Thursday, July 6, 2017

for we who are alive

Looking in this library copy of Lyn Hejinian's Writing is an Aide to Memory, 1978, I see that someone has marked various lines with red pen throughout the entire book. The aim of this person appears to have been cohesion, since they picked out those words that add up to the impression of a thought taking place somewhere, about, e.g, water, or language use, or music ("in music" and "percussion" marked on different lines in section 16); or else they have discovered phrases that are something like aphorisms such as "indifference is the language of ennui" in section 13.

But there are so many other words and phrases in the book that I wonder how they made those underlinings add up to a point or an essay, unless they were working backwards from some larger overviewing perspective. "As a founding member of the Language movement, Hejinian has always been interested in the independence of aphorisms," I imagine they wrote. They have decided it already so they are looking for evidence. "This is clear even in her earlier works, such as Writing is an Aide to Memory (1978), which contains numerous aphoristic statements. She invokes "percussion," or the element of surprise. The sudden sound of a drum interrupting a double bass" – since they have underlined the word "jazz" in section 35 they are thinking of a double bass – "startles us with its detachment from the preceding sound. So, too, Hejinian uses surprising lines to jolt us out of our expectations. And yet she remains aware that her percussion is part of the same genre as the trumpet, ie, music, or, in the case of poetry, language. We see statements of disruption elsewhere in the poem. "In rhythm with that muddle | nor rock is sure in the air was once … most unities last too long," she writes in section 36.

'Please note," they write, "that her interest in music was indicated even earlier than Aide to Memory, when she spoke about "a new piece of mine, NUMBER PRESENT" during an interview with Vicki Hudspith in 1970. "And there was an analogy with music, too, in the 12 notes of the chromatic scale," she said."

Then they go on to list other parts of her oeuvre in which she explains sets of ideas behind the uncoupling of units of her text from dependence on the units immediately before and after, and they quote her 1983 talk, The Rejection of Closure (pub. 1985), and some other things; maybe her recent introduction to The Unfollowing, 2016. This will show consistency taking place over a period of decades.

The fourteen-line constraint was not the only one I imposed on the making of the poems. I also required myself to build them with non-sequiturs. Nothing was to follow – or nothing follow logically. I wanted each line to be as difficult to accept on the basis of the previous and subsequent lines as death is for we who are alive – a comparison that I make intentionally, since my intention in writing the series of poems I'm calling "The Unfollowing" was to compose a set of elegies.

They connect this to a line in Happily, 2000, "Tightly the hands of the clock turn but other elements also must conduct logic", through Rejection's discussion of the potential openness of a text. They compare this to Elizabeth Jennings in Timely Issues, 2001, whose rhyming lines are structured all towards promoting the ineffable aim of being glad through modesty and Catholicism.


  1. I must say this is pretty impressive, an essay in the form of a search for the essay written by a previous reader of the book in hand, deconstruction and construction based on a stranger's underlining of text.

    Also, The Unfollowing looks interesting, so thanks for mentioning it.

    1. I found it interesting that the idea of death led her to a form of literature that was so similar to Queneau's infinite Oulipo poem book. And they both use sonnets. If there doesn't have to be a meaning-based connection between one line and the next then your sonnet sequence can go on for as long as you want to continue coming up with statements, jokes, word play, short impressions, or any other kind of sentence. It means the nature of the finished poem is going to depend very much on who you are: what kind of individual unit do you invent when the only constraint is that you have to make fourteen of them? I wonder if anyone's ever described the Queneau work as an infinite series of deaths.

    2. anti-closure, anti-summary; I like it. But not anti-meaning, I think, at least on the side of the reader. You're familiar with the online version of Queneau's sonnets? I've been playing with that (or reading it/them, I guess) and it's impossible for me at least to not force a meaning onto the sonnets. Which I find pretty interesting (the urge to paint meaning over things, not necessarily the interpretations I come up with). Wait: I'm just rephrasing you, amn't I? Damn it.

      I do recognize this urge to create "meaning" from poems as probably a weakness in my ability to read poetry, a naivete. I'm a better reader maybe when I just see what happens in the poem. I'm waffling on the value of interpretation, I guess.

      It's interesting that Hejinian assumes we all have the same difficulty accepting death, a universal sort of difficulty.

    3. I've messed with the online Queneau a bit. Unfollowing reminded me of the Nanni Balestrini book I read earlier this year, Tristano, in that the experience of going through these detached-from-one-another units in bulk actually began to undo my habit of automatically trying to couple things. After the first third or so of each book, I could feel that habit start to switch itself off, as if it had been taught that it didn't have a point.

      It was back in place the moment I tried to read anything else, but for as long as I was in the Hejinian or the Balestrini it gave me a sensation of floating.


  2. I really enjoy logging and compiling the first lines of all the novels I read to determine what makes them special.