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With this process underway, it is worth investigating why Hejinian's autography is so popular, so likable. I use the word "autography" 1 because this is the story of a languaged self, a written "I," rather than the autobiography of an experiencing human. Why is My Life taught, apparently as an exemplar of contemporary experimental poetry, in so many American colleges and high schools? More considerably, why might it be perceived to be worthy , a palatable "postmodern" work?

This second version of the question is perhaps preferable, since Hejinian's work is hardly a national bestseller: reprinted for the sixth time in , it had sold at that point something over 8, copies.

Still, such a figure makes it considerably more successful than most other non-mainstream poetic writings. The abundant attention to My Life in small prestigious journals like Temblor , and brief mention in a number of critical books, joins increasing comment in more mainstream academic journals: Contemporary Literature has had two articles on the work in the last four years, and American Literature recently published one.

Increased mass gains gravity, of course, but critical attention to Hejinian's book is not simply a function of previous attention. This book accesses a number of categories for pleasure and familiarity, both literary and cultural. Perhaps the most obvious category for My Life is American autobiography. So I want to begin by quoting perhaps the most obvious example of that genre, Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography , addressed as a letter to his son:. As the linguistic version of a prosperous and happy American life, My Life is a descendent of Franklin's hopeful perfectionisms.

The very first section indicates that "Leisure," "Affluence," and "Felicity" characterize both Franklin and Hejinian: "I was in a room with the particulars of which a later nostalgia might be formed, an indulged childhood" 8. Praise for this work makes perfect sense in a culture which likes poetry to mesh personal experience autobiography with language play, and life stories to be edifying when they are not, that is, more or less prurient cautionary tales.

What follows is an interconnected array of categories for the popularity of My Life: these are intended to be suggestive, applicable beyond the explorations carried out here. In rough terms, Hejinian's creative writing divides into two modes. On the other, My Life , and some of her other work, presumes a broad-ranging understandability.

From the naive free-spirited play of her first book, the gRReat adventure , 2 to the hopeful and only vaguely political passages in her collaborative work in Leningrad , she often writes with a simplicity people don't generally call to mind when they think of "postmodern poetry.

Consider an excerpt from her essay "If Written is Writing" published in , the year she wrote the first edition of My Life :. As with many of Hejinian's comments on writing, this passage profits from further explanation. But its terms are those of understanding: the process of writing "the composition" intercourses with the product of writing "the text" , "love" the words keeps company with "the lover" the writer , and the interpenetrating "dimensions" exist in a comprehensible "understandable" state.

Process, product, the "bodily" writer, all combine to produce a marvel of comprehension. Arguably, this description indicates the complexity the "centric" writer must endure in order to produce understandable writing.

The crucial point, though, is that the resulting product is clear. In this accessible mode, Hejinian conceives of herself as a centric writer, loyal and clear-minded, and in this mode she has produced a handful of books.

In latter years, though, Hejinian has not facilitated access to some of her most understandable writing. These three works are now pretty well confined to rare books rooms.

So despite some darkening and complexifying of My Life in its second version a pattern I shall return to , it remains the one most understandable work of hers which is readily available. How interesting that it is the one the academy most attends.

Predictable events and language are fundamental to the understandability of My Life. It has been pointed out 3 that Hejinian represents an all-American girlhood; but most of the book's events are more those of the expected surface of a privileged American childhood in the prosperous s. So far so good, born in , and educated at Harvard, as Hejinian was. We go from cars to kitchens to parks to books, in scenes of childhood and adulthood, and unexpected particulars are generally overmastered by predictable events.

The understandability of the language is not quite as predictable. Marjorie Perloff calls this a celebration of "language we all recognize" Such a claim of course depends on a certain definition of the "we": Hejinian's educated English conveys the sense that more impenetrable language is always to hand but never used.

Consider these lines from section In the terms of this passage, Hejinian gives away definition in favor of description. Words, events, and the poetics of the work itself are described.

Perception of description, not interpretation of definition, becomes the reader's task. Telling description is a matter of intersecting and coinciding, rather than defining, information. The danger of calling this "language we all recognize," or pieces of an all-American girlhood-grown-to-womanhood, is that the book's accessibility risks being seen as generic, fully identified either with known language or known cultural habits. That is, as definition.

What blocks such definition, in the passage above, is a mixture of the language we really might all recognize--neighbors and noise--with other language that only a particular segment of the population will attend to: about subtleties of definition, description, and planes of information.

But even these subtleties are avowedly not complex because they are not "defined. Such guidance systems frequent self-explanations and simple diction preserve the non-specialized nature of this work. It does not swim in private enigmas, it teaches us how to read it--as Wordsworth said good poetry should do--and it is consistent in its self-presentation.

Above all else, perhaps, it is not terribly difficult in vocabulary or ideation. Hejinian's descriptive understandability makes a world of accessible verbal grace. This is by no means a criticism. It is meant to describe a "postmodern" writing that never turns away from possibilities of understandable meaning. The consistent self-presentation begins at the structural level of My Life.

Joseph Conte identifies two distinctive postmodern poetic forms, the serial and the procedural 3, In first and second editions, My Life fits the pattern of proceduralism, with its untraditional unprecedented predetermined method of 37 then 45 sections, with 37 then 45 sentences each.

