Monday, December 10, 2012
When, in 200 years, students are reading the poetry of Lyn Hejinian – as certainly they shall if humans are still about – those readers will undoubtedly begin with My Life (hopefully in its initial Burning Deck version, not because the earlier edition is “better,” but because that is the volume that changed the lives of so many other poets). Those who go on to read Hejinian’s finest work, however, will then turn to The Book of a Thousand Eyes, which Omnidawn brought out earlier this year.
Coming in at 333 pages, Eyes is a project on which Hejinian has been working for decades and the concentration of effort yields remarkable insights. Although 95% of the volume is in verse, Eyes is – alongside Tony Lopez’ forensic masterpiece Only More So – the deepest thinking over the role, form, history & future of the sentence I have encountered:
Perhaps my dear family can profit from my story
As it continues two pickpockets are denying a robust policeman’s suggestions that they are ‘suspiciously encumbered’
If encumbered, they insist, they would resemble kids with a lot to say
They would resemble unwanted sympathy
They would not be like holes in a hallway
This poem, pulled at random from page 196, demonstrates how large portions of this volume proceed – lines here function as sentence equivalents, there is a story & an expository voice that is cheerful & just a little supercilious, a tone that may invoke certain characters in novels, indeed that may invoke the novel itself. But the focus here lies not on sentences so much as on the character of the adjectival as a role of language & perception, and of the underlying problem of comparison. The term that announces this is not about the pickpocket’s nor even the policeman – “robust” as he may be – but the characterization of the listeners (plural) as “my dear family” (singular).
Every line/sentence here invokes at least one problematic comparison – the wavering focus between fictive listener and factual reader in the first line is just the opening ploy (unless of course one counts that disparity between singular noun family and multiple listeners). The characterization “dear” is in this sense the very opposite of what it appears to be: ceremonial rhetoric with little real content. The second line has at least 4 such moments of characterization, five if we begin to delve into the problem of naming characters pickpockets. First there is number, then the policeman identified as robust (meaning what? comically rotund? vigorously muscular?), then a denial that these pickpockets are encumbered (one of three key terms repeated in the four lines of the story), finally a representation of this encumbrance as suspiciously. Two terms in the sentence represent representation itself –denying, suggestions – both of which imply a gap between language & the thing itself.
At this moment, the entire tenor of the poem shifts as tho it were on an axis: the three final lines invoke (without quite being) anaphor, a sequence of not-quite-parallels that give the poem a strong formal flourish as it concludes. At one level there is the humor of the clash between the denial that they would resemble kids with a lot to say just as they begin to say a lot. At a second, there is a third characterization of representation – insist – followed by the trio of they would statements.
Each statement is about resemblance is some very odd way. Kids with a lot to say ≠ unwanted sympathy ≠ holes in a hallway. Except that, grammatically, formally, they do. It’s worth considering further what each of these complex representations invokes, holes in a hallway for example – are we talking doors and windows, pocking in acoustic tile, or something stranger even?
This description barely scratches all that is going on in this little poem. What if I were to base my analysis on the meaning of that very first verb, profit? An entire discourse concerning acquisition, ownership & value looms suddenly into view. And who precisely is that speaker? It hardly sounds like the Lyn Hejinian whom I’ve known for nearly 40 years.
Here the advantage of verse formatting starts to become evident: the use of lines here as sentence equivalents is hardly incidental to the argument of the poem. They foreground the disjunct angles of the three pseudo-parallels at the end, for example, and highlight the excessiveness of that second line.
And there are over 300 other pages at least as complex & condensed as this. Often, as in the term dear in the first line, Hejinian employs a single word to invoke an entire vein of literature: the tales of the Arabian Nights, Quixote, the French novel, the Russian novel, language poetry. The scale here is vast, bordering on overwhelming. Reading Eyes is a lot like my imagination of standing before the Grand Canyon. Unlike the Alps, which are simply large & majestic, Eyes is also deep. Vertigo is a distinct readerly risk and I recommend going through the book slowly. If you finish it in less than six months, you’re not giving it the attention it deserves. So many of these poems don’t start to yield their secrets until the second, third or fourth readings. I found myself going over facing pages over & over – it really seems to be the best way to proceed.
