The Rejection of Closure
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.
The work shifts between horizontal and vertical landscapes, and the corresponding sentences—the details of each composed on its particular plane—form distinct semantic fields. (In fact, I would like each individual sentence to be as nearly a complete poem as possible.)
One of the results of this compositional technique, building a work out of discrete fields, is the creation of sizable gaps between the units. To negotiate this disrupted terrain, the reader (and I can say also the writer) must overleap the end stop, the period, and cover the distance to the next sentence. Meanwhile, what stays in the gaps remains crucial and informative. Part of the reading occurs as the recovery of that information (looking behind) and the discovery of newly structured ideas (stepping forward).
In both My Life and “Resistance,” the structural unit (grossly, the paragraph) was meant to be mimetic of both a space and a time of thinking. In a somewhat different respect, time predetermines the form of Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day. The work begins when the clock is set running (at dawn on December 22, 1978) and ends when the time allotted to the work runs out (late night of the same day). “It’s true,” Mayer has said: “I have always loved projects of all sorts, including say sorting leaves or whatever projects turn out to be, and in poetry I most especially love having time be the structure which always seems to me to save structure or form from itself because then nothing really has to begin or end.”(7)
Whether the form is dictated by temporal constraints or by other exoskeletal formal elements—by a prior decision, for example, that the work will contain, say, x number of sentences, paragraphs, stanzas, stresses, or lines, etc.—the work gives the impression that it begins and ends arbitrarily and not because there is a necessary point of origin or terminus, a first or last moment. The implication (correct) is that the words and the ideas (thoughts, perceptions, etc. —the materials) continue beyond the work. One has simply stopped because one has run out of units or minutes, and not because a conclusion has been reached nor “everything” said.
The relationship of form, or the “constructive principle,” to the materials of the work (to its themes, the conceptual mass, but also to the words themselves) is the initial problem for the “open text,” one that faces each writing anew. Can form make the primary chaos (the raw material, the unorganized impulse and information, the uncertainty, incompleteness, vastness) articulate without depriving it of its capacious vitality, its generative power? Can form go even further than that and actually generate that potency, opening uncertainty to curiosity, incompleteness to speculation, and turning vastness into plenitude? In my opinion, the answer is yes; that is, in fact, the function of form in art. Form is not a fixture but an activity.
In an essay titled “Rhythm as the Constructive Factor of Verse,” the Russian Formalist writer Yurii Tynianov writes:
We have only recently outgrown the well-known analogy: form is to content as a glass is to wine….I would venture to say that in nine out of ten instances the word “composition” covertly implies a treatment of form as a static item. The concept of “poetic line” or “stanza” is imperceptibly removed from the dynamic category. Repetition ceases to be considered as a fact of varying strength in various situations of frequency and quantity. The dangerous concept of the “symmetry of compositional facts” arises, dangerous because we cannot speak of symmetry where we find intensification.(8)
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)
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)
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)
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.
Poet, essayist, translator, and publisher Lyn Hejinian is a founding figure of the Language poetry movement of the 1970s and an influential force in the world of experimental and avant-garde poetics. Her poetry is characterized by an unusual lyricism and descriptive engagement with the everyday. She is the author of...