Yet we insist that life is full of happy chance
Yet we insist that life is full of happy chance
In the early 2000s, Lyn Hejinian's "Yet we insist that life is full of happy chance" appeared destined to remain a work in progress. The original version of the poem (and the one reprinted here) was first included in Hejinian's collection My Life (1980), which was composed of thirty-seven sections, each comprised of thirty-seven sentences. When she first wrote it in 1978, Hejinian planned to write an autobiographical poem in a form that corresponded to her age (thirty-seven). But as time passes, the numerical markers of a person's age increase, and in 1987, Hejinian released a revised edition of the original poems, expanded to reflect the fact that she was then eight years older. Just as Hejinian's life had lengthened to included forty-five years, so, too, did the collection, now expanded to forty-five sections, containing the original poems, each with eight new lines. Later, Hejinian published a number of independent sections that suggest a continuation of My Life to include memories of the 1990s.
Taken together the verse paragraphs arrange Lyn Hejinian's memories of childhood and growing up along a series of contextual threads. The first thread attempts (sometimes successfully, sometimes futilely) to relate each intimate memory to the next, providing the poem with a sense of cohesion that the poem resists in many other ways through its fragmented and discontinuous structure. The second contextual thread brings in the political and cultural background of these personal memories, addressing the events and ideas that defined the times during which Hejinian matured as a person and a poet. The third, more theoretical thread intersects with the previous two, locating both memory and cultural ideas in relation to the philosophical issues involved in writing autobiography and the struggle to bring forward a story of a self-conscious life. "Yet we insist that life is full of happy chance" is section twenty-nine of the first edition of My Life.
Lyn Hejinian was born on May 17, 1941, in San Francisco, California, to Chaffee Earl Hall Jr., a high school teacher, and Carolyn Frances Erskine. She left the West Coast to earn a B.A. from Harvard University in 1963 then returned to the Bay Area at the age of twenty-seven and immediately became involved in the arts, specifically poetry. Her first prose pamphlet, A Thought Is the Bride of What Thinking, was published in 1976. This work reveals a poet's determination to challenge word usage and reorder syntax. The writing urges readers past the familiar into questions about the nature of art and language. The prolific Hejinian is best known for her book-length prose poem, My Life (1980, 1987), in which "Yet we insist that life is fully of happy chance" appears.
A distinguished editor and translator as well as poet, Hejinian was involved in a number of important publishing projects, including Tuumba Press, Atelos, and the influential Poetics Journal, all based in Berkeley. Her work in these areas received recognition: she received grants from the National Endowment of the Arts for editorial projects (1978, 1979, and 1986) and for her work as a translator (1988). She was also awarded three editor grants from the California Arts Council.
Hejinian's teaching career was extensive and diverse, including positions at the California College of Arts and Crafts (Oakland), in the poetics program at the New College of California (San Francisco), and as an adjunct faculty member at the University of California at Berkeley. She also served as a visiting or guest lecturer at such prestigious writing programs as the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado and the Iowa Writers' Workshop.
In August 1989, Hejinian, along with Language poets Michael Davidson, Ron Silliman, and Barrett Watten, traveled to the then Soviet city of Leningrad at the invitation of Poetic Function, a collective of experimental Russian poets. The gathering took place at a particularly important moment in world history, between the Tiananmen Square protests that ended in tragedy in June and the fall of the Berlin Wall in November of that same year. This meeting came to be seen in many ways as the perfect example of the Language movement, merging poetry, poetics, and politics in a global context previously unrealized. As a result of the meeting, the four American poets published a long collaborative poem called Leningrad: American Writers in the Soviet Union (1991).
Hejinian's first marriage, to John Hejinian, ended in a 1972 divorce. She married composer and musician Larry Ochs in 1977, and as of 2007, the couple continued to live and teach in Berkeley, California.
The windows were open and the morning air was, by the smell of lilac and some darker flowering shrub, filled with the brown and chirping trills of birds. As they are if you could have nothing but quiet and shouting. Arts, also, are links. I picture an idea at the moment I come to it, our collision. Once, for a time, anyone might have been luck's child. Even rain didn't spoil the barbecue, in the backyard behind a polished traffic, through a landscape, along a shore. Freedom then, liberation later. She came to babysit for us in those troubled years directly from the riots, and she said that she dreamed of the day when she would gun down everyone in the financial district. That single telephone is only one hair on the brontosaurus. The coffee drinkers answered ecstatically. If your dog stays out of the room, you get the fleas. In the lull, activity drops. I'm seldom in my dreams without my children. In the distance, down the street, the practicing soprano belts the breeze. As for we who "love to be astonished," money makes money, luck makes luck. Moves forward, drives on. It was the present time for a little while, and not so new as we thought then, the present always after war. Ever since it has been hard for me to share my time. The yellow of that sad room was again the yellow of naps, where she waited, restless, faithless, for more day. Reason looks for two, then arranges it from there. But can one imagine a madman in love. Goodbye; enough that was good. There was a pause, a rose, something on paper. Because desire is always embarrassing. At the beach, with a fresh flush. The child looks out. At a distance, the sun is small. There was no proper Christmas after he died. That triumphant blizzard had brought the city to its knees. I am a stranger to the little girl I was, and more—more strange. One sits in a cloven space. Patterns promote an outward likeness, between little white silences. The big trees catch all the moisture from what seems like a dry night. Reflections don't make shade, but shadows are, and do. In order to understand the nature of the collision, one must know something of the nature of the motions involved—that is, a history. He looked at me and smiled and did not look away, and thus a friendship became erotic. Luck was rid of its clover.
The first two sentences of "Yet we insist that life is full of happy chance" describe open windows, an image of separation and contact. Closed windows symbolize distance and the division between inner and outer worlds. Thrown open, as they are in this poem, windows are thresholds that invite crossing over from one side to the other. These sentences describe the air, scent, and sound that come in through the windows.
The third and fourth sentences of the poem point to other moments of merging, or what Hejinian calls "collisions." "Arts," including writing or reading poetry, create mental thresholds. The act of thinking brings a picture to mind, a "collision" of the image as it forms in thought.
From this point forward, the poem weaves together images that draw from private memories, which give abbreviated glimpses into the past or into fragments about the past. One memory is of a babysitter whose views on recent riots are anything but reassuring, of the absence of "a proper Christmas" after a loved one has died, and the shift when a friendship becomes erotic. These memories create the fragments of the story of a life.
Other sentences seem to refer to the political context, as in "Freedom then, liberation later" and "Reason looks for two, then arranges it from there." These sentences are disconnected from and influence the shape of memories that weave through the paragraph. As a person reads the poem, the political backdrop blends almost like the immediate lilac scent.
The third, more complex thread that runs through the poem pertains to Hejinian's interrogation of the structures of language and the capacity of language to capture the complexities of an individual life. The sentence, "That single telephone is only one hair on the brontosaurus," for instance, conjoins two objects, the telephone and the hair, which are completely unrelated. The effect is surreal and nonsensical. The expectation of order and sense in syntax is totally frustrated.
But Hejinian explains there is a method to the apparent randomness: "In order to understand the nature of the collision," the speaker proposes, "one must know something of the nature of the motions involved—that is, a history." Considering the poem in the light of this assertion allows the reader to recognize how "Yet we insist that life is full of happy chance" treats collisions as symbols that refuse to be organized by usual logic and grammatical structure. The history of this life includes randomness and incongruities. These unlinked parts collide with a tradition of poetry and autobiography that favors organized patterns and linear progressions over randomness.
Expectations in Reading Poetry
Hejinian does not write in the way readers of poetry may expect. She does not use conventional syntax and grammar. She uses fragments and jumps around. Moreover the text looks and reads more like prose than poetry. The poem is surprisingly complex in form and content, quite unlike conventional lyric poetry, which has familiar images, themes, and form. The readers' task is to sense meaning in the illogic of the poem and to make meaning out of what seems illogical, even meaningless. Hejinian's use of head notes is an example of this illogic.
The head notes are dividers between poems and sections of My Life, but they also illustrate how the work does not comply with convention. What the head note means is unclear. It is italicized and located near the left margin. The way it is printed is confusing: it may be a summary, a quotation from the body of the text, or a marginal remark on the text.
Another complication lies in the fact that the titles of almost all of the thirty-seven (or forty-five) prose segments reappear as a sentence or part of a sentence in another prose poem in the collection. The words, "Yet we insist that life is full of happy chance," for example, appear in section thirty-four ("One begins as a student but becomes a friend of clouds") with some variation: "Yet he insisted that his life had been full of happy chance, that he was luck's child." For readers approaching the expanded version of the poem, the complication is more daunting. In the later version, for instance, the head note to poem sixteen appears in various reformations in five later sections. As Paul Naylor points out in his Poetic Investigations: Singing the Holes of History (1999), by the time attentive readers conclude the expanded version of My Life, they may see that, "in fact, eight of the forty-five sentences in section 16 appear [in earlier poems] as epigraphs."
On the one hand, Hejinian's head notes reassure readers entering her collection that they are in well marked surroundings. The notes serve as textual signposts, guiding readers through the maze of seemingly disjoined and disconnected sections of the poem. In this sense, the head notes take on the traditional position of authoritative guide to the poem, marking "Yet we insist that life is full of happy chance" as a poem that explores both the fullness (often to overflowing) of life as well as the often serendipitous brilliance of the seemingly ordered existence of the life each individual inhabits. On the other hand, Hejinian's head notes transform into content in other poems, blurring the distinction between title and text and suggesting in this way another form of interlaced connection.
The Nature of Memory
In My Life in total and in "Yet we insist that life is full of happy chance" as a representative part, Hejinian intends to show both visually and linguistically how language constructs memory. The thoughts become mental images which then are transformed into words. The language that holds the image packages the past as memory. Spoken or unspoken, written down or not, the language forms an individual's sense of the autobiographical past.
To understand a life requires understanding both the process of building memories and the limits in that process. The poems in My Life are devoted to demystifying the sanctity of memory by exposing the constructed nature of memory. Through repetition, through using words ambiguously and with multiple meanings, and leaving the text (and the life) open-ended or fragmented, Hejinian prevents any single idea or single remembered moment from serving as a focal point. Memories of adolescent moments juxtapose with incongruous moments from later life or early childhood, fact blends with fiction, and fragment brushes elegantly with fragment, allowing memory to emerge as a montage rather than an unbroken line.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Write a prose poem diary covering a week in your life. Include fragments and various seemingly unrelated topics, which when taken together present a collage of the seven days.
- Study the subject of memory. Write an essay in which you describe a time when the immediate circumstances caused you to remember something you had not thought about for a long time. Reflect on whether your memory has remained the same through time or is different now than it was in the past.
- Make a poster on which you arrange as a broken narrative or story various words and images cut from magazines that were intended to be taken as a whole. Present your poster to your class and have students analyze it and offer different readings of it.
- In a small group, select four subjects that are loosely related and have individuals write ten sentence fragments on slips of paper that pertain to these subjects in some way. Put the slips of paper all together. Then as a group, decide how to use these fragments to write a prose poem in the manner of the Language poets.
Attempting to fix a memory on a page (through text or a photograph, for instance) is an inevitably frustrating exercise. Then, too, as "Yet we insist that life is full of happy chance" suggests, readers and writers negotiate gaps in their own memory, engaging in a selective process that mixes up bits of truth and fiction. It is a "happy chance" but a rare one, the poem suggests, when a past event is retrieved and shaped through various times of remembering and retelling.
My Life is an extended prose poem, which means that it is written and printed as prose rather than as poetry, with a standard right margin, familiar sentence form, and customary patterns of punctuation and syntax. It is actually a hybrid of forms (poetry combined with prose), which often leaves booksellers and librarians unsure about how to catalogue it; My Life may be found filed as a novel, as short fiction, as poetry (with no indication of its unique form), or as autobiography. Clearly, My Life is a work that resists classification.
