point Davidson has in mind is Eigner’s cerebral palsy. He reads form in Eigner’s work as “a register of alternate modes of mobility and cognition” (11). Beginning with Eigner’s own descriptions of his experience as a “shut-in,” Davidson goes on to describe the poet’s writing process in relation to three “interrelated spaces: the page on which he worked, the room in which he lived, and the weather or landscape he saw from that room” (12). Though a cryosurgery in 1962 minimized the spastic movements of the limbs of his left side, Eigner typed most of his hundreds of published poems using only the index finger of his right hand. Using manual typewriters that he could lean against while focusing very closely on the paper, Eigner used his right hand to retrieve and load paper.


For Davidson, the “careful spacing of letter and word” and “indentation and double columns” serve as “cognitive maps of Eigner’s internally distanced relationship to space” (13). This “distanced relationship to space” refers both to the poet’s body with its palsied and spastic mobility and also to his sense of “shut-in”-ness. Until he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1970’s, Eigner lived a life largely confined to a glass porch in his family home in Swampscott, and his poems record the things seen and heard from within this room.


In several early poems, Eigner seems to emphasize the pathos of his isolation and his very stationary life. Two poems, “The Midnight Birds” and the title poem from his first collection, From the Sustaining Air, in particular reference the frustrations of being isolated and shut-in. In the latter poem perceptions of “fresh” “sustaining air” and the “clarity” of sunlight playing on bright summer surfaces reminds the speaker of the perception that he is “an incompetent.” The poem documents its speaker’s recognition of his position from the normative, ableist perspective. Dividing the poem into two sections, the very paratactic and imagistic first five lines counterbalance the more hypotactic, confessional four lines that conclude the poem:


“from the sustaining air”
fresh air
There is the clarity of a shore And shadow, mostly, brilliance
summer the billows of August
When, wandering, I look from my page
I say nothing
when asked
I am, finally, an incompetent, after all (Selected Poems, 5)


And in “The Midnight Birds,” the sound of unseen birds chirping outside the room generate associations of isolation: his inability to participate in poetic “tradition,” the similarly acousmatic sensation of listening to the radio, the voiceless “inward performance” of reading, and finally the weight of the “darkness” that presses on the poet stuck in his own bed:


“The Midnight Birds”
The midnight birds remind me of day though they are out in the night beyond the curtain I can’t see
Somehow bedrooms don’t carry tradition I and the boxed radio is off. But what I am reading
inward performance
Has relevance. Allows me to hear while something speaks. As for the bed straightened by visible hands only it is huge when I feel down in darkness (Selected Poems, 4)


Besides the thin membrane of the porch windows, Eigner’s connection to the outside world comes through electronic boxes, television and radio. Eigner found his connection to Creeley and the other Black Mountain writers via Cid Corman’s radio broadcast, “This is Poetry,” on WMEX in Boston. Listening from his home in Swampscott, Massachusetts, Eigner was driven to write to Corman in order to critique the latter’s affected reading style, a letter that initiated a correspondence in the course of which Corman eventually passed copies of Eigner’s poems on to Robert Creeley for the Black Mountain Review, connecting Eigner with new correspondents in Creeley and Olson.


Several years earlier Creeley likewise had tuned in to hear Corman reading poetry on WMEX by a fluke, picking up the station’s broadcast in New Hampshire — Creeley working at the time as a chicken farmer with a poetry hobby. He likewise wrote to Corman, commenting favorably on the broadcast and including a few of his own poems, which Corman liked well enough to invite Creeley to read on the air. Through Corman, Creeley was connected with Charles Olson, and then with Ezra Pound, who introduced him to Paul Blackburn, the opening of the relationships we know now as the Black Mountain School.


In effect, Corman’s radio show made possible the creation of the Black Mountain School of poets, and in the early 1960s the broadcast of “This is Poetry” would be taken up by Paul Blackburn on New York’s WBAI, this time featuring recordings of Blackburn’s contemporaries reading their recent work. The process through which these writers formed their community reminds us of McLuhan’s characterization of radio as an implosive, hot medium that could reverse “individualism into collectivism” (McLuhan, 265).


For Eigner’s poetry, though, radio represents more than a McLuhanesque “implosive” medium for generating collectivist experience on a massive scale. Like Blackburn’s tape recorder, the radio and the television extend into the development of Eigner’s style. I would like to extend a reading of Eigner’s poetry that, I believe, locates a balance between Watten’s formal reading and Davidson’s focus on registers of the pathological condition. In his prose, Eigner has stated that “radio and TV have been audio-visual prosthesis,” bringing sights, sounds, and information to the poet from a world that was and still is often physically inaccessible to those who use wheelchairs and other ambulatory aids (Areas, 163). But not only does the radio close the distance for a stranded Eigner, it serves as a model for the important formal innovations, the creation of the new poetic idiom that Watten so carefully describes.


