Tree, Chair, Cone, Dog, Bishop, Piano, Vineyard, Door, or Penny

Hejinian recalled that in Language’s early years, “official academia . . . had very little respect for us”; the feeling was reportedly mutual. Today, with avant-garde poetics more often housed inside academia than arrayed against it, My Life and her de-facto manifesto “The Rejection of Closure” appear on syllabi everywhere; Hejinian is taken seriously, and should be. But seriousness comes at a cost; academic anointment has neglected the wit and fun, the weird charm of Hejinian’s po-faced obliquities.

On Lyn Hejinian

“Many facts about a life should be left out, they are easily replaced,” Lyn Hejinian writes midway through her great book-length prose poem My Life, first published in 1980. When I learned in February that Hejinian had died, at age 82, I realized with surprise how few facts I knew about that life. This was odd in part because, for a semiprofessional student of modern American poetry, it’s sort of my business to know about such things; but more so because Hejinian’s life, or a prismatically refracted recollection of it, was the subject of this, her most famous book, serially expanded and republished over several decades: thirty-eight sections of thirty-eight sentences each when Hejinian was 38; up to forty-five of both in the version that appeared seven years later; a differently structured coda, My Life in the Nineties, appearing still later. I had read and studied My Life, even once taught it, and knew some of Hejinian’s essays, but beyond a bare outline—born 1941 in the Bay Area, where she lived and worked throughout her career, a leader in the avant-garde Language poetry movement of the 1970s and ’80s—her biography for me was a blank.

Then again, it was biography itself that Hejinian called into creative question, pressing beyond the cold, closed record of “facts about a life,” into the boundless flux of life itself. Hejinian’s own time on Earth was less the subject of My Life than its source, its medium, its method. This confounding range of possible relations between the text and the experience it nominally documents belies the book’s simple title—so boldly personal yet blandly universal that it is also the name of a Billy Joel hit, a cancer drama starring Michael Keaton, and bestselling memoirs by both Bill Clinton and Golda Meir. (We’ll know civilization has defeated barbarism when Hejinian’s book precedes all of them in Google search results for “My Life.”)

Here are some facts about that life that should not be left out: born Carolyn Hall, in Alameda, California, to bookish middle-class parents, Hejinian grew up there and later in Massachusetts, going on to study English at Radcliffe. While still in college, she married physician John Hejinian, with whom she had two children before divorcing in 1972. Not long after, she met the jazz saxophonist Larry Ochs, who became her partner and, from 1977, husband for the rest of her life. In 2000, Hejinian, who had lectured and taught literature off and on at small Bay Area colleges for years but never went to grad school or, she said, “aspired to an academic career,” joined the Berkeley English faculty. She retired in 2021.

Not a radical life, or even a strange one. But already as an undergraduate, Hejinian recalled, she “had discovered that one could live a wild life in writing while abiding by at least the most basic social mores,” and staying out of “trouble, which would rob me of time for reading and writing.” Strangest to us now, in fact, might be the improvised mundanity of Hejinian’s early and middle career, when, as she explained in a 2020 Berkeley English Department interview, “life was far less expensive.” Raising two kids, Hejinian got by in and around San Francisco with “assorted jobs,” “usually part time”: as a “copy-editor and ‘office girl’ for a small academic publisher,” a “classical guitar instructor,” a “janitor and”—once again—“‘office girl’ for a printing company,” an “assistant baker at a pastry shop,” and an “assistant to a private detective (doing anti-death penalty work).” A subordinate “girl” and perennial “assistant” for money well into middle age, Hejinian nevertheless forged “a wild life in writing” in the 1970s, as a leading author and publisher of the Language school, whose Bay Area nucleus of left-leaning, theory-minded young poets formed around Hejinian’s Tuumba Press and the mimeographed zine L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E.