Written in a prose that has the usual attributes of poetry, including careful attention to sound (rhyme and rhythm), imagery, and figurative language (similes and metaphors), My Life creates tension between poetic strategies and prose structures. Dating as far back as the book of Psalms and renovated most influentially in the writing of the expatriate American writer Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), prose poems blend the power of clarity commonly associated with prose and the complexity of language and emotion commonly associated with lyric poetry.
The prose frame makes such a poem as "Yet we insist that life is full of happy chance" a relatively accessible example of experimental poetry. Taken individually, many of the sentences deliver clear, albeit sometimes surprising or disturbing messages. For example, the sentence, "She came to babysit for us in those troubled years directly from the riots, and she said that she dreamed of the day when she would gun down everyone in the financial district," has a familiar sentence structure. The meaning of the sentence is clear as is its familiar grammar and syntax.
But closer examination of this sentence uncovers some incongruities. There is, for instance, the disorienting juxtaposition of the familiar and domestic act of babysitting (with its connotations of security and calm) with the violence and chaos of "riots" as well as the implications of a babysitter who dreams of "gun[ning] down" innocent people. Domesticity and revolution collide in this sentence. The word "from" in this sentence seems at once in place and out of place. One might expect a word indicating time (before or after the riots), but Hejinian slips in this preposition that suggests a source or a cause. The "troubled years" are no longer separated syntactically from the implications of "the riots" but are instead connected to them. No longer isolated in time as an aberration in an otherwise peaceful culture, the riots are positioned as the source or the beginning of a series of years that are now seen as "troubled." The tone and meaning of this sentence is suddenly dislocated from the familiarity of its own syntax just as the image of the babysitter is dramatically relocated to a world of riots and violent dreams.
"Yet we insist that life is full of happy chance" stretches and fragments syntax and even sentence form itself (the basic unit of prose). The often repeated sentence, "There was a pause, a rose, something on paper" is metaphoric while such a fragment as "Moves forward, drives on" fractures the logic found in a complete sentence. Facing the fragments of the poem, readers sense that these poems create a kind of linguistic friction: fragments of prose rub and bump against each other in order to create a prose that is not prose but poetry, in which meaning comes through gaps as well as through the images.
In the opening poem of My Life, Hejinian states that "repetitions, [are] free from all ambition," an idea that serves as a mantra for the poem as it unfolds. My Life privileges the creative energies of repetition, especially because it is antithetical to the linear trajectory of a traditional autobiography. Certain key phrases, like the frequent line, "There was a pause, a rose, something on paper," appear throughout the sections of the book. But whereas in conventional poetry these repetitions would be given metaphoric or symbolic significance, Hejinian seems to insert them randomly, in unexpected and, at times, incongruous ways. Key words, most noticeably "history," also recur in numerous sections. At other times, words are used as both nouns and verbs within the same section.
Repetition serves a number of purposes within each poem and throughout the collection. Thematically, repetition underscores both the individuality of each occurrence of a word or phrase (defined by its context) and the connection of each occurrence to the broader pattern of the poem.
With key words, phrases, and images repeating in the new context of subsequent sections, Hejinian shows how the meanings of words are not fixed and how words acquire meaning from their context and the position they have in the grammar of that context. Thus the relationship between a word and its context shapes the word's meaning. The shifting terrain of a given word or phrase reminds the reader of the multiple possibilities of meaning and the impossibility of settling one word into a single fixed slot within the text.
L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, sometimes printed in this way after the style of the journal that took this word as its title, is the name given to the poetry written by a loosely organized group of avant-garde poets that emerged in New York and San Francisco in the early 1970s. Prominent members of the group include Hejinian, Charles Bernstein, Bruce Andrews, Ron Silliman, and Steve McCaffery. The group published their poetry most often in the pages of the journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, which appeared in the late seventies. The goal of the journal was to raise questions about the relationship between language, reality, and culture.
The Language poets, as they also came to be known, made broad claims about what their experimental poetry could accomplish. Their works inquired into the relationship between poetry and political activism and social justice. Language poetry, as they understood it, was a social enterprise that made demands on readers to think about what they read and how they read. Indeed, Language poetry made reading itself a political activity that could either support or challenge the policies and practices of governments and other powerful organizations.
To the Language poets, the personal writing that had come to define the lyric poetry of the 1950s and 1960s was naïve. Lyric poetry, they argued, failed to acknowledge the power of language to shape the way that individuals express private thoughts as well as the way that readers understand text. Language poets set out to make language strange and incomprehensible to draw attention to the assumptions readers have about words, poetry, and the world itself. The poem becomes an unstable and shifting ground of word play, diverse styles, and a mix of familiar and strange sentences and ideas that force the reader to make sense of what defies logic.
Each poem becomes a new opportunity to try out words and to put words in new combinations, some of which might be rhythmic and beautiful, and others that might be less so. But what the poem sounds like, looks like, or means is not the main focus of the Language poet. The aim is to create a dissonance in language that disrupts reliance on conventions of about writing and causes ideas to be seen in a new way.
In North America, the arrival of the 1970s signaled a number of important shifts in attitudes and politics that helped energize Lyn Hejinian's poetry. The decade marked a shift away from the social activism and protests that defined the 1960s, with the exception of environmental concerns which actually rose in public attention through the seventies. Replacing social activism as the 1970s unfolded was an emphasis on gathering experiences for pleasure and personal gain. It was this shift from the social to the personal that the Language poets reacted against as they worked to make social justice and broad social issues a focal point of their poetry. Hejinian, for instance, blends references to riots and violence in the financial district into a poem that is ostensibly the story of a woman's life.
In emphasizing the social consciousness of poetry, the Language poets echoed a trend that was to define another medium that continued to rise to prominence during the seventies: television. The seventies saw Norman Lear's groundbreaking weekly show All in the Family, which brought socially relevant issues to a diverse, mainstream audience. When the series premiered in 1971, American audiences heard words that had never been heard on television before, especially words relating to sexuality, race, class, and political attitudes. In the same ways that the Language poets set out to make familiar language strange, All in the Family made popular assumptions about society openly strange and in some instances uncomfortably so.
Another issue that defined the 1970s was the oppressive economic recession that took hold of North America. The decade saw a potent combination of low output, rising unemployment, and dramatic increases in consumer products that came to be known as stagflation, a compound word that joined the terms stagnation and inflation. As Hejinian makes clear in "Yet we insist that life is full of happy chance," the seventies was a decade that placed a keen emphasis on the workings of the financial district. It was, as she suggests, an era in which the saying "money makes money" became the mantra of a generation.
My Life is often praised by reviewers as an exciting experiment in both poetry and autobiography. As Nancy R. Ives wrote in the Library Journal, My Life is a collection of poems that "captures experience in discrete, brilliant bits of imagery and sound." "The result," Ives concludes, "is an intriguing journey that both illuminates and perplexes, teases and challenges, as it reveals an innovative artist at work." Giving readers permission to glance into "the lives of women who write," My Life is especially appealing "to those interested in the avant-garde and the unusual."
Looking at Hejinian's Happily but in the process describing Hejinian's work as a whole, Danielle Dutton notes how Hejinian explores such themes as "happiness, time, fate, logic, birth … in run-on lines and paragraphs … that often seem only peripherally related to one another." Informing Hejinian's explorations, Dutton explains, is a sensitivity that allows her to write "from a specific domestic spot and with a keen awareness" of what Dutton describes as "the activeness of things." Hejinian uses her poetry to show that "everything is dynamic and exists in relation to everything else." Dutton also applauds Hejinian's commitment to a poetic structure that it is at once intimate and public, creative and theoretical. Hejinian's collections create "an act of reading for the reader, a rhythmic temporal experience, like the duration of a day, film, or piece of music, all of which begin and end while maintaining the inherent possibility/assurance of beginning again."
A reviewer for Publishers Weekly suggests that My Life has definitely had an impact on American poetry. Described as "an urtext of language poetry," it has "found its way onto countless contemporary poetry and women's studies syllabi, as well as the bookshelves of poets and other readers, for the complex transparency of its thought and the beauty of its language." This reviewer's forecast is equally positive: Any reader or bookseller "with limited poetry sections" must recognize My Life as an "essential" inclusion on the shelves.
Dyer holds a Ph.D. in English literature and has published extensively on fiction, poetry, film, and television. He is also a freelance university teacher, writer, and educational consultant. In this essay, he discusses Hejinian's "Yet we insist that life is full of happy chance" as part of a broader project to reenergize the autobiographical tradition in contemporary culture.
Lyn Hejinian's My Life is, as its title promises, a collection that takes as its focus the story of a life, or in this case an autobiography in which a speaker recounts her memories of her own past. A compound word, autobiography brings together three Greek words: auton (self), bios (life), and graphein (write). It is important to distinguish, as Hejinian does, autobiography from the closely related but distinct term: memoir. Traditionally, an autobiography focuses on the details of a life as they come to relate to the context of the living of that life. It is, in other words, a recounting of the life and the times of the person writing the autobiography. Henry David Thoreau's Walden (1854), Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), and Malcolm X's The Autobiography of Malcolm X are important examples of North American autobiographies. A memoir is written differently; it may include content fitted to a certain theme or subject without accounting for the whole life from birth on, or it may be an account of witnessing an historic event, omitting autobiographical parts not relevant to the chosen historic subject. Memoir may focus more on the emotions invested in certain memories than on the facts that define those events.
With the classical understanding of the term autobiography in mind, two more criteria are important for readers to remember. The first is that autobiography is generally assumed to be nonfiction, a type of writing in which actual events are presented in logical arrangement. In autobiography, this shape usually follows a chronology that begins in childhood, continues through adolescence, and concludes somewhere in adulthood. This logical structure is matched in autobiography by a text that respects the facts and is accurate in its representation of characters. While an autobiography is not a work of fiction, it does allow some leeway when dealing with people's memories, recalled dreams, or fears. The second criterion added to the basic definition of autobiography is one that is often left unspoken or implied in the writing of the life story. Autobiography assumes that the life story being told has some significant social message or moral lesson to bring to the reader. In some autobiographical writing, such as The Diary of Anne Frank (1947), the power of the message becomes the defining characteristic of the writing.
Of course, keeping autobiography and memoir apart is difficult exercise, and one that often fails when put to a formal test. William Wordsworth's famous poem The Prelude or, Growth of a Poet's Mind (published in 1850), for instance, is an important autobiographical poem, but there are many passages in the work that incorporate the emotional intimacy of memoir. Hejinian picks up on this tradition of fusing autobiography and memoir in My Life, grounding her poetry in a kind of mistrust of the tools available to a traditional autobiographical writer. Determined to tell her life story, Hejinian explores the form and structure of autobiography as well as the language that is traditionally used in the telling of the life story. A challenge to the conventions and structures of autobiographical writing, My Life is a collection of prose poems that resist the impulse to give a cohesive shape to a life that might be used to entertain and educate a reader. In fact, the poems that constitute My Life attempt to show readers new ways to approach life stories as they unfold across the page.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Interested readers may enjoy Hejinian's 1978 work, Writing Is an Aid to Memory. In this book, Hejinian sees memory as a way of understanding the past and creating the future.
- Robert Kroetsch's 2001 fictional work, The Hornbooks of Rita K, tells the story of the life and disappearance of the fictional poet Rita Kleinhart, who at age fifty-five was last seen in the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt on June 26, l992. All that remains of Rita are mounds of poems: finished, unfinished, and unfinishable. As her intimate friend Raymond sorts through the papers in her abandoned ranch house, the fragments gather together into a mystery, a romance, and a primer on the wonders of language.
- Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein edited The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book: Poetics of the New in 1984, an essential guide to the politics and practices of this experimental group of poets.
