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Lyn Hejinian is among the most prominent of contemporary American poets. Her autobiographical poem My Life, a best-selling book of innovative American poetry, has garnered accolades and fans inside and outside academia. The Language of Inquiry is a comprehensive and wonderfully readable collection of her essays, and its publication promises to be an important event for American literary culture. Here, Hejinian brings together twenty essays written over a span of almost twenty-five years. Like many of the Language Poets with whom she has been associated since the mid-1970s, Hejinian turns to language as a social space, a site of both philosophical inquiry and political address.

Central to these essays are the themes of time and knowledge, consciousness and perception. Hejinian's interests cover a range of texts and figures. Prominent among them are Sir Francis Bacon and Enlightenment-era explorers; Faust and Scheherazade; Viktor Shklovsky and Russian Formalism; William James, Hannah Arendt, and Martin Heidegger. But perhaps the most important literary presence in the essays is Gertrude Stein; the volume includes Hejinian's influential "Two Stein Talks," as well as two more recent essays on Stein's writings.

These essays are exceptionally pleasurable to read: while they address difficult and complex issues, the relaxed and vivid manner of Hejinian's engagement never unnecessarily complicates the difficulties. Indeed, she makes those difficulties marvelously palpable, particular, and concrete.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Hejinian's My Life, an urtext of language poetry, has found its way onto countless contemporary poetry and women's studies syllabi, as well as the bookshelves of poets and other readers, for the complex transparency of its thought and the beauty of its language. For poets in the know, Hejinian is also the author of Writing Is an Aid to Memory, Oxota: A Short Russian Novel and The Cell, among other trenchant experimental books. This collection of essays from a 25-year period provides some of the ideational backstory to those works and shows how Hejinian has processed influences like Stein ("Two Stein Talks," "Three Lives," "A Common Sense" and elsewhere), the figure of Faust ("La Faustienne") and others, often from a carefully contextualized feminist perspective. Several q&a's enlarge upon specifics of Hejinian's poetic practices, while others take stock of the language movement from the inside. The most valuable essays here are the least synthetic: "A Thought Is the Bride of What Thinking," first publishing in 1976 and long out of print ("Lucidities, or, lines. The starry angular varieties of recurrent word and changed idea in constellation gather"), and "Strangeness," from more than 10 years later, taking the form of journal entries and dream narrative that beautifully convey the psychological dimensions of abstract thought. The book ends with the wonderfully discursive poem "Happily," recently issued by Post-Apollo Press (Forecasts, Feb. 21), and those for whom the status of "Reason" or "Forms of Alterity" still matter will be happy, too. (Dec.) Forecast: Academic work on language poetry and Hejinian continues apace; libraries and scholars will provide a steady market for this book. Any store with a literary theory section will want to stock this title; for those with limited poetry sections, My Life and Writing Is an Aid to Memory remain essential. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520217003
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 12/27/2000
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 447
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 1.13 (d)

Meet the Author

Lyn Hejinian is a poet and the author of Writing Is an Aid to Memory (1996), The Cold of Poetry (1994), The Cell (1992), and My Life (1987), among other books. She has taught at several universities and colleges and was the 1993 Roberta Holloway Lecturer in the Practice of Poetry at the University of California, Berkeley.

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Read an Excerpt

The Language of Inquiry

By Lyn Hejinian

University of California Press

Copyright © 2000 Lyn Hejinian
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780520217003

Chapter One

A Thought Is the Bride
of What Thinking

Prose is not a genre but a multitude of genres.

    Superficially, this says no more than that prose can be (and is) used in the service of one or another of numerous genres (all those, in fact, that are not poetry). But, this being the case, prose, taken in and of itself, may be regarded as the site of numerous simultaneous genres; it is a genre after all, a genre of multitudes.

    In 1975, when I wrote the three short works that came to comprise "A Thought Is the Bride of What Thinking," it was in prose and in multitudes—in plethora, surfeit, plenitude, superabundance—that I was interested. One could interpret my interest in the latter as a product of youthful optimism, an affirmation of life in a physically and emotionally lively phase of it, but multitudinousness, as it exists both within and around anything, has been a sustained fascination, and not an untroubled one. Consciousness of the multitudinousness does not necessarily or exclusively warrant optimism.

