Essay on Poetic Theory

The Rejection of Closure (1985)

by Lyn Hejinian

Introduction

Lyn Hejinian is a poet, translator, and essayist. She is perhaps best known as one of the founding figures of the language writing movement, a loosely affiliated group of writers and poets active in California’s Bay Area in the 1970s. Language writing generally championed non-narrative forms and collaborative practices, linking both to a progressive political agenda; as a group, language writers also tended to emphasize both the materiality and social dimension of language. Through a variety of techniques such as the “new sentence,” language writers sought to engage the reader in new ways, making them active participants in the process of reading and meaning-making. Like other language writers, Hejinian’s own work is a blend of philosophy, literary theory, and experimental lyricism. Her essays on poetics are important in understanding her work and the aims of the language movement in general.  

Hejinian’s essay, “The Rejection of Closure” was originally delivered as a talk in 1983, partly as a response to issues then being raised in the language writing community about language, gender and power. Though the essay does touch upon certain feminist critiques, it is more generally concerned with language, meaning and form. In the essay, Hejinian posits two kinds of texts: “closed” and “open.” For Hejinian, closed texts are those which allow for a single interpretation—in her introduction she cites “some contemporary lyric poetry” and detective stories as examples. In open texts, however, “all the elements of the work are maximally excited” and multiple readings or interpretations become available. Hejinian then goes on to list a few techniques that “open” a text: arrangement and rearrangement, repetition, and compositional techniques resulting in “gaps” in the text which must be filled by the reader. In emphasizing the reader’s role, writing as process, and the political implications of both, Hejinian’s essay articulates many of the main goals and concerns of the language movement.  

As “The Rejection of Closure” progresses, Hejinian looks at the role of form as an organizing principle and discusses the inadequacy of language to describe the “vastness and uncertainty” that characterizes our experience of the world. She concludes that while a truly open text would be impossible, that failure—of words to match the world—“permits us to distinguish our ideas and ourselves from the world.” An elegant combination of poetry, linguistics, philosophy, and theory, “The Rejection of Closure” is by no means a historical document, and its influence continues to be felt in much contemporary poetry and poetics to this day.

“The Rejection of Closure” was originally written as a talk and given at 544 Natoma Street, San Francisco, on April 17, 1983.(1) The “Who Is Speak­ing?” panel discussion had taken place several weeks earlier, and with the “Poetry & Philosophy” issue of Poetics Journal (volume 3) about to come out, Barrett Watten and I had just decided to devote Poetics Journal 4 to the theme of “Women & Language.”(2) Within the writing community, discus­sions of gender were frequent, and they were addressed both to percep­tible practical problems (instances of injustice) immediately affecting people’s work and lives and to longer-term questions of power and, in particular, the ethics of meaning.

Carla Harryman’s signal work, The Middle, was published this same year. Originally given as a talk, it is an organizationally radiant critique (one might even say trashing) of conventional (patriarchal) power structures.(3) In The Middle, the power of authority gives way to the power of invention, with its plenitudes of focus, and to the power of performance. The subject position is in the middle—an uncontainable presence making meaning.

In “The Rejection of Closure,” I give no examples of a “closed” text, but I can offer several. The coercive, epiphanic mode in some contemporary lyric poetry can serve as a negative model, with its smug pretension to uni­versality and its tendency to cast the poet as guardian to Truth. And detec­tive fiction can serve as a positive model, presenting an ultimately stable, calm and calming (and fundamentally unepiphanic) vision of the world. In ei­ther case, however pleasurable its effects, closure is a fiction, one of the amenities that falsehood and fantasy provide.

But if we have positive as well as negative models for closure, why reject it? Is there something about the world that demands openness? Is there something in language that compels and implements the rejection of closure?

I can only begin a posteriori, by perceiving the world as vast and over­whelming; each moment stands under an enormous vertical and horizontal pressure of information, potent with ambiguity, meaning-full, unfixed, and certainly incomplete. What saves this from becoming a vast undifferentiated mass of data and situation is one’s ability to make distinctions. The open text is one which both acknowledges the vastness of the world and is formally differentiating. It is form that provides an opening.—Lyn Hejinian

Two dangers never cease threatening
the world: order and disorder.
     Paul Valéry, Analects

Writing’s initial situation, its point of origin, is often character­ized and always complicated by opposing impulses in the writer and by a seeming dilemma that language creates and then cannot resolve. The writer experiences a conflict between a desire to sat­isfy a demand for boundedness, for containment and coherence, and a simultaneous desire for free, unhampered access to the world prompting a correspondingly open response to it. Curi­ously, the term inclusivity is applicable to both, though the connotative emphasis is different for each. The impulse to bounded­ness demands circumscription and that in turn requires that a dis­tinction be made between inside and outside, between the rele­vant and the (for the particular writing at hand) confusing and irrelevant—the meaningless. The desire for unhampered access and response to the world (an encyclopedic impulse), on the other hand, hates to leave anything out. The essential question here concerns the writer’s subject position.

The impasse, meanwhile, that is both language’s creative con­dition and its problem can be described as the disjuncture be­tween words and meaning, but at a particularly material level, one at which the writer is faced with the necessity of making for­mal decisions—devising an appropriate structure for the work, anticipating the constraints it will put into play, etc.—in the con­text of the ever-regenerating plenitude of language’s resources, in their infinite combinations. Writing’s forms are not merely shapes but forces; formal questions are about dynamics—they ask how, where, and why the writing moves, what are the types, di­rections, number, and velocities of a work’s motion. The mate­rial aporia objectifies the poem in the context of ideas and of lan­guage itself.

Lyn Hejinian, "The Rejection of Closure" from The Language of Inquiry. Copyright © 2000 by Lyn Hejinian.  Reprinted by permission of University of California Press.
Originally Published: October 13, 2009
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Biography

A founding figure of the Language writing movement of the 1970s, and an influential force in the world of experimental and avant-garde poetics, Lyn Hejinian’s poetry is characterized by an unusual lyricism and descriptive engagement with the everyday. Like most Language writing, her work enacts a poetics that is theoretically sophisticated. While Language writing is stylistically diverse and, as a movement, difficult to reduce . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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