- Readers more interested in a scholarly analysis of how long poems make their meaning will find Brian McHale's The Obligation toward the Difficult Whole: Postmodernist Long Poems (2004) a valuable resource.
In My Life, Hejinian challenges the traditional structure of the autobiographical story. Rather than a unified, chronological prose narrative, she develops a kind of hybrid, or mixing, of prose and poetry as her form of choice. It is a rewarding mixture. On the one hand, the prose aspects of My Life provide readers with a sense of familiarity when approaching this book. The opening sentence of "Yet we insist that life is full of happy chance," for instance, works neatly to establish a scene or a setting that most readers can imagine: "The windows were open and the morning air was, by the smell of lilac and some darker flowering shrub, filled with the brown and chirping trills of birds." This is not a world totally unfamiliar to the reader, who can recall with some clarity of their own the feeling of a spring morning air and perhaps even the morning sounds of birds outside the window.
My Life also delivers a familiar blend of life and times. The poems situate memories in relation to "those troubled years directly from the riots" and in terms of many of the persistent concerns of contemporary culture: "freedom," art, money, friendship, and sex. There is also a glimpse at the darker side of this culture within which a life has been lived. "Yet we insist that life is full of happy chance" bristles with the possibilities of violence, war, the discomfort of "white silences," and madness. This is not an autobiography that hides the dark side of either the life itself or the times in which that life continues to unfold.
But at the same time, Hejinian's life story is unfamiliar territory for readers expecting a traditional autobiographical structure. The more emotional aspects of the story are handled more poetically. Hejinian introduces emotion into the life story with sentences or phrases of poetry that are so concise and imaginative that they are difficult to understand. Such lines as "That single telephone is only one hair on the brontosaurus" or "There was a pause, a rose, something on paper" mystify the reader. Equally unclear is how each emotional bit of poetry relates to the more familiar prose sentences. In one sense, this is a poem in which the expected clarity and order of ideas are pushed aside to make way for word play and illogical juxtapositions. But the questions still remain. How does the brontosaurus relate to the morning air of the opening line, for instance? What does the love of a madman have to do with a childhood memory of a backyard barbecue? Readers expect connections but do not find them.
So what is the social message or moral lesson of Hejinian's autobiographical My Life? This life story teaches readers that the telling of a life story, like the living of a life, is complicated. This autobiography shows the life to be a porous and multifaceted accumulation of ideas, memories, and emotions. Life in this poem is a place in which the unexpected and the unfamiliar mingle with the known and the familiar. Blending personal memories with a kind of cultural history as well as prose with poetry, My Life blurs the boundaries of genres, autobiography and memoir, prose and poetry, fiction and nonfiction, and events experienced and the emotions that such experiences generate.
The story of a life, as Hejinian argues, is also a story that resists definition by one term (prose or autobiography) or another (poetry or memoir). A life is a story that resists the traditional pressures of chronology in favor of an organization that is more organic, more fragmented, and in an odd way more natural than a unified story with a beginning (childhood), a middle (adolescence), and an end (adulthood leading to death). "Yet we insist that life is full of happy chance" joins with the other poems of Hejinian's My Life to challenge the idea of a life line as an ordered and logical way to understand a life story. Instead these poems offer through metaphor a fluid movement across time (past to present) and space (place to place). These poems embrace the multiplicities and chances that might be seen elsewhere as hindering an organized life lived with a purpose. These poems focus on the process of a life unfolding rather than on the product that a life becomes.
This is not to suggest that "Yet we insist that life is full of happy chance" is void of the relevant facts and personal intimacies that distinguish an autobiographical text. The recognitions that "I am a stranger to the little girl I was" or that "I'm seldom in my dreams without my children" provide intimate glimpses into a woman's life. At the same time, this poem reaches into the life of every reader, inviting each reader to think about such big ideas as "arts, also, are links" and "reflections don't make shade, but shadows are, and do." These poems ask the reader to think about how these ideas might apply to one's own life and one's own stories. Art and emotion, shadow and light, private and public all come together in this poem to represent to the reader the densities of a life lived fully.
Source: Klay Dyer, Critical Essay on "Yet we insist that life is full of happy chance," in Poetry for Students, Gale, 2008.
In the following essay, Hejinian articulates her sense of what poetry does and how poetry relates to the social and subjective context in which itoccurs. She argues that nothing happens out of context, and only by exploring the context of any event does one uncover its meaning.
Poetics is not personal. A poetics gets formed in and as a relationship with the word.
Poetics is where poetry's engagement with meaning as meaningfulness gets elaborated—poetics is the site of poetry's reason—where the plurality of its logics and the viability of its contexts are tested and articulated.
A poetics considers how and what a specific poem means within itself and its own terms and how and why it means (and is meaningful) within a community that congregates around it—around it as writing in general and around certain specific writings and writing practices in particular.
I espouse a poetics of affirmation. I also espouse a poetics of uncertainty, of doubt, difficulty, and strangeness. Such a poetics is inevitably contradictory, dispersive, and incoherent while sustaining an ethos of linkage. It exhibits disconnection while hoping to accomplish reconnection.
Aesthetic discovery can be congruent with social discovery. Aesthetic discovery occurs through encounters, at points of contact, and so too does political and ethical discovery.
These points of contact or linkages are the manifestation of our logics; they give evidence of our reasoning and they also serve as the sites for our reasons—our reasons to do what we do.
At points of linkage, the possibility of a figure of contradiction arises: a figure we might call by a Greek name, xenos. Xenos means "stranger" or "foreigner," but more importantly, from xenos two English words with what seem like opposite meanings are derived: they are guest and host.
A guest/host relationship comes into existence solely in and as an occurrence, that of their meeting, an encounter, a mutual and reciprocal contextualization. The host is no host until she has met her guest, the guest is no guest until she meets her host. In Russian the word for "occurrence" captures the dynamic character of this encounter. The word for event in Russian is sobytie; so (with or co-) and bytie (being), "being with" or "with-being" or "co-existence." Every encounter produces, even if for only the flash of an instant, a xenia—the occurrence of coexistence which is also an event of strangeness or foreignness. A strange occurrence that, nonetheless, happens constantly—we have no other experience of living than encounters. We have no other use for language than to have them.
Foreignness is different from alienation; the two notions are differently nuanced. Alienation connotes separation, detachment. Foreignness, of course, may suggest that too, in that a feeling of foreignness is a feeling of being where one doesn't belong—but where alienation involves a step back from a situation, foreignness involves a step into it. The alienated withdraws, the foreigner proceeds and becomes a guest.
The guest/host encounter creates "a space of appearance"—which in classical Greek thought constitutes the polis, the place, as Hannah Arendt puts it, for "the sharing of words and deeds." Arendt continues: "The polis … is the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together, and its true space lies between people living together for this purpose, no matter where they happen to be."
She goes on to make a further and very important point: "To be deprived of it means to be deprived of reality, which, humanly and politically speaking, is the same as appearance. To men the reality of the world is guaranteed by the presence of others, by its appearing to all; ‘for what appears to all’ [says Aristotle in the Nichomachean Ethics], ‘what appears to all, this we call Being.’"
An apparent opposition arises here, between the ancient Greek political notion that reality exists in and as commonality, which in turn establishes communality versus the contemporary (though century-old) aesthetic notion that the commonplace and the habituation that occurs within it produce a dulling of reality, which it is the business of art to revitalize or revivify.
But it is a false opposition, one that is resolved within the treasuring of living, that is valued as the dearest thing in life by both ancients and moderns. We have always wanted things to be real, and we have always wanted to experience their reality since it is one with our own.
The notion that the world is common to us all is vital. We need the world—which is to say all things need all other things; we all need each other—if we are to exist as realities. As George Oppen puts it in his poem "A Narrative": "things explain each other, Not themselves."
Reality consists of all that is the world that is common to us all; and it is inextricably related to the space of appearance, the polis.
A valuable contribution to this notion of the polls is contained in Charles Altieri's characterization of the creative ground and its citizen, the creative self: the creative ground is "a source of energy and value in the objective order that otherwise mocks subjective consciousness"; the creative self is one "whose activity discloses or produces aspects of that ground which have potential communal significance. Art becomes a social and cultural force and not some form of individual therapy or self-regarding indulgence in the resources of the individual's imagination."
Along comes something—launched in context.
That something is occurring means it is taking place, or taking a place, in the space of appearance.
It is almost automatic to us to assume that this something (on the one hand) and we (on the other) exist independently—that something was independently elsewhere (out of sight and mind) prior to coming into the zone in which we perceive it and which we, at the moment of this perceptual encounter, designate as context. Furthermore, it is at the moment that we perceive this something that we ourselves come into that context—into our coinciding (by chance?) with something … The context, in other words, is the medium of our encounter, the ground of our becoming (i.e., happening to be) present at the same place at the same time. By this reasoning, one would also have to say that context too is launched—or at least that it comes into existence quâ context when something is launched—in such a way as to become perceptible to us and thereby to involve us—whomever we are—strangers (even if, perhaps, only momentarily strangers) to each other previously and now inseparable components of the experience.
As strangers (foreigners), it is hard for us to find the "right words" (themselves simultaneously demanding context and serving as it) for what we experience in that perception and involvement.
Usually comparisons are the first things foreigners make. "The dark castle on the hill is like a cormorant on a rock stretching its crooked wings in the sun" or "The pink wet light in Saint Petersburg on a winter day is like a summer San Francisco fog," etc. Such comparisons, reaching out of the present situation to another, previously experienced, recollected one, may appear to constitute the "making of a context" for the current context, but a context made in such a way is a transported one, acquired by way of metaphor. And such metaphors, cast in the form of similes and intended to smooth over differences, deny incipience, and to the degree that they succeed, they thereby forestall the acquisition of history.
But the phrase or sentence "Along comes something—launched in context" announces a moment of incipience; one could even say that it is itself, as a phrase or utterance, a moment of incipience. Something that wasn't here before is here now; it appears and it appeared to us, and it is acknowledge by the sensation this is happening.
I would like now to introduce a notion that Heidegger (in "On the Way to Language") terms "propriation." "Language lets people and things be there for us," he says, meaning language's proper effect, the effect of propriation.
Language grants (acknowledges, affirms) and shows (or brings into the space of appearance) what it grants: each utterance is a saying of the phrase "this is happening."
As Goethe says (in lines quoted by Heidegger): "Only when it owns itself to thanking / Is life held in esteem." "To own" here is used in the sense also of "to own up," which is to give oneself over, to experience hospitality, xenia, the guest/ host relationship. And to enter the relationship of xenia is to accept its obligations. "Every thinking that is on the trail of something is a poetizing, and all poetry a thinking," says Heidegger. "Each coheres with the other on the basis of the saying that has already pledged itself …, the saying whose thinking is a thanking."
To propriate, then, is to grant, to acknowledge, to own up, to love, to thank, to make a hospitality bond with.
This is intimately connected to poetic uses of language. In Greek culture, as you know, the symbolon or symbol was a token representing xenia—a token broken in half and divided between guest and host to be carried as proof of identity that could be verified by comparing its other half—a token by which a stranger becomes a guest.
The word as symbol establishes a guest/host relationship between speaker and things of the world. We are strangers to the things of which we speak until we speak and become instead their guests or they become ours. This transformation of the relation in which two beings are strangers to each other into a relation in which they are guest-host to each other is propriation.
"Propriation is telling"—a speaking that matters. We tell in order to become guests and hosts to each other and to things—or to become guests and hosts to life.
I want to bring forward another Greek term, thaumzein: thaumzein names our great wonder that there is something rather than nothing, our "shocked wonder" (to quote Hannah Arendt) "at the miracle of Being."
This is an incipient experience for philosophy as for poetry, both of which are excited into activity by thaumzein and the perplexity that comes with it.