    Intrinsic to the existence of boundless multitudes is theimpossibility of comprehensiveness and therefore of comprehension. Living in their midst, one has to acknowledge the impossibility of knowledge and do so in the context of perpetual change and inevitable mortality—of oneself as of everything. It is for this reason that these three prose pieces revolve around questions of order and disorder, capacities and incapacities, and this is why a degree of tension—of exuberant uneasiness—is evident, as the writing addresses, both explicitly and tonally, the conflict between confidence (competence, power) and doubt.

    Consciousness of life has a tenacious and ambivalent relationship to it. Consciousness will not let go of life, and it is simultaneously and equally capable of inhibiting it and of enhancing it. Language has a similarly tenacious and ambivalent relation to thinking. (I would be more precise and say "to thinking about reality," but in my opinion there is nothing else to think about. The term "reality" embraces everything; reality is all there is.)

    The torque that these relations exert on language is evident in these works. Though I would have phrased it imprecisely at the time, I was in search of a mode of writing that could be multiply referential, densely contextual, with a capacity to be periodically surprised by its own inherent logics, and in the process of constantly either describing or suggesting possible narratives (histories). I also wanted a mode that was maximally enjambed, because I felt things to be under the pressure of abutment, contingency, and contiguity and hence constantly susceptible to change. One had to think quickly if one were to catch the ideas—the relationships—between things, and prose generally has greater velocity than poetry.

    And so I found myself writing prose, in what seems in retrospect to be a markedly aphoristic mode—a mode of complete but heterogeneous thoughts. Various statements may seem succinct. Perhaps they are the result of compression, as if all the parts of a syllogism were condensed into a single excessive logical moment, but one with explosive properties. The language is also elliptical, inhabiting gaps but exhibiting gaps within itself also.

    An interest in discovering and perhaps creating relationships between things is, in essence, a narrative interest. The anecdotal innuendoes, particularly in "The Virtues of the Dead, or, The Return," can be attributed to this. But they are also a result of the social conditions in which this work was written. From 1972 to 1977, I was living in a radically rural setting, without electricity and at a considerable distance from the nearest town, though not without a few neighbors. Even minor events tended to become subjects of anecdotes, and anecdotes tended to develop into full-blown stories through which things (and ourselves) could become connected to the events. In essence, language was being used to negotiate the boundaries between public and private and to join them.

    A Thought Is the Bride of What Thinking was published by my own Tuumba Press (Willits, California, 1976) as the first volume in the Tuumba chapbook series. The works were originally part of a much longer (book-length) manuscript entitled The Inclusions, but, though some of the poetry sections and a few other prose sections from that manuscript did appear in magazines, I eventually decided not to publish the book.

Variations: A Return of Words

Think again ... the twin ... its order inscribed.

Thought, or, advances. I have, for the aureate making of things, a further care.

Lucidities, or, lines. The starry angular varieties of recurrent word and changed idea in constellation gather. On the nectarine and on the clarinet distinction casts a light, the two in turn. One has only to look at the one to think to see the other.

Diversions, or, the guitar. It is in rereading one's notebooks, especially the old ones, that one discovers the repetition of certain concerns, the recurrence of certain issues, certain chronic themes that are one's own. You ask that whatever comes out of the books on the shelf be new, but that is impossible. Certain themes are incurable.

(Repeatedly I come upon the ahistorical thought, particularly as it characterizes an idea of private life—an individual's thinking, or wishing to think, of him- or herself not only as unique but as uniquely experiencing. This pertains to thinking as well as to identity: one wants not just oneself but also one's response to life to be unprecedented. What one feels, what one experiences, then, would have more density and weight of life, more vivid clarity, than what others feel or experience. My love, my suffering, my insight, etc., would become incontrovertible—the ultimate assertion.

    But it could insist only on the present. To be unprecedented is to take a particular relation to the past—the relationship of no relationship at all. This constitutes a romance, and, periodically, in pursuit of it artists have courted the special status of madness.

    But the notion that insanity gives proof of the intensity of one's experience may be a misunderstanding of the case. It is just as likely that insanity represents the divorce of its victims from the actual, producing a state in which a private reality replaces the common one.)

The noble, or, the fierce. If a thing seems real, even if only for a short time, then is it real? Reality is both temporal and temporary; it must have a past tense. A cultural reality may make a change, and even, when what was thought to be characteristic turns out to have been merely apparent, come undone.

    But a fantasy is a real thing. And contemporaneity is one form of fantasy, a form fantasy takes in writing. Coherence is not the difficulty.

