Lyn Hejinian Essay - Critical Essays


Language writing sees poetry as an aesthetic and a social act. The poem as an object and its subjectivity are scrutinized in Lyn Hejinian’s poetics, which reflects a philosophical, pragmatic realm of causes and reasons for meaning with an eye and ear for exactitude. For Hejinian’s abstract and theoretical poetics, language is meaning, and meaning is a flow of contexts; poems, like jazz improvisations, are fleeting glimpses of inquiry into the fluid process of experiencing with a pitiless method of art capable of disassembling conventional structures that limit knowledge and experience. Most emphatically, for Hejinian, the result is never a definition, but the process itself, as she explains in the introduction to The Language of Inquiry (2000): “The act of writing is a process of improvisation within a framework (form) of intention” and the emphasis in poetry is “on the moving rather than on the places.” Reading and writing Language poetry can be triangulated: first, as a linguistic enterprise that questions the nature of language as the grounds for knowledge; second, as a psychological investigation into the nature of consciousness based on perception; and third, a philosophical exercise that subjectively interprets objective reality and challenges the difference between these perspectives.

The Language writers are known for radical formal experimentation to restore palpability to the world using what poet Silliman has called the “new sentence” to compose prose poems that lack clear transitions and create complex juxtapositions. By building a work out of disparate fragments, Language poets create statements that are connected simply by being congruent. The reader must participate in the dynamic discovery of meaning after mentally seeing these images, while remaining mindful of what has been omitted in the gaps between the new sentences. In “The Rejection of Closure” (from The Language of Inquiry), Hejinian writes, “A central activity of poetic language is formal. In being formal, in making form distinct, it opens—makes variousness and multiplicity and possibility articulate and clear. While failing in the attempt to match the world, we discover structure, distinction, the integrity and separateness of things.”

By transforming everyday life experiences, the familiar becomes extraordinary, as in estrangement, one of the key features of Russian formalism as theorized by Viktor Shklovsky in “Art as Device” (from O teorii prozy, 1925; Theory of Prose, 1990), in which the everyday grind (byt in Russian) metamorphoses into existential being (bytie in Russian). Hejinian and fellow Language poets Davidson, Silliman, and Watten visited Leningrad in 1989 to attend an international conference entitled Language—Consciousness—Society. This conference started a long friendship, correspondence, and collaboration with samizdat Russian poets, including Dragomoshchenko, who became Hejinian’s collaborator, visited the United States every year, and maintained regular correspondence with Hejinian by e-mail. Essentially, the Language writers bridged the Cold War through this affiliation with Russian formalism and in the Americans’ very act of using the utopian Russian theory in practice. Critics such as Marjorie Perloff have argued that Language poetry is primarily a Marxist critique of American capitalist society in the wake of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.

Hejinian’s poetry does not reflect the world but rather proposes its many possibilities with optimism and curiosity. Her work exudes an underlying joy, the childlike pleasure of being the one to tell the story. She smiles during her public readings, and she readily laughs in interviews as well as in the classroom while teaching. However, Hejinian lives earnestly, not lightly, so the joyfulness of the poetry is followed by innovative philosophical...

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