Even When the Sign Reads Closed, The Store’s Still Open
edited: Friday, December 22, 2006
By S. Donovan Mullaney
Rated "G" by the Author.
Posted: Monday, December 18, 2006
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A Discussion of Lyn Hejinian's "My Life" and "The Rejection of Closure"
In “The Rejection of Closure”, celebrated prose poet Lyn Hejinian asserts that the nature of the world and of language compels the rejection of “closed forms” in poetry. She further posits that closure is a “fiction” contradicted by many things, most notably our experience of the world around us. To correct this flaw, she formulates a concept of literary “openness” which is “generative rather than directive.” True to her thesis, Hejinian leaves the reader with questions rather than concrete answers. Such questions include: Is she selling a flawed doctrine? Does Hejinian’s opus, My Life, live up to her doctrine? Does L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry as a whole? What, if any, other answers are there?
Linguistic Openness versus Closure: What is Hejinian describing?
Hejinian first defines closure negatively as: “the coercive, epiphanic mode in some contemporary lyric poetry… with its smug pretension to universality and its tendency to cast the poet as the guardian to Truth.” She then describes it positively as the “ultimately stable, calm and calming (and fundamentally unepiphanic) vision of the world” such as can be found in “detective fiction.”
She goes on to be even more explicit: “a ‘closed text’ is one in which all the elements of the work are directed toward a single reading of it. Each element confirms that reading and delivers the text from any lurking ambiguity.” Conversely, in an “open” text, “all the elements of the work are maximally excited; here it is because ideas and things exceed (without deserting) argument.”
Hejinian further defines an open text as one which “acknowledges the vastness of the world and is formally differentiating.” The open text is “open to the world and particularly to the reader. It invites participation, rejects the authority of the writer over the reader and thus…challenges authority as a principle and control as a motive.”
Openness is not, according the Hejinian, a lack a structure or form: “Indeed, the conjunction of form with radical openness may be what can best offer a version of the ‘paradise’ for which writing often yearns.” For Hejinian, “form is not a fixture but an activity.” She goes on to include a sample of her poem “Resistance.”
Patience is laid out on my papers. Its visuals are gainful and equably square. Two dozen jets take off into the night. Outdoors a car goes uphill in a genial low gear. The flow of thoughts—impossible! These are the defamiliarization techniques with which we are so familiar.
In this poem, she’s given up conventional line breaks and stanzas or lyric poetry, but used syntactic devices such as prepositional phrases and sentence construction to “prevent the work from disintegrating into its separate parts.” By her own admission, she’s attempting to convey a paragraph as a “single moment in the mind,” indeed for the “moment, for the writer, the poem is a mind.”
Hejinian uses her own devices, original at the time of her penning, to create “vertical intensity (the single moment into which an idea rushes) and…horizontal extensivity (ideas cross the landscape…).” Thus we see that Hejinian’s concept of openness does not equate to a lack of technique. However, it does strip technique of any measure of authority, or any means to judge its effectiveness except by the complete subjectivity or author and reader.
Literary openness is without a fixed point of entrance or exit, according to Hejinian.
She cites Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day as a good example of her philosophy. “The work gives the impression that it begins and ends arbitrarily and not because there is a necessary point of origin or terminus, a first or last moment.” The poem, in other words, just ends, not because a “conclusion” has been reached. Hejinian uses Mayer’s work to imply that the “words, ideas, thoughts, emotions” of open forms continue beyond the work.
But is she selling a flawed doctrine?
Hejinian’s concept of literary openness is flawed in several ways. Her first flaw comes in discounting the authority/experience/insight of the writer. She has thus removed message, truth (relative or absolute), epiphany, and technique from her definition, but contradictorily employs the very things she has just eschewed in her attempt to prove her point. Hejinian contradicts her position both in her essay, e.g., when she discusses her use of repetition and syntactic device, as well as in the previously referenced poem, “Resistance.” She has a point which she successfully conveys in the poem, i.e., that a poem is an entire mind to a poet.
She takes her reliance on her own authority—her knowledge of both the kinesthetics and vocabulary of poetry—for granted in crafting her work.
Finally, she uses all these things to present a “truth” which the author, but not necessarily the reader buys into. A further logical gap is that to aim for literary openness in writing is itself a closed end, with a fixed framework provided by Hejinian and an end.
Hejinian’s argument in “The Rejection of Closure” breaks down even further in that is impossible for the purposes of any discussion to completely remove boundaries due to the nature of language. To name, or define, a thing is to circumscribe it, a point that Hejinian herself makes in the closing pages of her essay.
The final flaw in Hejinian’s argument is the lack of reader participation. By attempting the impossible task of removing boundaries, or established poetic best practices, Hejinian has opened the door to chaotic abstraction that is so high-minded the reader can easily become lost in her work. Once we realize we’re lost, our instinctual impulse is often to look for an exit, not to continue. We no longer have a continuum between world, poet, poem, reader; we just want out. This is an example of keeping neither bathwater nor baby.
Hejinian’s sole success is to create a convincing case for the complete lack of judging or evaluating poetry. On the positive side of this equation, a lack of such judgment allows authors freedom to create by removing the “editor” or “teacher” looking over the writer’s shoulder, shaking his/her wizened head and directing the novice to cross out here or add phrases there. Coaches and writers universally agree on the importance of getting rid of this voice in the creative process.
Does Hejinian’s opus, My Life, live up to her doctrine?
Structurally, My Life does live up to the definition in “The Rejection of Closure.” The poem doesn’t have a beginning, doesn’t have an end; it is in medias res the whole way through. There are no epiphanies or assumptions of authority on the author’s part.
