Disabled poet Larry Eigner makes striking use of the space of the page to create poetry that operates in a visual as well as linguistic register. Many critics have read Eigner's oeuvre in light of his physical condition, but no scholar has previously looked to the parallels between the Black Mountain artists' experiments in abstraction and Black Mountain poet Larry Eigner's work, though the same influences are clearly evident. Working collaboratively and interdisciplinarily, the authors combine their expertise in the disciplines of literature and art history, reading both the words on the page and the page as picture, in a manner that engages specifically with phenomenological philosophy, to explicate how these poems work on the body of the reader.

(blank spaces
make the slowing
things levelled

rooted spots

distances between are surprising 1

Part One: In what sense, Meta-physics?

In Theodor Adorno's series of lectures on Aristotle's Metaphysics, which are collected in the volume Metaphysics: Concept and Problems, he asserts that this branch of philosophical inquiry belongs to the arts as much as any other discipline, "the separation between art and so-called scholarship in the sphere in which we are now moving is entirely without substance and is a mere fabrication of the division of labour." Adorno ridicules the idea that "Herr Bollnow should be qualified to contribute seriously to a discussion on metaphysics while Marcel Proust should not" and illustrates how Proust's discussion of the ability of certain place names to stand in for a kind of ineffable experience ("Venice") is one of the most effective articulations of metaphysics (Adorno, 140). With Adorno's permission as our billet and departing from this same station, we might consider the way Larry Eigner's visual and spatial poetry has likewise sought to circumvent the insufficiency of language, of logos, and present his poems as art objects working in the vein of modernist abstraction towards the expression of a common, but ineffable human experience. Our interest in the visual element of Eigner's work does not interpret it as facilitating a transcendent metaphysics, but concerns its creation of an abstract space within the poem, which invites the reader/viewer to confront the sensory experience of apprehension, enabling a shared, extra-linguistic experience of the poem. 2

What we are describing here is not your grandmother's metaphysics. Our interest is not to illustrate the possibility of poetic transcendence of the physical realm, but rather to describe a poetic insistence upon the physicality of the work — one that functions like a bridge connecting the body of the poet and the body of the reader. This is not properly metaphysical; rather, it is hyper-physical: like a page of sheet music, such poems are meant to be read in a manner that allows the poet and the reader's bodies to synch, across space and time, conveying by line length the poet's breath, for instance, as Olsonian projectivist verse does. We might think that, if this does not allow transcendence of the physical condition (which it surely does not) then at least it allows a kind of intersubjective communion. We will designate by the spelling "metaphysics" the traditional terminology, and by "meta-physics," our own intervention in the concept: one that denotes the physical reality of communion between artist and recipient, as far as it is possible. Our translation of the term "metaphysics" makes reference to the Greek preposition μετά, which means not only "after," as in metamorphosis, but also "with," as in metafiction. This meta-physics is one that insists upon the physicality of the work and its effects.

Larry Eigner's short, spare poems, which are often little more that a few lines of typed text swimming upon the white surface of the page, beg to be read pictorially. 3

Take, for example:


Everything there is

              there is

                    and all  4

Such poems make blankness visible as an active significatory presence at work in the text. They also emphasize the labor that, for Eigner, was involved in creating the poem by drawing attention to the irregular spacing. As such, these poems cannot help but be read in light of Eigner's cerebral palsy, which severely limited his motion, though we emphasize here, they must be read beyond his disability as well, for the communication they effect with the reader's body. Consider the following, as an extreme example:

image of a poem with black letters on a dark green background that reads, A - Zero born to brea h e  out/ in um 5

Eigner's poetry calls to mind the poet's physical work of graphing letters onto the page and depicts the white space surrounding the words as full rather than empty. Just as musical rest is much more than the absence of a note, but conveys muscular restraint and physical pause, Eigner's white space emphasizes the use of the space bar, the return key, the rolling shift of the paper in the typewriter. Although we don't have the space here to explore all that is at stake in such an approach — but will have to touch only lightly upon equally important aspects of the work and the poet's life, such as the role of breath, breathing, and oral pronunciation, so crucial to Olsonian poetics — in order to fully flesh out our central claim: that Eigner's poems communicate visually in a mode that is similar to those Abstract Expressionists who, like Eigner and Olson, were affiliated with Black Mountain College. We draw attention to the usefulness of reading Eigner's poems visually in order to elucidate the corporeal communication achieved by Eigner's image-texts: these are not just poems "about" his body (as so many scholars argue), but about the body and about transcending the physical gap between artist and viewer.

To do so, we borrow from Wassily Kandinsky and others who have described the physical invitation the visual arts make to the viewer to sensorially cohabitate, or re-enact, the work. There is nothing really metaphysical about this kind of art, as we will see, if we extrapolate from Wassily Kandinsky's pseudo-mysticism, the more scientific thought that color combinations may indeed operate upon the body. Or, as Margaret Livingstone describes in Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing, that, for instance, the architecture of overlapping color panels in a Rothko painting produces physical disorientation in the viewer. As such, the force of this comparison does not pose a problem for our use of the term "meta-physics" as signifying "with the physical."

When we speak of Larry Eigner's "Meta-physical Poetics," we are self-consciously referring to the way that his poetic points to an area moving beyond (meta as post-) the ability of language to describe embodied experience, to a poetic that communicates also through the visual medium of his page. And yet, we are primarily making reference to the (meta as self-) way Eigner's poetry's physicality is itself about physicality, and admittedly, at times, about his own, lived-in body; or else, it concerns the way the poem functions in a physical register, which allows it to affect the body of the viewer. As evidence of the former, consider the following poem of November 7, 1983 #1421:

                       e n o u g h

       wrist knotted up


               maybe excitement

                                for little reason

As evidence of the latter, consider:


       Words and things among us go
           Together enough

             Wherever your end is 6

Some might argue that Eigner's page doesn't look tremendously different from those of some of his peers. In fact, what may be especially useful about Eigner's poetic transcription of his own unique embodied experience as a disabled individual is that it makes central one of the registers utilized in Charles Olson's projectivist verse: the potential for communication that exists not merely within the words and the pauses between words, but equally in the spaces left blank on the page.

