Essay on Poetic Theory

The Rejection of Closure (1985)

by Lyn Hejinian

These areas of conflict are not neatly parallel. Form does not necessarily achieve closure, nor does raw materiality provide openness. Indeed, the conjunction of form with radical openness may be what can offer a version of the “paradise” for which writ­ing often yearns—a flowering focus on a distinct infinity.

For the sake of clarity, I will offer a tentative characterization of the terms open and closed. We can say that a “closed text” is one in which all the elements of the work are directed toward a single reading of it. Each element confirms that reading and delivers the text from any lurking ambiguity. In the “open text,” mean­while, all the elements of the work are maximally excited; here it is because ideas and things exceed (without deserting) argument that they have taken into the dimension of the work.

Though they may be different in different texts, depending on other elements in the work and by all means on the intention of the writer, it is not hard to discover devices—structural de­vices—that may serve to “open” a poetic text. One set of such devices has to do with arrangement and, particularly, with re­arrangement within a work. The “open text,” by definition, is open to the world and particularly to the reader. It invites participation, rejects the authority of the writer over the reader and thus, by analogy, the authority implicit in other (social, economic, cultural) hierarchies. It speaks for writing that is generative rather than directive. The writer relinquishes total control and challenges authority as a principle and control as a motive. The “open text” often emphasizes or foregrounds process, either the process of the original composition or of subsequent compo­sitions by readers, and thus resists the cultural tendencies that seek to identify and fix material and turn it into a product; that is, it resists reduction and commodification. As Luce Irigaray says, positing this tendency within a feminine sphere of dis­course, “It is really a question of another economy which diverts the linearity of a project, undermines the target-object of a de­sire, explodes the polarization of desire on only one pleasure, and disconcerts fidelity to only one discourse.” (4)

“Field work,” where words and lines are distributed irregu­larly on the page, such as Robert Grenier’s poster/map entitled Cambridge M’ass and Bruce Andrews’s “Love Song 41” (also origi­nally published as a poster), are obvious examples of works in which the order of the reading is not imposed in advance.(5) Any reading of these works is an improvisation; one moves through the work not in straight lines but in curves, swirls, and across intersections, to words that catch the eye or attract attention repeatedly.

Repetition, conventionally used to unify a text or harmonize its parts, as if returning melody to the tonic, instead, in these works, and somewhat differently in a work like my My Life, chal­lenges our inclination to isolate, identify, and limit the burden of meaning given to an event (the sentence or line). Here, where cer­tain phrases recur in the work, recontextualized and with new em­phasis, repetition disrupts the initial apparent meaning scheme. The initial reading is adjusted; meaning is set in motion, emended and extended, and the rewriting that repetition becomes post­pones completion of the thought indefinitely.

But there are more complex forms of juxtaposition. My inten­tion (I don't mean to suggest that I succeeded) in a subsequent work, “Resistance,” was to write a lyric poem in a long form—that is, to achieve maximum vertical intensity (the single moment into which the idea rushes) and maximum horizontal extensivity (ideas cross the landscape and become the horizon and weather).(6) To myself I proposed the paragraph as a unit representing a single moment of time, a single moment in the mind, its content all the thoughts, thought particles, impressions, impulses—all the di­verse, particular, and contradictory elements—that are included in an active and emotional mind at any given instant. For the mo­ment, for the writer, the poem is a mind.

To prevent the work from disintegrating into its separate parts—scattering sentence-rubble haphazardly on the waste heap—­I used various syntactic devices to foreground or create the conjunction between ideas. Statements become interconnected by being grammatically congruent; unlike things, made alike gram­matically, become meaningful in common and jointly. “Resis­tance” began:

Patience is laid out on my papers. Its visuals are gainful and equably square. Two dozen jets take off into the night. Out­doors a car goes uphill in a genial low gear. The flow of thoughts—impossible! These are the defamiliarization tech­niques with which we are so familiar.

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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