Larry Eigner, an American poet associated with Black Mountain College and later the Language poets, had severe cerebral palsy caused by a birth accident. He could not live independently and for his first 51 years resided with his mother and father in Swampscott, Massachusetts. The palsy made writing by hand difficult, so he used a typewriter, a bar mitzvah gift. For much of his life, he connected with the world through writing poetry and exchanging correspondence with other poets. The letters were a lifeline, influencing his poetry, reading, and thoughts about cerebral palsy.
Eigner’s mother, Bessie, a dedicated reader, read the work of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Robert Louis Stevenson to her son. Eigner began to compose his own poetry at age eight. Before receiving the typewriter, he dictated his rhyming poems to family members, often his mother or brother Richard. He produced his first pamphlet of 12 poems while in middle school and later studied poetry through correspondence classes at the University of Chicago. Around age 20, he stopped writing for a couple of years. He longed to explore poetry beyond the traditions his mother had taught him, but he recalled that in high school, a local poet wrote or told him that “blank verse is only for a master.” In college, when he asked a professor what free verse meant in his “usual honest-to-god puzzlement,” the reply was “just cut-up prose.”
Soon a window into the world of contemporary poetry opened for Eigner. Richard brought home work by E.E. Cummings during a visit from Dartmouth College in December 1949. That same month, the two happened upon Cid Corman’s radio show, “This Is Poetry,” on WMEX in Boston. After listening to the program, Eigner “took issue” with the way Corman presented Yeats and wrote him a postcard expressing such. This postcard, which has since been lost despite the copious archives both poets kept, sparked a 40-year correspondence and conversation.
In the years to come, Eigner came into contact with hundreds of other poets and editors through Corman: Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Felix Stefanile, Edward Dorn, Amiri Baraka, Charles Olson, Vincent Ferrini, and more. But the poet who most influenced Eigner’s early work was Robert Creeley. Like Eigner, Creeley made Corman’s acquaintance through “This Is Poetry,” and Creeley’s first public reading was on the program. Corman steered Eigner to Creeley for advice. Creeley had a demonstrable effect on Eigner’s poetic form, and he pressed Eigner to speak openly about his disability.
In 1950, in his first letter to Creeley, Eigner asked for vital statistics. Creeley responded, “By way of other things, I’m 23 and have a wife and son, aged 2 and some, and here we all are, like they say.” “Here” was the Creeleys’ chicken farm in Littleton, New Hampshire. The tone of Creeley’s letters was notably different from those Eigner usually received; Creeley’s writing was direct, challenging, and heavy on four-letter words. In one of his first letters, he confessed, “The truth is: I smoke hashish & fuck a good many women other than my wife.”
It is unclear whether Eigner mentioned his disability directly to Creeley; Corman may have told Creeley in a letter of introduction. Most of the poets Eigner corresponded with probably had limited knowledge of cerebral palsy. Still, Eigner took for granted that the poets he wrote to knew the physical aspects of cerebral palsy. He wrote of the palsy in very practical terms, viewing his impairments as a “real ARTISTIC Problem.” His spasticity was a constant distraction; he was “all right typing or sitting still,” but when he moved to “do something, eat or walk,” he complained that he “just flayed, very little control left.”
In his letters, Eigner had a habit of portraying himself as undereducated and intellectually lacking. He told Creeley that he thought himself to be “not very much in yr level or whatever it is.” Eigner was conditioned by his family to be a good listener, much the opposite of Corman and Creeley, who tended to be overly and overtly self-assured and prepared to dispense advice, poetic and otherwise. Bessie impressed on her son that a good conversationalist talks about what the other person is interested in. Eigner may have also internalized his parents’ message that poets were doing him a favor by communicating with him, and not approaching him as a peer. As a result, he often acted coy and took criticism in stride and to heart.
Though Corman generally played along and didn’t question Eigner, Creeley took this behavior as a challenge. When Eigner complained that “you and Cid, for instance, handle more stuff than I seem able to,” Creeley wrote back that he wouldn’t talk down to him. “I mean, what you do here, it seems, is only duck out on something that relates, finally, to neither Cid or myself.”
As was usual protocol for poets at the time, the two began exchanging poems, diligently typed out in letters, to get advice from each other. Creeley’s changes to Eigner’s work seem subtle but brought about a lasting effect and strongly influenced what would become his signature form. Consider Eigner’s original version of “Split in One Point”:
Split in one point were we.No pins. Not here, not thereBut everywhere, at once. We thinkIt was, perhaps, the best wayWe phoenixes, unliable to rise again.