Hannah Arendt locates it in what she calls natality—beginning, the highly improbable but regularly happening coming into existence of someone or something. Here, in a unique and singular happening, commonality too comes into existence. One thing that is common to us all is that we are born; another is that we are different from each other. Singularity and commonality are the same occurrence, and this condition of natality remains with us. Human lives, as Arendt says, are "rooted in natality in so far as they have the task to provide and preserve the world for, to foresee and reckon with the constant influx of newcomers who are born into the world as strangers."
To be rooted in natality means that humans are born, and to be born is to become the beginning of somebody, "who is a beginner him [or her]self."
"[M]en [and women], though they must die, are not born in order to die but in order to begin."
To begin has two senses: one gets begun and one causes beginnings. "The new beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting."
To value the new was, of course, a widely held and explicit tenant of modernist aesthetics, as in Pound's often cited commandment, "Make it new." Viktor Shklovsky's more thoughtful, more self-reflexive, and better analyzed aphorism—"In order to restore to us the perception of life, to make a stone stony, there exists that which we call art"—takes the behest further, making newness not an end in itself but a strategy employed for the sake of enhancement of experience, and as an affirmation of life. "Only the creation of new forms of art can restore to man sensation of the world, can resurrect things and kill pessimism." Shklovsky goes on, of course, to elaborate a now familiar set of devices intended to restore palpability to things—retardation, roughening, etc.—that are major elements (and, in ways that can be taken as troubling, even the stock in trade) of so-called innovative poetry to this day (eighty-three years later). Contemporary poets—myself among them—have embraced this project. Comments variously repeating or attempting to extend Shklovsky's proposition appear throughout my teaching notebooks:
Language is one of the principal forms our
The language of poetry is a language of
Poetry takes as its premise that language (all
language) is a medium for
experiencing experience. It provides us with
the consciousness of consciousness.
To experience is to go through or over the
limit (the word comes from
the Greek peras—term, limit); or, to experience
is to go beyond where
one is, which is to say to be beyond where
one was (the prepositional
form peran, beyond).
Imagine saying that at one stage of life, one's
artistic goal is to provide
experience (new or revivified, restored to
palpability) and at another
(later) it is to provide the joy of that
After how much experience can one feel free
of the fear that one hasn't
lived (the fear of an unlived life)?
It is the task of poetry to produce the phrase this is happening and thereby to provoke the sensation that corresponds to it—a sensation of newness, yes, and of renewedness—an experience of the revitalization of things in the world, an acknowledgment of the liveliness of the world, the restoration of the experience of our experience—a sense of living our life. But I do not want to imply that to produce such a sensation is necessarily to produce knowledge nor even a unit of cognition; rather, its purpose is to discover context and, therein, reason.
Admittedly, several obvious (and boringly persistent) problems arise when experience is assigned primacy of place in an aesthetics and its accompanying discourse of value—when it is given the status of final cause and taken as an undisputed good. First, giving preeminence to experience would seem to demand what is termed "authenticity."
Happily, one can debunk this on the same basis that one can debunk a second problem, which I could describe as anti-intellectual and ultimately philistine. In assuming a positive value to experience for its own sake, and in advocating thereby an art that heightens perceptibility, one risks appearing to privilege sensation over cogitation, to promote immediacy and disdain critique. There is a danger of implying that the questioning of experience may serve to distance and thereby diminish at least aspects of it, and that this is antithetical to "real" artistic practice. This is the basis of art's supposed hostility to criticism, theory (thought), and occasional hostility even to examination of its own history. Or, to put it another way, on these grounds, the philistine romantic attempts to ground his or her rejection of context.
And here is the basis for a dismissal of these two related problems. One cannot meaningfully say "This is happening" out of context. At the very moment of uttering the phrase, "natality" occurs. And from that moment of incipience, which occurs with the recognition of the experience of and presented by the phrase along comes something—launched in context through the phrase this is happening, we are in context, which is to say, in thought (in theory and with critique) and in history.
There is no context without thought and history. They exist through reciprocation of their reason. Otherwise, there is no sensation, no experience, no consciousness of living. And, to quote Tolstoi just as Shklovsky does: "If the complex life of many people takes place entirely on the level of the unconscious, then it's as if this life had never been."
And here I'll introduce one last Greek term: eudaimonia, which is often translated as happiness, but more accurately it means "a flourishing." Eudaimonia is what the Greeks called the sheer bliss of simply being alive. Eudaimonia is the joy one experiences in the mattering of life—in the sufficiency of its matter. It is pleasure in the fact that it matters.
It is matter with history, not so much because it has a past as because it cares about the future.
What "matters" must be concerned with what will come to matter: the future. We care about the idea of what's going to happen to humanity. If we didn't, life would be meaningless. If we knew the world was going to end, we wouldn't be willing to continue. To flourish in the present requires requiring, which is to say, the future. Eudaimonia literally means to be "with a demon"—eu-daimonia—one "who accompanies each man [and woman] throughout … life, who is his [or her] distinct identity, but appears and is visible only to others." This daimon is the future.
As writers we care for and about the future; we make it matter. I can only agree with Viktor Shklovsky when he says that "the creation … of art can restore to [us] sensation of the world, [it] can resurrect things and kill pessimism."
Source: Lyn Hejinian, "Poetic Statement: Some Notes toward a Poetics," in American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language, edited by Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr, Wesleyan University Press, 2002, pp. 235-41.
In the following essay, Spahr gives a critical analysis of Hejinian's work.
An unusual lyricism and descriptive engagement with the everyday world crucially establish Lyn Hejinian as a forceful contemporary poet. Hejinian is a founding figure of the language writing movement of the 1970s, and her work, like most language writing, enacts a poetics that is theoretically sophisticated, one that comments on and discusses such philosophical ideas as poststructuralist and deconstructive theory as it refigures the poem as information system or argument. While language writing is stylistically diverse and, as a movement, difficult to reduce to a particular style, most writers in this group are concerned with writing in nonstandardized, often nonnarrative, forms. Language writing is community-centered and often takes as its subject progressive politics and social theory. Hejinian's work, for example, is resolutely committed to exploring the political ramifications of the ways that language is typically used. But her work differs importantly from the traditional, identity-affirming political poem of most left-wing writers. It is easier to trace the influence of language philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's aphoristic statement that "the limits of my language mean the limits of my world," or to apply Viktor Shklovsky's theory of "making strange" to Hejinian's work than it is to relate her work to the contemporary poetry usually anthologized in the Norton or Heath anthologies of American literature.
But while language writing tends to be anti-confessional and antirealist, Hejinian's work does not reject these forms. Rather, it insists that alternative means of expression are necessary to truly represent the confessional or the real. Her work, repeatedly concerned with biography or autobiography, explores the relationship between alternative writing practices and the subjectivity that the normal practices of biography and autobiography often obscure. The alternative form that Hejinian uses most frequently is what has come to be called the "new sentence." Hejinian has said that her "major goal has been to escape within the sentence, to make an enormous sentence—not necessarily long ones, but capacious ones."
Hejinian was born in 1941 to Chaffee Earl Hall Jr. and Carolyn Frances Erskine in Alameda, California, and grew up in an academic family. Her father was a high school teacher and aspiring novelist who served in World War II and later became an academic administrator at the University of California and at Harvard University. He died in 1968. Erskine remarried and is a homemaker.
Hejinian attended Harvard University and graduated with a B.A. in 1968. In 1961 she married John P. Hejinian and had two children - Paull, born in 1964, and Anna, born in 1966. In 1968 Hejinian moved back to the West Coast, settling in the San Francisco Bay area. She was divorced in 1972. In 1973 she returned to rural California and began writing poetry seriously. In July 1977 Hejinian returned to the San Francisco Bay area. This same year she married Larry Ochs, a well-known composer and jazz musician. It was in San Francisco that Hejinian met Rae Armantrout, Steve Benson, Carla Harryman, Tom Mandel, Bob Perelman, Kit Robinson, Ron Silliman, and Barrett Watten. This loosely formed community began at that time to formulate the aesthetic and theoretical discourses of language writing through various journals, such as This, Miam, Tottel, Ou, and presses, such as Tuumba Press, which Hejinian founded in 1976.
From 1976 to 1984 Hejinian was the editor of Tuumba Press, producing fifty books. Tuumba Press was responsible for establishing and disseminating the early works of a large number of San Francisco Bay language writers. Beginning in the 1970s, as major houses published less and less poetry, small presses proliferated, and the innovative editing of these presses caused the current renaissance of experimental writing. Tuumba Press, run solely by Hejinian, provides an excellent example of the innovative possibilities of small press publishing. Through Tuumba Hejinian involved herself in a means of literary distribution that was mainly outside the limitations of the economic marketplace and controlled by a member of the community the literature helped define. Hejinian's work with Tuumba Press was, as she remarks in an interview with Manuel Brito, "simply an extension of my writing, of my being a poet. Small presses, magazines, poetry readings are the constructs of our literary life and provide conditions for writing's meanings." Hejinian is currently on the faculty of the graduate Poetics Program at the New College of California and works part-time as an assistant to a private investigator for capital crime defense and death row appeals.
Crucial to understanding Hejinian's work is the realization that it cultivates, even requires, an act of resistant reading. Her work is deliberately unsettling in its unpredictability, its diversions from conventions, the ways it is out of control. In her essay "The Rejection of Closure" (1985), she develops a theory of an "open text" that defines both her earlier and her current work. An "open text," she writes, "is open to the world and particularly to the reader…. [It] invites participation, rejects the authority of the writer over the reader and thus, by analogy, the authority implicit in other (social, economic, cultural) hierarchies."
For the open text to reject the authority of the writer over the reader, it engages in a series of disruptive techniques that expose the reader to the possibilities of meaning that he or she brings to the text. In Hejinian's work the disruptive technique most often used is what fellow poet Ron Silliman has called the "new sentence." The new sentence is a form of prose poem, composed mainly of sentences that have no clear and definite transitions. When reading the new sentence, Hejinian writes, "the reader (and I can say also the writer) must overleap the end stop, the period, and cover the distance to the next sentence…. Meanwhile, what stays in the gaps, so to speak, remains crucial and informative. Part of the reading occurs in the recovery of that information (looking behind) and the discovery of newly structured ideas."
The gap created by a text that moves from subject to subject invites the reader to participate, to bring his or her own reading to the text. Hejinian guides her readers to moments where they are required to recognize and use their own interpretive powers in the reading act, but, at that point, the work is neither passive nor full of signifiers that the reader can merely fill as he or she wants. Hejinian's work does not resist the fact that reading carries with it the tendency to appropriate from the written words of the text but, indeed, capitalizes on that tendency.
In 1972 Hejinian self-published her first work, a gRReat adventure, a mixed-genre collage that includes drawings, poems, and a collaboration with Doug Hall, who was then working as a performance artist. Few copies of this work exist because Hejinian destroyed most of them. The pursuit of an "open text" informs Hejinian's early chapbooks: A Thought Is the Bride of What Thinking (1976), a collection of three essays on narrative, knowledge, and communication; A mask of Motion (1977), a chapbook-length poem on the breakdown of subjectivity and history; and Gesualdo (1978), a chapbook-length annotated prose poem. It is Gesualdo, which, by using the biography of the composer Don Carlo Gesualdo (1560-1613) as a context for an exploration of literary and sexual passion, perhaps best prefigures the attention to forms of life writing that define Hejinian's later work. In this poem the life of Gesualdo weaves through first-person observations about the nature of subjectivity and the relationship between the narrator and Gesualdo.
