Friday, September 21, 2012

Larry Eigner Redux

Though their influence may be waning, the name Black Mountain poets and the voices associated with them - Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan - are still familiar to most readers of  twentieth century literature.  One member of this group whose name rarely gets thrown into the mix is Larry Eigner.  Thanks to the scholarship of Michael Davidson, Eigner's name has been rescued from seeming oblivion and his work is now a staple in disability literature courses.  Eigner, who had cerebral palsy, was not physically present at most gatherings of the school of poetry with which he is associated, but his work and associations place him squarely in the same room as the Black Mountain pioneers. At the same time, Eigner had his own distinctive style, one which, though it does not take cerebral palsy as a subject was, as Davidson has demonstrated, profoundly influenced by his physical condition.

Fortunately both for Eigner and for poetry readers generally, Eigner’s legacy is now being given a boost by poet Jennifer Bartlett.  Bartlett is one of the co-editors of Beauty is A Verb, an anthology of disability related poetry which includes among its many offerings a sample of Eigner’s work, a selection from Davidson’s classic essay “Missing Larry” and Bartlett’s own poetry, which shows affinities with Eigner.  Bartlett has embarked on the process of writing a biography of Eigner and his work.  Her first step has been the recent publication of an essay “Anything has to be easy to be done” as a small chapbook through the efforts of Brian Teare – no slouch of a poet himself – and his Albion Press in Philadelphia. Teare takes on only a few carefully chosen projects a year and Bartlett’s pamphlet is one of them.
In the chapbook, Bartlett sets out the basics of Eigner’s background, his mentorship by Cid Corman, poet Denise Levertov’s visceral reaction to Eigner’s physical appearance, and intimations of the relationship between Eigner’s cerebral palsy and his work. Bartlett ends her essay with the following paragraph:

What do I take from this? Though Eigner’s body informed his work, it’s important for a critic not to read Eigner’s poems through the lens of limitations she sees as intrinsic to disability, but which Eigner himself did not experience. Rather than impose an imagined lens of disability on Eigner’s work, Creeley and others take the opportunity to connect it to his bodily existence. And like Eigner, we should focus on what is possible.  We should treat him as equal while realizing that, by society’s standards, he wasn’t, and acknowledge that through the content and form of Eigner’s work derived from his body, they were not determined by it.

This is an important point and in establishing it, Bartlett re-enforces the significance of Eigner’s physical body to his work while holding up a caution sign against attempts to impose current paradigms of disability on the minds of a writer no longer living.  It will be interesting to see what she comes up with next.


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