Thursday, April 17, 2008

Lyn Hejinian gave an absolutely breathtaking reading at Woodland Pattern last Sunday.

I can't think of any other writing that's this generous, profuse, positive in the best sense. That very particular positivity, which bowls me over as a devotee of the negative, is something I hope to examine in a future post--but for now I'll just mention the free and light affirmation of thinking that rests on strata of critical awareness, an innocence that has earned its place by insisting on openness (and not on innocence, naivete) throughout Hejinian's writing career.

Generous, profuse: this close attention to such a wealth of particulars (I find it elsewhere only in Ron Silliman's writing and, in a different way, in Rae Armantrout's; in all cases arriving somewhere Proust only could have dreamt of): anything that comes into the day (animals, plants, talk, weather, objects of all kinds) and the ways a day takes shape; dreams; stories already told and newly invented; the language of other writers (poets, correspondents, novelists, philosophers, memoirists); instances of what would be "pure language" if anything in this writing were "pure;" jokes; philosophical propositions... anything may come in, and does.

And a profusion of styles and durations of abiding in one area of subject matter or another: the reading's large selection from The Book of a Thousand Eyes included a sequence of odd "faerie tales," tiny instances of speech, an extended description of the attitudes of mothers and children in a Blockbuster Video, a series of wildly varied tangents that ended in a catalog of facts about Malta, lyric poems and a portrait of a war zone.

And not just generous in the kinds of things the writing includes, but in what it gets those things to do. The Hejinianian (what a fine adjective to coin) poem can (at different times, and often at the same time) seem like a catalog of things, or of events (which, in this writing, are generally particular connections between things--or things and thoughts--making contexts for each other, producing a singular temporal form with its own shape and extension)--in which case one gets the sense of all this world laid out spatially. And/or the sense of a path through the world (the path of one's living), in which all these things and thoughts are encountered, their time and the time of one's experience intersecting and producing one another. All this has to do with what the language is about. There's also the status of all these particulars as specifically linguistic particulars; they are encountered in thought (by the poet and by readers/listeners) as words, phrases, lines, stanzas and sentences, and the shifting variety of the language is equally a part of the work. (Not-so-)finally, there's the relation of all this to a special set of particulars: the philosophical propositions that have been increasingly frequent in Hejinian's writing since Happily. These especially tend toward statements about the nature of temporal experience and phenomenological observations about appearance and event.

At the reception, I asked Hejinian about the status of this philosophical language in relation to everything else in the work: does it have a special status? If there's a general statement about temporality, are the descriptive particulars examples of that, objects to illustrate it or be illuminated by it? Is a proposition rather just another particular, a thought that comes into the poem with the other thoughts and observations? She told me that these propositions are in fact things she stands behind, but that they shouldn't be considered "pearls of wisdom." The function of the concrete particulars with relation to them is to show those committed philosophical positions as fundamentally context-dependent, their truth a matter of what there is and what happens (my paraphrase). To render the propositions less stable, less certain.

This is an area in which Hejinian's writing is particularly important to me: like no other poet, she's philosophizing in her work, not just quoting philosophy, referring to it or playing with it (I do, I should point out, like those latter approaches as well--and Hejinian is playful with philosophy). When I was finishing my BA in philosophy in San Diego, I repeatedly came to the conclusion that philosophy, in any form it's taken so far, can't really handle particulars--even in its most literary, empiricist or phenomenologically descriptive modes it subsumes them under general concepts and makes them illustrations of the latter. Some writers come closer than others (Adorno in Minima Moralia), and a number can provide revolutionary ways of thinking that, while they end up moored in generality within the work of a given writer, can be astonishingly illuminating and valuable in daily experience (Heidegger). It really does take the kind of paratactic approach native to art (for instance, to poetry, or to hybrid forms that poetry will accept and philosophy, even at its furthest margins, will not) to juxtapose the general and the particular in a mutually conditioning way, to let each have its independence as well as its dance with the other--and to embody, enact a way (shape, behavior, style, speed, rhythm) of thinking or a general concept, which in good philosophy is already a more important task than the direct statement or description of that way of thinking or concept. The last decade of Hejinian's writing is breaking absolutely new ground in this regard, opening up a whole new field of possibilities for poetry.