Hejinian's first book-length collection, Writing Is an Aid to Memory (1978), continues her wrestlings with the confessional systems of memory and the difficulties of portraying these systems without smoothing over the questions they raise. As she writes in the preface, "memory cannot, though the future return, and proffer raw confusions." Instead, in this poem about memory Hejinian presents an excess of information. The poem is composed of forty-two sections of loosely gathered phrases. These phrases, usually five to eight words, are spread out over the page. In the diverse content of these poems, memories, details from everyday life, and scientific information are combined and connected by a narrative voice that self-reflexively questions the poem's construction and its narrator's role. Writing Is an Aid to Memory intends, as Hejinian writes, to portray the way that, "though we keep company with cats and dogs, all thoughtful people are impatient, with a restlessness made inevitable by language." The portrayal of such a restlessness, a primary condition of our postmodern world that is defined more and more by the remote-induced, constantly changing images of mass media, is a central concern throughout Hejinian's work.
While the rhetoric around Hejinian's "open text" is common to the language poetry movement, her application of this rhetoric to the genre of autobiography, as in My Life (1980), usefully complicates models of subjectivity and the role language has in shaping subjectivity. A good example of just how "open" Hejinian intends her open text to be is evident in the fact that there are two editions of My Life (and there is a rumor that Hejinian continues to add to this poem). My Life was published in 1980, and then a revised expanded edition was published in 1987. The 1980 edition sold out quickly and the 1987 edition is in its third printing. My Life is currently the most important of Hejinian's work and has attracted much scholarly attention. The first edition, written in 1978 when Hejinian was thirty-seven, has thirty-seven sections, each with thirty-seven sentences. In the second edition, eight new sentences were interpolated into each of the previous thirty-seven sections, and eight new sections, each with forty-five sentences, were added.
The form of My Life is that of the prose poem. In it the full sentence has replaced the phrasal unit of Writing Is an Aid to Memory. Each section begins with a sentence or phrase that is later repeated at some time in the book (although at times the phrase or sentence is slightly altered). The autobiography, with its two editions, is a work characterized by its multiplicity; it is written as a mix of autobiographical confession and language-centered aphorism, of poetry and prose. Its content moves through reminiscence and observation, moves nonsynchronically through the past and the present.
While My Life is undeniably autobiographical, Hejinian crucially refuses to adopt a stable-subject position and to indulge in a rhetoric of self-propaganda or self-restoration. This work, through its attention to alternative and multiple ways of telling, refuses to invoke the transparent language conventions that often compose autobiography. It does not allow its readers to ask and then decide who Lyn Hejinian is, but rather, it places them squarely within a representational crisis that forces them to attend to and interrogate their customary ways of interpreting and reading themselves. Hejinian's emphasis is more on the roles the self of My Life wants to play than it is on an absolutely gendered, or otherwise subjected, narrative. As she writes, referencing the title, "My life is a permeable constructedness." An example of the subject's "permeable constructedness" can be seen in Hejinian's frequent repetition of the phrase "I wanted to be …" This phrase takes many forms in the "early years" of her book: "In any case, I wanted to be both the farmer and his horse when I was a child, and I tossed my head and stamped with one foot as if I were pawing the ground before a long gallop." Or, "I wanted to be a brave child, a girl with guts." Or "If I couldn't be a cowboy, then I wanted to be a sailor." Or, "she pretends she is a blacksmith…. Now she's a violinist." Gradually the declaration of "I wanted to be…" changes into a new form, into the "I am…." But Hejinian's "I am…" differs radically from the repetitive tautology of "I am I," a statement that speaks to a grammatical connection between the subject and the object of identity. Instead, Hejinian writes, "I am a shard, signifying isolation - here I am thinking aloud of my affinity for the separate fragment taken under scrutiny."
My Life pushes the reader into an act of choosing among multiplicities. In My Life a resignified, fluctuating subjectivity is accompanied, ideally, by the resistance of the reader. Hejinian's model of subjectivity denies essentialist notions of the subject at the same time that it cultivates the powers of the reader by opening an anarchic space for reader response. By writing an autobiography, a genre that in its most clichéd form claims a representative relationship between author and narrator, as an open text, Hejinian directs attention to the role language has in shaping subjectivity. My Life provokes useful and important questions: for example, how might the very linear structure of narrative, which in autobiography centers most detail around the subject, further perpetuate essentialist notions of the subject? How might the grammatical structures of our language, in which being is continually bestowed on the subject by its primacy in the hierarchy of the sentence, do the same? While My Life does not directly answer these questions, it usefully complicates any answers that we might have.
In 1983 Hejinian traveled to Leningrad and Moscow with Ochs, her husband, who was on tour with the Rova Saxophone Quartet. In these cities she met some contemporary, samizdat Russian poets such as Vladimir Aristov, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, Aleksei Parshchikov, Ilya Kutik, Nadezhda Kondakova, Viktor Krivalin, Olga Sedakova, Marianne Zoschenko, and Ivan Zhdanov. She also began a friendship with Leningrad poet Dragomoshchenko that continues to influence her work. From Dragomoshchenko she learned Russian and began, with Elena Balashova, to translate his and other Russian poets' works. She returned to Russia again in 1989 with the American poets Michael Davidson, Ron Silliman, and Barrett Watten. Together they wrote Leningrad: American Writers in the Soviet Union (1991), a book that is part travel narrative, part political commentary, part cultural studies.
Leningrad is very much a text of the language movement. The collaborative nature of the piece is common to language writers, many of whom enact their theoretical concerns with questions of community through communal writing practices. Further, its theoretically astute discourse reflects the current philosophical trends that encourage a fragmented subjectivity, especially in relation to East European nationalism and racism. The four poets in this collection alternate voices and discuss various ways post-Glasnost society forces them to confront their own politics of encounter. The possibilities and manifestations of community play a major role in this book. Hejinian, for instance, describes her interest in things Russian as an "exterior passion, or desire" that is "stirred by an insatiable identity. Being there is to be in a state of incommensurability and hence of inseparability, as if that were the status or ‘human’ nature of Not-me." But while Russia is often posed as the space of the "Not-me," Hejinian's work transcends this dichotomy. Her statement on Russia as the place of identity-centered difference concludes with her losing herself "in the crowds flowing on the Nevsky."
The dissolution of national boundaries also defines Hejinian's next works, Oxota: A Short Russian Novel (1991), a revised version of a novel originally titled The Hunt, and The Cell (1992). Oxota, The Cell, and Leningrad are in many ways an interconnected trilogy, and often a story will appear in more than one book, although always in a different form. Oxota was written by Hejinian during her many visits to Russia, and The Cell was written concurrently from October 1986 to November 1988. Both works are sentence-based.
Oxota is to some extent novelistic, composed of short chapters that often read as if they were an independent scene or comment. Each chapter is composed of a very free adaptation of the fourteen-line stanza form used by Aleksandr Pushkin in Eugene Onegin. While Oxota is in many ways an autobiography in which fragments of conversation overlie a narrative continuum involving the author, Dragomoshchenko, his wife, Zina, and other friends of the author's, Oxota extends the work Hejinian began in My Life. My Life is more an internal text than an external. In contrast, the concerns of Oxota spill outward toward the global, as is evident in its attention to things like nationalism, art, and identity in Russia and the United States.
Oxota opens with the statement "This time we are both," indicating just how all persuasive both the tensions of an "insatiable identity" and Hejinian's friendship with Dragomoshchenko are. While a linguistic division separates the United States and Russia, and Hejinian and Dragomoshchenko, as well, this division in Oxota is "not a displacement but relocation" of the difficult permeabilities of identity. Hejinian, for example, reverses the cliché "lines of state" in the sentence "Our language was divided into states of line" to speak to the various possible states of the poetic or grammatical line. Oxota then plots, as Hejinian writes, the way that "Our experiences achieve pathos when they force us to acknowledge that the significances and meanings of things - things we've known, it would seem, forever, and certainly since early childhood - have changed - or rather, when we are forced to absorb the memory of being utterly unable to catch or trace or name the moment of transition when one meaning changed to another - the moment of interruption in the course of our knowing such things."
In The Cell, a book-length collection of poems with their dates of composition, the line is shorter—most often five words—than in Hejinian's previous work, giving the poems a sort of formal hesitancy. The writing here is involved with the daily, the everyday encounter, but, at the same time, continues to examine Oxota's global concerns with nation and identity. Hejinian's interest in biographical questions continues in the poem "The Cell" in its examination of subjectivities. But here the biographical figure has been replaced by the biological cell, which highlights the inability to isolate the smallest part of anything from its context. As Hejinian writes, "there are no / single notes, no unique gender," and further, "the question ‘who?’ disappears." Processes of identification instead are skewed in this collection, crossing even human/animal boundaries: "Feeling female in identification with / a male animal."
The most recent book in Hejinian's varied, developing career is The Cold of Poetry (1994), a collection of previously published and now out-of-print shorter works. The movement from the internal to the external that occurs between My Life and Oxota suggests a trend in Hejinian's poetry toward a re-thinking of the language writing movement's emphasis on the form as being the primary location of the politics of the piece. Her work seems to be moving toward a merging of the formal concerns of language poetry with the social concerns of cultural studies. In Hejinian's work, then, social reformation interacts with global transformation. She is currently writing several collaborative works - one with Dragomoshchenko and another with Carla Harryman, a long, picaresque book on eros and sex; she is also writing a feature-length film with the American cinematographer Jackie Ochs.
Source: Juliana Spahr, "Lyn Hejinian," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 165, American Poets Since World War II, Fourth Series, edited by Joseph Conte, Gale Research, 1996, pp. 102-107.
In the following essay, Parsons situates Hejinian's My Life project within the context of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement within which she explores the function of language and meaning as a marker of an individual's life. Rather than closing off life through language, the poetic sections of My Life are shown here as opening outward into the ebbs and flows of intuition, memory, and the expansive fluidity of language. The emphasis in this poem is placed on process rather than on stability, and on a reader's engagement rather than on a traditional critical explication.
Lyn Hejinian's My Life meanders lovingly over its own minutiae. Or perhaps leaps is a better word for the vigorous shifts and the continual non sequiturs that mark this ‘autobiography,’ with its probing and passionate language ebbing and flowing over a lifetime. In both the first and the second editions Hejinian withholds the stable reassurances of genre and form. Rather than titled or numbered chapters, there are long paragraphs—thirty-seven in the first edition, forty-five in the second. Each paragraph begins with an italicized phrase, seemingly unrelated to what follows, and each, Hejinian suggests, is ‘a time and place, not a syntactical unit’ (1987). Gone are clear divisions between poetry and prose, lyric and narrative. Gone is any clear association of history with memory.
Hejinian belongs to the ‘L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E’ poetry movement, so it's no surprise that her autobiography challenges the function of verbal expression and the nature of meaning, as well as genre, by overlaying itself with a musical arrangement of language, an emphasizing of the material aspects of words. Meaning is everywhere in this text—and yet nowhere for one unwilling to listen closely. For Hejinian's meaning is neither traditionally conceived nor stable. Her ‘life’ is a clustering of phrases and fragments, where sequences of more than three clearly and semantically linked sentences are quite rare; it is a dramatic working through of Ron Silliman's theory of the ‘new sentence.’ The reader must sift and reshape the text. No easy way through or out of the book is offered; nor should it be, because My Life is the articulation not just of Hejinian's own life, but of a reader's as well.
‘What follows a strict chronology has no memory’ (Hejinian 1987, 13).
Charles Olson talks of ‘selection’ in his essay, ‘Human Universe’; writing and even living, he says, are a whittling down of ‘that lovely riding thing, chaos’ (1966). Each involves the organization of a universe, of poem or person, through selection from an incomprehensibly rich mass of stimulae and sensations, bits and pieces. ‘For any of us, at any instant,’ he claims, ‘are juxtaposed to any experience, even an overwhelming single one, on several more planes than the arbitrary and discursive which we inherit can declare’ (1966). Selecting inevitably betrays the flow between these planes, creates a flaw in one's perception of a universe that does not revolve around humanity's limited means of expressing itself.