In the essay titled "Projective Verse" Charles Olson wrote, let me indicate this, that every element in an open poem (the syllable, the line, as well as the image, the sound, the sense) must be taken up as participants in the kinetic of the poem just as solidly as we are accustomed to take what we call the objects of reality; and that these elements are to be seen as creating the tensions of a poem just as totally as do those other objects create what we know as the world. (20)

No doubt, Olson would agree that the whiteness of the page is a present participant in the visual field of the poem. But it is Eigner's unique relationship to movement and to space, as he experienced it in a body for which physical motion, even typing, were difficult, which makes vibrant this space left blank.

Olson emphasizes the usefulness of the typewriter in its ability to represent the authorial body: "It is the advantage of the typewriter that, due to its rigidity and its space precisions, it can, for a poet, indicate exactly the breath, the pauses, the suspensions even of syllables, the juxtapositions even of parts of phrases which he intends" (22). Here again, we feel that what Olson described about his own poetry is perhaps most legible in the work of Eigner. Beyond the typed poem's ability to graph the poet's breath onto the page, what Eigner's spatial poetic reveals is that the visual field of the poem can also make perceptible the poet's physical exertions: his movements in space as well as in speech. Reading Eigner's poems visually, in light of his lived condition, exemplifies Olson's interest in the poem's incarnation of the unique embodiment of the poet.

In Eigner's field, the white space seems to vibrate at times with poetic tension, between the work itself, the art object as thing, and the poet's physical labor of writing — the authorial body in the act of creation. That this was a central issue in the experiments in abstraction carried out by Black Mountain School and other visual artists of the mid-century, legitimates our desire to read Eigner's texts as visual as well as poetic compositions. We would like to begin by looking at one of Eigner's poems that is fairly typical of his style. Starting from a position witnessing the bodies of others, there is a sudden shift in which the poet intuits himself into the consciousness of the person he observes.

poem that reads - sounded like, must have been ocean, in the summer autumn, football crowds, in India like trees, open and shut, some way to be occupied, woman or man from, the beath, feet, arms the, warm air, passing home shoes, on steady, to be heard, off recently,dried, the trees will, be here, at night, once in a while still, you want, another child

"sounded like…" (June 22-23, 1975) #927 In vol. III, p. 1249

The poem begins, "Sounded like/ must have been ocean/ in the summer autumn/ football crowds." In Berkeley, California, where Eigner spent the last twenty years of his life, the month of September is the hottest month of the year, ("summer autumn") and when the Cal Bears play at home, the crowd sounds like the roaring of a distant ocean.

We read the next few lines taking the advice of Barrett Watten, who suggests rewriting Eigner's lines to make apparent the invisible referent. This would look something like: "in India (there are) like trees." 7 These trees "open and shut." There may be a movement of wind or light through them, or there may be multiple trees next to each other with varying amounts of foliage on them, giving the appearance of some trees being open (bare) and some being shut up (still covered.) The next line, "Some way to be occupied," is ambiguous. Perhaps the poet is commenting on his own position as a spectator, an enjoyable way to pass the time; he might also be referring to the people enjoying themselves at the football game, or the person walking down the street to whom he now turns his attention.

"Woman or man from/ the beach:" This figure, sex indeterminable from the distance of the speaker's vantage point, looks like she's coming from the beach. There is a slowly dawning perception tacitly communicated in the poem, as the speaker gradually decides the person is a woman rather than a man. One might wonder if the idea that she's coming from the beach may be unconsciously tied to the roaring "ocean" of the stadium. This is one of those elliptical moments in Eigner, where one has to read between the lines. The next line proclaims only:


The next

arms the

tells us where the feet and arms are: in the

  warm air

The arms and feet are bare, exposed to the warm air. The speaker watches the figure walking home stop to put on her shoes: "passing home shoes/ on steady/to be heard." Are these flip-flops, or another kind of woman's shoe that makes a good deal of noise "to be heard?" These shoes had been taken "off recently" to be "dried" in the air; this may play into the characterization of her as returning from the beach.

The final two "stanzas" exhibit a different movement in the poem. This is a hot, summery, autumn day, one in a place where not all the trees are bare, and where people still look as if they might be returning from a swim at the beach. Yet, it is unmistakably Fall and the football season has begun. This poem is a depiction of a season in decline that still looks as if it were thriving. Following this theme, we read the lines, "once in a while still/ you want/ another child" to pair the dwindling summer with an intimation of infertility. The words are spoken as though addressed to a woman who is past childbearing age, but still wishes she could have another baby. Perhaps the poet is channeling the woman he watches walking barefoot along the street. If so, what has he seen in the way she puts on her shoes that communicates her innermost thoughts?

The line "The trees will/ be here/ at night," (the intimation being: although we may not be able to see them) further supports this sense that the speaker is seeing into the woman's thoughts, underlining the separation between the appearances of things and their reality: just because a desire seems absent doesn't mean it lacking. Although this poem affords much material for a psychoanalytic interpretation of the poet himself, here our interest is restricted to his desire for extra-linguistic communication. 8 In this poem, the speaker fantasizes that, by silently reading the gestures of a woman walking along the street, he can examine her consciousness. This desire for a kind of non-verbal, intuitive communication, or empathy with the passerby, seems to parallel that which he strives to create with his own reader, primarily, we will argue, through his visual poetics.

Part Two: Larry Eigner's Visual Poetics

Larry Eigner lived with cerebral palsy, a condition that was brought on by a trauma experienced at birth. CP limited both his movement and speech, and necessitated his use of a wheelchair. Though his poetry discusses his own body only rarely, it is considered by many to be ever-present within the form of his work. Critics have made much of the fact that, given the severity of his physical limitations, writing itself was difficult for Eigner. Ron Silliman represents Eigner's typewriter as a kind of prosthesis that enables him to speak, and emphasizes that "The line in [Eigner's] work is an extraordinary physical act, given his ability to use three fingers on one hand and a basic grasping motion with the other…"

Along the lines Ron Silliman describes, critics have long recognized a connection between Eigner's use of the page and his own disabled body. Denise Levertov, who had an interest in the "physical design of poetry," wrote: "I feel Eigner's 'nervous line' as they say of drawings…and his 'broken' content are connected with his physical condition" (Davidson, 2004, 3). Levertov's use of a description associated with the visual arts is appropriate to Eigner's work, and it is our intention here to argue that these works must be read pictorially, as well as poetically, in the Olsonian tradition of reading for the aural/oral implications of projectivist verse.