I want to argue that the radio’s aural qualities offer a model for the visual and aural parataxis that is Eigner’s formal signature. Radio listening, especially when one scans the dial quickly, offers a similar aural experience to that of listening to discontinuous music and moment forms. Though the radio plays an important role in Robert Duncan’s articulation of a poetics of “dictation” as phrased by Jack Spicer, who famously conceived of the poet as a sort of radio antenna that received the poem from the airwaves, I want to distinguish the radio as an influence on Eigner’s form/content matrix from the Spicerian sense of dictation. In the readings that follow, I want to emphasize my contention that the radio is for Eigner a model for paratactic form and a source of found material. Where Spicer’s poet-as-radio “tuned in” to the poem and transmitted it from a spiritual, Platonic ether into material form, the great effort at the typewriter that Eigner put into his lines, with their athletic spacing and placement in relation to the margins of the page, suggests a greater sense of individual poetic craft than perhaps Spicer would be willing to entertain. The poem “4 t h 4 t h” demonstrates both the prosthetic and formal functions of the radio in Eigner’s work:


4 t h 4 t h
a bird gropes a branch the direct sun on the clouds
the more read more
at the firecrackers
after what knowledge
jets blades these days
n b c from above
there’s no bird like a bell
the road of life is it still going the
isle is full the
pony express?
people like radios radios as people
he claps she swings
they’re passing somewhere
between bursts (Things Stirring, 98)


The poem is a vast collage of discrete chunks of language, distributed irregularly on the page, with few clear syntactic and semantic connections. The first line frames the rest in ways we can only guess at: the Fourth of July? April the fourth? The grouping that follows presents an image outside the window in haiku style, birds, sunlight and clouds. The fifth line again is nearly inscrutable, detached as it is from any grammatical reference point. So are the solitary verb and prepositional phrases that follow in lines six, seven and eight. The reference to NBC in the eleventh line suggests that some of these phrases might be clipped, “sound bytes,” to use our contemporary vocabulary, from radio or television news. Eigner’s work regularly employs such elements of found poetry.


Further below, lines nineteen and twenty, “people like radios / radios as people,” are particularly suggestive. Eigner modifies the phrase in order to ensure the semantics of the sentence, sacrificing the true chiasmus, “people like radios / radios like people,” to make sure that the lines may be read as similes. The “like” in line nineteen may be a verb, but it may also be a comparison between humans and radios.


In comparing the poem to a radio, I want to focus on the shifts in attention that the poem registers. The arrangement of syntactic elements is quite similar to the act of scanning the radio dial or channel surfing on television. We hear only a moment of the signal before moving on to the next channel or frequency. We could compare the form of “4 t h 4 t h” to John Cage’s “Williams Mix,” a piece that randomly splices together reel-to-reel tape recordings in very small increments and which demonstrates in its absolute melding of form and content the disintegration of sound made possible by electronic audio technologies.


Notice also that as the formal qualities of radiophonic listening become more pronounced, the subjectivity of the poem becomes less and less clear. From the lyrical “I” in earlier poems like “The Midnight Birds” and “From the Sustaining Air,” we move through increasingly disrupted syntax in “clouds complicated as stars” and “The Fine Life” to the exceptional fragmentation of “4 t h 4 t h.” We can see the shape of things to come as early as “The Midnight Birds.” The first four lines set up the scene, “The midnight birds remind me of day / though they are / out in the night/ beyond the curtain I can’t see.” The following ten lines continue to offer a reasonably unified expression of Eigner’s sense of being immobile and isolated:


Somehow bedrooms don’t carry tradition I and the boxed radio is off. But what I am reading
inward performance
Has relevance. Allows me to hear while something speaks. As for the bed straightened by visible hands only it is huge when I feel down in darkness (Selected Poems, 4)


The poem tracks portions of several enjambed sentences, though lines six and nine offer parenthetical elements that do not fit into any of these sentences grammatically: the “I” of line six, several spaces away from “tradition,” and the “inward performance” of line nine, separated from lines eight and ten by double spacing. These two parentheticals play very elegantly into the poem’s theme, separation and isolation. The single line, “inward performance,” seems to refer to the act of reading and might remind us of the sense of performative orality with which “ProjectiveVerse” seeks to imbue the text. Notably, though, the “boxed radio / is off,” throwing into question the nature of the “inward performance.” Is the speaker hearing silently or speaking silently? I want to keep discussion of this question at bay for the moment.


If “The Midnight Birds,” from Eigner’s first collection of published poems, shows the beginnings of his abandonment of the sentence as a poetic element, the process is nearly completed in his next volume, the self-published Look at the Park. This volume is particularly well suited for demonstrating the way Eigner’s poems register the processes of listening. The poems of Look at the Park regularly deal with sound in their subject matter and in their increasingly paratactic, radiophonic form. We have already considered two poems from the collection, “Do it yrself” and “clouds complicated as stars.”