Since writing and living are a betrayal of one's ‘lived’ experience, what is memory? Born in. Lived at. Schooled at. Married him. Bore her. Stories of such turning-points or times of shift, even when thick with description, thin one out. Where are: the postcard of Emily Brontë's dog; the red and white package of Hungarian Mammoth Squash seeds (world record—451 lbs! Absolutely the largest squash you can grow!); the blue plastic E with feet; cobalt therapy, a flying squirrel: postage stamps on a ‘S.A.S.E.’; a stamped thin tin bird with fuchsia wings; ants crawling out of peonies my mother cut for my sixth grade teacher; dandelions, from this window, from this angle: blossoms on the maple tree. Where is the language for the plenitude of which such details are only crude indicators?
Lyn Hejinian offers a selection. But what she selects, how she reorganizes her life, produces not a chronology of significant events, but a sonal and visual dramatization of how language constructs one's ‘reality’ and one's memories. She presents an intuition of the ‘pure duration,’ the ongoingness, the presentness of time, and simultaneously the wonderful plasticity, the expansive, procreative embrace of both memory and language.
‘Thinking about the time in the book, it is really the time of your life’ (Hejinian 1987, 55).
Not only is the book the lived time it recounts; it is the time spent writing the book, and reading it. Beyond this, Hejinian's language—her fragments, her repetitions, her memories and echoes—assault the notion of a language whose logic flows with time, that can be read or experienced only in a forward-moving or progressive time frame. By constantly and variously reworking words and phrases so they reappear nonsequentially and seem almost unmotivated, Hejinian tries to break out of narrative and linguistic chronology.
Which is not to suggest that My Life has no narrative progression. The subtle movement of language from a distilled child's voice (more recalled than reenacted) to the more ‘mature’ sensibility of a crafter of words, together with the increase of ‘theoretical’ asides, produces an understated portrait of the artist. But Hejinian is more immediately concerned with linguistic and temporal ‘transgression,’ with resisting traditional and staid notions of the time of language, by revealing its spatial nature, rendering it an object to be not remembered so much as renewed (‘I heard it anew not again’ she writes ). Memory is a useful means for renewing language and experience both; it musses up chronology, adjusts or shifts ‘reality,’ dragging history into (making history into) the present.
‘Is that a basis for descriptive sincerity. I am a shard, signifying isolation—here I am thinking aloud of my affinity for the separate fragment taken under scrutiny’ (Hejinian 1987, 52).
Hejinian's minutiae: ‘A pause, a rose, something on paper’ (7); ‘Foxtails, the juice of a peach, have fallen on the flesh of this book’ (39); ‘What I felt was that figs resemble kidneys’ (55); ‘Those hard white grains of sand are flea eggs’ (62); ‘The calves of the cowboy's legs are rubbed shiny, left with no hairs. Pelicans hatch naked from the egg’ (86).
Here is an exquisiteness of detail so lyrically precise, so supple, that Hejinian's is not the only life reclaimed. Just saying the title includes the reader. Each time I read this book, I feel the weight and wonder of my own childhood slinking up the skin on my arms, smell the summers of too-many-barbecues and ketchup-cooking-at-the factory; I find another moment of my life waiting to be rediscovered. Things once extraneous are loved into an intensity that selection had denied them. And more important, words are given an intensity, a thisness, of their own; they begin to exist as words, rather than as linguistic referrals to a greater and other ‘Outside.’
What helps excavate these ‘extraneous’ elements and moments in life is the seeming lack of selection, the apparent randomness with which fragments seemingly peripheral to the major events of a life are thrown together. For instance, Hejinian doesn't describe giving birth, but remarks instead, ‘When the baby was born I lost considerable importance, surrendered it to him, since now he was the last of his kind’ (1987, 64). The observation is, as usual, a non sequitur: ‘Yet I admit I'm still afraid of something when I refuse to rise for the playing of the national anthem. The sailor on the flood, ten times the morning sun, made of wooden goldfish. When the baby was born I lost considerable importance, surrendered it to him, since now he was the last of his kind. "Fundamental dispersion," he said, and then, "no nozzle." The coffee drinkers answered ecstatically, pounding their cups on the table’ (1987, 64). This type of dislocation requires that one read not for a definitive meaning, but rather to engage the process of the making of meaning and to discover the web of potential relations that resonates between sentences. Their connection is one of interwoven tissue, the texture of muscle rather than the firm definition of bone.
‘Only fragments are accurate. Break it up into single words, charge them to combination’ (Hejinian 1987, 55).
If this text charts a lifeline, it traces it from one striking detail to another, from incarnation to new incarnation of individual words, from point to point. ‘A point, in motion, is a line’ (1987) for Hejinian, and the points that constitute her life are in constant motion. ‘Strange,’ Rilke writes, in the first Duino Elegy,
to see meanings that clung together once,
in every direction. And being dead is hard
and full of retrieval before one can gradually
a trace of eternity.—Though the living are
wrong to believe
in the too-sharp distinctions which they
themselves have created
With each recurrence in My Life of a phrase, of an image, eventually of a word, meaning does not merely gather; ‘language [becomes] restless’ (Hejinian 1987, 17) and ‘meanings … [float] away / in every direction’ (Rilke 1984, 155)—lodging temporarily with an old friend, a new companion, until the individuality, the creases and crevices of each word-image-phrase are momentarily enlivened. ‘But a word is a bottomless pit’ (Hejinian 1987, 8). There is always more to retrieve and imagine. Hejinian's act of retrieval, while it still involves a degree of selection, undercuts those ‘too-sharp’ distinctions of the resolutely or obsessively ‘selective,’ those living who are so busy hewing out their own world they neither revel in chaotic source, nor acknowledge that they have indeed selected, shaped, their world.
‘Language which is like a fruitskin around fruit’ (Hejinian 1987, 43).
Life as language: ‘The dictionary presents a world view … The bilingual dictionary doubles that, presents two’ (Hejinian 1987, 79). Hejinian adds her eloquent ‘voice’ to the many others insisting that the world and the self are composed of language. Her version is partly comprised of theoretical statements. Single sentences (for instance, ‘To some extent, each sentence has to be the whole story’ [1987, 67]) give outright and as completely as possible her belief that life is built with and upon language. But these sentences are rarely presented as something beyond the thoughts of a particular moment. They are organic with the process of observation from which such asides grow. And while theoretical statements are signposts, they are not maps. No one can claim authority on how to interpret the signs Hejinian leaves. Each reader finds her own paths through this labyrinthine text.
In The dance of the intellect, Marjorie Perloff talks of Hejinian's creation of ‘a language field that could be anybody's autobiography, a kind of collective unconscious whose language we all recognize’ (1985, 225). Hejinian mentions ‘a portrait bowl’ (1987, 25); I think of a linguistic ‘play box,’ a first-cousin-once-removed to the one James Reaney creates in Colours in the Dark, and comments upon in his preface to it: ‘The theatrical experience in front of you now is designed to give you that mosaic-all-things-happening-at-the-same-time-galaxy-higgledy-piggledy feeling that rummaging through a play box can give you’ (1969, v). But My Life doesn't have the ‘ancestral coffin plates’ and ‘school relics’ (or the eventually cohering world vision) that are in Reaney's play box (1969, v). Hejinian's toys and eccentric ephemera are words; her game is language.
‘Mischief logic; Miss Chief’ (Hejinian 1987, 29).
Hejinian handles words. She picks them up, turns them over, looks at their underbellies. Some she turns over and over—each use a different game, a new possibility; some she discards as broken; some she breaks. This handling allows sound and matter to assert themselves almost continually throughout this text, requiring that its reader at the very least register linguistic disturbance, but more usually revel in such disruption.
Juxtaposition is also part of the game. Her juxtapositions sit a serious meditation next to a commonplace assertion to see what friction comes of such elbow rubbing: ‘If I was left unmarried after college, I would be single all my life and lonely in old age. In such a situation it is necessary to make a choice between contempt and an attempt at understanding, and yet it is difficult to know which is the form of retreat. We will only understand what we have already understood. The turkey is a stupid bird. And it is scanty praise to be so-called well-meaning’ (1987, 53). The wit here is more subtle than that in Hejinian's conflation of Stein and William—‘No ideas but in potatoes’ (1987, 70). But the subtlety is invigorating; the reader is called to play along. Rejoice in displacement, illogic; recognize the suppleness, the plasticity, of language and of meaning not firmly bound by conventional expression. ‘Collaborate with the occasion’ (1987, 29).
Aphorisms abound: ‘Pretty is as pretty does … See lightning, wait for thunder’ (1987, 7). As Perloff points out, these aphorisms are ‘just slightly out of sync,’ a result of ‘the language of adults [impinging] on the child's world with all its prescriptions, admonitions, and "wisdoms,"’ (1985, 224) and of the often witty juxtaposition of sentences throughout the book. Clichés are questioned too, or at least called to a reader's attention, though not with the unremitting thoroughness of Christopher Dewdney's The Dialectical Criminal: Hand in Glove with an Old Hat (1983, 168-9): ‘You cannot linger "on the lamb"’ (Hejinian 1987, 11); ‘We "took" a trip as if that were part of the baggage we carried. In other words, we "took our time"’ (1987, 47). Grammatical rules are rephrased: ‘Pronouns skirt the subject’ (1987, 77). Some are ‘contradicted’: ‘After C, I before, E except’ (1987, 68). Hejinian toys with wandering letters, as in ‘I've heard that it once was a napron’ (1987, 77) or in the frequently repeated phrase ‘a name trimmed with colored ribbons’ (ibid., 14, passim), which finds its ‘source’ in ‘a pony perhaps, his mane trimmed with colored ribbons’ (1987, 15). In all these instances, she calls attention to how language changes, how literalism tampers with meaning and with the world constructed out of language.
She exults in the phonic play of words, the rhyming slip of letters, the compelling nature of rhythm: ‘Between plow and prow’ (1987, 65); ‘Raisins, cheese, the Japanese’ (1987, 64). Such phonic play illuminates the limitations of ‘sense.’ A reader soon finds herself lingering not over meanings, but over the tumble of the words, themselves—‘The grass in my glass’ (1987, 68); ‘I was not afraid in the dark, hearing the low owl, in the light, the bird knocking in the sun. I heard it anew not again’ (1987, 82).
‘If words matched their things we'd be imprisoned within walls of symmetry’ (Hejinian 1987, 70).
Because the narrow language of the symbolic, in its transparency, cannot contain and express the many planes on which any thing exists, such language ‘stops’ that thing, moves away from its fluctuating reality. Hejinian remarks on this in her essay ‘The Rejection of Closure’: ‘Children objectify language when they render it their plaything, in jokes, puns, and riddles, or in glossolaliac chants and rhymes. They discover that words are not equal to the world, that a shift, analogous to parallax in photography, occurs between thing (events, ideas, objects) and the words for them—a displacement that leaves a gap’ (1984b, 138).
This gap shows in My Life: ‘I insert a description: of agonizing spring morning freshness, when through the open window a smell of cold dust and buds of broken early grass, of schoolbooks and rotting apples, trails the sound of an airplane and a flock of crows’ (1987, 48). Self-consciously she names this ‘a description’—she is not offering a landscape, a setting. She is giving words instead.
Yet her continual repetition of words in a changing context lets them shimmer with varying resonances and dramatizes how the longing for a union between word and thing can be superseded by the pure power of a word that means itself, fully, intensely. For Hejinian the union between word and object can be had only by making the word itself an object, not by joining it to the object to which it refers. By saying things intensely, she marks the movement away from referential fusion of word and world, and further still, marks the deflection of a potentially stable meaning. The randomness of repetition and reorientation suggests that, despite Hejinian's careful joinings and juxtapositions, meaning travels of its own accord. Words become glorious in their new oldness. They stand intensely as themselves.
