Setting His Words Free

Poet Larry Eigner explored the world with his typewriter

Eigner’s Royal Portable Junior Typewriter

Eigner’s Royal Portable Junior Typewriter. Photo: Courtesy of the UB Poetry Collection

By Lauren Newkirk Maynard

Larry Eigner (1927-1996) was a prominent 20th-century American poet and a major influence on the avant-garde poetics of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. This 1940s Royal Portable Junior manual typewriter, a bar mitzvah gift, was his sole writing tool and a window into his prolific mind: Wheelchair-bound and unable to speak clearly from the cerebral palsy he contracted at birth, Eigner used the machine to painstakingly compose more than 3,000 poems, 40 collections of poetry, 75 books and pamphlets, and countless letters.

Eigner’s Royal Portable Junior was donated to the UB Poetry Collection in 2011 by his brother, Richard Eigner. UB also owns typewriters once used by Robert Duncan, John Clarke and Theodore Enslin; plus one that likely was used by William Carlos Williams; and another that may have been owned by Fran Striker, author of “The Lone Ranger.”

Eigner typed and loaded paper using only the index finger and thumb of his right hand. In 1962, he underwent a successful cryosurgery that helped calm a severe tremor in his left side.


Manuscripts reproduced with permission of the estate of Larry Eigner. Photo: Courtesy of the UB Poetry Collection

UB’s world-renowned Poetry Collection—a special collection of the University Libraries—holds virtually all of Eigner’s publications plus a large selection of his original manuscripts and letters.

Eigner’s spare yet evocative style evolved from traditional rhymes he learned as a schoolboy into inventive constructions using space on the page. In 2010, four volumes of his collected poems were published to wide acclaim by Stanford University Press—each poem reproduced to closely resemble how he had originally typed it.

Larry Eigner (left), Portuguese poet Alberto de Lacerda (middle) and Robert Duncan (right).

Despite having spent most of his life physically isolated at his family’s home in Swampscott, Mass., Eigner enjoyed a rich worldwide correspondence with Beat-era poets, including Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan and Charles Olson. In this photo, taken in 1970 in San Francisco, he visits with Portuguese poet Alberto de Lacerda (middle) and Duncan (right).

Many scholars today explore the tension between Larry Eigner’s stunning literary ability and his physical condition; some consider his process and his poetry to be inseparable, while others are less comfortable reading his poetry through the lens of his disability.