Combination, or, the metaphor. Someone refers to "the courage of her convictions." The difficulty lies not so much in adhering to one's beliefs as in determining their object—what it is one is having beliefs about. This is particularly problematic in a world that is both overexposed and, at the same time, through the invasive sentimentalization of the private realm, concealed behind the titillating surfaces of public display.

Surrealism, or, the hooves of clattering trolleys. The figure of action is in motion, yet the movement is not what is seen. I hear the war. Is it a depiction of a confusion, or is it a spectacle?

    On television the surreal is to be seen in nonrevolutionary form. I am thinking, for example, of the old show in which the hero's mother has returned from the dead in the form of a talking car.

(As I originally imagined this piece, it was to be a series of vignettes depicting varieties of nonsense, but instead of exhibiting pleasure, the result produced a cynicism, a sarcasm, that I didn't really feel. Certain forms of nonsense, apparently, constitute a limitation of pleasure. Poetry shouldn't succumb to piety, even with regard to illogicality and nonsense.)

Style, or, ink. One does throw up these shadows and distortions, casting minute gestures. People say, "Nothing's irrevocable," more to subdue their anxiety than to express a philosophy, as if the roundness of the world guaranteed a return, as if the possibility of a return guaranteed a second chance, and as if that justified a relaxation of intention. Or as if there were something to be read into the moment at which both a yellow warbler and the shadow of a cloud pass over a field—something which, in rendering the convergence of warbler and cloud exemplary, would see them as indifferent in themselves.

Devastation, or, the wreck. One can't write the words "war," "atrocity," "horror," etc., and by using them as names communicate the effect of what's named. This is because of the relation of language (and, in particular, naming) to measurement. The problem (if it is one) is with measurement—with incommensurability and with scale. Either there is one continual horror or there are different, discrete horrors each of which is constituted by one or many horrible occurrences within it. In neither case can a horror be taken as representative—as a horror which has absorbed all others. Horror, war, and atrocity have to be kept in mind as wrecks. And the brutality they produce can only elicit an emotional response, not a written one.

Further thought, or, further advances. This, or this again, in different terms, may serve to add either complication or clarification. In either case, thinking does in some cases contract but in most cases expand one's consciousness (one's consciousness of something but also of thinking). By contracting thought, I mean the painful and narrow circling that taunts the mind. Yet even here, further thought (and not necessarily of a different kind) can serve finally to propel one out of the morbid circle.

(Often what is critical when an idea is first related, is not to know the thought alone but to know who is thinking it, who is "in on" the idea, who is involved in it. This can indicate what's at stake—what's of interest and also (since having an idea does not preclude generosity) what's of disinterest. Take the idea that poetry is an art of linkages. It's an anecdotalist with a photo album who says so. He begins a story illustrated with a color photograph involving a woman in New Jersey and a cheetah, the woman and the cheetah in the photograph posing on the steps of a conventional ranch style home between matching junipers. The door to the house is open behind them. The animal is undeniably a cheetah. Listening to the story, I exercise my will to believe. This is not a matter of gullibility, and it is not merely a willing suspension of disbelief—it is an active, palpable, and I might even say decisive act of volition, and what's at stake is pleasure; it pleases me to believe in the woman in New Jersey and the cheetah. To do so is an act of irreverence, since I use the capacity for belief without rules and "without," as Paul Valéry puts it, "caring too much for the unequal weight of reality in the successive objects of [my] thoughts.")

As chance must lead you first one way and then another, and as comedy does not always sustain laughter but may provoke tears, so here what is reflected is not always what is visible, and art is seen not to be a mirror.

    And here are some other representations which perhaps you would want to see with their misshapen letters and numerals, superior, polite, and strange.

    If to think is to dance, it is to fall while dancing, as well; it is to dance among geese and elephants. Also, of course, it is to dance among albatrosses.

    (The winds are so strong and constant in the Southern latitudes where the albatross is at home that the bird can rest in flight. Beneath it are the constantly rising waters and the battered triangles of their troughs.)

    And the curving roofs of old houses in scattered villages.

    There is an artistic approach which depends on what could be called a technique of first gestures. One makes a form, sketches it out, looks to see it, and pursues the suggestions it has made. The initial step is a gesture—or the result of a gesture. In writing, one writes out a first word or phrase (less often, a sentence or paragraph); in music, a first sound or texture of sound. These initial objects of one's alertnesses serve as the points of departure for a foray into the world and back again.