Language is eyes, as somebody once claimed (invoking not only Shakespeare, but a particular character, and not just any, but one in theatrical guise, one who dreams). Might I note that if one searches Google for “bottom Shakespeare Hejinian” (sans quotation marks), one will find 19,000 responses, just 400 less than a parallel search that switches out Hejinian’s name for he-who-whose-literary-executor-shall-not-be-named? In this sense, Hejinian’s project is part of that particular American tradition that begins with Moby-Dick.
It’s interesting to contrast Eyes with Lopez’ Only More So, because the two projects are at once so sympatico & so utterly different. Both Hejinian and Lopez are on the high side of sixty and were raised as the children of academics (something they share with the late Leslie Scalapino & with Bruce Andrews, two other major thinkers hovering around this same terrain). Which is to suggest that their engagement with these questions began long before either began publishing, let alone publishing poetry one might associate with the language project of the 1970s & ‘80s. Hejinian was already 37 when she first composed My Life, chronologically close to William Carlos Williams who penned Spring & All when he was pushing 40. Lopez published five crime & sci-fi novels before returning to school & getting a PhD under the direction of Jeremy Prynne at Cambridge. Lopez’ breakthrough book of poetry, False Memory, was first published by Geoff Young’s The Figures Press in 1996 when Lopez was 46. The Figures, long associated with language poetry, published Hejinian’s book immediate prior to My Life, Writing is an Aid to Memory, as well as her “short Russian novel,” Oxota.
Like Hejinian’s Writing, Only More So is a work composed from found materials, but whereas Hejinian spatialized her fragments into a verse format that accented their disjunct and even abstract nature, Lopez constructs ten large prose blocks that blend together with almost startling precision. That virtually every sentence is taken from a different source than those in its immediate environs very quickly recedes from the reading mind which focuses instead on how these statements build into paragraphs, paragraphs into passages, passages into the named sections with an all-over effect as seamless as cool jazz. The accumulation results in one of the most unrelentingly gorgeous texts ever written. Yet much of the language, perhaps the bulk of it, is derived from scientific and journalistic writing, very little from aesthetic sources.¹ One quickly realizes that one is reading sentences & paragraphs repeatedly, looking at how each are built, lingering over favorite moments, juxtapositions that leave one wondering just how Lopez figured out how to put all this together – it is far too lush & well-crafted to simply have been hodge-podged together from the willy-nilly of chance operations. Only More So is quite possibly the finest instance of the new sentence yet produced.
I’ve noted before that the history of poetry is never the history of the best poems, but rather the history of change in poetry. Most often, my examples have been Ronald Johnson’s Book of the Green Man and Valley of the Many-Colored Grasses, which to my thinking are the apotheoses of Projective Verse. Yet they are not the poems that we read when we read about the Black Mountain School (which Johnson was basically too young to know about until it was all over), nor what we read when we want to think of the major contributions of Ronald Johnson to poetry. It’s in this sense that I suspect we won’t turn automatically to Only More So or The Book of A Thousand Eyes when we talk about language poetry or the new sentence. Yet, like Johnson’s grossly underappreciated early masterpieces, these are two profoundly important books that extend the field of what is possible in writing into territories it has not previously understood. These may well be the best volumes of language poetry, yes, but that’s not why you want to read them. Rather, between them, they triangulate approaches to the relation between the sentence as a unit of thinking (as distinct from speech, in which neither book is especially interested) and the process of narrative itself as a cognitive being-in-the-world.
It is interesting, further, that Hejinian (or maybe Omnidawn) chooses to offer an index of “titles and first lines or phrases” while Only More So provides a 23-page list of sources as well as an index of names. In this regard Only More So seems to echo of some the anxiety over appropriation vs. originality that one finds also in a text like Giles Goodland’s A Spy in the House of Years, in which each year of the 20th century is transformed into a sonnet composed of nothing but lines written during the year in question (and all duly noted at the rear of the book). In this sense, Only More So, like Spy, seems a distant echo of TS Eliot’s earnestness over his footnotes to The Waste Land, while Hejinian’s writing, which may use found materials & shamelessly, joyfully invokes their spirits all over the place seems much more directly the descendant of that early parody of Eliot’s footnoting produced by he-whose-executor-shall-not-be-named. In this regard, my own Americaness must be showing, because it does seem to me that with both Lopez & Goodland’s works, the origin of the materials put into each project borders on totally irrelevant (a curio at best), while their methods of construction are everything that is the writing.
¹ Full disclosure: one of the latter is my own work Paradise.