Letters to Jargon: The Correspondence Between Larry Eigner & Jonathan Williams (Andrew Rippeon)

Reviewed by Jessica Lewis Luck

If there is a foundational text in the field of American disability poetry and poetics, it is arguably the work of Larry Eigner. Eigner has been associated with the Black Mountain school of poetry and Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse” in the 1950s and 60s, and later in the century with the Language poets. Eigner also had cerebral palsy, which he contracted from a birth injury, and typed his poems with the thumb and index finger of his right hand on a manual typewriter. Several essential collections of Eigner’s poetry have emerged in recent years, including the impressive four volume Collected Poems of Larry Eigner (2010), edited by Curtis Faville and Robert Grenier, and their more portable and teachable Calligraphy Typewriters: Selected Poems (2017). And recent critics of Eigner’s work have considered how his poems engage with and emerge from his particular embodied experience in the world.[1]

But, of course, Eigner crafted a great deal more at the typewriter than just poems. Indeed, it was through his letters that Eigner originally connected to the emerging poetry scene at the time, beginning with a letter to Cid Corman criticizing him for the way he read Yeats aloud on his radio program. Eigner’s archives at SUNY Buffalo and the University of Kansas, as well as the archives of other New American poets around the nation hold an apparent treasure trove of material for scholars and fans of Eigner’s poetry.Some of Eigner’s most essential prose work, including some letters, can be found in Ben Friedlander’s well-curated collection areas / lights/ heights: Writings 1954-1989, and George Hart and Jennifer Bartlett edited a tantalizing selection of six Eigner letters in Poetry magazine in 2014.[2] But so far we have seen only glimpses of the rich and vast archive of correspondence among Eigner and his peers.

The first scholar to attempt to fill this gap is Andrew Rippeon, whose Letters to Jargon: The Correspondence between Larry Eigner & Jonathan Williams was published this year by the University of Alabama press in the excellent Modern & Contemporary Poetics series. As an epigraph, Rippeon quotes Eigner describing his own archive: “Oaks from small acorns. Forests of possibility” (vii). To access the acorns and oaks in the “forests of possibility” of this massive amount of material, one obviously needs to apply a constraint, and Rippeon chose to focus on the correspondence between Eigner and the editor and poet Jonathan Williams.[3] Williams’ Jargon series published essential works by Charles Olson, Louis Zukofsky, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, and other giants of mid-century American poetry. Williams published Eigner’s book ON MY EYES in this series in 1960. But leading up to that publication is a decade of correspondence between the two poets. As Rippeon points out in his helpful introductory chapter to the collection, Eigner had previously published a short chapbook of ten poems with Creeley’s Divers Press and had self-published and circulated another nineteen-poem pamphlet, but ON MY EYES was his first full-length manuscript published by a respected press. The letters leading up to its publication suggest Eigner’s frustration and discouragement with the work of placing manuscripts. As Rippeon writes, it was Williams’ choice to publish this text that likely affirmed and inspired Eigner to continue to write the more than two thousand poems that followed. The story told in these letters is thus “the story of Eigner’s emergence into and assumption of the role of mature poet” (2).

Reading this correspondence yields some generative “acorns.” For this Eigner critic, who has spent a great deal of time immersed in Eigner’s poetry, it was helpful to be reminded that Eigner was not just some poetic genius, sending his poetry out into an immediately appreciating world from his isolated screened-in porch in Swampscott. But in fact he was struggling and working hard like everyone else to get recognized and get published. One of the more fascinating narratives that emerges in the letters surrounds Williams’ own financial struggles to publish the work in the Jargon series. He implores Eigner to ask his family to help subsidize the publication of ON MY EYES, which creates tension with Eigner, but also among Eigner’s family members, with Larry stuck in the middle (“I’m considered an inexperienced fool around here already” [59]). To avoid the critical eyes of his household, Eigner resorts in some letters to writing sensitive material in French, and even mentions getting the cleaning lady to mail the letter so his mother wouldn’t tear it up.

For those familiar with Eigner’s life story (we all anxiously await Jennifer Bartlett’s forthcoming biography), there are other moments of interest such as his complex relationship with his mother Bessie (“Everything she does or sez is for my benefit, and I ought to take it gratefully to heart” [75]), his father Israel (“Father’s disinterest in poetry as well as golf, birth control, politics, philosophy, math, n-test blockage, ad infinitum” [101]), and his brother (who “thnks I shd revise more, iron out obscurities” [76]). In a few letters, Eigner mentions the cryosurgery he received for quieting his “wild” left side and various follow-up visits to the hospital. If Eigner is quiet, or at least more enigmatic, on the topic of his palsy in his poetry, he doesn’t shy away from it in the letters, though it is always more of a passing detail. “Et voila, physically, in past years it used to be hard to sit still—quiet arms and legs to sit and read, etc whereas now c’est tres dur a manger at the table, et al. Talk abt yr homeostasis” (105). “I just roll along” (103).

