Essay on Poetic Theory

The Rejection of Closure (1985)

by Lyn Hejinian
Language itself is never in a state of rest. Its syntax can be as complex as thought. And the experience of using it, which in­cludes the experience of understanding it, either as speech or as writing, is inevitably active—both intellectually and emotionally. The progress of a line or sentence, or a series of lines or sen­tences, has spatial properties as well as temporal properties. The meaning of a word in its place derives both from the word’s lat­eral reach, its contacts with its neighbors in a statement, and from its reach through and out of the text into the outer world, the matrix of its contemporary and historical reference. The very idea of reference is spatial: over here is word, over there is thing, at which the word is shooting amiable love-arrows. Getting from the beginning to the end of a statement is simple movement; fol­lowing the connotative byways (on what Umberto Eco calls “in­ferential walks”) is complex or compound movement.

To identify these frames the reader has to “walk,” so to speak, outside the text, in order to gather intertextual sup­port (a quest for analogous “topoi,” themes or motives). I call these interpretative moves inferential walks: they are not mere whimsical initiatives on the part of the reader, but are elicited by discursive structures and foreseen by the whole textual strategy as indispensable components of the construction.(13)

Language is productive of activity in another sense, with which anyone is familiar who experiences words as attractive, magnetic to meaning. This is one of the first things one notices, for example, in works constructed from arbitrary vocabularies generated by random or chance operations (e.g., some works by Jackson Mac Low) or from a vocabulary limited according to some other criteria unrelated to meaning (for example, Alan Davies’s a an av es, a long poem excluding any words containing letters with ascenders or descenders, what the French call “the prisoner’s convention,” either because the bars are removed or because it saves paper). It is impossible to discover any string or bundle of words that is entirely free of possible narrative or psy­chological content. Moreover, though the  “story” and “tone” of such works may be interpreted differently by different readers, nonetheless the readings differ within definite limits. While word strings are permissive, they do not license a free-for-all.

Writing develops subjects that mean the words we have for them.

Even words in storage, in the dictionary, seem frenetic with ac­tivity, as each individual entry attracts to itself other words as defi­nition, example, and amplification. Thus, to open the dictionary at random, mastoid attracts nipplelike, temporal, bone, ear, and behind. Turning to temporal we find that the definition includes time, space, life, world, transitory, and near the temples, but, significantly, not mastoid. There is no entry for nipplelike, but the definition for nipple brings over protuberance, breast, udder, the female, milk, discharge, mouthpiece, and nursing bottle, but again not mastoid, nor temporal, nor time, bone, ear, space, or word. It is relevant that the exchanges are incompletely reciprocal.

and how did this happen like an excerpt
   beginning in a square white boat abob on a gray sea . . .
                                    tootling of another message by the
             hacking lark . . .
as a child
                                  to the rescue and its spring . . .
              in a great lock of letters
                    like knock look . . .
                                       worked by utter joy way
                                 think through with that in minutes
                                slippage thinks random patterns
             I intend greed as I intend pride
                         patterns of roll extend over the wish (14)

The “rage to know” is one expression of the restlessness en­gendered by language. “As long as man keeps hearing words / He’s sure that there’s a meaning somewhere,” as Mephistopheles points out in Goethe’s Faust.(15)

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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