When an elder figure in any field dies, elegies tend to follow not just for the deceased, but for their era, the moment or mood they are thought to have embodied. Even though many of Hejinian’s surviving Language peers—Ron Silliman, Bob Perelman, Rae Armantrout, others—have remained active forces into their seventies, their movement has begun to take on an elegiac glow. In his recent tribute, Ryan Ruby calls the Language poets “the last genuine literary avant-garde in the United States.” The death of the avant-garde, like the end of days, is forever being nudged forward in time; David Lehman’s study of the New York School of poets, born a couple decades before the Language writers, is titled The Last Avant-Garde. Still, Hejinian and her cohort do already look like the last American generation able to take poetics seriously as a political project, not by proxy of a social cause or campaign—like the “movement literatures” that also thrived in California in the same period—but in itself.

These were not the last political poets, by any means, but perhaps the last for whom poems themselves were fighting words, a front in a broad-based antiauthoritarian struggle. The mystifications of easy metaphors, or of bourgeois lyric’s possessive, isolate “I,” were for these writers urgent and self-evident targets: Hejinian once scorned “the coercive, epiphanic mode in some contemporary lyric poetry” for “its smug pretension to universality.” In 1983, amid the tide of Reaganite reaction, she called for a writing that “rejects the authority of the writer over the reader and thus . . . the authority implicit in other (social, economic, cultural) hierarchies.” The rebels themselves later looked back on these hopes with some ambivalence. “I might have said, at one time, that my writing aimed to make the reader more alert, more suspicious even,” Armantrout reflected in a conversation with Hejinian in 2001. “But the American people are very suspicious now. . . . It’s not really possible to say, ‘I’ll wake ’em up with my startling ambiguities’ anymore.”

The touching, maddening earnestness of the Language effort feels irrecoverable now, even as the movement’s nemeses—the calcification of ideology and commodification of experience, in and through the verbal—only reach further into our ways of speaking, thinking, and imagining. From another vantage, critics of Language poetics have seen its concern for form devolving into formalism, and worse, an arid, white-coded experimentalism that seems to float above the social conditions it notionally combats. This critique touches but doesn’t quite cover Language’s deeper antinomy: words do exist and act in the world, shaping our social potentials, but that doesn’t make the plane of language alone a viable terrain of struggle. The best of the movement’s compulsive self-theorization—much of it in Poetics Journal, which Hejinian co-edited in the 1980s, and in her essay collection The Language of Inquiry—can exhaust as much as it excites. The worst (not hers) erects an elaborate conceptual scaffolding to protect a wan, thin poetry (also not hers) from view.

Some readers accordingly approach Hejinian’s poetry with a kind of respectful resignation. In a review of the book’s third edition, from 2013, poet and critic Michael Robbins admits that My Life “is never going to be one of my favorite books, but it should be read by anyone interested in American poetry.” True, My Life is a text that “anyone interested” will read and remember. It is so simple yet vast in concept, so contextually adaptable, so rich a vein for workshops and craft talks. But there is much more: alone or in collaboration, Hejinian published scores of poems in myriad magazines, and dozens of books (“all of them . . . large-scale projects,” she said, not just “collections”), most published by one or another of the shoestring presses where oddball poetries find refuge: Sun & Moon, Burning Deck, Green Integer, Granary, Omnidawn. I haven’t read all or most of Hejinian’s books; with many out of print and undigitized, and without any single-volume selection available, I’d bet few people have. (A promising start is the edition of previously uncollected early poetry due out later this year from Edinburgh University Press, but any compiler of a future Hejinian gesamtausgabe will face a daunting legal and editorial labor.)

Hejinian’s words skim meaning’s surface, plunge deep, and bob up again. To hostile readers, the most challenging might suggest nothing so much as those sets of serif-font word magnets that used to be found, drunkenly rearranged by successive guests and roommates, on fridges in college apartments: “the dignity’s donkey / from the district of Poitou / in view of the potato,” runs one poem in The Cold of Poetry (1994). My Life, far from simple, at least promises something less haphazard, easier to canvass and enter—one reason, no doubt, for its lasting success. The New York Times obituary dutifully quotes its opening paragraph:

A moment yellow, just as four years later, when my father returned home from the war, the moment of greeting him, as he stood at the bottom of the stairs, younger, thinner than when he had left, was purple — though moments are no longer so colored.