In a manner that seems reductive, critics have tended to read Eigner's typography as being either mimetic, or prosthetic. Though Eigner underwent cryosurgery when he was 35, a process that "tamed" his wild left arm and leg (Eigner, 1989, 26), some critics associate his short, rigid lines with the tight muscles of CP, and elsewhere, think of his words that interject into plain space as if they were arms gesticulating unreservedly, straining to articulate, even in some cases, against the lines or words that precede them. As in:

feet on the back

jab 9

Still, critics disagree how to read the poem as the index of his body: If his short lines, which so often flit from noun to noun, imitate the tightness felt in his own muscles, the willful exercise of a short, precise line, alternatively, allows him a kind of mastery where his own body could not be made precise in its movements. Take for example, the following poem:

poem that reads, squirrels everywhere all, of, a, sudden, that sense, of the up and down, nothing, branches wires - Things Stirring Together or Far Away, page 60

Though many critics have attempted to show that the poet's physical body is visible in his typographic and stylistic choices, it is our intervention in the camp of — as yet, still underdeveloped — Eigner criticism to note that the visuality of his poetry draws also upon the theories of Black Mountain artists, as well as Black Mountain poets.

Rather than just arguing that the poet recreates or surmounts his body within the poem's spatial design, we seek to discover how Eigner's use of the white space of the page is in dialogue with Black Mountain College's experiments in abstraction. Just as John Cage considered silence as much a part of a composition as musical notes and invited the noises of the audience to be considered as part of his collectively-made pieces, Eigner's white space works upon and involves the reader: More than simply making visible the poet's physical body, and perhaps even his pain, Eigner's image-texts strive for a kind of communication with the body of the viewer. Before turning to our own interpretation of Eigner's spatial, meta-physical poetics, however, it is useful to briefly characterize its form.

Eigner's poetry is often noted for his irregular enjambment and typographical experimentation, his avoidance of the person pronoun (Silliman, 374) and his elliptical and paratactic rhetoric (Hart, 324 and 319 after Watten, 184). Michael Davidson laments the lack of discussion of Eigner's cerebral palsy in criticism, in so far as it examines his choice of subject matter. Davidson employs a quote from Robert Grenier, in part, it seems, to disagree with it: "'Larry's work does not derive from his palsy,' but on the other hand, his poetry cannot help but be affected by it" (Davidson, 1999, 11). In part, Davidson investigates Eigner's physical "confinement" as seen in his recurring themes: squirrels, birds, telephone wires.

A sampling of several of Eigner's poems read in conjunction with each other creates a vision of the world seen through a stationary portal, a direct contrast, perhaps, to Emerson's transparent, roving eyeball. This trend is evident in a few of the first lines of poems written during the late eighties and early nineties, from the book Windows Walls Yard Ways. As in:

"shadowy tail" (p.192)
"t r e e s  a n d" (p.191)
"morning" (p.189)
"pruning the tree" (p.184)
"T h r o u g h  a  s m a l l  w i n d o w ,  y e s" (p.183)

These poems reveal a spatial separation between the inside observer and his outside object. In the visual arts, linear perspective has long been associated with a fixed view through a window; to convincingly render depth, an artist would have to deny the two-dimensional surface of the painting, leaving the viewer with a framed glimpse into another realm. Abstraction is the rejection of perspectival depth, shifting the emphasis to the material surface and blocking the viewer from looking "through" it. Eigner's window does both: it offers cropped, constricted aural and visual impressions of a world external to him even as it is the bridge, or point of contact, that dissolves such a duality.

Several of his shortest poems describe in spare language a single, visual impression. Consider, for example:

triangle shadow

          that's our house

               on the opposite wall (p. 105)


round          red
     toy on the roof
          is a sun at the
               start of night (p. 70)

The austere simplicity of these haiku-like, imagistic poems reverberates with a meditative stillness. Especially in the first example, the white space between lines seems to set a placid, musing tone. In the second example, the lines are tightly set to give the impression of the diagonal lines of a roof, as in concrete poetry, but the gap between the words "round" and "red" cannot be suggestive of a cognitive pause, as these elements would be perceived simultaneously. This might be an instance where Eigner is approximating his own labored speech in the Olsonian tradition of projectivist verse practiced by many Black Mountain poets.

Sometimes Eigner has a doubling effect in his poems, as columns appear to be in conversation or conflict with each other. He once explained that, "I sometimes say 2 things at about the same time, in two columns. It'll be from not deciding or being unable to decide quickly anyway what to say first, or next" (Eigner, 1989, 149). Take for example, the following short poem:

sun               sun some

     walls               walls

          years               white now

               now               years

(Windows Walls Yard Ways, 68)

In this instance, Eigner uses typographical mimesis to reflect tension, but here it is not between what the body can and cannot do, but what the page can and cannot represent. Some critics have said that Eigner's poetry allowed him a place to "speak." We eschew this interpretation, not only because it misconstrues Eigner as incapable of verbal speech, but also because it seems a drastic reduction of his poetics. Eigner's poems might, at times, approximate his speech — hesitant, laborious — but poems like the one above make clear that Eigner is pointing to a different failure of the body, one shared by disabled and non-disabled people alike: the ability to speak thought in the instant it is produced, even when the mind may be working on two ideas simultaneously; just as elsewhere he may lament the universal failure of the body to truly empathize with another, to co-experience (or co-produce or co-perform), housed as we all are in separate sensoria. If the space of the page furnished Eigner with a plane in which he could "graph" his poems (as Hart says, 319), he is sometimes representing his body, sometimes his speech, and sometimes, his thought.

There are rare occasions when Eigner explicitly discusses his disability within the poem and locates himself as the speaker, as in the following short poem:

poem that reads, Tongue-tied and, muscle, bound, years, or the seasons, leaves, and, snow

(Windows Walls Yard Ways, 62)

In this work, we see a play on the phrase "muscle-bound," usually seen in the context of "muscle-bound hero," to mean a person with sizable muscles; here Eigner turns it into a description of himself, a man who is "bound" by the unreliability of his own muscles.

