Essay on Poetic Theory

The Rejection of Closure (1985)

by Lyn Hejinian
One is reminded of Gertrude Stein’s comparable comments in “Portraits and Repetitions”: “A thing that seems to be exactly the same thing may seem to be a repetition but is it.” “Is there repe­tition or is there insistence. I am inclined to believe there is no such thing as repetition. And really how can there be.” “Express­ing any thing there can be no repetition because the essence of that expression is insistence, and if you insist you must each time use emphasis and if you use emphasis it is not possible while anybody is alive that they should use exactly the same emphasis.” (9)

Tynianov continues:

The unity of a work is not a closed symmetrical whole, but an unfolding dynamic integrity. . . . The sensation of form in such a situation is always the sensation of flow (and therefore of change).... Art exists by means of this interaction or struggle.(10)

Language discovers what one might know, which in turn is always less than what language might say. We encounter some limitations of this relationship early, as children. Anything with limits can be imagined (correctly or incorrectly) as an object, by analogy with other objects—balls and rivers. Children objectify language when they render it their plaything, in jokes, puns, and riddles, or in glossolaliac chants and rhymes. They discover that words are not equal to the world, that a blur of displacement, a type of parallax, exists in the relation between things (events, ideas, objects) and the words for them—a displacement produc­ing a gap.

Among the most prevalent and persistent categories of jokes is that which identifies and makes use of the fallacious comparison of words to world and delights in the ambiguity resulting from the discrepancy:

—Why did the moron eat hay?
—To feed his hoarse voice.

 —How do you get down from an elephant?
—You don't, you get down from a goose.

—Did you wake up grumpy this morning?
—No, I let him sleep.

Because we have language we find ourselves in a special and peculiar relationship to the objects, events, and situations which constitute what we imagine of the world. Language generates its own characteristics in the human psychological and spiritual conditions. Indeed, it nearly is our psychological condition.

This psychology is generated by the struggle between language and that which it claims to depict or express, by our overwhelming experience of the vastness and uncertainty of the world, and by what often seems to be the inadequacy of the imagination that longs to know it—and, furthermore, for the poet, the even greater inadequacy of the language that appears to describe, dis­cuss, or disclose it. This psychology situates desire in the poem itself, or, more specifically, in poetic language, to which then we may attribute the motive for the poem.

Language is one of the principal forms our curiosity takes. It makes us restless. As Francis Ponge puts it, “Man is a curious body whose center of gravity is not in himself.”(11) Instead that center of gravity seems to be located in language, by virtue of which we negotiate our mentalities and the world; off-balance, heavy at the mouth, we are pulled forward.

I am urged out rummaging into the sunshine, and the depths increase of blue above. A paper hat on a cone of water. . . . But, already, words. . . . She is lying on her stomach with one eye closed, driving a toy truck along the road she has cleared with her fingers.(12)

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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