The letters also deliver some useful insights into his poetics, including the significance of precise horizontal and vertical alignment of his poems on the pica grid of the page (40, 52). Furthermore, he responds to Williams’ edits to the manuscript of ON MY EYES by discussing the importance of sound and rhythm to his lines. “I put ‘chiascura’ so as not to twist anybody’s tongue, for rhythm’s—meter’s sake, etc.. I always had a preference for ease. at that…. I guess ‘hve’ there is a littl better for same reason—the tongue. (Better than ‘have’)” (89). Rippeon aptly writes that “there seems to be no easy line between Eigner’s letters, poems, and criticism or essay practice” (11). And it is fascinating to see Eigner “thinking at the scene of typing” in these letters (xiii), responding to the contingencies of variously sized pieces of paper and postcards. Rippeon was able to discover only ten extant letters from Jonathan Williams to Eigner, and they helpfully serve as a more prosaic contrast to the obvious poetics of Eigner’s letters.

In editing this complex poetics of the page/postcard, Rippeon had to make some difficult choices. He retained Eigner’s unique spelling and punctuation and equivalently spaced Courier font in the transcripts, but unfortunately could not reproduce the images keystroke for keystroke. To compensate for this necessary loss, he describes the size of each letter and any of the acrobatics of the text on the page, and he includes absorbing images of ten selected typescripts in an appendix. The collection is an astonishing labor of love that Rippeon apparently worked on for a decade. There are detailed notes in the back of the book for almost every reference that Eigner makes in each letter, annotating and revealing his engagement with the daily news, the little magazines, chapbooks, and publications of the literary scene at the time. While there are indeed some fertile acorns in this collection, a lot of the usual poet-to-publisher business between Williams and Eigner doesn’t offer as much of interest. (For example, did we need to see Larry’s note to Jonathan asking for Don Allen’s San Francisco address?) Rippeon writes in the introduction that a selected letters would be “suspect for what it might omit” (10), but the brilliant moments in the mass of this particular archive left me longing for a curation of Eigner’s wider correspondence with a different kind of discriminating constraint.

Title: Letters to Jargon
Editor: Andrew Rippeon
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication Date: 2019

[1] See Davidson, Hart, and Luck for example.

[2]See also Stephanie Anderson’s edition and introduction to eight letters between Larry Eigner and Robert Creeley in the Chicago Review.

[3]The collection also includes four prose pieces that were prepared for circulation but never published, including an essay on Charles Olson and ethics and responses to public debates on population sustainability and civil rights. Rippeon rightly notes “that his prose obeys a prosody similar that which we find in his poems” (9).

Works Cited

Anderson, Stephanie.(ed. and introd.) “Robert Creeley and Larry Eigner: Selected Correspondence, July-September 1951.” Chicago Review, vol. 58, no. 2, 2014, pp. 50–79.

Bartlett, Jennifer and George Hart (ed.). “Larry Eigner: Six Letters.” Poetry Magazine. December https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/70180/larry-eigner-six-letters.

Davidson,  Michael.  “Missing  Larry:  The  Poetics  of  Disability  in  Larry  Eigner.”  Concerto  for the  Left  Hand: Disability and the Defamiliar Body. U of Michigan P, 2008, 116–141.

Eigner, Larry. areas / lights / heights: Writings 1954-1989. Ed. Benjamin Friedlander. New York: Roof Books, 1989.

—. The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner. 4 vols. Eds. Curtis Faville and Robert Grenier. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2010.

Hart, George. “‘Enough Defined’: Disability, Ecopoetics, and Larry Eigner.” Contemporary Literature 51.1 (2010): 152-79.

Luck, Jessica Lewis. “Larry Eigner and the Phenomenology of Projected Verse.”Contemporary Literature 53.3 (2012): 461-92.

Rippeon, Andrew, ed. Letters to Jargon: The Correspondence between Larry Eigner & Jonathan Williams. U of Alabama P, 2019.

Back to Top of Page | Back to Book Reviews | Back to Volume 13, Issue 4 – December 2019

About the Reviewer

Jessica Lewis Luck is professor of English at California State University, San Bernardino and director of CSUSB’s MA in English & Writing Studies. Her research interests include experimental poetics, poetry and cognition, and disability studies. She has published articles on the poetry of Larry Eigner, Harryette Mullen, Laura Redden Searing, and Lisa Jarnot. She is currently working on two monographs, “The Poetics of Cognition: Thinking through Experimental Poems” and “Prosthetic Poetics: Contemporary Poetry of Disability.”