Eigner's CP was a result of a forceps injury during birth that a Caesarian section would have spared him (Eigner, 1989, 127). From his letters and interviews we know that he was fascinated by the idea that humans suffer from difficult births because our brains have evolved much faster than our pelvic bones. Eigner mused that the trauma of birth may be "A price exacted for the human brain sort of" (Eigner, 1989,132). In a matter similar to disabled poet Jim Ferris's play with jambe/enjambment, in which he relies on enjambed lines to approximate his limp, we read Caesarian/caesura together, as a breaching of the linguistic text to accommodate things that can't be articulated in words: A technique providing for the limits of language (sort of)10

Eigner frequently uses caesura, the mid-line gap that he refers to as "lacunae." Though some critics feel that these spatial interjections represent a redirection in thought, or are directives for breathing, marking speech patterns, Eigner's lacunae act as placeholders that operate cognitively, thematically, or pictorially. In places, one might see Eigner's caesura as operating similarly to that used by non-disabled poet Mina Loy in "Parturition" and Adrienne Rich in "Contradictions: Tracking Poems;" both works employ blank spaces to represent a consciousness divided by physical pain. Even in places where the placement of the gaps does not seem to elaborate on the poem thematically, however, they slow down the tempo of a line, make visible the poet's motions on the typewriter, and generally, make strange the experience of reading.

For example:

poem which reads, the stars out, all this time, air through, the houses

"quiet / as a bird…" (August 28-29, 1966) #29 In vol. III, p. 746

In The Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty describes reading Descartes' Meditations:

The wonderful thing about language is that it promotes its own oblivion: my eyes follow the lines on the paper, and from the moment I am caught up in their meaning, I lose sight of them. The paper, the letters on it, my eyes and body are there only as the minimum setting of some invisible operation: Expression fades out before what is expressed, and this is why its mediating role may pass unnoticed…" (Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 466)

In the act of reading such a text, we become the mere recipients of the words; we cease, in some sense, to view the medium of the text's expression. 11 Our invocation of Merleau-Ponty on this point is not incidental. Eigner's poetry is not merely a representation of his own body, but specifically, it chronicles his body in the act of writing; it also invites the body of the reader to experience the text, to engage with it in a phenomenological manner, and pushes against the kind of invisible operation whereby the means of the expression dissolves. The phenomenologist who emphasizes that one uses the whole body to order to do phenomenology, Merleau-Ponty wrote that, unlike a philosophical treatise, the

novel, poem, picture or musical work are individuals, that is, beings in which the expression is indistinguishable from the thing expressed, their meaning, accessible only through direct contact, being radiated with no change of their temporal and spatial situation. It is in this sense that our body is comparable to a work of art. It is a nexus of living meanings…(175)

As a disabled person, Eigner's own relationship to space was unique, but his poems make such varied and deliberate uses of space that one must not interpret his poetic form as merely biographic: It would be a mistake to dismiss the physicality of Eigner's poetic form as always being about his body, but it wouldn't be a mistake to claim that it is, working in the phenomenological mode, all about the body, in a manner in league with contemporary trends in the visual arts. Merleau-Ponty writes that it is through our bodies that we experience the world ‒ indeed, "The body is our general medium for having a world" (169) ‒ but he also describes at length the art object as a medium through which we can perceive the world:

The body is to be compared, not to a physical object, but rather to a work of art. In a picture or a piece of music the idea is incommunicable by means other than the display of colours and sounds…The same is true of a poem or a novel, although they are made up of words. (Merleau-Ponty, 174)

Phenomenology has a long history of application in the arts. In their introduction to the edited collection Art and Phenomenology, Joseph Parry and Mark Wrathall briefly touch upon the debate surrounding the application of phenomenology to both poetry and the visual arts:

….the poem for Heidegger, like the painting for Merleau-Ponty, teaches us to see significations that are operative on us in a way that resists propositional expression. […] We do not necessarily mean to privilege visual art or painting as the one true way of doing phenomenology. What is important to the writers in this book is that visual art can give us access to the world that we encounter in the primordial situation of our being: our bodies in a particular time and place, and from within particular contexts and vantage points — in other words, in the pre-reflective space before we begin to think the world and its meaning by means of concepts we've learned to apply to our experience. (Parry and Wrathall, 4)

Heidegger's privileging of poetry, say Parry and Wrathall, comes out of a sense that it "teaches us to rethink how meaning works" (4). Merleau-Ponty's preference for the visual arts, echoed here by Parry and Wrathall, yearns for the pre-linguistic, corporeal encounter with phenomena. 12 Yet both avenues are made available to the reader of Eigner's especially visual poetic page, which constructs the space of the text so that it operates as much pictorially as it does linguistically.

Merleau-Ponty sees a difference between bodily communication and the poem consigned to the page:

It is distinguishable from the cry, because the cry makes use of the body as nature gave it to us: poor in expressive means; whereas the poem uses language, and even a particular language, in such a way that the existential modulation, instead of being dissipated at the very instant of its expression, finds in poetic art a means of making itself eternal. But although it is independent of the gesture which is inseparable from living expression, the poem is not independent of every material aid, and it would be irrecoverably lost if its text were not preserved down to the last detail. Its meaning is not arbitrary and does not dwell in the firmament of ideas: it is locked in the words printed on some perishable page. In that sense, like every work of art, the poem exists as a thing and does not eternally survive as does a truth. (174-175)

Eigner's poetry, however, does seem to make visible "the gesture which is inseparable from living expression" by means of his use of the typewriter, and it also expands into abstraction, signifying beyond words, and, in these gaps, invites the reader's own phenomenological interaction with the work.

Elaine Showalter writes: "In poetry you read everything, including the punctuation" (Showalter, 69); Eigner has written: "a line is a typographical device as much as a comma or colon…as is indentation, lacuna too" (Eigner, 1989, 25). Our interest in Eigner's use of enjambment, indentation, caesura, all center on one thing: the space that he leaves untouched on the page. The spaces in Eigner's poetry — indentations, caesura, spacing between letters, double-spacing between lines— must be read pictorially, phenomenologically. To demonstrate the validity of considering the white space that hovers, dilates, inserts itself between words, as a space that should be read alongside the words, we turn to a different discipline and perhaps, some unlikely sources — such as Kandinsky's color theory and its legacy of desubjectification. Given that we endeavor here to read the page as a visual as well as a textual medium, and taking into consideration the way that the poem was constructed to strike the visual senses, we have to examine not only those marks that are placed on the page and the arrangement of characters, but we also have to consider the effect and arrangement of the space left blank.

