Essay on Poetic Theory

The Rejection of Closure (1985)

by Lyn Hejinian

Introduction

Lyn Hejinian is a poet, translator, and essayist. She is perhaps best known as one of the founding figures of the language writing movement, a loosely affiliated group of writers and poets active in California’s Bay Area in the 1970s. Language writing generally championed non-narrative forms and collaborative practices, linking both to a progressive political agenda; as a group, language writers also tended to emphasize both the materiality and social dimension of language. Through a variety of techniques such as the “new sentence,” language writers sought to engage the reader in new ways, making them active participants in the process of reading and meaning-making. Like other language writers, Hejinian’s own work is a blend of philosophy, literary theory, and experimental lyricism. Her essays on poetics are important in understanding her work and the aims of the language movement in general.  

Hejinian’s essay, “The Rejection of Closure” was originally delivered as a talk in 1983, partly as a response to issues then being raised in the language writing community about language, gender and power. Though the essay does touch upon certain feminist critiques, it is more generally concerned with language, meaning and form. In the essay, Hejinian posits two kinds of texts: “closed” and “open.” For Hejinian, closed texts are those which allow for a single interpretation—in her introduction she cites “some contemporary lyric poetry” and detective stories as examples. In open texts, however, “all the elements of the work are maximally excited” and multiple readings or interpretations become available. Hejinian then goes on to list a few techniques that “open” a text: arrangement and rearrangement, repetition, and compositional techniques resulting in “gaps” in the text which must be filled by the reader. In emphasizing the reader’s role, writing as process, and the political implications of both, Hejinian’s essay articulates many of the main goals and concerns of the language movement.  

As “The Rejection of Closure” progresses, Hejinian looks at the role of form as an organizing principle and discusses the inadequacy of language to describe the “vastness and uncertainty” that characterizes our experience of the world. She concludes that while a truly open text would be impossible, that failure—of words to match the world—“permits us to distinguish our ideas and ourselves from the world.” An elegant combination of poetry, linguistics, philosophy, and theory, “The Rejection of Closure” is by no means a historical document, and its influence continues to be felt in much contemporary poetry and poetics to this day.

“The Rejection of Closure” was originally written as a talk and given at 544 Natoma Street, San Francisco, on April 17, 1983.(1) The “Who Is Speak­ing?” panel discussion had taken place several weeks earlier, and with the “Poetry & Philosophy” issue of Poetics Journal (volume 3) about to come out, Barrett Watten and I had just decided to devote Poetics Journal 4 to the theme of “Women & Language.”(2) Within the writing community, discus­sions of gender were frequent, and they were addressed both to percep­tible practical problems (instances of injustice) immediately affecting people’s work and lives and to longer-term questions of power and, in particular, the ethics of meaning.

Carla Harryman’s signal work, The Middle, was published this same year. Originally given as a talk, it is an organizationally radiant critique (one might even say trashing) of conventional (patriarchal) power structures.(3) In The Middle, the power of authority gives way to the power of invention, with its plenitudes of focus, and to the power of performance. The subject position is in the middle—an uncontainable presence making meaning.

In “The Rejection of Closure,” I give no examples of a “closed” text, but I can offer several. The coercive, epiphanic mode in some contemporary lyric poetry can serve as a negative model, with its smug pretension to uni­versality and its tendency to cast the poet as guardian to Truth. And detec­tive fiction can serve as a positive model, presenting an ultimately stable, calm and calming (and fundamentally unepiphanic) vision of the world. In ei­ther case, however pleasurable its effects, closure is a fiction, one of the amenities that falsehood and fantasy provide.

But if we have positive as well as negative models for closure, why reject it? Is there something about the world that demands openness? Is there something in language that compels and implements the rejection of closure?

I can only begin a posteriori, by perceiving the world as vast and over­whelming; each moment stands under an enormous vertical and horizontal pressure of information, potent with ambiguity, meaning-full, unfixed, and certainly incomplete. What saves this from becoming a vast undifferentiated mass of data and situation is one’s ability to make distinctions. The open text is one which both acknowledges the vastness of the world and is formally differentiating. It is form that provides an opening.—Lyn Hejinian

Two dangers never cease threatening
the world: order and disorder.
     Paul Valéry, Analects

Writing’s initial situation, its point of origin, is often character­ized and always complicated by opposing impulses in the writer and by a seeming dilemma that language creates and then cannot resolve. The writer experiences a conflict between a desire to sat­isfy a demand for boundedness, for containment and coherence, and a simultaneous desire for free, unhampered access to the world prompting a correspondingly open response to it. Curi­ously, the term inclusivity is applicable to both, though the connotative emphasis is different for each. The impulse to bounded­ness demands circumscription and that in turn requires that a dis­tinction be made between inside and outside, between the rele­vant and the (for the particular writing at hand) confusing and irrelevant—the meaningless. The desire for unhampered access and response to the world (an encyclopedic impulse), on the other hand, hates to leave anything out. The essential question here concerns the writer’s subject position.

The impasse, meanwhile, that is both language’s creative con­dition and its problem can be described as the disjuncture be­tween words and meaning, but at a particularly material level, one at which the writer is faced with the necessity of making for­mal decisions—devising an appropriate structure for the work, anticipating the constraints it will put into play, etc.—in the con­text of the ever-regenerating plenitude of language’s resources, in their infinite combinations. Writing’s forms are not merely shapes but forces; formal questions are about dynamics—they ask how, where, and why the writing moves, what are the types, di­rections, number, and velocities of a work’s motion. The mate­rial aporia objectifies the poem in the context of ideas and of lan­guage itself.

 

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
123456

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.

   Cancel

* All fields are required

Related

Audio Video Article
 Lyn  Hejinian

Biography

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.