Two Auckland Talks
Lyn Hejinian at the University of Auckland, 21 and 23 March 1995. Transcribed by Fredrika Van Elburg for online presentation April 2002.
2. A Talk to the stage 3 American Poetry class, 23 March 1995
Some of you were at the class on Tuesday, and in that class as you that were there will know, I talked a little bit about the specific background of the group known as the Language poets in the US, locating that, the beginning, the origins of that group, my group, in the social upheavals of the late Sixties and early Seventies. Today I want to expand that context radically and perhaps tentatively into an area that I have been thinking about a lot recently. But in order to do that I’m going to go back a little bit and read from a work called ‘The Guard’ which was written in 1983 and published in 1984 and which in retrospect seems already to be foreseeing this area that I now find myself thinking about more consciously and I hope more thoroughly.
‘The Guard’ was written at a point in the political history of the United States that seemed extremely grim to me, that is three years after Ronald Reagan had been elected as president of the United States, and a kind of dumb right wing was gaining momentum and all the strategies of the left seemed to be impotent to do anything about this. And I had an intuition which I now think was correct that something awful was just beginning and unfortunately it is still continuing. I wrote ‘The Guard’ also just after my first trip to the Soviet Union, which was a totally great and enthralling and a life-changing experience. But it was also an experience of some disappointment in what as a self-styled anti-capitalist Marxist I had hoped was to be a visit to a kind of utopia. It was also a dystopia, the Soviet Union in 1983. It was just a different kind of one from that which I was finding in the United States.
So anyway I will expand on those thoughts but that’s the social political background of the work, a sort of deep background not so evident in the work. The work itself more immediately emerges from the first canto of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The one in which he positions himself in a dark wood midway on the path that his life is led upon. In other words a middle-aged poet in a dark time in a state of confusion. Dante himself was an exile, which is important to the work but also I think important to the figure that I am going to be positing this morning to you.
In that canto Dante moves along this path in this dark wood and comes to a portal. And at the portal stands a figure who is both guard, the guard of the title and a guide which is Virgil, the poet Virgil. Who is then going to be his companion as he goes through the portal and, in the narrative, begins on his journey of ultimately seeking the unmediated beatitudinous vision of paradise. But in fact he enters the poem, I mean The Divine Comedy is a poem, it’s not a journey, it’s writing, and that is one of the reasons it’s important that it be Virgil the poet who is Dante’s guide. Dante enters poetic language and it’s in poetry that he undertakes this journey. And one of the salient characteristics of poetic language as of all language is in fact that it’s highly mediating. It’s an intermediary. You cannot have an unmediated vision in words, by definition. At the end of the poem, when Dante finally gets to Paradise, the poem has to end. There can’t be a poem about it.
So anyway, let me begin by reading just from two sections from this work called ‘The Guard’. It’s pretty long, about thirty or forty pages and obviously I’m not going to read the whole thing. I guess the only other thing I’ll say before I read from this part of it is that, since I’ve been here I’ve seen only reproductions of work, although I hope I’m going to see some real things, but of the paintings of McCahon, the New Zealand painter, including an example of a series that he has called, is it ‘The Gate’? one gate? or ‘The Gates’? One Gate, yes. Anyway we were, Michele Leggott and Wystan and others of us were talking about the use of negative and positive space in that painting or that series of paintings and I think that this concept is going to play into what I’m trying to work on. And so I have a sense of gratitude already to my experience here at a poetically practical level of work as well as at a personally pleasurable level.
It takes a very normal person to create
The morning warms and it is noisy, bees
The continent – simply by means of description
I and my musician friend very love the jazz
The bottled message is twisted in the bottle
with the melodic excitement of wind on the spines
And I hurried to get in every projection.
