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.
1. A Talk to the MA Poetics class, 21 March 1995
Nothing but this can possibly name its delicate idiosyncrasy
-- William James
Lyn is a poet, an editor and a translator, and Iím hoping that she might tell you a little about each of those activities. Most of you know My Life, which is a major work that we teach at stage 3, but there is a string of other publications going right back into the 1970s. She is also the editor of a very distinguished small press called Tuumba, a handpress which she ran by herself and which has produced fifty titles over a period of nine years. She is also a translator of the Russian poet Arkadii Dragomoschenko.
Hejinian: That raises a lot of issues to talk about, and Iím going to attempt to leave plenty of time for questions and conversation, so that Iím not only talking about issues that are of interest to me, but so we can address issues that are of interest or even of urgency to you. So some of those weíll have to save for questions that I havenít really prepared in my mind to say anything about, like translating Russian, thatís a whole other enterprise. And thereís even other enterprises to talk about.
Micheleís locating of the experimental or avant-garde as itís sometimes called, although I have problems with the term avant-garde simply because of its militarist ramifications, but also because it has implications that there is one group that is ahead of others and that the group that goes ahead is sophisticated and the others are a kind of rabble that follow. That I find extremely problematic for obvious reasons that donít need to be elaborated. The main point that I think I could pick up on as a point of departure is the notion of the theorizing poet. I and the circle of poets that I have been associated with, the so-called Language poets, began working together as theorizing poets for very specific historical reasons. Those are located in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Iíll take it for the moment in the US alone; I know that this part of the world had many of the same issues confronting it, but Iíll just speak of the US and not try to encompass your historical experiences into American historical experiences lest I be seen as being imperialist.
The background context, the Sixties and Seventies of course had some pretty big social political movements under way. The largest one, the one that mobilized the middle class, which is my class background, is the anti-war movement, the confrontation of a war machine as it was in action in Vietnam. The other two movements, well, one preceded it and one made use of the other two. The one that preceded it was the Civil Rights Movement, and the one that evolves from the strategies and momentum out of those two is of course the Womenís Movement. I am actually old enough to have participated in a lot of Civil Rights demonstrations prior to the anti-war movement becoming large-scale enough that it really began to be part of a national history. The problems that those three movements were addressing can be said to all be the result of large-scale social hypocrisy in the USA, starting from the Fifties. That hypocrisy took three forms: one was outright lies, of the kind for example ĎEverybody in Alabama is happyí. Alabama is a state in the Deep South where people are still not happy. So outright lies. The second were the hypocrisies buried in metaphors, a good example being the domino theory, that if Vietnam fell, which is also metaphorical, fell to communism, if it fell it would bop Cambodia which would bop Laos and all these boppings would ripple round the world and suddenly the whole planet would have fallen to communism and would consist of simply a black rectangle with white dots on it. The domino theory. And then perhaps the most difficult level of hypocrisy because the most pervasive, was the complete failure to examine hypocrisy as it existed in language at all. The assumption that the way we speak is Ďnatural,í that it is the only way to speak, that this is the way God speaks, this is the way the little birds speak (if they speak at all), this is the way nature speaks. A great many structures in the Unites States have been unexamined for a long time. Capitalism is also considered a Ďnaturalí form, survival of the fittest etcetera, all that is very metaphorically unexamined. But it was the language in which the status quo was establishing itself and its agenda, and the failure to examine that, that struck my generation of young poets very forcefully and kind of shocked us into social consciousness. It seemed to us then that it was precisely as poets that we were the best-positioned to undertake an examination of language. Partially because poets are already informed or aware of the materiality of language, so that all of the buried ideologies, the buried assumptions and the fairly well-elaborated worldview thatís in structures of language -- in its sonic materials, in its syntactic materials, in the way sentences are built -- at all these various levels poets already knew about them. They were attentive and attuned to the way they expressed experience and could organize experience. So that one actually experienced it that way.
In a sense for me some of this hyper-awareness of the way language was working actually came out of reading William James the philosopher, but prior to being a philosopher a psychologist. Actually this is a little link with Gertrude Stein, since it was with William James that Gertrude Stein studied what could be called linguistic psychology. From this distance James can be compared to Freud in the sense that Freud is the psychologist of the unconscious and William James was the psychologist of consciousness. His works are in two volumes, one called The Principles of Psychology, and Iíll read you some quotes from James this morning. James examined linguistic structures in order to look at structures of consciousness, and I studied James at university from somebody who had studied with James. I rather happened into this course and it had a huge impact on me, and much later I could see the many ways in which William Jamesí psychology had had an impact on Gertrude Stein. I think her work is pervaded by Jamesian strategies for investigating experience.