Here is Creeley’s revision. Both were typed out in the same June 1950 letter from Creeley to Eigner.
In one point: split. Were we.No pins. Not here, not therebut everywhere, at once.We thinkit was, perhaps, the best way.We phoenixes, unliable to rise again
Creeley made changes to the poem in terms of spacing and capital letters and dropped the period at the end of the last line. He argued for changes that pushed Eigner to explore a sense of what Creeley called “the ‘sound’ sense/rhythm.” He suggested that avoiding the finality of a period would give a feeling of expansiveness. Eigner incorporated Creeley’s suggestions when he later published “Split in One Point.”
Although Eigner often spoke of his disability in letters, he rarely mentioned the palsy directly in poems. He was by no means an identity poet. Although that concept did not exist in the same way it does today, some poets of the time were beginning to form personas or selves within their work. One such poet was Vassar Miller. Born three years before Eigner, she also had cerebral palsy. The physicality would become one of the driving forces in her work. Conversely, Eigner’s poems steered clear of the idea of persona. He was primarily invested in experimenting with form and language, and his content was pulled from nature, art, and mundane observation.
However, he often subtly represented his disability in poems, which is easily overlooked. For example, he compared his relationship with the typewriter to that of a pianist who could “only play one note at a time” despite the fact that “I’ve got ten fingers.”
I can only play one note at a time(and I’ve got ten fingers) This is the pianoand I should think of something I have toplayand have to vary without lookingfrom precision of simple thingsbamwith only that andthe tune in my mind
He wrote about his frustration at being dependent on his mother:
every day afterwards I sat at the table with her
and said the same thing
no, I don’t need any helpI can get the food by myself’or I’ll wait, Iwas never hungry, for foodI never dreamed that momenton my birthday she bakes a cakeI wish I could do one for her
In rare cases, he placed his disability in the forefront. He referred to one poem that he sent to his editor, Felix Stefanile, as “The Cripples.”
The cripples are beyond religionsalthough full of euphemismswe all live better, nowadaystrying the average livesthey manage it quite easily, As wellknow, in the groundwhat the feet are,and stillwhat lying down isquicklyand they may not do anything about itbelieving anything can be doneyet, to look at them, I doubt if they can stop themselvesfrom thinking(and this old lady tries( to helpme out
In 1953, Creeley published Eigner’s first chapbook, From the Sustaining Air, with Divers Press. Creeley had moved to Majorca the year before and started the press in homage to Robert Graves and Laura Riding Jackson. As with all his manuscripts, Eigner submitted a pile of poems to Creeley rather than a fully formed book. This was his habit throughout his career and a source of frustration to editors. Creeley edited the poems, chose which to include, arranged them, and picked the title.
fresh airThere is the clarity of shoreAnd shadow, mostly, brilliancesummerthe billows of AugustWhen, wandering, I look from my pageI say nothingwhen askedI am, finally, an incompetent, after all(how should I record this weather?)
Creeley asked Eigner to remove the last line of the poem. “It makes more of a bug, re the tone involved,” he wrote, calling the last line too much of “a bright neat solution.” Though we don’t have Eigner’s direct response, it is clear there was some back-and-forth as whether to keep the line referring to the weather. Eigner did not want to cut it; he did not want to end the poem with “I am, finally, an incompetent after all.” Creeley pushed the matter, bringing it up second time because he had the “nagging damn preference for the poem sans this parenthetical last observation.” The line breaks away from Eigner’s usual work; he rarely used the word I. Further, it is difficult to know what the incompetence of the I in the poem comes from. It might refer to Eigner’s physical condition, yet the “after all” adds a sort of resigned sarcasm. The interesting thing is that the choice to include a persona and refer to disability was Creeley’s choice as an editor, not Eigner’s. By ending the chapbook with that line, Creeley, in a sense, was highlighting what he wanted to highlight. Ultimately, Eigner agreed with the changes to the poem. In the years to come, as his work developed, he experimented deeply with form and used the page as a landscape. However, he rarely highlighted his disability in his poetry again.
Jennifer Bartlett’s most recent book is Autobiography/Anti-Autobiography (theenk Books, 2014). Bartlett also co-edited, with Sheila Black and Michael Northen, Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. Bartlett has received fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, Fund for Poetry, and the Dodd Research Center at the...