“Do it yrself” uses double spaces to separate unconnected clauses and phrases, “why not turn the other radio on the / pious hopes of the Red Sox // yes, that’s a real gangling kid coming down the street” (3—5). The effect is to replicate the experience of hearing part of a conversation that bleeds into the voice of another speaker entirely, the attention shifts so suddenly. The penultimate line, “we got trinaural hearing,” refers to hearing or recording from three “ears” and so refers to the listening that is registered by the poem: the remarks about the overwatering neighbors, the request to tune the “other” radio to the Red Sox game, and the observations focusing on the kid walking by.


The sense of aurality in “OR FEAR ITSELF” goes further. In this poem, the constitutive aural elements are even more fragmented than in “clouds complicated by stars.” Like that poem, “OR FEAR ITSELF” hovers around a network of references, this time to Franklin Roosevelt:


o l d s i l v e r y t o n e s
The gentle voice, whining a people
joy in their moment
that it was
some vigor
crippled Dear Mamma . . coasting look at tomorrow today not dangerous
the unconquerable men, these at the table, faith
B o o m !
(the Xmas tree
a “good education”
and a “useful job”
any man
Mamma, a great lady
- does not come back
“for the 7th consecutive time”
to a worn present
“my little dog resents it”
on the same side
you should pardon me when I sit down (Look, 2)


From the partial quotation of Roosevelt’s first inaugural address to the invocation of a standard, synaesthetic description of music, the poem skips across the ear as it skips about the page. Line 24 refers to Roosevelt’s famous speech refuting the Republican claim that his dog, Fala, had been left on the Aleutian Islands and been rescued by naval destroyers at significant cost to taxpayers. Saying that he was accustomed to character attacks, Roosevelt joked that his “little dog, Fala, does resent them.” The reference in the final line brings us around again to Davidson’s connection of Eigner’s radio and his cerebral palsy; it offers an inexact quotation from Roosevelt’s “Report to Congress on the Crimea Conference,” which he delivered sitting down. This speech, describing the arrangements made with Joseph Stalin at their famous meeting in Yalta, was the first time Roosevelt allowed his polio-weakened body to be prominent in the public awareness. Eigner makes this connection as quietly as possible by way of line 8, the single word, “crippled.”


The poem’s listening traces the tuning of the “boxed radio” that appears again and again in this volume. Though it clusters around the references to Roosevelt and his increasingly obvious disability, the poem records snippets of voices out of context, interrupted by noises, “B o o m !” in line 15. The first poem in the collection, “He didn’t really want...,” offers slightly longer, but still incomplete, bits of story: an interview with a boxer, a travelogue describing a hike, a reference to “THE MURALS OF PICASSO,” voices that resist our readerly urges to make connections in any way other than through the radiophonic sense of aural continguity.


The radio, as a stationary receiver and transmitter of signal information, serves as a likely model for Eigner as a poet with cerebral palsy. Capable of unlimited scanning of the frequencies, transmitting whatever is received, the radio also provides a model for the radical parataxis of form that is the signature prosodic quality of Eigner’s poetry. Connecting the aural structure of radio listening to Eigner’s formal innovations allows us to bridge the gap between Davidson’s and Watten’s approaches, meaning that we can consider the role of cerebral palsy in the poems without making his work strictly a poetry of disability. That so much of Eigner’s poetry, especially in Look at the Park, reflects the form and content of radio reminds us of his isolation and his disability but in the subtlest of ways. It also allows us to “test” ideas about prosthetics that have sprung up in the attempt to find the “projective” in Eigner’s work.

Prosthetics, Projective Verse and the Aurality of Writing


Of a group of poets that are known for their paratactic syntax and visually-striking lineation, Eigner surpasses nearly all, with the exception perhaps of some of Olson’s most experimental poems in Maximus 3, IV, V, and VI. Given Eigner’s cerebral palsy and the effort involved with his typing, these leaps from the flush left margin appear with new athleticism on the page, so much so that we might extend Davidson’s perspective a bit to view Eigner’s spacing and enjambment as a prosthetic device, a means via writing to project the disabled body.