Anyway, James thinks it is in language that we have the consciousness of being conscious, or to put it another way, which I have done several times, it is in language that we have the experience of our experiences. Thatís not to say language is the only location for the experience of experience, but itís a really good one. And itís something that poets are aware of.
So, beginning in the early Seventies was this group that later became known as the Language poets, accruing that label from a hostile critic who was making fun of us, of our theorizing of language either in essays or in the kind of experiments that we were doing early on. He came at that in calling us ĎLanguage poetsí and making us susceptible to the very obvious comment that all poets write in language, in other words it made us vulnerable to ridicule. The label stuck and the ridicule is sort of more sporadic and weíre left with the label. Iím not disowning the label although some of my colleagues have done so frequently. Anf if you ever run across an anthology that was published in the early Eighties called In the American Tree, edited by Ron Silliman . . . I want to talk a little bit about anthologies so I brought a demonstration brick. [Douglas Messerli, ed., From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry 1960-1990. (LA: Sun & Moon, 1994)] This is only one of two recent demonstration bricks. The beginning of the building of the mausoleum of the twentieth century. You canít imagine how heavy this is; this mausoleum is really meant to last. And I really want to put holes in it before it gets built. I love this book and Iím really troubled by it, so we can talk about that later
Just before I came over here, not really knowing what I was going to be asked to talk about, either in Australia or here (but I came prepared for many things), I wrote up a list, not at all a comprehensive list, of a few precepts that I would say would be consensually agreed upon from this group the Language poets. So here they are:
A poem is not an isolated autonomous rarified aesthetic object. That is pertinent actually to My Life. I keep adding to it, in a gesture of resistance to the final text. This version here that Michele held up is the second version, and this that I brought with me and that Iíll read from tonight is the ongoing current one. Iím not going to keep publishing it in different versions, because I think that would do exactly the opposite of what I want to do, fetishise it in another way which is that you have to have a collection of My Lifeís. (laughter) Kind of: here she goes again, or: oh, thereís just one more sentence in every section of this one and Iíve got to know it. I donít want to do that, so Iím just doing it for myself. Iím publishing some new sections just in journals but Iím not going to make it into a book. Until when Iím very old, if I get very old, then I could publish a last word before Ďsheí passes away.
OK, so a poem is not an isolated, rarified, autonomous, aesthetic object.
Second, A person, the poet, has no irreducible a-historical autonomous unmediated singular romantic kernel identity.
Third, Language is a pre-eminently social medium. The structures of language are social structures in which meanings and intentions are already in place.
Institutionalized stupidity and entrenched hypocrisy are monstrous and should be attacked.
Racism, sexism and classism are repulsive.
Prose is not necessarily not poetry.
Knowledge can be of uncertainties as well as certainties.
Theory and practice are not antithetical.
It is not surrealism to compare apples to oranges.
Intelligence is romantic.
That second to last, it is not surrealism to compare apples to oranges, is actually sort of anecdotal in that part of the whole business of it being social.
As poets we began theorizing language in order to do two things: one is to examine and redress hypocrisy, in that sense that it was a very utopian gesture, and the ultimate goal was to improve the world. The second was to provide an opportunity for rethinking what it is that literature is, to shift the paradigm of what it is that is literature and what kinds of projects poetry might undertake appropriately, and essentially to expand them. And part of the expansion involved the socialization of the poem, which took the form of collaborative projects, something I am still involved with enormously. But it was also a premise on which a somewhat self-conscious building of a literary scene was based. The reason for building a literary scene was in order to kind of edit into existence communities, edit through magazines and presses, and also to set up venues for conversation, like Ďwhat do you think, why do you think that, havenít you read such and such, letís all read such and such, talk about it, what does this mean, what does this have to doí. It was like a mini-academy, an informal utopian mini-academy, none of us being in any academy at that time but undertaking the kind of study that all of us wished we could have done when we were in school.