    My earliest memory (though not necessarily my first) is of a yellow—I've always thought it to have been a single brilliantly yellow flower, a buttercup. From the earliest period of my life, the period before language, come other purely visual memories. I remember, for example, particular wallpapers—the small pink roses on the yellowing paper in my grandmother's room, the dark green unpatterned paper of the long living room, and the pink paper in my room, newly hung, which I tore off the wall in long strips one warm afternoon as I lay bored in my crib through an interminable "nap time." My father was home; it was summer and he was on the porch with his easel, painting.

Probably feelings can be communicated solely because they are much the same for everyone—banalities, in short. This is not to say that they are invalid, or stupid, or even absurd (though like anything else, they may be). Feelings are common to us all, never new, stunning only to the person feeling one or another of them at the time. Thoughts, however, can be effective whether or not one holds them in common with others.

Devastation, or, the wreck again. There have been heavy frosts this spring, and the blossoms on the fruit trees have been blackened. The blossoms are black as saints. The ants writhe in the sugar box.

Distortion, or, error. To err is to wander, probably in an unanticipated direction, inadvertently. The mistake is not necessarily without advantage, though it may be irrevocable.

Ink, or, the guitar. Returning from the middle distances, to the same points, repeatedly, from whatever direction, one homes, like a nomad or migrant. Perhaps that is a function of thought, nomadic homing—undertaken (consciously or not) in defiance of all narratives of progress.

Explanation, or, explication. In one's journal, one need only write a few words and they can serve as emblems for a full thought. But, nonetheless, it is there, in one's journal, that one tends to be most verbose. For oneself, one can write, say, Boot, or Inclusion, and summon the cogent images and their array of meanings. For others, however, explanations are due—and in the journal, they are forthcoming. The journal is not, then, a private document; it is sentimental and public.

(Nonsense [the comedic element that interrupts logic] depends on this, that the existence of a double [everything of which one can be conscious has a double] will always instigate a paradox—a contradictory return. It is comedy that's at stake in any argument. Not harmony but the simultaneity of conditions before and after something appears.)

Now, here is the sun at noon. It tilts even at the moment of telling of it. The vision climbs, the response is in retreat. The circle grows careless. The air quivers with the qua! qua! of fleeing geese, while the thought of their formation in flight lingers.

A Thought Is the Bride of What Thinking

Bravery is what they boast of.

The writer works from the inside out, but never gets out, partially because she can't and partially because, in any case, she doesn't want to.

    It is only the mind, with its heart, that recognizes immaterial things; the senses are incapable of doing so.

The very long anecdote is to tell you that no one has been here for awhile.

Of course she made up every story she told, and you still believed them. Her geese kept rolling in the dust like dogs, or they rested like empty bottles.

    She had been out in the dark, she said. Walking. There was this fat man staying with her, and he had taken his asthma medicine and they had lain talking in bed for a while. He'd been "visiting" a long time, and she guessed she cared for him, and she was good to his two little children. After a bit he thought to go sit in the garden to get his breath, and there he died. She came back from her walk and there he was in the moonlight among the little lettuces.

    With the help of a neighbor she got him into his car and she drove him to the nearest hospital. She was arrested there for transporting a dead body. The children were taken away and put in "foster care."

Hawk this: the kitchen, the gas station, the shoes and socks, the toothpaste, the wooden chair, the box of noodles, the catsup and coffee, the aspirin, the water, the newspaper, the pencil, the coughing.

Every number is a nightfall. Think of tranquillity, feel tranquil—two different things. Of which are we keeping track? And if one came up with a different number, what would it mean, some rationalization of time? of experience? What's our position? the peacetime admiral bellows from his desk. The building hasn't moved in months. This morning the latitudinal and longitudinal figures are what they were yesterday. The admiral has pretended that the pavement is water since the war (which war?) began.

Poetry plays with order, makes order of disorder, and disorder of order. It is unwilling to distinguish reality from veracity, and veracity from tale, and sees what each word thinks to see.

    It takes a positive though a pessimistic view of life. Much is amusing as much is disgusting, but there is no question of being afraid.

The Virtues of the Dead, or, The Return

Though the obscurity remains, the leaving off is inevitable. Someone else must rage and sorrow, hovering or thrown over the mortal smoke and wood, the mortal tongues, the mortal swinging and dark green, bricked in with activity. Now she's the patient mother, or the mother of patience itself, though perhaps she wondered what she'd been waiting for, during that last long episode of history.