Part Three: Abstraction and Empathy

To read a poem pictorially means, in many ways, not to read it at all. A useful experiment might be to sever Eigner's words from their meanings so the space between them advances as an equal component of the medium. The emergent whiteness challenges the authority of the black words typed upon it to create a dialectical tension that requires reading between the lines. One might argue here that all poetry — in its printed form — could therefore be read in a similar way; meaning, tension could be read into its inherent black-and-whiteness, and the pages might be seen as pictures. Yet, Eigner's communicative method is distinct because he explicitly foregrounds white space, emphasizing it by means of the frequent insertion of spaces between letters, mid-line gaps, and play with indentation, thereby transforming the page from mere receptacle into participant. In the standard abstractionist language, the form has become the content just as it did in modernist painting and atonal musical composition. Eigner's language relays his subjective and reflected-upon experience of the world, while the formalist element of his poetry speaks to the body universal.

Perception and color theory, born of the early twentieth century, were preoccupied with the psychological and physiological effects of external phenomena upon the observing subject. It drew upon the philosophies found in Edmund Husserl's foundational work, Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology (1913) and Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception (1945). This phenomenological inquiry was embedded in the curriculum at Black Mountain and, indeed, within the affiliated Review that first published the work of Larry Eigner.

Artists, poets, and musicians who defined the Black Mountain aesthetic often came directly out of the universalist aspirations and reductivist style of the Bauhaus in Europe. Josef and Anni Albers, who shaped the Black Mountain Fine Arts program that produced artists like Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, and Kenneth Noland, were keenly interested in cultivating an American tradition of abstraction. In the visual arts, abstract painting parses out line and color as distinct entities to be apprehended optically and bodily before the entire work is processed cognitively and over time. Departing from and drawing upon Husserl's articulation of the epoché, or phenomenological reduction, it attempts to access immediacy by bracketing our "intellectualized" expectations of image production — it defies the particular, the representational, the naturalistic. The opposing poles of human aesthetic experience — the bodily and the cognitive, or "primitive" and "cultured," or spiritual and rational — were of keen interest to Kandinsky, a former colleague of the Alberses at Dessau Bauhaus.

Goldrosa-Upward by Josef Albers, 1926. Black rectangle with white and pink various horizontal stripes.

Figure 1. Josef Albers, Goldrosa-Upward, 1926. (Click image to enlarge.)

Haiku, Anni Albers, 1961. White, gray and black woven textile.

Figure 2. Anni Albers, Haiku, 1961. (Click image to enlarge.)

Fig 1 and 2: Examples of Josef and Anni Albers' work: painting and textiles produced at Black Mountain College.


Figure 3. A blocked-out excerpt of Eigner's poem, "small, flightless birds," from Air the Trees, 1968.

A comparison between the abstract works of the Alberses and a blocked out excerpt of Eigner's poem, "small, flightless birds," from Air the Trees, 1968 is useful in order to recognize the underlying abstract structure of an Eigner poem. Here, each letter has been replaced by a simple black square so that we might see the pure form of the poem. Kandinsky's dictum, "open your ears to music, your eyes to painting, and don't think!" claimed that a direct line to the human body would be activated by disentangling form from the fetters of concrete representation. And just as Kandinsky believed that color physically affects the viewer's body, so do we believe that Eigner's poetic achieves a bodily connection with the reader through a shared experience of rest, suspension, the pause enacted by the whiteness of the page. But one cannot separate form from function, and, as the experiment above proves, neither can one choose to dismiss the meaning of the words from the emotive affect of Eigner's poetry.

Kandinsky devoted his 1911 Concerning the Spiritual in Art to what he considered a rationalization of indescribable effects that certain combinations of color and line have on our aesthetic experience. Mainly concerned with color theory in terms of artistic practice, Kandinsky also acknowledges color's ability to aggravate or soothe one's mental and physical unrest in a similar way to music. He titled his own abstract paintings "improvisations," whose spontaneity of unrelated line and color allude to the dissonant compositions of fellow Russian, Igor Stravinsky. It should be noted here that it was this very tradition of avant-gardism, interdisciplinarity, and abstraction that would be carried on by Josef Albers and John Cage at Black Mountain College in the 30s and 40s.

In Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky writes, "White…has this harmony of silence, which works upon us negatively, like many pauses in music that break temporarily the melody. It is not a dead silence, but one pregnant with possibilities. White has the appeal of the nothingness that is before birth, of the world in the ice age" (Kandinsky, 39). Along these lines, we feel that the white space of Eigner's page is associated with pause: "not a dead silence, but one pregnant with possibilities." 13 According to Kandinsky, color contains within itself a little studied but enormous power, capable of influencing the entire human body. He asserts that color works by first resonating physically with the body of the viewer (Kandinsky, 25). Specifically, white space conveys to the viewer:

Eternal discord, but with
possibilities for the
future (birth) 14

In Eigner's poems, the use of the white space of the page is similar to Kandinsky's theorizing of it; white space reflects a suspension of time, thought and voice —it conveys pause (oral/aural) and suggests physical rest (for the typist and the reader). If white space, as Kandinsky would say, affects the reader bodily, then it may also facilitate connection in a way that is extra-textual; beyond, for example, the poet's use of direct address or second person pronouns, or even explicit discussion of individual selfhood, as in:

Funny it

leaves you

look at yr

the baby
you say dis-
covers self
like nice

the friend
is no longer  15

The poems of Larry Eigner may represent his body, his relationship to space, and, more rarely, his personal discomfort, but, true to the impulse behind abstractionist art like that coming out of Black Mountain College, there is also a de-subjectifying force at work. This is an opening up of the poem effected through the use of white space that lets the body of the reader access the text; thereby, a kind of collectivity that bridges the gap between writer and reader is created. Simultaneously, the dialectical tension between the authorial and readerly bodies is made visible, in the space between where the poet's body exists in the page — particularly in the visible representation of the poet's labor, with its insistence on the authorial subjectivity that invites communion with the body of the reader (if only in those places where Eigner wants) — and the art object's ability to inspire a de-subjectifying sensation of communion.