It was very much modeled on the Russian Formalist group called OPOYAZ. I donít know if youíve studied Russian Formalism here but Russian Formalism was a movement in the early part of the century, beginning in Russia in what was then at that moment Petrograd, had been St Petersburg, became Petrograd, became Leningrad and now is St Petersburg again. At the time it was Petrograd, which was after the 1905 failed attempt at a revolution, in the interim before the successful Russian Revolution of 1917. A group of post-grad students at St Petersburg University were extremely dissatisfied with their experience in the university, being taught by moth-bitten professors reading dusty literature, and they were right actually. This was the end of the czarist regime, there was very little thought, there were memorized lectures to students who were supposed to have memorized the poems, and then the dispensing of shabby ribbons at the end of semester. It was nonsense. There were about twenty students (mostly men unfortunately; I think there was one woman who had a kind of peripheral involvement) set about this kind of anti-academy and began examining what are the rules of literature, what constitutes literature. The name is spelled OPOYAZ in Roman letters and it is an acronym for Russian words which mean Ďabout poetic languageí. Sometimes it is translated as ĎThe Society for the Study of Poetic Languageí. Anyway, this notion of a group of very vigorous, absolutely committed, restless, somewhat revolutionary poet-theoreticians was kind of the nexus orientation of this group of us in the early Seventies up through the mid-Eighties. Weíre all still close friends, and as I said many of us are involved in collaborative projects of different kinds, which I can talk about later if youíre interested.
The end result of this was to think of poetic language, to look at the peculiarities and special characteristics of poetic language as a medium in which an array of logics, not just the linear logics of argumentation, of political agendas, of propaganda, and of totalising narratives -- totalising in the sense of Ďthis is the whole story.í This is actually my argument with the new spate of end of the century anthologies. Rather than narratives one could call heuristic narratives, which is investigative narratives -- letís try this, letís try that, experimentation in that sense. Letís tell stories but theyíre not the last story, theyíre just anecdotes of events along the way. One can see how poetry sort of continues to be that. If one compares poetry to a TV sitcom for example, which is completely over-determined and wrapped up and pre-interpreted.
The wonderful theoretician Walter Benjamin has an essay called ĎThe Storytellerí in his collection called Illuminations where he talks about the storyteller as one who exchanges experiences: sit down in a circle, one tells a tale and then someone else picks up and tells another tale. Itís like dinner party conversation, or what Russians call kitchen talk, where youíre sharing what youíve seen that day and, you know, laughing about an old granny that tried to swipe rice in a supermarket. Thatís something I saw happen, other grannies told on her, really, it is so cruel there.
So there is this notion of poetic language as the language of inquiry, which I think is really an important position. And the second notion is one of poetic language as a language in which intention and improvisation are at play with each other. One can regard something like the theme or the form as the field of intention, and then the actual writing as an improvisation within that field of intention. This is also relevant to my reading of Gertrude Stein in for instance her interest in landscape, in the period of her writing from the mid-Twenties to the early Thirties. But thatís something Iíll come back to in a minute, her notion, like in Four Saints in Three Acts or in Lucy Church Amiably, she thought of these landscapes as the realm of saints. Saints live in a landscape, that is what makes them saints. There are certain characteristics of landscapes which makes them purely ontological, theyíre pure being. But Iíll explain that more in a minute.
The third area is the constructedness of poetry. I realized that in Australia I was talking about this in a completely different context, and I was talking about constructedness, itís something that is talked about in gender theory. The inscribed nature of the self, of the person, the notion of the self gets thrown out, thatís what I meant in this thing about Ďthe person, the poet, has no irreducible autonomous unmediated selfí. The twentieth century, or the last twenty five years of philosophy, has been forced to throw out the notion of the self, this kernel, irreducible soul, which had previously largely been the measure of experience. I know that I am because I think. This kernel self. And philosophy couldnít locate this self. Gender theory, as it begins, and what we can call identity theory, post-colonial theory, as it begins to put pressure on philosophy, it explodes the notion of the self, because everyoneís actual experience is of being a person. And what the person is is the already socialized, already in the world, person, us. Through our hair, our skin color, our social class, our experiences, where we went to school, our name, our parents, our clothes, pierced ears or not . . . where I teach people also get scarred and pierced all over their bodies, this body marking is a really big identity thing, so these are inscribed persons. Gender theory has looked at it as a constructed, socially constructed, self; the person is socially constructed.
