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Review: 'My Life and My Life in the Nineties' by Lyn Hejinian

There's that John Cage quote people trot out when you call a piece of art boring — “In Zen they say: If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it's not boring at all but very interesting.” The thing no one ever points out about this is that it's not true. I had a temp job, moons and moons ago, in data entry at a giant law firm. Cage's aphorism should hang on the particleboard of corporate drudge mines everywhere, right next to Arbeit macht frei.


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The practitioners and fellow travelers of the avant-garde movement known as Language poetry (or, initially, as L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, which is the last time I'm going to type that) loved to cite Cage's line, because they wrote some very boring poems. Don't take my word for it: Here are some lines from P. Inman's "Ocker":

debris clud

(sbrim

m,nce

(nome,id

(armb,jor,

(droit,cur.

OK, I'm being a bit unfair. I understand how this sort of thing can seem interesting, because I used to think it was interesting. Or I used to pretend I did, which might very well amount to the same thing. The maverick stylistics and political bravado of Language poetry — which arose in the late '60s and early '70s out of Gertrude Stein, Louis Zukofsky, Vietnam and John Ashbery — can enrapture a young person bored by Robert Frost.

And it's not as if the movement didn't produce some terrific poets — Ted Greenwald, Rae Armantrout, Susan Howe, Michael Palmer, among others. But Language poetry is boring a lot of the time; it's an objective feature of the work, like meter in "Paradise Lost." This is, to some extent, deliberate. I have neither space nor inclination to rehash the theoretical briar patches that entangle every discussion of Language poetry, but it directed its polemics against such oppressive elements of language as representation, meaning and syntax (the latter had to be grudgingly allowed back in; turns out you can't really write poems without syntax). Charles Bernstein, the movement's Rasputin/Raskolnikov figure, raged against "the common voice, clarity, sincerity, / or directness of the poem." If that's your steez, you're going to write unclear, insincere, oblique poems in an uncommon voice. Fair enough. But then, as the kids say, it's all in the delivery.

Lyn Hejinian delivers, in spurts and fits. Her sort-of-autobiographical prose-poem "My Life" is widely regarded as Language writing's masterpiece. It first appeared in 1980 as a series of 37 prose paragraphs of 37 sentences each (Hejinian was 37 when she wrote it); a revision in 1987 contained 45 sections of 45 sentences each; "My Life in the Nineties" was published as a separate work in 2003. Wesleyan has reissued the entire caboodle under the title "My Life and My Life in the Nineties."

Now that the young Turks are éminences grises, perhaps it is possible to read Language writing as a nonpartisan. "My Life" is never going to be one of my favorite books, but it should be read by anyone interested in American poetry. Hejinian is attracted to "the entomology of things on the page": writing as a paradoxically polished automatism, a re-evaluation of the floaters in the corners of consciousness. What this sounds like, on every page, is:

Hold back, as less from friends; hold the book, hold up, then hold on tight, hang on. Time is an electronic river. Strawberries forty-nine. A man on the street swings his arm out to get a look at his watch, stretching to get his wrist out of the suit jacket, two on the watch. When challenged to explain myself in other words I look down, my visual focus deflected to the right — my mind settling into a comfortable position, so it can work. A translator must try to keep all the most interesting words. Is it a pattern that we see or only a random placement of the stupid little tiles. Or a place by water in early spring. This stop and start is bumper to bumper.

One purpose of this writing is to illustrate the foreign nature of language ("Language speaks," as Heidegger puts it; "It talks," Hejinian says), as it were by modeling it — there are no contextual markers to place us, to let us know who is speaking or why or to whom, about what. Phrases rise up, recognizable from other situations, perhaps, but left unsituated here. The nearest literary analogues are probably Woolf's "The Waves," Beckett's "How It Is" and Ashbery's "Three Poems" (these are not as monotonous as "My Life," but of course they risk monotony). This poetry is not amenable to translation into the usual sense-making procedures. At the theoretical level, it is intended to call those usual procedures into question. It invites the reader to participate in the construction of meaning.

I find it more stimulating as a lesson about what I want from a text (for Lacan, language and desire are closely related forms of otherness). "My Life" is repellent: My attention bounces off it like a rubber ball. Indeed, I've found that it's best to let my attention flit across the poem's surfaces, not worrying much about semantics. Phrases recur like coastal buoys; little shoots muscle upward through the ice: "The postman became a mailman and now it is a carrier"; "With Walkman, I took sanctuary"; "I like an answering voice at last light that says carry on"; "I dream of a hero who is able to toss animals from a great distance." To my ear, Hejinian loosens up when she reaches the '90s, indulging an Ashberian silly-goose chase that climaxes in "The Fatalist" (2003) and other late works.

The Language poets were wrong about a lot (language, for instance). But the Futurists were wrong, too, and Pound was wrong and Yeats was wrong and most of us are wrong most of the time. What matters isn't their theory but their art. That the two remain separable would seem to indicate the defeat of their program, but their program never mattered except to some graduate students. "My Life" — with its wireless lyricism, its wooden-toothed jabbering, its "unbounded identity and geographical fluidity" — continues to matter.

Michael Robbins is author of "Alien vs. Predator."

"My Life and My Life in the Nineties"

By Lyn Hejinian, Wesleyan, 141 pages, $16.95

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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