Essay on Poetic Theory

The Rejection of Closure (1985)

by Lyn Hejinian
It’s in the nature of language to encourage and, in part, to jus­tify such Faustian longings.(16) The notion that language is the means and medium for attaining knowledge and, concomitantly, power is, of course, old. The knowledge toward which we seem to be driven by language, or which language seems to promise, is inherently sacred as well as secular, redemptive as well as satisfy­ing. The nomina sint numina position (that there is an essential identity between name and thing, that the real nature of a thing is immanent and present in its name, that nouns are numinous) suggests that it is possible to find a language which will meet its object with perfect identity. If this were the case, we could, in speaking or in writing, achieve the “at oneness” with the uni­verse, at least in its particulars, that is the condition of complete and perfect knowing.

But if in the Edenic scenario we acquired knowledge of the animals by naming them, it was not by virtue of any numinous immanence in the name but because Adam was a taxonomist. He distinguished the individual animals, discovered the concept of categories, and then organized the various species according to their different functions and relationships in the system. What the “naming” provides is structure, not individual words.

As Benjamin Lee Whorf has pointed out, “Every language is a vast pattern-system, different from others, in which are cultur­ally ordained the forms and categories by which the personality not only communicates, but also analyses nature, notices or ne­glects types of relationship and phenomena, channels his reason­ing, and builds the house of his consciousness.” In this same es­say, apparently his last (written in 1941), titled “Language, Mind, Reality,” Whorf goes onto express what seem to be stirrings of a religious motivation: “What I have called patterns are basic in a really cosmic sense.” There is a “PREMONITION IN LANGUAGE of the unknown, vaster world.” The idea

is too drastic to be penned up in a catch phrase. I would rather leave it unnamed. It is the view that a noumenal world—a world of hyperspace, of higher dimensions—awaits discovery by all the sciences [linguistics being one of them] which it will unite and unify, awaits discovery under its first aspect of a realm of PATTERNED RELATIONS, inconceivably manifold and yet bearing a recognizable affinity to the rich and systematic organization of LANGUAGE.(17)

It is as if what I’ve been calling, from Faust, the “rage to know,” which is in some respects a libidinous drive, seeks also a redemp­tive value from language. Both are appropriate to the Faustian legend.

Coming in part out of Freudian psychoanalytic theory, espe­cially in France, is a body of feminist thought that is even more explicit in its identification of language with power and knowl­edge—a power and knowledge that is political, psychological, and aesthetic—and that is a site specifically of desire. The project for these French feminist writers has been to direct their atten­tion to “language and the unconscious, not as separate entities, but language as a passageway, and the only one, to the uncon­scious, to that which has been repressed and which would, if al­lowed to rise, disrupt the established symbolic order, what Jacques Lacan has dubbed the Law of the Father.”(18)

If the established symbolic order is the “Law of the Father,” and it is discovered to be not only repressive but false, distorted by the illogicality of bias, then the new symbolic order is to be a “woman's language,” corresponding to a woman’s desire.

Luce Irigaray writes:

But woman has sex organs just about everywhere. She experi­ences pleasure almost everywhere. Even without speaking of the hysterization of her entire body, one can say that the ge­ography of her pleasure is much more diversified, more mul­tiple in its differences, more complex, more subtle, than is imagined. . . . “She” is indefinitely other in herself. That is undoubtedly the reason she is called temperamental, incomprehensible, perturbed, capricious—not to mention her lan­guage in which “she” goes off in all directions.(19)

“A feminine textual body is recognized by the fact that it is always endless, without ending,” says Hélène Cixous: “There’s no clo­sure, it doesn’t stop.”(20)

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

Poetry is looking for thought-provoking responses to work published in the magazine, as well as letters that raise new questions about the state of contemporary poetry. To send us your letter, please fill out all the fields below.

If we choose to use your letter, we will notify you by phone. If you have not heard from us within two weeks of sending your letter, you may assume we will not be using it. All letters may be edited for length and clarity, and may appear online, in print, or both.

Please do NOT send poetry submissions to this account. See Submission Guidelines for further information and policies regarding poetry submissions.


* All fields are required


Audio Video Article Events
 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 . . .

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.