In contemplation of the art object, the subject experiences the world for herself, but she also experiences the world of another through the medium of the art object. The reader finds herself in this confrontation in "dialogue" with another. In her article, "Mapping the Offer of Phenomenology in the Arts," Carmen Cozma explains how phenomenological philosophy has been applied to draw out "the 'relation with the other,' in the scheme of 'being-with and 'being-for;' namely, the authentic human relation, that of solidarity, of communication, actually" which exists in the work of art (Cozma, 115).

From a methodological point of view, we manage to do a disclosure and elucidation of the meaning which is aimed and mediated by artistical works. This meaning is highlighted, according to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, "at the crossing of our own experiences and at the crossing of them with the other's experiences." That happens through the intentional sensation, aiming a "beyond of it," going to "coexistence" or "communion." Thus the subject recognizes itself as "self-experience," but no less as "intersubjective experience". (Cozma, International Journal of Philosophy of Culture and Axiology, 109 8/2007; p. 111)

Read as a whole, which is now made possible by the recent publication of The Collected Poems, Eigner's poetry often seems to be reaching outwards toward the reader, questioning the nature of that thing (the poem) that both divides and connects them, mindful of poetry's ability to facilitate an intersubjective experience:

             contact               communication


                   enough and not enough

                                         how far
                                                           we keep on 16


poem that reads, what, to think, of, a poem, ?

"what / to think…" (June 3, 1974) #866 In vol. III, p. 1210.

But in what capacity is the reader invited to participate in the poem as a means of communication?

Philosopher and psychologist Theodor Lipps believed that "to enjoy aesthetically means to enjoy myself in a sensuous object diverse from myself, to empathize myself into it" (Lipps, 247). For a viewer of a painting, reader of a poem, or listener of a musical composition, to empathize means to experience a feeling of kinship with that object and feel as if one comes to inhabit a shared space with its creator. Think here for example of a Jackson Pollock canvas —an "arena in which to act" as critic Harold Rosenberg described it — once literally inhabited by the artist's body. The viewer may feel physically analogous to the object based on scale, but she also empathizes with the body of the artist, whose "own process of making the work is re-enacted by the viewer in the realm of perception." 17 Eigner's broken lines and stark images provide the reader with a glimpse of the poet's world-view (in language, but also created in the page as visual field) in order that she might mentally inhabit the poem and by extension, empathize herself "into" it (as Lipps would say). Empathy of this kind can, in itself, be considered a kind of metaphysical experience, whereby one stretches the boundaries of the individual subject position through affect to achieve a kind of multiple state. If one considers empathy as the co-experience of pain or happiness, the state of being in feeling with someone else — as opposed to sympathy, which would be just a parallel experience of the same feeling — then one might argue that the reader is meant to literally feel Eigner's stilted movement in the typographical exertions. Yet, we argue that this empathic experience is brought about as much by the intentional physicality of the poems' use of space, employed in a manner similar to that of the Abstract Expressionists, as it is by the words, images, and ideas transmitted in language. As such, it is not so much metaphysical as meta-physical, operating as it does on the viewer's body directly through the senses.

Art historian Wilhelm Worringer adapted Lipps' concept of Einfühlung (empathy) to define one end of the spectrum of aesthetic experience and its source of artistic motivation. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy provides a useful definition of Einfühlung, for our purposes, which clarifies it as a bodily empathy:

In contrast to sympathy, where one's identity is preserved in feeling with or for the other, in empathy or Einfühlung one tends to lose oneself in the other…it is a process of involuntary, inner imitation whereby a subject identifies through feeling with the movement of another body, whether it be the real leap of a dancer or the illusory upward lift of an architectural column. (Audi, 255) 18

Worringer's 1908 work Abstraction and Empathy lucidly describes a "psychology of style" in which "every line already demands of me that inner motion which includes the two impulses: expansion and delimitation" (Worringer, 5). In its most simple summation, Worringer's thesis is that the whole of art history has oscillated between either a tendency toward naturalism or toward abstraction. The former is associated with an urge to empathize because it is a form of artistic expression that attempts to approximate our familiar impressions of the world through descriptive language or mimetic representation. While Eigner provides us with the tools for a naturalistic, empathetic connection like that Worringer describes — clear language, familiar scenes from everyday life — his form also operates in an abstract mode that makes of the absence of words active signifiers, that uses broken or doubled lines to represent his creative process, and also invites the viewer/reader to empathize herself into the poem.

The movement that leads from Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself," (1855) in which the poet makes a claim to a physical and spiritual relationship with the reader ("I do not say these things for a dollar, or to fill up the time while I wait for a boat./ It is you talking just as much as myself — I act as the tongue of you; / Tied in your mouth in mine it begins to be loosen'd" lines 1244-1246), to the cut-up and "fold in" poems of William Burroughs, reads like a de-subjectifying progression. It begins by celebrating the role of the author and the text's ability to communicate with the body of the viewer and ends by attempting to disassociate the poem from an agentic embodied authorship, putting the author and the reader in the same position as outside observers of the work, or offering the reader a space in which to collaborate. 19

In the work of Larry Eigner one can see both of these tensions coming into play. Specifically, Eigner's work dramatizes the suspension between the artistic impulse of inscribing the authorial body on the page, primarily through his use of form — something that, too, is emphasized in abstract art, think here again of Pollock's action paintings — and a use of space that yet makes room for the body of the viewer to experience it, engage with the text/image phenomenologically, in a manner that de-subjectifies the experience of reading. The reader's absorption into the visual field allows a kind of corporeal communication between the body of the poet and that of the reader. In order to make clear how this works, and particularly to emphasize that we consider this meta-physical rather than metaphysical, we read the operation of these texts upon the senses.