The article, citing another Hejinian interview, offers that “‘a moment yellow’ was an impressionistic, if nonspecific, characterization of the moment” when “her father return[ed] from World War II.” (“Purple,” meanwhile, “conjured images of a purple blanket or similar object.”)

Fine. Yawn. Exam passed. In fairness, the Times obituaries section isn’t Critical Inquiry, but the pocket coloring book of memory-blobs evoked here conveys little of Hejinian’s real rigor or strangeness. Yet one doesn’t have to look far to find them; in fact the book’s very next lines, not quoted in the Times, already drive ahead, onto less navigable terrain:

Somewhere, in the background, rooms share a pattern of small roses. Pretty is as pretty does. In certain families, the meaning of necessity is at one with the sentiment of pre-necessity. The better things were gathered in a pen. The windows were narrowed by white gauze curtains which were never loosened. Here I refer to irrelevance, that rigidity which never intrudes. Hence, repetitions, free from all ambition.

The passage opens both outward and inward, into what Hejinian admirer John Ashbery, in his own great not-not-a-memoir poem “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” calls “a magma of interiors.” The “pattern of small roses”—already varying, like a chromatic chord, the book’s opening phrase and refrain, “a pause, a rose, something on paper”—ripples into what “pretty is” and “does,” the formative tautologies of feminine gender performance, and, maybe, the discovery of beauty. “The better things” are poignantly unspecified—values, possessions, memories?—and located only “in a pen”: a child’s confinement, and a writer’s tool. The image of “white gauze curtains” in “the windows” seems to leave less to interpretive chance, but, Hejinian warns and teases, “Here I refer to irrelevance,” yet also to “repetitions.” Where is this going? The hope is that, “free from all ambition,” or from the potted glosses of hasty Hejinian tributes, you’ll want to find out.

Hejinian recalled that in Language’s early years, “official academia . . . had very little respect for us”; the feeling was reportedly mutual. Today, with avant-garde poetics more often housed inside academia than arrayed against it, My Life and her de-facto manifesto “The Rejection of Closure” appear on syllabi everywhere; Hejinian is taken seriously, and should be. But seriousness comes at a cost; academic anointment has neglected the wit and fun, the weird charm of Hejinian’s po-faced obliquities. Much of My Life unwinds with an easy, surreal feel for surprise juxtapositions befitting a former janitor, guitar instructor, and pastry baker:

I lapse, hypnotized by the flux and reflux of the waves. They had ruined the Danish pastry by frosting it with whipped butter. It was simply a tunnel, a very short one. Now I remember worrying about lockjaw. The cattle were beginning to move across the field pulled by the sun, which proved them to be milk cows. There is so little public beauty.

Individually, these are legible, grammatical sentences, taut and correct. In ensemble, they make an atonal chorus that prods the impatient reader to demand what the “reflux of waves” is doing next to a “Danish pastry,” next to “lockjaw” and “cattle.” This passage and so many others call us into, as Hejinian writes elsewhere, “the endless radiating of denotation into relation,” where what it means cedes ground to what it meets with, where it goes, what it makes happen. When “meaning is set in motion,” Hejinian proposes in “The Rejection of Closure,” “one moves through the work not in straight lines, but in curves, swirls, and across intersections.”