‘I am a construction worker, I work at home’
So having written that last sentence this is the difference between language and paradise, as is my tendency then I had to think about what it was that I meant by that. And began thinking at some length about, its sort of the starting point for a lot of essay writing about techniques, strategies and language, and what kinds of intermediary roles language plays. Especially poetic language with its incredible array of devices. And as a milieu of intermediation what kinds of linkages it was proposing and permitting to proliferate. Then in conjunction with that as I was writing theory, Id been reading a lot of theory and looking at what it is thats engendering this proliferation of theory over the last say thirty or forty years. And in the wake of that I kept encountering Theodore Adornos proposition or aphorism from Negative Dialectics which says that after Auschwitz to write poetry is an act of barbarism. That proposition or sentence is a point of departure for very a great, lets say French, poet called Edmond Jabès. He was actually an Egyptian Jew who was forced to flee Egypt during the Suez crisis and ended up in Paris. And takes, as an exiled Jew, takes the Adorno proposition and then proceeds to write something like twenty books. Thus obviously positioning himself with an ironic relationship, at least so it seemed to me, an ironic relationship to the Adorno sentence. So thinking about that and then realizing that so many of the really pressingly important contemporary thinkers are, as well as being French or Italian or here and there German or American, many of them are also Jewish. And what did that mean. And I began to look again at this Adorno sentence and cast that proposition as both the nihilistic proposition which it is on the surface, which announces the impossibility of meaning, the death of meaning in the death-camps of Auschwitz. Because that absolutely cannot mean anything, its too awful. For that to have meaning is in some way to countenance what occurred there. But I can also see a position of taking Auschwitz as a metonym for the numerous other atrocities that have occurred over the history of Western civilization certainly, but including the slave trade which has had such a big impact in the US. And other genocides and diasporas including those that are going on now. And posit that Adorno sentence in a more comprehensive milieu and from that point one can also cast it as a statement urging a kind of creative gesture which is a gesture of, a barbarian gesture. But now in a positive sense, in a really creative sense. Which is to say (and in a poetic sense) that is to say that it is exactly as barbarians that poets write. That it is exactly right that after Auschwitz to write poetry is an act of barbarism and that act of barbarism is absolutely crucial. If we continue to write in the languages of Auschwitz then we are continuing to perpetrate the culture in which Auschwitz and all that it stands for is possible. If we write as barbarians were writing (the term barbarian comes from the Greek barbaros meaning foreigner, and one who doesnt speak the same language), and to the degree that literature takes place in other languages, it uses not the language of Auschwitz but other languages, other logics, logics that make Auschwitz impossible, then one can see obviously that its absolutely essential. So I began working on a theory of the border as the zone of encounter. Or the zone of the barbarian. Virgils terrain, or the terrain of all the Divine Comedy between entering the gate and reaching paradise. Which allows one to take the image of the border away from the margins and put it in the center, as the land between. And thereby make use of all kinds of contemporary thinking, what I for my own purposes call border studies. But like gender studies, post-colonial studies, multi-cultural studies, where other means Other and both are equally other. Where the person/poet positions himself or herself as a stranger to others and as a strange which the world ceases to exist for us is the degree to which our life is diminished. And it’s the function of art to restore the palpability of the familiar to us, so that our life is in fact enlarged again. Shklovsky’s sort of formulation is something like: it is the function of art to make the stone stony. His two examples that he uses in the main essay in which he elaborates this theory, ‘The Artist’s Device’ is the name of the essay, or ‘The Artist’s Technique’ is another translation. The two examples come from Leo Tolstoy. One is the scene in War and Peace where Natasha goes to the opera, her first time to the opera, and it’s seen through her eyes, and she describes fat screeching women in front of painted cardboard. You know, she’s innocent and it’s very refreshing and the reader knows what she is talking about but it’s hilarious and does sort of defamiliarise the opera and you sort of see it in this bizarre way. And then the other is the story called ‘Yardstick’ or ‘Kolstomer’, named after the name of the horse who narrates the story. It’s really hardly a story, it’s a vignette, a winter day on a Moscow street. The horse sees the two-legged people doing their totally bizarre things, beating another horse, walking by, and it makes a comment which I have lifted and put into a section of my book My Life, that humans only learn things from words but horses learn things from facts. With obviously the value that what horses learn is far superior to what humans learn, in this mediated medium of words.