If we were to read Eigner's poetry like a canvas, we might say that it is the boundlessness of Eigner's page, in contrast to the constriction of language and syntax, that allows cohabitation. The flip side of empathy in the arts, according to Worringer, its paradoxical counterpart, is the urge to abstraction. As Hal Foster deftly explains, Worringer's binary (between realism/empathy and abstraction/alienation) is symptomatic of a need to "express two opposite relations to the world, an empathetic engagement and a shocked withdrawal" (Foster, Prosthetic Gods, 135). However, the distance between these poles of realism and abstraction, as far as empathy is concerned, may not be that far apart. The point of Worringer's, and for that matter Kandinsky's, championing of abstraction is that it has the capacity to express within its own medium — but not necessarily in the discourse of that medium — the inexpressible. Abstraction is a reprieve from the constant struggle to define, classify, or explain experience:

…the impulse to artistic creation, as the content of the absolute artistic volition, the urge — in the face of the bewildering and disquieting mutations of the phenomena of the outer world — to create resting-points, opportunities for repose, necessities in the contemplation of which the spirit exhausted by the caprice of perception could halt awhile… represents a felicitation whose mysterious transfiguration emanates not from the observer's intellect, but from the deepest roots of his somato-psychic constitution. (italics ours, Worringer, 35)

One follows Worringer's idea that abstraction offers a space in which the intellect can pause from the engagement with phenomena, and the viewer can experience a deeper, more profound sense of herself. In bypassing mimetic representation, abstract art strives to operate directly upon the viewer's senses, in a manner like that described by Kandinsky, thereby effecting an empathy which operates in an ontic if not an intellectual register.

Critics often read Eigner's poetry as providing a topography of his disabled experience, but his use of expansive white space suggests the kind of engagement with the audience/viewer/reader's body that became a mainstay of abstraction as well. The pedagogical approach within the Black Mountain artistic community — a population with which Eigner is associated because his first poems were published by The Black Mountain Review — encouraged abstraction because it carried with it the potential for a shift from an individual expression of the experience of reality, to the creation of an experience of universality. The dissolution of descriptive or naturalistic methods such as one finds in abstract art makes the immediacy of sense-perception the focal point of the art object, thereby allowing the viewers to share a similar ineffable experience, as they literally dwell in the same space in feeling their experience of a work, which, in its non-representational shape, will, in theory, draw out fewer individual, personal responses ("she looks like my mother;" "I've seen pears like those"), and instead will be a base, instinctual, and corporeal response to the operation of color and line. 20


Charles Olson quotes Robert Creeley: "Form is never more than an extension of content" (Olson, 16). And according to Ron Silliman, the content of the poem for Olson is always already connected to the body of the poet: "In the Olsonian world, the text substitutes for the body of the poet. The reader…uses the poem to literally read the poet, who is the ultimate object of the reading" (Silliman, 370). If Eigner's poetry is more bodily, it nonetheless seems less one-sided than this description of Olson's work. If Olsonian poetics emphasizes the author's body, or at least its enunciations, it seems legitimate to read a text for the pull of tensions between the way language inscribes the body, and the reality of the author's own corporeal experience; yet, as Eigner's visual poetics make clear, there is a communication effected in his work that operates like artistic abstraction, communicating extra-linguistically.

In New Definitions of Lyric, Michael Golston's essay, "Mobilizing Forms: Lyric, Scrolling Device, and Assembly Lines in P. Inman's 'nimr,'" discusses visual form as one facet associated with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, with whom Eigner and Olson are sometimes considered predecessors. Golston advocates that the reader consider the "overall architecture" of these poems, which communicate with the layout as much as the words (Golston, 8). Yet, as other critics note, the visual element of modern poetics has a much longer history:

One could, perhaps, argue that speech and writing have been searching for their visual/spatial counterpart since Simonides of Keos' formulation that 'poetry is speaking painting' while 'painting is mute poetry,' and extending through, among others, Horace's dictum ut pictura poesis, centuries of religious 'pattern poetry,' Blake's illustrations, Stein's cubism, Pound's ideograms, Olson's hieroglyphics, concrete poetry, performance poetry, ethnopoetics, video-texts, and virtual texts. These experiments have, in their various ways, sought to imbue speech and writing with the visual and spatial dimensions of images of the body. Have these experiments emerged out of a phantom-limb phenomenon where writers have sensed language's severed visual-spatial mode and went groping after it? (Bauman, 315-316)

The rhetoric of disability that is visible in this quotation suggests that it is language's inability to effectively capture human experience that calls for the inclusion of the visual medium in the written text. Perhaps it is appropriate that, in the work of Larry Eigner, a poet for whom the act of writing was an incredible physical labor because of his disability, the whites of his page communicate volumes. What Eigner's work illustrates is that blank space, too, can be made to speak of (and to) the body, that it communicates movement as well as pause, and that it allows the reader to engage with it phenomenologically.

Poetry was a physical act for Eigner, and his use of typography emphasizes his writing process as one which involved "a registration of keys struck one by one" (Eigner, 1989, v); laborious one-finger typing that, in Charles Bernstein's words, "bangs" the images onto the page. We know from Ron Silliman that typing was not easy for Eigner, and specifically difficult was loading the typewriter with a fresh sheet of paper.

His brother bought him a desk that had the drawers on the wrong side (Larry can only reach to the right), so for him to reach a piece of paper to get (with some difficulty) into the typewriter meant spinning the wheelchair 360 degrees…The minute one realizes how fully he utilized his limited physical vocabulary in order to simply to put word to page, the whole weight of movement shifts, and those poems never have that light feeling again. (Silliman, ubuffalo listserv)

In an interview, Eigner was once asked why his personal letters and other correspondence were so textually dense while his poetry is so spare. 21 Though he doesn't answer the question entirely, what he says is revealing: he typed letters fast to be able to keep up with his thoughts and to save space, thereby avoiding having to put another sheet of paper in the typewriter (Eigner, 1989, 149). The poems' use of space is therefore an intentional, if laborious act. The white space forces thought to slow down, just as it forced an elongation of the physical process for Eigner; as such, these spaces signify suspended signification, but they are hardly empty.

In what is arguably his most meta (as in self-referential) poem, "To CC," the first poem in Eigner's 1967 book another time in fragments, he makes reference to the white page that for Kandinsky conveyed a suspension of time by means of an absence of color. Indeed, this poem seems like an instruction manual for how to read Eigner's own work pictorially:

To   C C

how read it
            line after line

                     one look

                         refresh the eyes
                       against the abyss

For Eigner, as for Kandinsky, the "abyss" of the white space may communicate rest for the body in motion, its expressions and exertions. As pregnant pause, the expansive and inexpressible white space confronts the carefully concise and reticent language grafted upon it. What this directive shows us is that the space carved within the poem imposes bodily communication between the poet and his reader. The spaces in Eigner's poems are places where his typing finger rested, and also where the eyes of the reader should "refresh" themselves in the white of the page. Thus, the meta-physics of Eigner's work, which fosters a shared experience with the reader, happens not merely by means of language, but in the manner of artistic abstraction, in the interplay between symbol (here, words) and the interstices between words.