Through it all, you’re nodding your head and scratching it at the same time. The text computes, transmits, with a kind of lucid opacity, a feeling of making sense while making none at all, or none that could be disputed or disproven in the way “making sense” in prose requires. Gertrude Stein, trained as an academic psychologist, was the first model of this mode, chronicling the murk of thought with the chalkboard language of syllogism and analysis. A continuous thread links a book like Tender Buttons to My Life, whose opening phrase, chorally repeated throughout the book (“a pause, a rose, something on paper”) seems to inherit Tender Buttons’ inventories of “Objects,” “Food,” “Rooms.” While Hejinian and her circle had other antecedents—like Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, or Charles Olson, to name only fellow Americans—Stein was and remains the template of poetry as a questing inquiry into verbal materiality, and one of the first, as Hejinian put it in a 1985 lecture on Stein, to “discover . . . that language is an order of reality itself and not a mere mediating medium—that . . . one can have a confrontation with a phrase that is as significant as a confrontation with a tree, chair, cone, dog, bishop, piano, vineyard, door, or penny.” Even this list, just a few items longer than rhetorically necessary, seems to “discover” its words, to muse quietly on the nature of listness.

Such writing can be hard to read and harder to write, and if Hejinian’s poetic laboratory, like any laboratory, yielded some failed experiments, we can still delight in the resulting sparks and spills. Far more freely than the intact syntax of My Life roam the half-sentences and stray clauses of Writing Is an Aid to Memory (1978), wherein

now is hilarious knows how

take so may won’t and of didn’t mommy

there is only an apparent distance

bumpkin but snowman

the usual pouch for ideas

zipper the everlasting flower

If “bumpkin but snowman” doesn’t do anything for you, then I’m afraid neither will Hejinian. Beyond its syllabic symmetry and goofy consonance, it also conjures, however faintly, Wallace Stevens’s “Snow Man” (he of the “mind of winter”), here perhaps bagged in “the usual pouch for ideas,” in which is also “zippper[ed]”—for permanent preservation? or to eat for lunch?—“the everlasting flower,” which might be the Stevensian “poem of the act of the mind,” Keatsian beauty-truth, a literal flower, or none or all of these. Oh, and between all this, “there is only an apparent distance”: another gnomic Steinian decree, but with its high bombast this time both accented and deflated by closeness to that “bumpkin.” Thus, “now is hilarious knows how”: QED, “mommy.”

As that last turn suggests, Hejinian, a feminist but far from an activist, championed women’s writing and found a slanted humor in gender, with sometimes surprising echoes in our own sex-panicked moment. “You must show yourself to catch / to be amused, to equate the man, to / shoot his autobiographical work,” runs one wry stanza in Writing Is an Aid to Memory. “The Muses are little female fellows,” she announces in passing midway through My Life, without elaborating, and, later, “Pronouns skirt the subject”—a tossed-off, one-line exegetical goldmine. (What would the Times do with that one?)

In poetry as in other arts, talk of “processual” practices comes cheap. My Life, like much of Hejinian’s poetry, really does read as a process, a stream, unexcerptable—but excerpt it we do, we must. Even its strong patterns manifest slowly, over many pages. In building, repeating, subtly shifting textual blocks and beats, it tries to write through, as Hejinian said of Stein, “ongoing living—outpouring, fountainous living.” It works, as the book’s opening section says, at “the incoherent border which will later separate events from experience.” In joining cockeyed retrospection to formal constraints it resembles Joe Brainard’s prose-poem memoir I Remember, whose title phrase begins every sentence in the book, or Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day, another process-epic, written in the course of a single day. But as an experience, a closer analogue might be On Kawara’s decades-long practice of date paintings, recording each day in the artist’s life from early 1966 almost to his death in 2014. By itself, one canvas from the series only bemuses; a few together are pretty and whimsical; walking into a gallery of them feels like walking into a life—maybe into your own.

In 2020, nearing 80, Hejinian was asked if she had any advice for young women students at Berkeley, the university near which her life began and ended. Ever cautious, Hejinian at first demurred—“I’m reluctant to give advice in any general way”—before thoughtfully, generously obliging. “Read—widely and, to the extent that time allows, randomly and inventively,” she said. “Write, and not always or only ‘sincerely.’ Write badly, write lies, pay attention constantly to the language around you.” There is no better way to end, or to begin, or to continue. The facts are finished, but the life is still open.

If you like this article, please subscribe or leave a tax-deductible tip below to support n+1.

Related Articles