I actually think there is a great deal of will and intention in the constructing of the self, that we make a great many choices to construct ourselves by. None of us have full freedom of choice, as we construct ourselves. Weíre all in very narrow constraints, but nonetheless intentionality I think is a very important part of the experience of living a life. One of the arguments for poetry, especially avant-garde poetry which always is foregrounding its strategy in that itís foregrounding the intentionality, the choices that are made, and can be taken as a kind of model. Itís one of the areas, and there are many others, where aesthetics and ethics intercept. One can in making aesthetic discoveries encounter possibilities for ethical discoveries. The choice-making that goes on in the construction of a work of art can also be taken as a paradigm or a model or an exemplar of choice-making in life. That isnít to say that you make those choices in the same kinds of ways, but it reminds you that you can make choices, at least up to a point.
There are two areas where inventiveness as the foregrounding of choice-making occurs in the Language poem. One is formal inventiveness. Thereís virtually no instance of uses of pre-existing forms in the body of work that gets attributed to people labeled Language poets. Oh yes, when I mentioned In the American Tree what I was going to say was, there is an essay, a collaborative essay included in the back of that, written by Ron Silliman, Bob Perelman, me, Barrett Watten and Steve Benson. And in that youíll notice that no one ever uses the term ĎLanguage poetí, we all say Ďthe work which is gathered hereí. It was used as an introduction to a little mini-anthology in a French magazine called Change and at that point we were all really resisting being labeled and thereby being commodified. Anyway, I started to say that and then forgot.
Thereís a lot of formal inventiveness. Iíll give you two examples. One again is My Life, the other is a work by Ron Silliman called Tjanting. In Tjanting Ron wanted to examine and basically debunk the notion of nature and play it against culture as exemplified in language, language always being most exemplary of culture. One of the big questions always is: what is the form this work is going to take? Any work. Everybody has a point of anxiety in their creative practice, and mine is always thinking of the appropriate form for what I am about to write, or for the theme that I want to examine. So Ron Silliman has this theme that nature is cultural per sé. And he ended up using a numerical sequence which would determine how many sentences are in each of the paragraphs of the work as it goes along. The numerical sequence is what is called the Fibonacci series, which is the numerical sequence most commonly found in nature, in things in nature. The sequence goes: each number is the sum of the previous two numbers. This occurs for example in the dimensions of the chambers in the chambered nautilus. The little chamber in the center, the smallest one, letís say itís one square x, and the next one is the same, one square x, the next is two square x, the next one three square x, then five, eight, thirteen and so forth in increments like that. Itís also like spirals in sunflowers, etc. So Ron takes the numerical sequence most frequently found in nature and uses it in a cultural production, which is a poem. Also, each paragraph incorporates or repeats some of whatís in a previous paragraph, but rewritten. So you have language performing operations on language, so itís culture laid on culture laid on culture as the work about nature progresses.
The other example is this work My Life which I started, the first version was written when I was 37 years old, and has 37 sections, sort of one for each year, and each one has 37 sentences in it. That just seemed a convenient kind of squaring off. I guess thatís what the metaphor was. The second edition, which is the one Michele has and which I guess you all have looked at, was republished when I was 45. A different publisher, Sun & Moon Press which also published this, bought the rights from the first publisher after it had gone out of print. I was 45 then, so I added eight sentences to all of the previous 37 sections and then added eight more sections with 45 sentences in them. And my rule was that I couldnít take anything out, because you canít take out life once youíve lived it. But as you live longer your experience is also retrospective, you have more to bring to bear on memory, so even your younger years get bigger as you go along. At least that was my argument. So I can keep adding to it.
The other area of inventiveness (I just wanted to come through a little bit of this and then Iíll read a section of My Life) is a kind of pyrotechnic verbal inventiveness thatís not based on inventive forms but rather on sheer unconstrained imagination. To me pretty much the most fabulous of all the writers working in this area is Carla Harryman. Her project is a kind of confrontation with power, by inventing formats in which power is denuded of its power or mark. Iím going to read you this little tiny snippet which is a game piece called ĎMagic (or Rousseau)í. Itís part of a work which is in progress but about to cease progress and get published, called The Words. The title is taken from and parodying Jean Paul Sartreís autobiography The Words. Carla is setting up a confrontation with the kind of power that is in place in French patrilineal, patriarchal philosophy. Very few cultures can outdo French culture in patriarchal power.