The meta-physics of Eigner's poetry, at its core, is the "invisible operation" of self-alienation that works by entering into a dialogue with the poem, on the basis of bodily experience. 22 For our purposes this means reading Eigner's poetry not simply as the intellectual expression of the author's embodiment, but reading with the body itself. A sensus communis is achieved when Eigner, and the reader with him, move from an encounter with the alienating, external world of phenomena, to a self-alienating encounter with the phenomena of the art object, and in the confrontation of the abstract — the deep white space that communicates that which cannot be ensconced in logos — the body (if not the rational mind) glimpses something like sensory empathy: a shared if ineffable experience; a sense of rest from the reader's experience of self.

The authors would like to thank Professors Scott Simmon, Joshua Clover, Nathan Brown and Sandra McPherson for their thoughtful comments and critiques as this article was developed, Jillian Weise for inspiring conversation about Eigner's work, as well as their fellow panelists at the CUNY conference on the "Poetics of Pain," February, 2010.


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  • Bernstein, Charles, "Again Eigner, an online tribute" http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/documents/obits/eigner.html
  • Cozma, Carmen, "Mapping the Offer of Phenomenology in the Arts," International Journal of Philosophy of Culture and Axiology, 109 8/2007
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  1. These lines are from "The Moving Tribe," in Things Stirring Together or Far Away (1974), Black Sparrow Press, p. 38
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  2. An essay operating from a similar position as ours reads Eigner's poems visually, drawing comparison to Merleau-Ponty's discussion of the artist Paul Cezanne and Eigner's "multidimensional form." See Jessica Luck Lewis, "Larry Eigner and the Phenomenology of Projected Verse" in Contemporary Literature, Fall 2012.
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  3. For a discussion of Eigner's poetry that specifically situates his work in the context of the longer history of visual poetry, see Curtis Faville's brief essay, "The Text as an Image of Itself," in The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner (Stanford UP: 2010), volume 4, pages xxvii-xxxii.
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  4. This is from The Collected Poems, January 30 80 #1194
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  5. Larry Eigner, The Collected Poems, June 19 76 #979 A very different feeling comes off of these poems if they are put into a different font, and this is my motivation in embedding selected poems directly into the text as image. As the recent edition of The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner does, as often as possible, we strive to represent these poems as they looked originally; either by embedding photographs of the poems, or using a typewriter font.
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  6. The Collected Poems, August 6-8 78 #1093
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  7. Thus, we infer meaning from a phrase that successfully economizes words: not a strange project for a man for whom speaking and writing were physical labor, perhaps.
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  8. We might consider this poem one of the most personally revealing of Eigner's oeuvre. Perhaps he is confessing that sometimes, on beautiful afternoons, he wishes his body imposed no limits on his desires. It seems that this sentiment, the desire for a child, by invoking conception, pregnancy, and childbirth implies Eigner's own disability—one brought on by a trauma experienced during birth.
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  9. From "give a dog," Things Stirring Together or Far Away, p. 31
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  10. In an issue of The Georgia Review, Jim Ferris outlines his strategy for making the form of his poetry, by means of meter and line breaks, materialize his own, disabled body. Ferris claims that his use of enjambment approximates his own limp; he also connects his irregular rhythm with his irregular stride: "I walk in loose iambic" (Ferris, 229).
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  11. Though Merleau-Ponty may consider this to be a "wonderful thing about language," this "invisible operation" seems to be the very sort of thing the phenomenological reduction resists. Husserl's description of "bracketing," what is elsewhere called epoché or phenomenological reduction, has been compared to a kind of suspension in astonishment that questions every element of conscious experience.
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  12. In Merleau-Ponty's mind, the poem and novel are distinct from other kinds of writing. He privileges the poem over prose, however. "It is well known that a poem, though it has a superficial meaning translatable into prose, leads, in the reader's mind, a further existence which makes it a poem" (174).
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  13. We are interested in Kandinsky's various associations between the color white and birth, pregnancy, and life before birth, especially in light of the fact that Eigner's condition was the result of an incident during his birth.
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  14. These lines are enjambed as such in the original text (Kandinsky, 37).
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  15. from Things Stirring Together or Far Away (1974), Black Sparrow Press
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  16. May 23 72 #689
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  17. David Joselit. American Art Since 1945. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2003. 9, 11
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  18. The entry goes on to state, "Husserl used a phenomenologically purified concept of Einfühlung to account for the way the self directly recognizes the other." (Audi, 255)
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  19. In the "Text as Image of Itself" essay that appears at the end of volume four of the Collected Poems, the author notes that Whitman himself took an active interest in the layout of his poetic page, typesetting the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855. "Both the concept and feel of this original edition suggest that Whitman was attempting to unite the qualities of the material text, as an embodiment of visual and tactile object, with the rustic, nativist thematic content of his ambitious American poem sequence." (Collected Poems, xxvii)
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  20. Consider, for example, Clement Greenberg's description of the difference between realist and abstract art: "It has been in search of the absolute that the avant-garde has arrived at 'abstract' or 'nonobjective' art – and poetry too. The avant-garde poet or artist tries in effect to imitate God by creating something valid on its own terms, in the way nature itself is valid, in the way a landscape – not its picture – is aesthetically valid; something given, increate, independent of meanings, similars or originals. Content is to be dissolved so completely into form that the work or art or literature cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything else." (Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture: Critical Essays, 6)
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  21. The chronological layout of the Collected Poems makes visible that there is also a development of the short spare poem as Eigner's preferred form. His early poems are very often more textually dense, sometimes filling the page margin to margin, and are often longer. Although he continued to write longer poems sporadically throughout his life, the short poem, sometimes little more than a pair or trio of lines, dominates his later work. Interestingly, I have found examples in his latter years where he returns to the dense poem when musing upon his early life. See for example, poem catalogued as February 11-4 84.
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  22. Here we are self-consciously repurposing this phrase, which comes from a passage quoted earlier from Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception.
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