The Language of Inquiry

As a poet, Lyn Hejinian has often made language itself the central concern, indeed a major character, of her work. But, as Hejinian herself points out in the introduction to this collection of essays, “language is nothing but meanings, and meanings are nothing but a flow of contexts.” Since this is the case, two separate and equally important artists must combine to produce a poem: the poet who drafts the actual words and the reader (who may or may not be a formal “critic”) who interprets them. The poet must fashion a way to infuse the words with meanings and direct the flow of contexts while the reader must discover (or invent) a way to interpret those meanings and follow the flow to its meanings. In a sense, there can be no “poetry” without “poetics,” whether formal or informal, expressed or implied.

Hejinian addresses these issues throughout the essays of The Language of Inquiry. Gathered together here are twenty essays, dating from 1976 through the turn of the century, which will have serious and lasting impact on modern literary culture. These pieces discuss how poets and readers create our shared poetics. But Hejinian’s essays are not abstractly theoretical; they are themselves a sort of poetry, combining the particular with the general, the evocative phrase with the specific fact. While pieces such as “A Thought Is the Bride of What Thinking” are almost surrealistic in their flow of associations and images they are intensely grounded in linguistic fact and poetic reality.

This is a serious work. Hejinian’s list of works cited ranges from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics to Benjamin Lee Whorf’s Language, Thought and Reality. However, this is also an intriguing, even entertaining collection. In “Two Stein Talks” Hejinian provides an original and provocative discussion of that writer’s style with an emphasis on its humor and reality. There’s also an off-hand, almost throw-away discussion in the essay’s introduction of a influential personal relationship between Stein’s writing and Hejinian’s father, an avid Stein enthusiast.

Such a combination of knowledge, clarity and personal interest runs through the entire collection, making The Language of Inquiry both a valuable and an enjoyable intellectual journey.