OK, now Iíll read a section from My Life. After the break I want to come back to this, along with your questions and your comments. Itís Gertrude Stein and her role in this, which comes after the fact I have to say. Thereís two areas of Stein that one can think about in terms of My Life. One is the notion of the sentence, what kind of an entity the sentence is, how it might be thought of as a landscape. And she gets this from James so after the break Iíll read a little passage from James that explains this. The other is the kind of linkages. Because My Life is built out of sentences and I wrote it collecting sentences, really trying to remember things, but also trying to see what kind of things could be embraced in a sentence as a unit. And how they link up one with another. The links are very predominantly determined by what can be called linguistic materials -- sounds, but also relationships, the little words, prepositions and conjunctions. Gertrude Stein was a genius at the analysis of the little words. The other great poet who was also good at it was Louis Zukofsky, at little words, and his collected essays is hence called Prepositions. But let me read you a section from My Life. Each of the sections has a preliminary italicized sentence or phrase, and those recur without any system, unsystematically recur throughout the work, the way memories recur, but also like bright ideas. I donít know how many of you keep journals, and have had the experience of writing what seems like a real revelation and then going back, happening to look back at a journal, and discovering you already had that thought. But when you have it again it is re-contextualised so that it actually is in a certain way also new. I mean, it is not garbage. Itís pertinent in a new way, and itís not old. So this section, the little marginalia sentence, the prefatory sentence, is We need the language to aid the senses.
I should preface that the work has got a lot of obsessive material in it, which gets pulled out of actual fact, about me, but also I have a number of journals (not mine) from my motherís motherís motherís mothers. And all of them were pretty wild women, and they kept journals in which they tried to improve. That appears with something about myself and my comments too.
So thatís the most recent entry. (applause)
Question from the floor: Are we allowed to ask how many sentences?
Hejinian: In this one thereís fifty-two.
Question: When you add sentences do you actually add them on to the end of a piece?
Hejinian: No, in. And I can also add phrases to previous sentences. And I can change: in one place I added Ďsí to Ďheí to make Ďsheí out of Ďheí. I can enter it anywhere. Nothing can be erased, but I can modify. According to my watch itís been fifty nine minutes and thirty seconds. Shall we take a break?
Hejinian: My Life came after the first contact with Stein which was in my childhood, prior to my later real knowledge of Steinís work. The earlier contact was through my father, who like Gertrude Stein was born in Oakland, and like Gertrude Stein thought that there was no Ďthereí there. In the late Thirties, after The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was published, my father began a correspondence with what he hoped would be Gertrude Stein but turned out to be Alice B. Toklas. He already loved Gertrude Steinís work, what he had was Three Lives and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Through this kind of validation, as he felt it, of his own weirdness in the context of Oakland, it encouraged him to get more of Steinís work. So it was in the house and it had the paternal stamp of authority, which in terms of gendered experience was probably very useful for a young woman aspiring to be a poet. And I thought I wanted to be a poet since I was about nine. So thatís sort of the early going towards Stein. I read Three Lives, a bit of Tender Buttons, and didnít understand it, and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and a few other smaller works. As one does, just as all of you have in school and before.
Then a paper was written and published by an American critic youíve probably encountered named Marjorie Perloff, in which she said that I was the heir to the Gertrude Stein tradition. And about two weeks later I was invited to give a series of three three-hour lectures on the work of Gertrude Stein at New College in San Francisco, which is where Iíve ended up teaching. So those two things, there was the challenge that if I was going to be the heiress I should know what my fortune consisted of, and then this invitation which was a real challenge obviously, to write nine hours worth of lectures on Gertrude Stein. I set about really reading Gertrude Stein, and in that context then went back to the sort of second area which is the William James area.
So let me first read you this passage from James as one perspective from which to think about the sentence as Stein thinks about sentences throughout her work, but particularly in the essay in How to Write which is one of three important books. The others are the play Four Saints and Lucy Church Amiably, her novel which I think may be out of print again, so Iím not sure you all have access to it. But itís a landscape novel, in which the components of the landscape are in a way interchangeable with the people who pass through it. And then How to Write, those are the three big works. There are many small works, she has been so prolific, but those are the three big works in that particular period I was thinking about.
All right, this is from William Jamesí Principles of Psychology, the first volume.
(Pairing content and deliverance is making an equation between conscious thought and linguistic expression.)