So I have this long-term project now, which is to look at the nature of the border terrain. As a realm of encounter, and as a realm of transformation, transmutation, the zone in which everything is always in change, transit zone, transformative zone. And lest one get locked into the image of the border as the place where you have to show your passport, and declare that you don’t have fruit or vegetables with you, one can also tilt this border and make it be like the border between terrain and sky, as kind of the horizon zone. Which again gives it a lot of literal latitude, and relieves us from the rigid verticality and the notion of it being at the edge, the margins. I really resist the notion, or two: one is that I’m in some way trying to give another validation to the notion of the marginalization of poetry. I don’t think it’s a marginal activity. I do obviously know that not that many people are engaged in writing it. Even fewer unfortunately are engaged in reading it, but nonetheless I don’t think it’s a marginal activity at all. I think it’s absolutely an essential activity. There’s not a whole lot of people practicing quantum physics, but that doesn’t mean that it is marginal in our culture. There’s not that many people who are presidents of nations but that doesn’t mean they are marginal figures. But I also don’t want to replicate or reproduce an image of the poet as a sort of romantic, out of control barbarian. Sort of the alcoholic wild hair version. That doesn’t preclude those figures from the border zone, but you don’t necessarily have to adopt those habits to be this figure that I’m positing. Which is why I started with that section from ‘The Guard’ with the opening line: ‘it takes a very normal person to create a new picture’.
So now I thought I would read just a few pieces from a work called ‘The Cell’ which marks sort of the next step in my thinking about the border. And then I’ll finish by reading not all of this, just some bits of this, a new work called ‘A Border Comedy’, but I’ll say a little more about that in a second. But first just a little bit from ‘The Cell’.
‘It is the writer’s object
The work begins with a sort of post-death elegy, for two reasons, one because the Russian poet Arkadii Dragomoschenko said to me that all poets have to have died before they can make poetry. I’m not convinced that that is true, but I like the notion somehow. But also the notion, part of my, and I don’t want to get pretentious here, whenever anyone mentions Derrida among poets there’s always the danger of people fleeing out the door. But actually, Derrida is great. He has a book, a recent book, it has been translated into English and published in the States, called Aporias, in which he talks about the aporia as a border experience, but he doesn’t so much use the word ‘border’ as ‘impasse’. And in his elaboration of aporia or impasse it’s the encounter with death that is the ultimate impasse. The one that one can’t, one can’t know death, while alive, and one can’t never know it. So it’s both a passage and an impasse, simultaneously. Which is how Deridian logic works, and that is the other reason I started this work
The next bit that I’m going to read plays off the impasse that is called incommensurability, although I don’t use the word in that, but where two things simply can’t be compared, they’re from different realms. And to some extent I think that’s true of gender encounters, there’s a certain degree to which male and female are incommensurate. So that gets into here a little bit.
In the dark sky there
[The Cell, p.33.]
If reality is simply that
[The Cell, pp. 57-8]
[is this part of The Cell? ABC? can we reattach preceding lines?]
My head it is a threaded egg
This work ‘A Border Comedy’ is an attempt -- Well I’m trying to cross genres, as the other border area obviously has practical value and one that is seemingly of increasing and enormous interest to almost everybody with imagination who’s writing these days. It is the question of genre and the fluidity of genre boundaries, and moving from genre to genre, partially in sort of this postmodern rhetoric in which we lateralise the cultural landscape and move with a good deal of literacy across so many different parts of it. But also I think in order to expand the notion of what literature is. As Wystan said in his really nice introduction to me, expanding what poetry is. So this work ‘A Border Comedy’ as you’ll hear is quite discursive and is somewhere in the land between essay and poem. Taking advantage, I hope, of what’s good about both.
