Saturday, November 01, 2003

Lyn Hejinian’s sentences are more straightforward than Scalapino’s &, indeed, those in My Life in the Nineties are noticeably more straightforward & less apt to be “sentence fragments” than the ones in either published version of her breakthrough My Life. Nineties, as I think I’m going to refer to it, builds on & plays with its relation to that famous earlier work, but is far less “a continuation” of the project than it might at first appear. For one thing, it doesn’t appear to incorporate the reiterative material folded in throughout the earlier, larger project, other than the slightest sprinkling of phrases, playfully added as an allusive garnish rather than integral to the form itself.


But most importantly, the reduced number of sentence fragments combined with the notably longer paragraphs – Hejinian does appear to be going for the sentence-for-every-year approach, although I haven’t counted to see if each of the paragraphs here contains the same number of sentences (as I presume that it must) – to give the poem a radically different sense of rhythm, one that is more casual & relaxed than My Life. This new prosody fits well with Hejinian’s fundamental optimism – she still seems startled at the idea that she of all people should have become one of the defining poets of our time:


To be born at all seems chancy, and having been born, that it should have happened now and here and in human form to me even more so, but after that the most remarkable things occur at points of forced encounter between facts of equal strangeness.


The contrast with Scalapino, born just a few years later, raised in the same city, both attending John Muir Elementary, each the daughter of a professor at the same university, could not be more pronounced. Indeed, this contrast is part of what gives Sight, the booklength collaboration between these two poets, its extraordinary energy. Indeed, more than any other poets I can think of, Leslie Scalapino & Lyn Hejinian are the two great architects of the sentence in my generation, Hejinian’s luxurious elaborations reminiscent of (tho not nostalgic for) the 19th century novel, Scalapino’s rapid-fire shifts articulating an entirely different sense of energy & possibility.


Both conceptions of the sentence deserve greater investigation & thought. In Hejinian’s case, the historic function of the 19th century novel – the last moment when the world-making construct of fiction itself could be anything other than ironic & self-mocking* – and explicitly of the sentence in that work is worthy of much greater consideration. It is a process of thought articulated in stages, enabling care, a panoramic view if that’s required, self-reflection – all the elements that will enable & empower modernism a generation hence. Yet Hejinian’s project as a poet is anything but backward looking – as these constructivist memoirs demonstrate precisely through their subversions of the form. The sentence in her work is a tool of investigation, to a degree matched perhaps only by Barrett Watten, each phrase a probe into the real.


I feel as though I am only scratching the barest surface here, both in discussing Lyn’s work & that of Leslie’s as well over the past couple of days. What I want to get across most, though, is that I think there is a major project that is being outlined by these two simpatico but radically dissimilar writers, one that meets & perhaps reaches its greatest fruition in a reconceptualization of what the sentence is & can be. I’m not sure that either, finally completes that project except insofar as each seems to play such a critical role in staking out what its terms must be. In fact, I’m not sure that the next step is a project that any of us 50-somethings can embark on at all, but it’s out there & when somebody “gets” it, this new further sentence will seem as apparent to our lives as the writing of Melville should have seemed to his.





* A moment that occurs when, “In the Heart of the Hibernian Metropolis,” at the start of the seventh chapter of Ulysses, Joyce starts to peel away the onion-skin layers of realism away from the real itself.