In that he posits a sentence as a whole, rather than a sequence of major and minor parts. He makes the prepositions be as important as the nouns and the verbs and the adverbs and the adjectives. And then posits the sentence also as a planar surface where the vanishing point is on every word, and as a landscape, which is to be perceived or thought as a whole. The effect of that is exactly the effect that makes saints for Gertrude Stein, which is to say that time becomes spatialized. A landscape becomes a realm of a-temporal ontology, a pure being, and that for Stein is what makes the saints. They donít do anything, they are. And the landscape has the characteristics of being reversible; that is, you can look at it from left to right and back again, which is an a-temporal construct, obviously. Itís also always changing, transforming, which is the reason that Stein can have propositions and then counter-propositions which do not equate with the original ones. When you read Stein people always say you have one sense and then you get this contradiction someplace else. But those are not actually operating as contradictions, they are operating as another facet of the landscape. A leaf has trees; a leaf has no trees. Those are equally true in a landscape. Another aspect of this is that the landscape is unstable, itís always incomplete, thereís always more. It also begins again and again, the old Stein thing, its temporality is cyclical, which is another form of spatialized temporality. I actually weirdly enough and in a most corny sense realized that this was what was going on, where space and time merged. I was looking at the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. I remember that English poet friends were very reluctant to go and look at the Elgin Marbles because they are such a cliché of English Romantic poetry, and I dragged them along because Iíd never seen them. I donít know if any of you have ever been to the British Museum in London, but thereís this frieze all around the room and itís enormous and itís of unbelievable motion. Itís galloping horses on one side and people going to a market down the other side. The horses are rearing and surging and warriors are leaning back and leaning forward. And yet there is this unbelievable quietness. And itís not out of scale, itís not larger than life at all, itís not monumental and static at all, but thereís this peacefulness in all of this motion, and I suddenly realized that this was Gertrude Stein. That this was really saintly, these marbles.
Let me also read another bit of William James. You can see the connection with Stein most clearly in her early realist work, Tender Buttons. I say realist intentionally. When William James received Three Lives -- Stein sent it to him -- he wrote back and said: ĎWhat a brave new realism this is.í In foregrounding the weirdness of the language (you know, in Tender Buttons she is naming things and unnaming them), the metaphor is usually that itís like a cubist portrait of things. And thatís true as far as it goes, but itís also a study of relationships. Itís not just this single thing, but the thing as itís constructed with all of these prepositional arrangements or relational arrangements. Prepositions play a really strong role, particularly in that work of Steinís, but also elsewhere. And also the occurrence of numbers: sheíll just suddenly in the middle of the work say: ĎSix and ten is sixí. And what are those numbers? They are relationships. I mean six is only meaningful in relation to other numbers and things, and itís only meaningful in relation to something of which there are six. Stein is always positioning things in relationships and studying linkages: large is only large if there is small; a kind of shifting landscape, this terrain of cognition, and of experience and perception. In which she places herself but it is always being positioned in a moment of time where everything else is moving position. It has this kind of fluidity.
So, a pertinent quote from James:
Stein in her work is really providing us with the feelings of and, the feelings of if, the feelings of beside, the feelings of Ėer in a comparative.
Let me see if there is anything else I want to say. Perhaps not, except that the confluxity of the instability and incompleteness of the landscape can also be extrapolated into an understanding of incompleteness and instability of texts. And I think that one of the reasons that Stein is rarely taught in academic institutions, almost never in the United States, and apparently you are lucky enough to have it taught here, but itís very rare. And I think that the reason is not that she is difficult, because people study other difficult writers, but that she has, as Iím actually saying in a work called The Guard, she has achieved the inability to finish what she says. That is, itís always an open-ended system, or a-systematic opening, and one canít really read a single text of Steinís and regard it as the autonomous single work. Thereís always a kind of wash over, or flooding, out of that text and from other texts of hers back into that one. Through either work thereís repetitions of phrases, thereís as I said, opposites, contradictions, thereís enormous fluidity. And also she was a prolific writer so thereís a vast amount. But she canít be reduced handily to something nameable, label-able, and dismissible; which makes her a difficult writer to teach. And only the brilliant and brave undertake it.
Maybe I should stop and give some time for conversation. Does anyone want to make comments or questions or corrections? About anything, I mean even the things that Michele talked about, I could even just tallk . . .
Question: Thereís an interesting move living in the moment to knowledge of that livingness, in time and in space, and how to say it, that seems to connect your work and Steinís. Are you an epistemoligist?
Hejinian: I tend to use epistemological models. I think of myself as a poet being in quest of knowledge. And than questioning in good epistemological fashion what knowledge is. And Iíve come to feel very strongly that there is no such thing as knowledge independent of the context in which it is embedded. And that the embeddedness of knowledge is one of its pertinent characteristics. And I would equate that I think with what youíre meaning by the livingness of the moment. That is, the moment is the embodiment of the living thatís occurring in it. Is that fair?