    Often during the last fifteen years of her life, she talked about her death. She told the family that she wanted to be buried in a bronze coffin. When she did die, finally, the request was honored, though no one in the family approved. Their disapproval, in fact, was the main topic of conversation throughout the period before the funeral and afterwards. It was the focus for all their subsequent reminiscences about her.

    To what degree can one govern one's personality? or even control the outward signs of one's personality? If one admires quiet people but is naturally garrulous, can one change one's habits and do so permanently? And isn't there something dishonest in artifice at this level?

    I am not afraid to curse you.

    I am not afraid of anger.

    I divide you with my anger; may you fall apart.

    May you be separated from what you love, what you love and what you hate.

    May your tongue fall out and may all that you had said be forgotten.

    May your fingers be frozen and your home lost, but most of all, your tongue and your right eye.

    May you be divided in that way.

    The pathway to the heart, he said, and a dignified death. Time has a switch on us. You shrink as you stand, of course; but who's to know? Out beyond the stars the hours grow, unhampered by the dirt clods. Here lies a kid only a day old. Beside him, his grandfather, eighty-nine. The life simply went out of him. And here is he whose father and children outlived him, in the dimensions of their present lives.

What was a passion, what now a pencil. What was a sunset going down. What in winter was (an) abandoned (wasps' nest) now writhes. What I wrote was engraved in the typewriter. What was a letter has been sent.

    Writing—out of place and as if off the top of one's head—seems much easier with a typewriter than with a pen. The mind remains free of its own particular terms (the terms proper to it) by being distanced, visually and tactilely, from the paper. And the privacy of the thought is shielded by the clatter, just as background music provides a wall of sound which obliterates the presence of everyone, including oneself.

    This anonymous privacy renders the moral qualities of the artist irrelevant; she may be a liar and a cheat, a murderer, a sneak and a thief, or indeed a generous and saintly person.

    It is important, however, to think about everything—or, at least, anything—but not in such a way that one loses all pleasure.

    I believe in the ... of the cold dark room, pinecone, piano. One responds—it's the responsibility makes me—say, the real is as real does.

    Certainty is given to the simple-minded. To know what one thinks under all circumstances, to have definite and final opinions, is a matter of doubt to the ethical intellect. It is matter for doubt. (This doesn't deprive one of the capacity for making decisions, which come in the thick of things, though maybe arbitrarily.)

The room is dark in its four corners. Something drapes the walls.

One wishes for an inclusive art: of what occurs, the corollaries, and to what occurs, the tangents.

    On Wednesday afternoon, a friend said, "You can't say anything unless you can say everything; that's not what Hegel said but it's what he meant to say." You can say everything but always only potentially.

    To say everything, or to attempt to do so, could be taken as an act of integrity, insofar as integrity may be defined as "the condition of having no part or element taken away or wanting; undivided or unbroken state; material wholeness, completeness, entirety." This shouldn't drive one to "a full confession." Nor to the dangerous purism of a conventional dictionary definition of the ethical ("the condition of not being marred or violated; unimpaired or uncorrupted condition; original perfect state; soundness").

    The artistic act has integrity to the extent that it is a generally inclusive reckoning, an outlook, taking anything into account, the diverse and the disparate. The artist, thereby, displays a vast tolerance and an infinite capacity for questioning, and her work exerts the moral force of combination. It constitutes a relation.

    She must be both responsive and responsible, since her work will reflect an intensity of response, reciprocal with the world.

In Athens there is a memorial on which is this inscription:

The People of the Oropians to Timarchos, Son of Theodosos on Account of His Virtue

    George Seferis, in his journal, responded: "I do not know this Timarchos, nor his virtue. Never mind, they felt the need to mention it."


Excerpted from The Language of Inquiry by Lyn Hejinian Copyright © 2000 by Lyn Hejinian. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
A Thought Is the Bride of What Thinking 7
Preface to Writing Is an Aid to Memory 22
If Written Is Writing 25
Who Is Speaking? 30
The Rejection of Closure 40
Language and "Paradise" 59
Two Stein Talks 83
Line 131
Strangeness 135
Materials (for Dubravka Djuric) 161
Comments for Manuel Brito 177
The Person and Description 199
The Quest for Knowledge in the Western Poem 209
La Faustienne 232
Three Lives 268
Forms in Alterity: On Translation 296
Barbarism 318
Reason 337
A Common Sense 355
Happily 383
Works Cited 407
Acknowledgment of Permissions 421
Index 423
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