From work to work a philosophical focus tends to be foregrounded, in intimate relation to a particular linguistic issue. In Happily the adverb first comes into full prominence: the adverb says how something is going, and this "howness" of a "going" becomes the primary structure of experience. "Along comes something--launched in context." Things are always on their way, in transition, with a particular set of ways and speeds of moving--and, in fact, "things" and "states" are redefined as events, less "essential" than the becoming of which they are coagulations or glittering configurations. And these transitions aren't just in linear time (linear time is in question in this writing), but also between perspectives--of the things themselves, which include us and the poet. As Hejinian writes (somewhere in The Language of Inquiry) about the way she thinks of the lines in her poems, any place is the center; from any starting point the mutual contextualizations of things immediately will have already begun to crystallize into events, which vanish into others. This all ties back into the title of the work, the investigation of the connection between "happily" and "happens" and "happenstance," the question "is happiness the name for our (involuntary) complicity with chance?," ideas about time taking on particular shapes: stories make moments seem like additions to, rather than subtractions from, one's life; a move into context ("the chance that time takes") is a move outside ourselves, or into the outside we're included in, into the possibility of encounters ("The matter is here//Can we share its kind of existence?") in which temporal experience is primarily a relation to a future characterized by offering, the constant opening of beginnings. This leads to ethical investigations: to launch oneself in context is to affirm what there is, but the primacy of the future makes this into a commitment to attend to what's possible.* These joyous affirmations are risks. The fullest openness would also be the greatest vulnerability, because in that way of being there would be so many things that so crucially matter.

This is getting abstract, and would require another post to be brought back to coherence.

In A Border Comedy a focus is on story, narrative, forward motion and images, and the language that goes along with those. In The Fatalist a view of time from the point of view of "what will have happened" structures a way of writing that employs sentences, but takes the phrase as its basic unit, linking phrases with varying degrees of semantic continuity or cognitive distance from one another. Each sentence becomes a path defined by the way it's going in terms of how what has already happened will look in retrospect from the place toward which it seems, right now, to be headed. The ethical questions get more pronounced.

These investigations of temporal experience, with their shifting focus from work to work, are more or less consistent throughout Hejinian's last bunch of books--which makes me feel that her answer to my question is (not wrong, but) incomplete (not that I'd expect a complete answer at a reception). Though her many statements are certainly always "in context," and they successfully avoid the sense "oh, this is what this is all about," the commitment to them is strong and ongoing. The motivation behind my question is the further question, "how do you do it?." When I start trying to answer this for myself, I tend to get caught up in notes on the philosophical standpoint of the work (especially since the topics about which Hejinian is thinking are so often those with which I've been obsessed for some time--we do seem to be into the same philosophers, for example), and to temporarily forget about the experiential character of actually reading it, and this misses the answer to the question entirely. What's necessary is probably a patient description of what happens when I read the work, and a more detailed analysis of the linguistic particulars in it. In any case, this writing is generous even in the problems it offers me, the thrilling interest of its difficulties and the prospect of infinite reasons to read it again and again.

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  • At April 21, 2008 at 12:53 PM, Blogger Steven Fama said…

    Thanks for this report.

    Did Hejinian talk at all about The Book of a Thousand Eyes?

    The version published is a fairly small book, so if she read a large amount, I'm wondering if she read pretty much the whole thing, or that there is a larger version of the book of which the published book is just a part.

    Also, the book seems to have elements of a dream-journal to it -- did L.H. say anything along those lines?

    Thanks again for taking the time to share.

  • At April 21, 2008 at 3:20 PM, Blogger brian salchert said…

    The three poets in the so-called
    Language Group whose writings have
    been the easiest for me to appreciate are:
    Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe, and Ron Silliman.

  • At April 21, 2008 at 8:22 PM, Blogger Andy Gricevich said…

    Hi, Steven--

    I didn't realize (or forgot) that there was a published version. It can only be a small excerpt; the work is apparently very long, and has been in process for a very long time. Hejinian said that, when parts of it have grown too big to constitute a subset of the project, they've become separate works. A Border Comedy is one example she cited, and--given the length and scope of that book, and the fact that it was written over a decade ago, Thousand Eyes seems to be pretty vast.

    She did say that they were all "night works" in one way or another, and dream definitely came into what she read fairly often.



  • At April 21, 2008 at 8:30 PM, Blogger Andy Gricevich said…

    Hi, Brian--

    I like 'em too (though I love a lot of so-called "so-called Language Poetry" or SCSCLP). Hejinian and Silliman seem a good deal closer to one another aesthetically than either seems to Howe (who isn't, by the historical definition, an L-Poet proper)--though LH is probably closer to SH than RS is... all pretty life-transforming writers for me.



  • At April 27, 2008 at 12:57 PM, Blogger Pity Reached by Sound said…


    if we'd have known we were sitting next to each other after the reading, we could have talked about this. i've been really interested, lately, in how we talk about our selves reading the work and it pushed me even further into thinking about how we sometimes stumble just talking about art (this seems obvious, i know, but go with me). after kant and the idea that beauty was an absolute, we seem to be so caught up in this is or this isn't art--remember when the german artist called 9/11 beautiful? it did have a quality of art, but we seem so unable to let things, even art, have qualities. just looking for more facts in a world of facts. when i heard hejinian read that section where she says, "hello? lyn? are you there?" (or something like that), it made me think about how uncertain the writer is of their role/presence/"I" let alone the reader's uncertainty. this gets me to no conclusions at all, but to a deep pleasure in reading your comments about the reading and in seeing that a conversation is happening, is gathering.

    all my best,
    kristen orser

    ps: this is much more informal than emails about publishing poems!


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