And that is also why I could say (and youíll hear it echoed in the reading tonight), that knowledge can be of uncertainties as well as certainties. And thatís something which I adore, a real love of history of science, Western science; and I adore travel, journals of exploration. But Iíve also learnt to understand the problems involved in that, that Western science tends to be on a quest for certainty, the repeatable experiment. And that is of course one of the reasons we foreground vision as the ground for knowledge, a privileged vision, and have tended to neglect other sources of knowledge, like sound. I had a wonderful experience with a poet named Jack [Collom?] whoís a vigorous and knowledgeable birdwatcher. He lives in Colorado but he was in California with me and my husband and family, and we went birdwatching. And there I was with my binoculars and my identification book, and Jack would say: Ďoh, there is a warbler, there is an oriole . . .there is dadada . . . Ď I kept looking at it and he would say Ďwhy are you just using your eyes, why canít you know them by your earsí, which is a great acknowledgement, and completely right.
Wystan Curnow: Just on the James connection, the sentence as a landscape. I presume itís in the Psychology, but certainly there in the Varieties of Religious Experience, where for James the mind is a landscape. The unconscious is actually out over the horizon, or in the darkness, on a planar surface. Which is such a difference, metaphorically, from Freud, where itís buried and itís in a hierarchy. So that the buried placement of the unconscious hierarchically already pre-determines the way you are actually going to talk about those relationships. Whereas if itís horizontal and a landscape and planar, well, the whole ballgame is different, and the relationship of language to mind presumably is different as well.
Hejinian: Yes I think thatís true. Itís actually a more democratic model.
Curnow: Yes, itís almost a kind of Europe-America model, potentially.
Hejinian: Yes, unfortunately we havenít got to the horizon to see what the unconscious has in there. The imagination of the American landscape is very gendered: the unknown is always female, and the explorer is going to penetrate her mystery. From the English Renaissance, look at John Donneís ĎElegy on Going to Bedí (is that what it is?) ĎRemove yourí -- Iím terrible at memorizing poetry, but the Ďtake off, remove your corset, remove your diadem, expose your hairy hill, I love above, I love below, O America, my America, my new found land.í
Curnow: Heís a great poet of Western imperialism, isnít he? Cartography and the lot.
Hejinian: Yes. A Russian poet friend of mine always said that language is far smarter than anyone who uses it. Iím trying to think, you know, keeping in mind that like the mind is a landscape, the sentence is uttered by the mind, and expresses the mental landscape. James uses the word Ďhorizoní in that little quote, and certainly itís in my experience that improvising into the unpredictable, into the unknown, like not writing down what you already say, already capture in words, but actually sort of writing into the language without a preconception of what you might get to, actually does open up new thought areas that you didnít know you had.
Curnow: And itís spatial.
Hejinian: Yes, it does feel spatial. I think about the remarkable fact that so many so-called postmodern poets write long works, or works in many parts, which is contrary to what everybody predicted -- that the postmodern person would write in postmodern fragments, you know, Ďshard art for shard livesí. But we actually seem to be immensely interested in putting lots of shards together, through long contemplations of terrain, of thought and experience. And it really does feel like exploration and inquiry and venturing into at least not yet conscious areas, and making them be conscious.
Iíve been struck by the fact that so many of us not just from my generation, say from sixty to twenty year old poets, are involved in fairly large-scale projects. And I think itís because we actually have the capacity to, and a sense of necessity for, contemplating a great deal of experience. That, rather than zero in on -- do you have Sesame Street here? can I make a reference to it? -- zero in on a micro-moment of the Sesame Street duration (like thirty seconds of information, bleep, new thing), in fact weíre not satisfied with that and we like larger scale contemplations. We know that thirty seconds is not enough time or space to get anything, really, except a hit.
Thereís the other thing that I think might be operating currently is some impulse towards what, for lack of a better term, Iíll call ethics, (but not in the conventional sense, not even in the Ezra Pound, H.D., William Carlos Williams of Paterson sense) as we come to the end of the century and the end of the millennium. To the extent that we buy into those metaphors and feel that time can be set up that way, and itís hard to escape it altogether because we get bombarded by the media with the images of it, or the imagination of the end of the century, the end of the millennium. I think that thereís an impulse to counter that, and to say the story isnít complete, that totalizing narratives are in fact always suspect. The single narrative with the single moment isnít adequate, we need a number of them, even contrary to each other.
