Essay on Poetic Theory

The Rejection of Closure (1985)

by Lyn Hejinian
There are six sentences here, three of which, beginning with the first, are constructed similarly: subject—verb—prepositional phrase. The three prepositions are on, into, and in, which in iso­lation seem similar but used here have very different meanings. On is locational: “on my papers.” Into is metaphorical and atmo­spheric: “into the night.” In is atmospheric and qualitative: “in a genial low gear.” There are a pair of inversions in effect here: the unlike are made similar (syntactically) and the like are sundered (semantically). Patience, which might be a quality of a virtuous character attendant to work (“it is laid out on my papers”), might also be solitaire, a card game played by an idler who is avoiding attention to work. Two dozen jets can only take off together in formation; they are “laid out” on the night sky. A car goes up­hill; its movement upward parallels that of the jets, but whereas their formation is martial, the single car is somewhat domestic, genial and innocuous. The image in the first pair of sentences is horizontal. The upward movement of the next two sentences de­scribes a vertical plane, upended on or intersecting the horizon­tal one. The  “flow of thoughts” runs down the vertical and comes to rest—“impossible!”

The work shifts between horizontal and vertical landscapes, and the corresponding sentences—the details of each composed on its particular plane—form distinct semantic fields. (In fact, I would like each individual sentence to be as nearly a complete poem as possible.)

One of the results of this compositional technique, building a work out of discrete fields, is the creation of sizable gaps between the units. To negotiate this disrupted terrain, the reader (and I can say also the writer) must overleap the end stop, the period, and cover the distance to the next sentence. Meanwhile, what stays in the gaps remains crucial and informative. Part of the reading oc­curs as the recovery of that information (looking behind) and the discovery of newly structured ideas (stepping forward).

In both My Life and “Resistance,” the structural unit (grossly, the paragraph) was meant to be mimetic of both a space and a time of thinking. In a somewhat different respect, time predeter­mines the form of Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day. The work begins when the clock is set running (at dawn on December 22, 1978) and ends when the time allotted to the work runs out (late night of the same day). “It’s true,” Mayer has said: “I have always loved projects of all sorts, including say sorting leaves or what­ever projects turn out to be, and in poetry I most especially love having time be the structure which always seems to me to save structure or form from itself because then nothing really has to begin or end.”(7)

Whether the form is dictated by temporal constraints or by other exoskeletal formal elements—by a prior decision, for ex­ample, that the work will contain, say, x number of sentences, paragraphs, stanzas, stresses, or lines, etc.—the work gives the impression that it begins and ends arbitrarily and not because there is a necessary point of origin or terminus, a first or last mo­ment. The implication (correct) is that the words and the ideas (thoughts, perceptions, etc. —the materials) continue beyond the work. One has simply stopped because one has run out of units or minutes, and not because a conclusion has been reached nor “everything” said.

The relationship of form, or the “constructive principle,” to the materials of the work (to its themes, the conceptual mass, but also to the words themselves) is the initial problem for the “open text,” one that faces each writing anew. Can form make the pri­mary chaos (the raw material, the unorganized impulse and in­formation, the uncertainty, incompleteness, vastness) articulate without depriving it of its capacious vitality, its generative power? Can form go even further than that and actually generate that potency, opening uncertainty to curiosity, incompleteness to speculation, and turning vastness into plenitude? In my opinion, the answer is yes; that is, in fact, the function of form in art. Form is not a fixture but an activity.

In an essay titled “Rhythm as the Constructive Factor of Verse,” the Russian Formalist writer Yurii Tynianov writes:

We have only recently outgrown the well-known analogy: form is to content as a glass is to wine….I would venture to say that in nine out of ten instances the word “composi­tion” covertly implies a treatment of form as a static item. The concept of “poetic line” or “stanza” is imperceptibly removed from the dynamic category. Repetition ceases to be considered as a fact of varying strength in various situations of frequency and quantity. The dangerous concept of the “symmetry of compositional facts” arises, dangerous because we cannot speak of symmetry where we find intensification.(8)

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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 Lyn  Hejinian


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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