Sarah Lauro argues that Eigner’s form, like Olson’s, is indexical of his body, stressing that Eigner’s poems reveal an empowered disabled poet unwilling to closet his body even in his poetry, “I hope to show here that the poet’s physical body is visible in his typographic and stylistic choices, and that the choice to make this representation visual as well as linguistic is well-placed” (Lauro, 11). Though her analysis often labors to find references to the poet’s body in his work and frequently pushes the boundaries of interpreting Eigner’s unspoken intentions in the realm of disability politics, Lauro’s argument offers a valid perspective that can return us to the original inquiry regarding Silliman’s notion of Eigner’s work as a “test of projectivism’s commitment to voice.” Lauro wants, but is not quite able, to distinguish her own argument from those that might see Eigner’s place in the Black Mountain School as being motivated by his attraction to Olson’s “Projective Verse” as a way to “speak” through the page space, that projective verse might have shown Eigner a way to “project” his voice by thinking of writing as a prosthesis. She argues that Eigner’s poems “approximate his own speech, hesistant, laborious” (15).


Adeptly treating the typography as a figure against the background of the white page space, she reads white space, wherever it occurs in the page as a pause set against the motion of the poem’s graphic marks; the tension generated between figure and background, typography and white space, represents the tension in Eigner’s own palsied body. As clever and innovative as this reading is, Lauro perpetuates the sense of the poem as body that I have sought in the larger arguments of the dissertation to critique. Besides uncomfortably limiting Eigner’s poetic innovations and talents to expressions of his cerebral palsy, ultimately her reading places Eigner’s work firmly within the sense that projective verse always produces a poem that is an index of the poet’s body. In terms of Silliman’s “test,” her reading responds in the affirmative by adding one concept; Eigner’s poetry belongs to the traditional understanding of projective verse in the way it represents the body typographically and textually, and it does so by using writing as prosthesis.


No reader could deny that Eigner’s poems provide a sense of physical activity. Especially when we realize how difficult the act of writing was for Larry Eigner, the poems must appear even more physical, and I do not want to discount the extent to which physicality comes into play in his work, the physicality of letters on the page and of hand to typewriter to page. What I want to critique for a moment is the more essentialized notion that projective verse equates to prosthesis. The problem with thinking of writing — any writing, not just writing by disabled poets — as a prosthesis has been rehearsed in literary studies since the early years of deconstruction and Jacques Derrida’s critique of phonocentrism and logic of the supplement. The very issue is raised earlier by “The Midnight Birds”: What is the nature of the “inward performance”? Is writing made to speak, or do we, in reading writing, listen inwardly?


Garrett Stewart, in Reading Voices, responds with the latter. Seeking to analyze literary language phonologically against the “phonophobia” that has followed the Derridean critique of phonocentrism, he argues that written language is fundamentally more aural than oral, since the physiological processes involved in reading silently effect an active “suspension” of the voice. Electrical scans show that the brain hears the written text, though the musculature of the vocal passages remains forcibly closed. For Stewart, “reading voices” is a declarative sentence; the act of reading vocalizes the sound of language even as it closes off the oral production of the same sounds. From Stewart’s perspective, then, writing is not an extension of speech so much as an aural prosthetic, extending our ability to hear even when the sound is inaudible. To link Eigner’s writing to a prosthetic voice is to tread clumsily on these theoretical considerations. Indeed, to think of projective verse poems as containing the “speech-force” of orality is to miss the aural dimensions of writing entirely.

Works Cited

Davidson, Michael, “Missing Larry: The Poetics of Disability in the Work of Larry Eigner,” Sagetrieb 18:1 (1999), 5—27.

Eigner, Larry, From the Sustaining Air, Palma de Mallorca: Divers Press, 1953.

———. Look at the Park, Swampscott, MA, Independently Published, 1958.

———. On My Eyes, Highlands, NC: Jargon, 1960.

———. Another Time in Fragments, London: Fulcrum Press, 1967.

———. Flat and Round, Brooklyn, NY: Pierrepont Press, 1969.

———. Selected Poems, eds. Samuel and Anne Charters, Berkeley: Oyez Press, 1972.

———. Things Stirring Together or Far Away, Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1974.

———. areas lights heights: Writings 1954—1989, New York: Roof Books, 1989.

Kramer, Jonathan, “Moment Form in Twentieth-Century Music,” The Musical Quarterly LXIV (2): 177—194.

Lauro, Sarah Juliet, “Into the White: A Study of Enjambment and Caesura in a Disabled Poetics,” Master’s Thesis, University of California, Davis, 2006.

McLuhan, Marshall, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994.

Olson, Charles, “Projective Verse,” Human Universe and Other Essays, Donald Allen, ed., New York: Grove Press, 1967.

———. Maximus Poems, George F. Butterick, ed., Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

Silliman, Ron, “Who Speaks: Ventriloquism and the Self in the Poetry Reading,” Close Listening, ed. Charles Bernstein, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Watten, Barrett, “Missing ‘X’: Formal Meaning in Crane and Eigner,” Total Syntax, Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985.

Seth Forrest

Seth Forrest

Seth Forrest is a post-doctoral lecturer at the University of California, Davis, where he teaches courses in literature and composition. When not reading or talking about the literary arts, he is often seen at the park with his two sons.

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