However, taken to its logical conclusion, the lack of authority Hejinian references as key to literary openness becomes an excuse for lazy poetry. Aimlessness is dangerous; it can rob a piece of poignancy, meaning, and the very reader participation that Hejinian notes is crucial. This paradoxical aim of aimlessness can leads to work which doesn’t amount to anything. This is unmistakably evident in My Life, whose images are overwhelmed in abstraction and a lack of line breaks that they find no room to live or breathe:
I say it about the psyche because it is not optional. The overtones are a denser shadow in the room characterized by its habitual readiness, a form of charged waiting, a perpetual attendance, of which I was thinking when I began the paragraph, “So much of childhood is spent waiting.”
If I were to follow Heijinian’s own definition of literary openness, I should be able to pull the above quote out of context, plug it back in, and find that its lack of entrance and exit makes it seem part of a larger whole. This should be a intersection, appearing at the end of a paragraph, as it does; I should be able to move through the work “not in straight lines but in curves, swirls, and across intersections, to words that catch the eye or attract attention repeatedly.” Instead, all that I find necessary is to strike most of this paragraph altogether and let the line about “childhood and waiting” do its work; that is the only line that bears repeating.
In direct opposition to academic workshop technique, Hejinian draws attention to the process that goes into her writing, i.e., she “foregrounds” herself. The author is attended to, as is the writing process; this is typical of postmodernist, experimental writing. While this is not a flaw in itself, it must be noted that the technique has the danger of taking a reader out of the poem, and so must be used deliberately and with great skill. Once out, the question arises of whether to dive back in. I remain unconvinced that this technique as used in My Life demonstrates such necessary skillfulness.
Reader participation is another point at which My Life fails to live up to literary openness. Who can relate to a written I? Instead, I argue that readers of poetry relate to an imagined I, who is narrator, poet, and reader all in one. Yet another flaw in Hejinian’s theory is her willful ignorance of the fact that the epiphany is never meant to be the absolute truth, but is in fact the moment of connection between reader, writer, and world. The epiphanies allow the reader to draw something which has no beginning and no end out of the lyrical poem.
Hejinian lays down lines of unquestionable lyrical brilliance, e.g., “You spill the sugar when you lift the spoon” and “the moments are no longer so colored.” These are as close to epiphanies as My Life gets. Critic Marjorie Perloff celebrates such lines as, “language we all recognize.” She goes on to note “My Life conveys what the archetypal life of a young American girl is like.”
But these are overwhelmed by didactic expository statements such as “In certain families, the meaning of necessity is at one with the sentiment of pre-necessity” as well as a certain ironic lack of understanding of her form, which Hejinian herself notes is “not merely shapes but forces; formal questions are about dynamics.” Unlike avant-garde field poetry such as that of Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems, Cole Swensen’s Goest, or Bruce Andrews’s “Love Song 41,” or avant-garde prose poetry such as Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, the formal dynamic of My Life’s is super-long passages without breaks and images thrown amidst abstractions. These choices serve only to dilute the poem’s power. (The early part of My Life needed a traditional editor in the same way that Eliot’s Wasteland required Ezra Pound’s authority to make it great.)
Although differentiation between parts of the chaotic world (both within the poem and without) is in general lost, interestingly, the effect works regarding My Life’s relationship with time. The form gives no sense of time, yet the narrative is about time passing (for what is a life but time passing?) In this case, the form conveys a timelessness of life, the moments in life are all.
What, if any, other answers are there?
While it is true that all visionaries defy conventional wisdom, it seems that Hejinian has created a tautology which removes her work from reproach, i.e., open forms defy authority or control, implication (correct) criticism, solely to justify her lack of point or adherence to said conventions. After all, what possible suggestion for improvement could be made to My Life, when by its authors description is merely an arbitrary dump of the author’s mind, the autobiography of a ‘written “I,” rather than the autobiography of an experiencing human.’ Just wade in and find pieces of it to understand and synthesize. Or not.
If Hejinian added a few of the more conventional rules back into her equation, she might have the paradise of form and openness to which she aspires.
A “boundary” or “authority” that would serve well as an antidote to the problems outlined here is the truism “Show; don’t tell.” By taking this particular boundary away, Hejinian has achieved the opposite effect, that of creating a closed audience: one which has the education necessary to understand her abstractions. This writing rule applies to all literary genres and does not function merely for authoritative or controlling purposes; it’s an acknowledgment of human learning styles—how the mind innately operates. We learn visually through demonstrations and analogies. It is innately more powerful to illustrate than to narrate or expound. This is as true in poetry as in learning to use software.
Ideas such as that “language can precede reality” and poetry “reflect an intersection between experience and textual re-living of the experience” provide alternative answers to the admittedly rarified lyric verse coming out of academic institutions and most mainstream publications today. The idea that a poem can be entirely without epiphany and still have worth will turn many a workshop on its head.
Judging by coverage she’s been recently getting in journals such as Contemporary Literature, Hejinian has successfully defended her thesis that the long-held idea “that there is an essential identity between name and thing” is not gospel, that minute attention to shape and individual word within individual sentence can yield a new linguistic relationship between subject and poem. No doubt, a greater understanding of the dynamics of form is needed throughout the culture of American poetry. All of these elements are exemplified in “The Rejection of Closure,” if not as successfully in My Life.
The acceptance of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry and ardent experimentalists like Hejinian into the academy will mark the answer to many of the problems within Hejinian’s concept of literary openness. Like Olson’s “Projective Verse,” she has created in “The Rejection of Closure” an avant-garde framework that can be codified, taught, and built upon. If she can blend her style and philosophy with some of the conventional authority she’s been too quick to throw away and write in a way that truly embodies the principles of open form defined in her essay, Hejinian might just revolutionize post-modern, post-language poetry—again.