The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner, vol 1: Unsaying the Subject

What a time! I am continually running away from the subject… . —John Keats

Self-assertion (or the isolated I, like anything else enough by itself) is none too interesting. —Larry Eigner

Here’s what I’d say is a representative Larry Eigner poem:

There’s much to be noted here: no title; the lack of punctuation and capitalization (“Don’t like to begin with a big ‘B’ as if I was at the beginning of all speech”); a similar avoidance of the left margin, where the western eye is trained to start; the spacing/scattering of the language; the drift down the page: all seemingly calculated to derail our linear reading habits, allowing/encouraging us to read—and words to mean—multidirectionally.

In medias res: the phrase has never been more appropriate, especially because of another missing means of anchoring Eigner’s words: the “I.” Most Eigner is, as far as I can tell, I-less, subjectless. The reader is thereby placed in the middle of not the narration of an event, but the linguistic event itself. With the poem unmoored from a centralizing I, the reader is exposed via the poem to what Eigner called “the puzzle of things,” compelled to find her way, line by line, word by word. I see this as a sort of updating to Keats’s negative capability, which in an interview Eigner called “a wise passivity… leaving things be.”

So I was surprised, scanning the first volume of the four-volume The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner, to see how often the pronoun I least associated with LE appears**: image

This is probably the most well-known “early” Eigner poem, and it is I-filled: 3 times in a spare 10 line poem. What fascinates me is how the I here seems to be hinting at its own eventual dissipation and withdrawal from the later work. Its role is very passive: “I look from my page / I say nothing.” The I paradoxically proclaims that it says nothing.

The last line is telling: “I am, finally, an incompetent after all.” As Charles Bernstein has suggested, this line could be read as a kind of poetics, where the I, rather than being a nexus of control and meaning-making, is more open, susceptible to the sway of things. Appropriately enough, Eigner often describes a poem as walk, a series of unplanned encounters: “In a sense everything has to come of itself, unexpectedly, and has to be faced.” In another early poem that still employs the first person, Eigner describes the subject’s openness quite literally:

I do so little
because the drive
of the world
is so much

It meets me, going
the other way
through me

And when there is silence
all naked I sit here
trying to hold my breath (vol 1, p. 59)

Again, the I is passive, silent. Eventually, it becomes so porous, so to speak, that it begins to break into “selves.” Like the language of the poem itself, the I dissipates and scatters

man opened
  his world himself

          himself and the world

I realize   the sun
  by moments my eyes
     bombarded, as yet
     my other selves. (vol 1 165)

Of course this is hindsight, but reading this early work, the disappearance of the I in the later works seems inevitable: I yields to “selves,” in other words, Is, which in turn yield to “eyes”: subjectless perception:

There’s nobody around
me led outward by the eyes
(vol 1 p. 201)

**Volume 1 covers juvenilia and early “mature” work, up to 1960 

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