LARRY EIGNER BIOGRAPHY
Widely respected American poet Larry Eigner, the author of over 75 books and broadsides, was born “palsied from hard birth” (as he phrased it) in Lynn, Massachusetts on August 7, 1927. With the exception of two teenage years in residence at the Massachusetts Hospital School in Canton, MA (and summer camp & later two brief airplane trips to St. Louis & San Francisco), Eigner spent his first 50 years at home in his parents’ house at 23 Bates Road, Swampscott, MA (two blocks from the Atlantic Ocean), where he was cared for by his mother, Bessie, and his father, Israel, and where he came to do his writing (on his 1940 Royal manual typewriter, with right index finger & thumb) in a space prepared for him on the glassed-in front porch (where he could observe & contemplate everything that was going on, within the range of his seeing & hearing & imagining), basically every day.
His mother, Bessie, was the most important person in his life, his ‘sponsor’; it was she who elected to keep Larry at home, tutored him early on, and insisted he get an education (he completed Swampscott High via home-tutoring, unusual for a person in his circumstance at the time, with teachers coming to the house, & 7 correspondence courses from the University of Chicago) and that (along with his younger brothers, Richard and Joseph) he make something of himself.
All his mature life, Larry was possessed of great energy and determination to ‘work’. In his wheelchair, in his ‘office’ on the front porch in Swampscott, he commonly undertook to write something every day—poems, essays, reviews and many voluminous letters. He maintained a wide correspondence with his publishers and with writers all over the world who sent him their books (often filling every inch of his typewritten letters with letters). He got his news from public radio and (later) television from Boston, had a subscription to Scientific American, and for relaxation and further ‘improvement’ liked to watch documentaries and films (e.g., Shakespeare plays & Boston symphony concerts) on t.v.—all these proved sources for his poems.
Eigner’s first book, From The Sustaining Air, was published by Robert Creeley (Majorca: The Divers Press, 1953), and the last book prepared in his lifetime, readiness / enough / depends / on, was published posthumously by Douglas Messerli’s Green Integer Books (Copenhagen & Los Angeles, 2000). His first large collection of poems, ON MY EYES (from Jonathan Williams’ Jargon Press in Highlands, NC) appeared in 1960; it was followed by another time in fragments (London: Fulcrum Press, 1967), and thereafter ensued a number of books issuing from his principal publishers, John Martin (Black Sparrow Press, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara & Santa Rosa, CA) and James Weil (The Elizabeth Press, New Rochelle, NY).
In the 1950’s, Eigner’s associations were mainly with persons published, as he was, in little magazines (like Origin and The Black Mountain Review) and presses connected with what came to be called the Black Mountain School (e.g., Creeley, who edited as well as published Eigner’s first book; Charles Olson & Denise Levertov both had a hand in the selection of poems included in ON MY EYES, and Levertov contributed an introduction; & Robert Duncan typed the group of Eigner poems occurring in Donald Allen’s groundbreaking anthology, The New American Poetry: 1945-1960).
In the 1960’s, as Eigner’s work began to be published in a number of ‘mainstream’ periodicals (like The Paris Review & Poetry (Chicago)) and knowledge of the existence of his work began to be more widely distributed in the literary community, an establishment figure, Galway Kinnell, could write of Eigner’s poetry (in Poetry, September 1962) that: “At first it seems that Larry Eigner is an onlooker, but as one reads on it becomes clear that he deeply inhabits the world…. At his best he writes in a kind of state of grace with respect to the real, an openness and trust between himself and the world, by which the two blur, and real objects keep dissolving towards a deeper, stranger reality….”
In the 1970’s and thereafter, Eigner’s work came to be acknowledged by a variety of younger poets of different orientations to be a major influence on their developing practice, such that Ron Silliman, for example, could dedicate his seminal anthology of Language writing, In The American Tree (Orono, ME: The National Poetry Foundation, 1986) to Larry Eigner.
After the death of his father, in the summer of 1978 Eigner moved to Berkeley, CA, where he lived and worked for the rest of his life in a house at 2338 McGee Avenue purchased by his then conservator, brother Richard Eigner, in the company of a household of persons (students, poets & their kids) who provided for his needs and included him in their daily lives. He became a well-known participant in the Bay Area poetry scene, giving and going to many poetry readings, getting out to plays, movies, etc., and receiving visitors in his front room (where his accumulated typescripts ranged round in specially constructed files accessible to him under the windows).
He was the co-winner of the San Francisco State Poetry Center Award (for the best book of poetry published in 1983), for his WATERS / PLACES / A TIME (Santa Barbara, CA: Black Sparrow Press).
In 1993 a celebration of Larry Eigner’s life and work (with readings & testimonials by poets, scholars & friends) occurred at the University of California Art Museum, contemporaneous with the display of a poem beginning “Again dawn” in large letters spaced around the exterior of the Museum’s façade.
Larry Eigner died peacefully of pneumonia at age 68 in Berkeley, on February 3, 1996, and is buried in a hillside cemetery in Richmond, CA.
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No brief biography of Larry Eigner could conclude without remarking the extent to which (more, even, than for Emily Dickinson?) writing was his life. And yet, in part because of the enforced isolation brought about by his palsy (& prevailing attitudes toward ‘handicapped persons’ in the U.S. during his lifetime)—though it was hard for strangers to understand Larry, unless they’d had experience of palsied speech, & (too) he often ‘free-associated’ as he spoke (& monologued), letting his mind range—and the special circumstances of the family’s private pattern at home during the Swampscott years (where it was often so quiet that, classically, “you could hear a pin drop,” as Larry said), it was his developing capacity to write, to type on the Royal manual typewriter he received on the occasion of his Bar Mitzvah in August 1940, that allowed him both to communicate with the world outside the house and to learn to compose his poems (with characteristic careful attention to the placement of letters as precisely rendered marks in space—a form of ‘typewriter calligraphy’). Rather than only envisioning Eigner writing in isolation in the silence of his parents’ house, it’s important to note that it was this very ‘solitary pursuit’ which brought him into actual contact with other practitioners of the art of poetry (& other related persons), such that they were in his mind (in his world) and he was in theirs, in very real ways. One may say, of Larry Eigner, that writing was his life and that, through his daily practice of typing poems and letters, etc., and sending them abroad, he eventually came to deeply share a life in ‘letters’ (a profoundly social life) with many ‘significant others’, persons who read and loved his work and often communicated and visited with him on McGee Avenue in Berkeley.
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The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner, published by Stanford University Press in 2010, brings together for the first time all of the over 3,070 poems written by Eigner over a period of 58 years and is the completion of his life’s work in poetry. Chronologically organized—beginning with a chapbook printed at the Massachusetts
June 3, 2010