Essay on Poetic Theory

The Rejection of Closure (1985)

by Lyn Hejinian
The narrow definition of desire, the identification of desire solely with sexuality, and the literalness of the genital model for a woman’s language that some of these writers insist on may be problematic. The desire that is stirred by language is located most interestingly within language itself—as a desire to say, a desire to create the subject by saying, and as a pervasive doubt very like jealousy that springs from the impossibility of satisfying these yearnings. This desire resembles Wordsworth’s “underthirst / Of vigor seldom utterly allayed.”(21) And it is explicit in Carla Harryman’s “Realism”:

When I’m eating this I want food….The I expands. The individual is caught in a devouring machine, but she shines like the lone star on the horizon when we enter her thoughts, when she expounds on the immensity of her condition, the subject of the problem which interests nature.(22)

If language induces a yearning for comprehension, for perfect and complete expression, it also guards against it. Thus Faust complains:

It is written: “In the beginning was the Word!”
Already I have to stop! Who’ll help me on?
It is impossible to put such trust in the Word!(23)

This is a recurrent element in the argument of the lyric: “Alack, what poverty my Muse brings forth…”; “Those lines that I be­fore have writ do lie…”; “For we / Have eyes to wonder but lack tongues to praise….”(24)

In the gap between what one wants to say (or what one per­ceives there is to say) and what one can say (what is sayable), words provide for a collaboration and a desertion. We delight in our sensuous involvement with the materials of language, we long to join words to the world—to close the gap between ourselves and things—and we suffer from doubt and anxiety because of our in­ability to do so.

Yet the incapacity of language to match the world permits us to distinguish our ideas and ourselves from the world and things in it from each other. The undifferentiated is one mass, the dif­ferentiated is multiple. The (unimaginable) complete text, the text that contains everything, would in fact be a closed text. It would be insufferable.

A central activity of poetic language is formal. In being formal, in making form distinct, it opens—makes variousness and multiplicity and possibility articulate and clear. While failing in the attempt to match the world, we discover structure, distinc­tion, the integrity and separateness of things. As Bob Perelman writes:

At the sound of my voice
I spoke and, egged on
By the discrepancy, wrote
The rest out as poetry.(25)


(1) “The Rejection of Closure” was included in Writing/ Talks, ed. Bob Perelman (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985), and, following suggestions from Barrett Watten, in revised form in Po­etics Journal 4: “Women & Language” (May 1984). More recently, it was anthologized in Onward: Contemporary Poetry & Poetics, ed. Peter Baker (New York: Peter Lang, 1996), and extracts appear in Postmodern Ameri­can Poetry: A Norton Anthology, ed. Paul Hoover (New York: W. W. Nor­ton and Co., 1994). The essay has been translated into Serbian by Du­bravka Djuric, and that version appeared in Gradina 2-3 (1991; Nis, Yugoslavia).

(2) Poetics Journal  4: “Women & Language” (May 1984).

(3) Carla Harryman, The Middle (San Francisco: Gaz, 1983), 4. The Middle was republished in Writing/ Talks, ed. Perelman.

(4) Luce Irigaray, “This sex which is not one,” tr. Claudia Reeder, in New French Feminisms, ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980), 104.

(5) Robert Grenier, Cambridge M'ass (Berkeley: Tuumba Press, 1979); Bruce Andrews, Love Songs (Baltimore: Pod Books, 1982).

(6) At the time this essay was written, “Resistance” existed only in manuscript form. A large portion of it was eventually incorporated into “The Green” and published in The Cold of Poetry (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1994).

(7) Bernadette Mayer to Lyn Hejinian, letter (1981?).

(8) Yurii Tynianov, “Rhythm as the Constructive Factor of Verse,” in Readings in Russian Poetics, ed. Ladislav Matejka and Krystyna Pomorska (Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Contributions, 1978), 127-28.

(9) Gertrude Stein, “Portraits and Repetitions,” in Gertrude Stein: Writings 1932-1946, ed. Catharine R. Stimpson and Harriet Chessman (New York: Library of America, 1998), 292, 288.

(10) Tynianov, “Rhythm as the Constructive Factor,” 128.

(11) Francis Ponge, “The Object Is Poetics,” in The Power of Lan­guage, tr. Serge Gavronsky (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), 47.

(12) Lyn Hejinian, My Life (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1987), 14-15.

(13) Umberto Eco, Introduction to The Role of the Reader (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979), 32. This book was of great help to me as I was considering the ideas expressed in this essay; I was especially interested in Eco’s emphasis on generation (creativity on the part of both writer and reader) and the polygendered impulses active in it.

(14) Lyn Hejinian, Writing Is an Aid to Memory (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1996), parts 2 and 12.

(15) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Goethe’s Faust, Part One, tr. Ran­dall Jarrell (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1976), 137.

(16) This idea is reiterated in My Life, one of the several forms of rep­etition in that work. (See My Life, 46).

(17) Benjamin Lee Whorf, Language, Thought, and Reality (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1956), 252, 248, 247-48.

(18) Elaine Marks, in Signs 3, no. 4 (Summer 1978), 835.

(19) Luce Irigaray, “This sex which is not one,” 103.

(20) Hélène Cixous, “Castration or Decapitation?” in Signs 7, no. 1 (Autumn 1981), 53.

(21) William Wordsworth, “The Prelude” (1850 version), Book VI, lines 558-59, in William Wordsworth: The Prelude 1799, 1805, 1850, ed. Jonathan Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979), 215.

(22) Carla Harryman, “Realism,” in Animal Instincts (Berkeley: This Press, 1989), 106.

(23) Goethe, Goethe’s Faust, Part One, 61.

(24) Lines excised from Shakespeare's Sonnets, nos. 102, 115, and 106.

(25) Bob Perelman. “My One Voice,” in Primer (Berkeley: This Press, 1981), 11.

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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