I guess here I can say something about these anthologies. This one, [hoists From the Other Side of the Century], this really is great. I manage to say bad things about it but itís a really great anthology. And thereís another one which I think you have access to here more readily, which is the Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology [ed. Paul Hoover, 1994] which for us in America is a bit of a joke because the Norton Anthology is one of the canon formalizers, and they brought out The Norton Anthology -- but when they hit the project of Ďpostmodern American poetryí they werenít quite sure, it was a little iffy, they werenít quite sure they wanted to claim it as something that was really A (or ĎTheí) Norton Anthology. So itís kind of a sub-title and an afterthought; theyíve got it if they want it but they can always take off the sub-title.
Theyíre both very carefully edited, I think this oneís [Messerli] selection is much better, and it was done in collaboration with the poets, the live poets, and it begins with the Objectivist poets, like Zukofsky and Lorine Niedecker, and then goes to contemporary young poets. But the problem with these is, both this and the Norton, theyíre published, intended, to tell the story of the second half of the twentieth century avant-garde tradition in the United States. This attempt at historicization is by definition an attempt at monumentalization and entombment. Thatís really troubling obviously for someone whoís in the anthology and is not ready to be entombed. As Iím watching my contemporaries and reading their new work, I see all of us just bashing out of these anthologies and writing different kinds of work. Weíve been beneficiaries of these anthologies by being in them but also by being challenged by that anthologizing. I really feel weíre all at a moment where itís appropriate and necessary to rethink once again what poetry has before it as its project, what poetry can be doing, and I think thatís a reason why people are taking up long forms and really exploring. Thereís a lot of genre-boundary leaping going on in poetry. I mean thatís true here as well as in the States. The whole Ďwhat is a poemí is being rethought and reinvented, and I think thatís only to the good. Thatís just great.
Question: what do you think about the relation between language and the marketplace? advertisers manipulate language, play games with language not to make us think about power relations but to sell us their products.
Hejinian: I think weíve become extraordinarily literate to advertising. I think I can say this even about kids, and even about kids in socially deprived living situations, economically deprived living situations, that weíre actually really not bamboozled by it. Weíre inundated by it, and weíre influenced by it because itís so much around us. The market place generally is watching to see what we do, and appropriating it really quickly, and depriving us of the time that we would like to have to explore the ramifications of some of our strategies. Itís a way of neutralizing. I donít buy into conspiracy theories, except where they really exist, and I donít think they exist on the other side of the world particularly. But from the Sixties, when the department stores, the fashion designers, realized that they could sell a lot of bell-bottom pants and love-beads in the department stores, those are moments when the commercial world realizes that it can pull the fangs out of progressive gestures, and I think that that happens really quickly. Rap music is another obvious example. Somebody in Australia asked me about the encroachment of American English over the globe, where American English, not even New Zealand or British English but American English is moving through like a monolithic plague. And yes, I think that that was true. I know that French businesses for instance would just never never speak English; you did business in French or you didnít do business at all. Now if you call many French businesses theyíll answer in English; theyíre French but doing business in English, American English.
But there are always very local eruptions of peculiarities of speech. And I think they erupt out of poetry and they erupt out of street language, like jargon, like Black American. No record company will ever be able to keep up with the inventiveness of African-American street kids. And this dates from the slave days. I mean, Georgia Anne Persons, ĎThe Characteristics of Negro Speech,íI think itís called. Itís a little essay that was in Nancy Cunardís volume called Negro. And then Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote a book called The Signifying Monkey, which is a much longer study of African-American speech, games, rhetoric. I think the Henry Louis Gates Jr. book is something that all poets should read actually.
Curnow: itís in the library.
Hejinian: Itís brilliant, really brilliant, and amazingly interesting. In the second half he addresses three specific works, and thatís really good, but the first part is the heart of the book, the first half of the book. There are games like ĎDoing the dozensí where you one-up each other, and there are a lot of insults. ĎAsk your mamaí comes into it. There was an IQ test that all school children had to take, and thereís one particular school in Connecticut where the kids failed it. It was a one hundred percent black student body, and the teacher told the kids not to feel bad, it was a stupid test and they should invent their own. So they invented their own and mailed it back to the organization that writes these tests, and one of the questions was: ĎWhoís buried in Grantís tomb?í and the right answer was: ĎAsk your mamaí. They failed one hundred percent, none of these white examination-creators considered ĎAsk your mamaí as an answer. (laughter)
* * *
© Lyn Hejinian