It was going to be a one-page poem, as part of the work from which I read at Alba the other night. This was called ‘The Book of Night’. The device I was using, the way I was writing it, because I’ve been really busy teaching and I have another job too, so I was really only able to write a little bit. So I put a line on my computer, and I had this notion I would kind of collaborate with unknown versions of myself. By moving to another file and not looking at that line and the next day or the day after come back and adding a line. And sort of slowly building that work. And that would allow it to shift a lot in both subject and tone. And it was really great, I was having fun, so I decided that maybe it could be two pages. And then I got totally immersed in it, and there were changes happening. So then I decided to read Ovid’s Metamorphoses; I do a lot of that, I begin to see an idea unraveling and then I read a lot of books that seem to be pertinent. So in the end I’ve decided that ‘A Border Comedy’ is in fifteen books, à la Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and each book has not as many lines as Ovid but exactly two-thirds as many. Mostly because some of the lines are really long and the thing was going to get so long that it would be arrogant. I mean, it’s already arrogant to model oneself after Ovid, that’s bad enough, so I’m only two-thirds of an Ovid. It’s only two-thirds of an epic. And I’m writing all fifteen books at the same time, just adding to them. So ultimately, to the extent that themes are echoes, they’re going to echo laterally, like the first lines of all fifteen books, say, or the 25th line. But sometimes I add more than one line. But anyway, that’s just to explain what the strategy is.
This is all just from the first book, and I’m not going to read all of it.
All the clouds can feel our bodies change
In fighting context and calling it myself
All this means, she said, is all humans have a dream
[A Border Comedy, Book One]
Perhaps that is enough of that. I don’t know if anyone wants to ask questions or if we should wait. I call this a ‘Border Comedy’ although there is a lot of dark material in this and it’s not always funny by any means. I was thinking of this border figure as having numerous characteristics, but two of them that maybe are interesting in the context of this work to mention. One is the barbarian as an antinomian, someone who is against the law. Not necessarily intentionally so but, as any of us who have traveled know, that when you get to a strange place there are local laws and you don't always know them. I mean the most obvious one for me is that you drive on the wrong side of the street and I have to look the wrong way when I cross the street. If I don’t look I’m going to get hit by a car. The stranger is inadvertently antinomian.
There is a little background to my using that term, which has to do with American literary history at its very earliest colonial stages, when there was in the Puritan community in Massachusetts Bay Colony what’s known as the ‘antinomian controversy’, and where, as you probably know, the social structure was arranged around the Puritan church, with the church fathers (very gendered, but it is important that it was a man, for this) as the political and spiritual leaders of the community. Individual interpretation of scripture was forbidden. There was a woman named Anne Hutchinson who was a midwife in the community, and an intelligent woman who thought her thoughts and chatted, as we all do, and her chatting ended up being interpretive of the scriptures. And she attracted people who actually preferred her interpretations to the official ones. And when a kind of enclave accumulated, which soon attracted some men as well as negligible women, she was arrested and had a long trial and was exiled. And as part of the documents of her trial the then governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, William Bradford, wrote up a history of the controversy. And in this he narrated the appalling fact that Anne Hutchinson had delivered herself of a monster baby, that she had given birth to a monster, that there were many witnesses who had seen this monster and she had buried it to hide it. And what it looked like was, it was covered with leathery scales and it had leathery batwings and its torso faced one direction and its head and feet faced another direction. And it had a tail and horns. All of which is symbolically interesting, and also precludes any possibility that she gave birth to a deformed child. There’s nothing in this description that in any way resembles any of the possible deformities that could happen in life. So, I mean, she’s a monstrous woman so she gives birth to a monstrous child. And she is the pre-eminent figure of the antinomian. My friend Susan Howe has developed a whole poetics of the antinomian position, beginning with Anne Hutchinson, going through women writing themselves throughout the colonial period up to Emily Dickinson. And then Susan Howe positions herself as an antinomian. Which is probably completely accurate.
The other thing to say about the border figure is the comedic aspect. A large part of what’s funny about comedy is when something matches the situation but what matches the situation isn’t what normally would or should match the situation, in other words it is a ludicrous match. Or to put it another way, where there is expectation and the expectations are in fact fulfilled but by something unexpected. In slapstick this happens too, you know, the noodle-brain is walking along the street and there is a huge manhole cover, a manhole and it’s uncovered and you see him walking directly towards it and he’s reading a book and you know he’s going to fall in it and at the last minute he goes around it and he goes past it at which point an elephant or a serpent rears out of the manhole and grabs him and pulls him back down. And that’s funny. Because you expected him to fall, and that would have been mildly funny, but that he gets pulled back into it, that’s really funny.