‘We had been in France where every word really was a bird, a thing singing’ (Hejinian 1987, 85).
‘One of my favourite words was birds and will be. If they are but flights to a conclusion, I will wait patiently to look at them’ (Hejinian 1987, 89).
Stein claims that language can exist ‘as birds as well as words’ (1935c, 30), and that words are a part of the strangeness of the world. Certainly, the insistent rise and fall of words is a source of strangeness in My Life; the continual repetition (or ‘insistence’ as Stein suggests—in ‘Portraits and Repetitions’ [1935b, 166-7]—it might more properly be termed) of the commonplace speech that marks life. Michel Foucault has commented that ‘we live in a world completely marked by, all laced with, discourse, that is to say, utterances which have been spoken, of things said, of affirmations, interrogations, of discourses which have already occurred’ (Ruas 1986, 177). This is very much Hejinian's world. Her writing of it is an intense listening.
‘The obvious analogy is with music, which extends beyond the space the figure occupies’ (Hejinian 1987, 57).
‘When you speak you play a language. The obvious analogy is with music’ (Hejinian 1987, 82).
It would be a poor listener who did not pick up on Hejinian's ‘obvious analogy’ with music since it is an important theme (and a theme more musical than literary) throughout My Life. Not only because it self-reflexively accounts for the repetitions (‘The new cannot be melodic, for melody requires repetition’ [1987, 62]), but also because it suggests something important about meaning in this book. Because most statements are decontextualized, and because the reader must ‘make’ her own sense, meaning is clearly an issue here. Hejinian raises the question of meaning in many of her theoretical musings: ‘What is the meaning hung from that depend’ (1987, 16). How much does one need to mean, to be intelligible, and why? What sort of assumptions about language hang on a desire to mean? ‘What is one doing to, or with, the statement (the language) or the stated (the object or the idea) when one means it’ (1987, 42).
Or, how does one mean? Ultimately the how overrides the what. How Hejinian means is musically—not merely with correspondence between word and thing; not purely referentially. She is not striving for a referential meaning. Sentences, like A pause, a rose, something on paper (1987, 7), are themes (in the musical definition of the word); they are repeated in ever changing configurations, and even as they accrue associative and contextual meaning, they develop a potent sound value. Their continual echoes stand as musical ideas, aural images that vary and combine to create an ‘intuitive’ lyric that speaks intimately, trustingly.
‘Sensual,’ reverberating sense challenges logical, cerebral sense; dislocating, subverting orders challenge more evident, predictable orders. Despite the rigour, the concentration, the extreme exertion that goes into creating them, music and the musical language of My Life move beyond the cerebral. ‘[But] though I could say the music brought these places "home" to me,’ Hejinian writes, ‘the composition itself grew increasingly strange as I listened again, less recognizable, in the dark, as when one repeats a word or phrase over and over in order to disintegrate its associations, to defamiliarize it’ (1987, 113). A work of this intensity that tries so hard to construct one grammar out of another, to defamiliarize the very substance of one's world and ‘self,’ is an act of incredible control and precision. What makes Hejinian so successful is her ‘lack of clarity,’ her leap beyond pure idea to emotion, spirit rhapsody.
‘Through the window of Chartres, with no view, the light transmits the color as a scene. What then is a window’ (Hejinian 1987, 65).
A window: transparent. Clear-cut reference. Hejinian offers another take on this metaphor; a ‘window-language’ that is not transparent, that lets both window and language exist as, and for, themselves, to demonstrate their own beauty. If language must be a window, why not one like the stained glass of Chartres, why not one of colour and texture, a composition that is its own landscape, that adds tincture to the world outside and noticeably alters what little ‘reality’ one perceives through it?
Source: Marnie Parsons, "What Then Is a Window,’" in Touch Monkeys: Nonsense Strategies for Reading Twentieth-Century Poetry, University of Toronto Press, 1994, pp. 206-14.
In the following excerpt, Perloff explains the concept that shapes Hejinian's ongoing My Life project, with particular emphasis on section 29 ("Yet we insist that life is full of happy chance") as representative of the poetic vision. Showing how Hejinian revised the section to reflect her own aging process, Perloff explores how the collection as a whole challenges the conventional sequence of an autobiography through its overlapping images,ideas, and other details, both within and across sections.
A related process characterizes Lyn Hejinian's remarkable My Life. When this "autobiography" was first written in 1978, it had 37 sections, one for each of Hejinian's then 37 years, and each section had 37 sentences. The (unnamed) number assigned to each section governs that section's content: thus 1 has its base in infant sensations, in 9 the references are to a gawky child, in 18 someone is "hopelessly in love," in 22 there are allusions to college reading, in the form of Nietzsche, Darwin, Freud, and Marx. It is not that these sections are "about" the year in question, for each is a collage made up of numerous interpolations—memories and meditations, axioms and aphorisms. Nevertheless, in the course of the narrative, the references gradually shift from childhood to adolescence to adult thought and behavior.
The writing of a life, Hejinian believes, has no beginning, middle, or end: it goes on as long as the author lives. Accordingly, in 1986 when she turned 45, Hejinian revised My Life, adding eight sections to the narrative as well as adding eight new sentences to each section, these eight spliced into the text at irregular intervals. Here, for example, is 29, with the eight new sentences distinguished from the rest for convenience:
Yet we insist
that life is full
of happy chance
The windows were open and the morning air was, by the smell of lilac and some darker flowering shrub, filled with the brown and chirping trills of birds. As they are if you could have nothing but quiet and shouting. Arts, also, are links. I picture an idea at the moment I come to it, our collision. Once, for a time, anyone might have been luck's child. Even rain didn't spoil the barbecue, in the backyard behind a polished traffic, through a landscape, along a shore. Freedom then, liberation later. She came to babysit for us in those troubled years directly from the riots, and she said that she dreamed of the day when she would gun down everyone in the financial district. That single telephone is only one hair on the brontosaurus. The coffee drinkers answered ecstatically. If your dog stays out of the room, you get the fleas. In the lull, activity drops. I'm seldom in my dreams without my children. MY DAUGHTER TOLD ME THAT AT SOME TIME IN SCHOOL SHE HAD LEARNED TO THINK OF A POET AS A PERSON SEATED ON AN ICEBERG AND MELTING THROUGH IT. IT IS A POETRY OF CERTAINTY. In the distance, down the street, the practicing soprano belts the breeze. As for we who "love to be astonished," money makes money, luck makes luck. Moves forward, drives on. CLASS BACKGROUND IS NOT LANDSCAPE—STILL HERE AND THERE IN 1969 I COULD FEEL THE SCOPE OF COLLECTIVITY. It was the present time for a little while, and not so new as we thought then, the present always after war. Ever since it has been hard for me to share my time. The yellow of that sad room was again the yellow of naps, where she waited, restless, faithless, for more days. THEY SAY THAT THE ALTERNATIVE FOR THE BOURGEOISIE WAS GULLIBILITY. CALL IT WATER AND DOGS. Reason looks for two, then arranges it from there. But can one imagine a madman in love. Goodbye; enough that was good. There was a pause, a rose, something on paper. I MAY BALK BUT I WON'T RECEDE. Because desire is always embarrassing. At the beach, with a fresh flush. The child looks out. THE BERRIES ARE KEPT IN THE BRAMBLES, ON WIRES ON RESERVE FOR THE BIRDS. At a distance, the sun is small. There was no proper Christmas after he died. That triumphant blizzard had brought the city to its knees. I am a stranger to the little girl I was, and more—more strange. BUT MANY FACTS ABOUT A LIFE SHOULD BE LEFT OUT, THEY ARE EASILY REPLACED. One sits in a cloven space. Patterns promote an outward likeness, between little white silences. The big trees catch all the moisture from what seems like a dry night. Reflections don't make shade, but shadows are, and do. In order to understand the nature of the collision, one must know something of the nature of the motions involved—that is, a history. He looked at me and smiled and did not look away, and thus a friendship became erotic. Luck was rid of its clover.
This particular section has as its epigraph or leitmotif one of the optimistic clichés we associate with Hejinian's mother: "Yet we insist that life is full of happy chance." It begins, like many of the childhood sections, with a pleasant nature image: windows open, morning air, smell of lilac, chirping birds. But the mood is meditative, the time evidently "those troubled years" when babysitters came "directly from the riots." Indeed, further down the page we learn that it is 1969, when "I could feel the scope of collectivity." The text presents us with small children, including a daughter who "had learned to think of a poet as a person seated on an iceberg and melting through it." Yet, from another angle, the narrator thinks of hers as a "poetry of certainty." Being a poet, in any case, takes place against the "yellow of naps," and against what seems to be a new love relationship, a "friendship [that] became erotic."
In this context, the eight new sentences play a curious part. Not only don't they stand out; once inserted into the text, they are wholly absorbed into its momentum so that it is impossible to tell where the seams are. Some of the phrases provide new information (like the date 1969), some carry on the image patterning, like "The berries are kept in the brambles, on wires on reserve for the birds." The point, I think, is that, as Hejinian puts it in the eighth new sentence, "many facts about a life should be left out, they are easily replaced." This is precisely what her own text does: a given "fact of life" will be "replaced" or at least recontextualized so as to take on somewhat different meanings by being inserted between a new X and Y. And yet, as in a jigsaw puzzle or mosaic, the replacement strategies don't alter the fact that the "pieces" are very similar—cut, as it were, from the same cloth.
At one level, then, My Life is an elaborate, one might say Oulipean, number game, with its 37 × 37 (or 45 × 45) square, each number having the appropriate tempo and mood assigned to it. And furthermore, the formal patterning is heightened by the repetition of the short italicized phrases placed in the white square that begins each section, phrases that are then permutated throughout the text, appearing and reappearing in different contexts. In 29, for example, we find the leitmotif of 1 ("A pause, a rose, something on paper") and 2 ("As for we who ‘love to be astonished’"), embedded in the text, as indeed they are throughout My Life.
Why such formal artifice in what is usually taken to be a genre as "natural" as autobiography? I shall come back to this question but first I want to look at the text at the level of microstructure and see how the individual units themselves are structured and how they function in the larger picture.
The images invoked in this passage are largely the sort every little girl would notice and later remember: the wallpaper with its "pattern of small roses," "the white gauze curtains which were never loosened," the ominous "shadow of the redwood trees" outside the window and the sunset reflected in it, the "little puddle" that is sometimes "overcast," indicating cloudy weather, the uncle with the wart on his nose and his "jokes at our expense" and the deaf aunt who is "nodding agreeably." And further: there are the proverbs that adults recount to children: "Pretty is as pretty does," or such lessons in necessity as "See lightning, wait for thunder." Even the "moment yellow," which later turns "purple" is the staple of "girls' books" and Seventeen magazine: what could be more banal, more everyday than such references to childhood?
But of course there is something else going on here. As against the conventional autiobiography, Hejinian's everywhere undermines sequence: b does not follow a, and the connectives are often missing. And further, this is an autobiography that provides almost no direct references to the basic facts—what city the poet lives in, where her father works, where she goes to school, whom she marries, how old her children are, and so on. True, we can surmise that the story opened some time in the early forties, since the narrator's father is returning from the war. Or again, in 29, the assumption is that father has died—"There was no proper Christmas after he died"—especially since 28 contains the sentence "I wanted to carry my father up all those stairs." But even these central "events" remain shadowy, peripheral—events that take place, so to speak, at the outer edges of the screen whose real focus is on something else.
That something else may be defined as the creation of a language field in which "identity" is less a property of a given character than a fluid state that takes on varying shapes and that hence engages the reader to participate in its formation and deformation. The scene is set by the first italicized phrase, A pause, a rose, something onpaper. Are the "pause" and the "rose" nouns in apposition or do they refer to the same thing? The consonantal endings (z) link the two monosyllabic words, but even then, we can't specify their meaning or relate them with certainty to the "something on paper." When the phrase recurs in the third section, it is embedded in images of plant, animal, and insect life:
As if sky plus sun must make leaves. A snapdragon volunteering in the garden among the cineraria gapes its maw between the fingers, and we pinched the buds of the fuschia to make them pop. Is that willful. Inclines. They have big calves because of those hills. Flip over small stones, dried mud. We thought that the mica might be gold. A pause, a rose, something on paper, in a nature scrapbook. What follows a strict chronology has no memory. (ML 13)
Here the phrase makes sense as referring to something seen on the page of a scrapbook, something one pauses over. But the next appearance of the phrase comes in a comic account of Mother's way of eating pudding, "carving a rim around the circumference of the pudding, working her way inward toward the center, scooping with the spoon, to see how far she could separate the pudding from the edge of the bowl before the center collapsed, spreading the pudding out again, lower, back to the edge of the bowl." "You could tell," adds the narrator, "that it was improvisational because at that point they closed their eyes." That what was improvisational? The pudding-eating ritual just described or something quite different? And why would improvisation make one want to close one's eyes? Because one has seen it all before and it's boring? Because the improvisation is frightening? There is no way to tell and, in any case, the scene now "cuts" to the familiar "A pause, a rose, something on paper."
The recurrence of these leitmotifs (e.g., What is the meaning hung from that depend? The obvious analogy is with music, or Like plump birds along the shore) has an oddly reassuring effect. It is the poet herself who is pausing to put "something on paper," something that is her written offering, her "rose." In the course of My Life these phrases become markers, signposts around which much that is confusing in one's life can coalesce. "What is the meaning hung from that depend?" can be taken as an epigraph for the whole text even as "the obvious analogy is with music" fits any number of "analogies" that come up in the narrative, and there are dozens of bodily forms that emerge "Like plump birds along the shore."
Indeed, throughout My Life the italicized phrase-making serves to remind us that, as Hejinian put it in the title of an early book of poems, "Writing [is] an aid to memory." It is the act of writing itself that transforms Everygirl into the author of the autobiography. Let us go back to the opening page for a moment and see how this process works. My Life opens with a classic Hollywood shot: the "purple moment" when the baby girl at the top of the stairs sees the front door open on Father, returning from the war, evidently (for this is what adults tell the child later) "younger, thinner than when he had left"—all this against the background of rose-patterned wallpaper and white gauze curtains. But the Hollywood shot would not include the sentence, "In certain families, the meaning of necessity is at one with the sentiment of pre-necessity." The remark is gently satiric, pointing to the family's need to predict what will happen, to control future events, to plan the transformation of "pre-necessity" into "necessity." And this sentence is, in its turn, followed by the terse, "The better things were gathered in a pen"—a sentence open for a wide range of interpretations, for example:
The better toys were gathered in the playpen.
The better dishes (the good china) were kept
in a special closet.
The better objets d'art were kept in a cordoned-off
area, as untouched as
the windows behind the white gauze curtains.
And so on. However we read "better things" and "pen," what emerges is that this is a family that makes discriminations between "better" and "worse" things, that is concerned with hierarchy, propriety, and orders—the "rigidity which never intrudes," as we read a few lines further down—and that the narrator recalls registering a certain puzzlement about these things.
But these implications are never pressed or even clarified. Rather, new sentences are introduced that are as equivocal semantically as they are normal grammatically. "The plush must be worn away": there's a sentence anyone can construe. But what plush? From a stuffed animal? A sofa? And who is saying or thinking these things? Is the "she" who "stepped into people's gardens to pinch off cuttings from their geraniums and succulents" the girl herself or her mother or someone else? Here the cause is cited—the stepping into other people's gardens so as to pinch off cuttings—but note that the cause is separated both from the agent and from the result. For we never know whether the neighbors catch "her" taking their cuttings or even who "she" is. We only know that in this "Wool station" (elderly aunts knitting and "nodding, agreeably"), "the afternoon happens, crowded and therefore endless." Crowded with what? Well, as the preceding sentence tells us, "Long time lines trail behind every idea, object, person, pet, vehicle, event." Everything finally matters but how and to whom? "If only you could touch," says the narrator, "or, even, catch those gray great creatures"—a reference, perhaps, to the clouds above reflected in those puddles but also, quite possibly, to imaginary creatures read about in children's books or emerging from the narrator's "radio days."
Throughout My Life, secrets seem about to be revealed, enigmas about to be clarified, but the moment of revelation never comes. In the final sections of the expanded My Life, the familiar leitmotifs—"What is the meaning hung from that depend," "The obvious analogy is with music"—recur and almost cushion the reader's recognition that nothing has been or is going to be resolved. "I confess candidly," says the narrator, "that I was adequately happy until I was asked if I was," the question, evidently, having been put to her on a trip to the Soviet Union. But then, "happiness is worthless, my grandfather assured me when he was very old, he had never sought it for himself or for my father, it had nothing to do with whether or not a life is good. The fear of death is residue, its infinity overness, equivalence—an absolute." (ML 115). And the final sentence of the book is "Reluctance such that it can't be filled."
This reluctance, this deferral of meaning and denial of plenitude, is central to Hejinian's conception of writing. "Where once one sought a vocabulary for ideas," Hejinian remarked in an early essay, "now one seeks ideas for vocabularies." My morphemes mourned events is one of the text's leitmotifs, and indeed Hejinian really does filter "events" through the morphemes of their articulation. Hers is autobiography that not only calls attention to the impossibility of charting the evolution of a coherent "self," the psychological motivation for continued action, but one that playfully deconstructs the packaged model crowding the bookstore shelves today—the autobiography, say, of Nancy Reagan or Shelley Winters, of Lee Iacocca or the Kennedys' chauffeur. In the popular imagination, after all, autobiography is the form in which you explain how you got where you are now. Ancestry and childhood invariably play a role as do, in most cases, schooling and the friction with one's childhood and teenage peers. In popular autobiography, these tentative forays toward separation invariably lead, sooner or later, to the Big Break followed by the Big Gamble and often by the Big Mistake(s).
Again, in popular or what we might call "informational" autobiography, language is largely and intentionally transparent, a vehicle used to convey facts, detail events, and produce, here and there, rhetorical flourishes that demand our attention. The emphasis remains on event and character—the shaping of a life according to social and cultural norms and constraints. It is this mode that My Life calls into question, refusing, as it does, to go for the Big Break, the Big Defeat, not even displaying the climactic moment of sex, of motherhood, of vocation. "Memory," says the narrator at one point, "is the money of my class." Which is to say, beware of the self-indulgence that "memory" brings, the endless dwelling on what happened or might have happened. The construction of "my life," for that matter, must compete with the constructions of others: "There were more storytellers than there were stories, so that everyone in the family had a version of history and it was impossible to get close to the original, or to know ‘what really happened’" (ML 21).
No "characters," no "events," and finally, no "self," at least not in the usual sense of that word. It is difficult, reading My Life, to define the "I" of Lyn Hejinian, the particular person that she is, although of course the narrator's verbal habits and references do convey an identifiable voice and style. But compared to, say, Yeats's autobiography or Henry Adams's or even William Carlos Williams's, Hejinian's displays a studied refusal to engage in introspection, a steady suspicion of Romantic self-consciousness. As the narrator remarks wittily in 12, "Now that I was ‘old enough to make my own decisions,’ I dressed like everyone else" (ML 36).
What remains individual, however, is the construction of the artwork that "my life," any life, can prompt. For after all, even a phoneme can make a difference as when we come across such phrases as "seeming is believing" or "x plus you." Accordingly, the permutated phrases, many of them with quotes inside the quotes so as to signal the endless clichéing of language—As for we "who love to be astonished," When one travels one might "hit" a storm, What memory is not a "gripping" thought—work to create an intricate network, a highly wrought textuality that is enhanced by the strictness of the autobiograhy's number system: 45 × 45, each unit having its square white box containing the key phrase. My Life thus becomes, oddly, My Art or My Writing, the natural giving way to the artificial, the individual self to the body of words.
The pleasure of Hejinian's text—and here we come back to the larger issue of the rule-generated text in late twentieth-century writing—has less to do with what happens to her protagonist in the course of the "story" than with the reader's discovery that, however random and disjunctive the book's events, conversations, aphorisms, and commentaries seem to be at the level of microstructure, each unlisted number, when extracted, gives us a key to the behavior of "Lyn" at age x or y. Or does it? As in the case of Perec's Life: A User's Manual, My Life introduces a certain "bend" or clinamen into the carefully articulated mathematical structure. In 29, for example, the opening sentence with its reference to "brown and chirping trills of birds" could just as well be the opening sentence of number 3 or 4, and many other sentences and phrases—"The berries are kept in the brambles, on wires on reserve for birds," "The big trees catch all the moisture from what seems like a dry night"—defy the text's larger number system so that the "saturated structure" of My Life cannot be replicated.
The goal of such procedural writing may well be, as Michel Butor has put it, "to escape the poem that sticks to the poet like a suit of clothing (even if it is a ‘splendid’ one), so as to try to find, in a structure that is very confining and yet very rich in formal relations, a more profound poetic grammar." "Mathematics," according to this way of thinking (see OU 93), "repairs the ruin of rules." It also repairs, we might add, the "ruin" of a "free verse" determined primarily by speech rhythm and "natural" pause—a speech rhythm used brilliantly by the Modernist poets and their heirs of the fifties and sixties but now increasingly problematic as "authentic voice" models and "natural speech" paradigms show increasing signs of strain. A pause, a rose, something on paper: something, perhaps, that takes us from the impasse of "free speech" rhythms to the "rhythm of cognition" (ML 92).
Source: Marjorie Perloff, "The Return of the (Numerical) Repressed: From Free Verse to Procedural Play," in Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media, University of Chicago, 1991, pp. 162-70.
Dutton, Danielle, Review of Happily, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 23 No. 2, Summer 2003, pp. 128-29.
Hejinian, Lyn, My Life, Burning Deck, 1980, pp. 5, 7, 81-82.
———, "Yet we insist that life is full of happy chance," in My Life, Burning Deck, 1980, pp. 71-73.
Ives, Nancy R., Review of My Life, in Library Journal, December 1987, pp. 104-05.
Naylor, Paul, Poetic Investigations: Singing in the Holes of History, Northwestern University Press, 1999, p. 119.
Review of The Language of Inquiry, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 247, No. 49, December 4, 2000, p. 68.
Delville, Michel, The American Prose Poem: Poetic Form and the Boundaries of Genre, University of Florida Press, 1998.
This study provides an engaging discussion of the form from its origins through more contemporary renderings, with a particular focus on contemporary American prose poets.
Jarraway, David R., "My Life through the Eighties: The Exemplary L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E of Lyn Hejinian," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 33, No. 2, Summer 1992, pp. 319-36.
This essay summarizes the ideas of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and analyzes Hejinian's My Life as a key example of such experimental poetry. Jarraway focuses on Hejinian's mechanics and politics and how these affect the meaning
Peters, Robert, Where the Bee Sucks: Workers, Drones, and Queens of Contemporary American Poetry, Asylum Arts, 1994.
This book is a compilation of poems and prose pieces (usually about poetry and poetics) written by various American poets of the late twentieth century. The collection closes with an essay on Language poetry.
Simpson, Megan, Poetic Epistemologies: Gender and Knowing in Women's Language-Oriented Writing, State University Press of New York, 2000.
Simpson's book covers twentieth-century poetry. It provides critical introductions to a full range of works by a dozen women writers. The long chapter on Hejinian includes a discussion of My Life.