When you’re a stranger sometimes things happen and you don’t know why they happen. You know something is going to happen but it’s the wrong thing that happens. ‘Wrong’ in quotes of course. For an American traveling in Russia a lot, often by myself or with only Russian friends, without an American to cling to for a reality check, there is often a sense of surreality that replaces any possible reality. And it’s often funny to find oneself sort of in a funny peculiar as well as funny haha sense.
So does anyone want to ask questions, before the time is up? I’ve got about five minutes or so.
Floor: Are there more connections with Ovid in the poem? He’s an exile, a border figure too.
Hejinian: Ovid only influenced it structurally, I mean building the work in some way to be a mirror…
Floor: But you aren’t mirroring Ovid or being Ovid?
Hejinian: No, nobody equals somebody else. And there is a really to me compelling reason for that, which is that I really don’t, I don’t want this Border work to actually not be a border work, to actually be a Western classical grounded work. And I’ve tried throughout the work, I mean I haven’t finished it yet, but to the extent that there are any specific cultural references, I want to have lots of them, mostly to avoid evoking any particular culture as the dominant one. Because then it’s somebody’s border, and what I’m, I guess kind of in a political sense, arguing for is a border condition in which everybody is equally strange. In which otherness is allowed to flourish.
That may be partially a result of teaching in a fairly strident identity politics milieu which is very useful and also can be really flattening to some of the people most involved in it. The way in which you’re reclaiming lost territory, they’re often closing off the limits. I see this happening a lot to African-American students who are being coerced. They can’t be poets, they have to be, they are being forced to be, African-American poets and the very young ones are beginning to rebel against this. And it’s actually in long conversations with them, thinking of models, in which you can’t be the many things that you are, not just the one thing that your color makes you be. So I have avoided putting Ovid in any more than what I need.
Floor: Is the landscape of the border a metaphor for change? changes? metamorphosis?
Hejinian: I don’t think I’ve metaphorised the landscape adequately to answer that question. One of the good and bad things about metaphors is that they run out of steam at a certain point. They run out of accuracy, and at that point hopefully they run out of steam. I mean this is a metaphor, and I don’t want to extend it too far although sometimes I propose that having a politics as well as an aesthetics, I obviously have to take some responsibility for that. So many writers have been exiled in one way or another, from mental health or from geographical nation. The border condition does seem to replicate itself or to turn up again over and over, in many different kinds and configurations, and I suppose that one could anticipate that it would continue to do so. Another obvious area that this could lead one into and with more or less dangerous results would be the frontier. The frontier as a concept is a pretty loaded one, I mean, just whose frontier is it? And that’s something that I will need to think about more carefully and figure out how a border zone isn’t a frontier in a negative sense. A realm for exploitation and appropriation, in a bad way.
Wystan Curnow: A border, bordering as a pattern is not necessarily a bad thing. It doesn’t have to be inimical in that sense of being a site of transition, a process or a progress between two things, perhaps a meeting place?
Hejinian: Yes, I think it’s not so much the pattern that’s a problem but the interpretation. Whether it’s a sort of overdetermined interpretation of a pattern, where it becomes a fixity. And then it clearly has to be repatterned in some way.
Floor: Do you think poetry has a moral purpose? Can it improve the world?
Hejinian: I guess I have several answers to that. I think probably one has to question the whole notion of improving the world because there is no real test for it. Which means that often one can’t really know if one has failed in one’s goal, at the point that looks like a failure like my terrible depression during the Eighties, the early Eighties, when the Reagan administration began a kind of regression . . . Maybe those of us who fought against it at least slowed it down, kept something from occurring. I think there is a lot to be said in favor of intentionality, I think if one is alert, conscientious, conscious and responsible, one is at least unlikely to commit an atrocity. One is more likely to commit an atrocity if one is sloppy, careless, mindless, and goes along with whatever is in power.
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© Lyn Hejinian