It is also, based on Hejinian's 37 then 45 years of age, a perfectly personal form. Her proceduralism is thus at least doubly motivated --by the personal and the literary--in a kind of arithmetics of autobiography. Compare, for example, Ron Silliman's use of the Fibonacci number series as the procedural determinant of Tjanting.

Silliman's chosen grid has an arbitrary relation to the literary; it appears random, however deliberately chosen. Her method also evinces a kind of internal organic form, further linking the personal and the literary. We might call it a crystalline organicism, thinking of something like Clark Coolidge's The Crystal Text and of Hejinian's claim, in a second edition sentence, that "One could base a model for form on a crystal or the lungs" This postmodern organicism is not the psychological variety of Romanticism, arising out of and seeking to inscribe a real-world moment.

Nor is it the linguistic organicism of a modernist like Wallace Stevens, whose poems thread lyricism out from itself in a linear fashion. Hejinian's organic form can be invaded and grown out at any point, as it is in the second edition, in which she adds eight new sentences to each previous section and eight new sections to the whole.

Again, we have the stability of a traceable form growing "organically" from the subject balanced with the experimentalism of a new variety of form.

Another detail which enhances the personalized literariness of Hejinian's procedure is the literary pedigree of the headnotes, the repeated poetic phrases which signal each section.

Though used in an innovative way, these echo a tradition of elaborated headnotes stretching from medieval rubrics of forecasting to the marginalia in the late version of Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner --or better yet, the headnotes to the chapters in his Biographia Literaria.

Some of Hejinian's headnote phrases are beautifully "imprecise": for example, " What is the meaning hung from that depend " 16 " Preliminaries consist of such eternity " But the majority are clear and simple, calling out phrases that continue to resonate: " I laugh as if my pots were clean " 78 ; " The greatest thrill was to be the one to tell " The headnotes, then, are in the position of clarifiers, and in a tradition of authority and guidance.

They make an innovation of tradition, a personalized use of recognizable form. Their slanted guidance functions something like song choruses, identifying and re-inscribing their songs. And as one of the book's many repeated phrases has it, "the obvious analogy is with music.

These procedural graces combine to make the literary scholar and teacher feel at home, linked to the literary past and given stylistic footholds into the postmodern, which looks less chaotic than, say, Susan Howe's The Nonconformist's Memorial in the light of My Life. Prose is our culture's language of sincerity, in which we expect to be most able to say what we mean and see what is meant, to be understood and to understand. The place of message. Poetry is our culture's language of complexity, idiosyncratic sensibility, the language of artifice.

Prose poetry, then, might afford the best opportunity for sincere surface play, for deep artifice, a joining of the power of prose clarity with poetic complexity.

This is the model of prose poetry in My Life. And while it is surely a model filtered through Silliman's speculations about the prose poem in The New Sentence Roof Books, , it differs sharply from the difficult amalgam of poetry and prose that characterizes a writer like Gertrude Stein. Hejinian makes prose and poetry coexist but not melt into each other, 10 in what she calls "A healthy dialectic between poetry and prose" Compare, briefly, sentences from Stein's portrait of "Matisse" with an excerpt from My Life.

First, Stein's words: "Very many did come to know it of him that he was clearly expressing what he was expressing. He was a great one. Any one might come to know that of him. Very many did come to know that of him. Very many were wanting to be doing what he was doing were not wanting to be expressing anything being struggling" Now, an excerpt from My Life :. For all their affective simplicity, Stein's sentences are vastly artificial.

They foreground wordplay and make precise meanings nearly invisible, emptied of immediacy into absolute ways of saying and knowing, for example "not wanting to be expressing anything being struggling. We hear complete sentences, shards of sentences, and explanations of why "separate fragments" are "taken under scrutiny" again, here, the second and third sentences are second-edition interpolations that clarify the passage's subject.

We get, that is, both the pleasing complexity of poetic discontinuity and rhythm and the guiding clarity of prose's "descriptive sincerity. The compact between poetry and prose operates in diction as well as in syntax.

The following passage, for example, mixes self-explanation with "ordinary" sentences which are themselves moved by subtle poetic sounds and connectives: "This autobiography of expansive sensations is divided horizontally. Butterworth isn't racial. I was pregnant and needed a rocker. There was a moving crowd of crows loud above the swaying trees. The T-shirts hanging from the line flapped like plump birds along the shore" Hejinian is celebrating, by extension, the poetry of all language, and such celebration is consoling to language users.

Bruce Andrews, by way of contrast, refuses those kinds of consolation.


My Life Poem Text

I often think confusion and consequent concerted attention to Hejinian is a great way to approach her writing. Always loved the 'sea glass' of this passage - there's poetry simply in these two words. I am a 'first-time caller' to Hejinian as is said on talk-back radio and find her writing fascinating, almost spell-binding. It also reminds me of some of the passages of prose statements that spammers sometimes use in their email messages to get by server security. I find some of these fascinating too and am now wondering if they were tracts 'lifted' from Hejinian. Thanks Bernadette.


Lyn Hejinian

These notes were contributed by members of the GradeSaver community. You spill the sugar when you lift the spoon. My father had filled an old apothecary jar with what he called "sea glass," bits of old bottles rounded and textured by the sea, so abundant on beaches. There is no solitude. It buries itself in veracity. It is as if one splashed in the water lost by one's tears.

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With this process underway, it is worth investigating why Hejinian's autography is so popular, so likable. I use the word "autography" 1 because this is the story of a languaged self, a written "I," rather than the autobiography of an experiencing human. Why is My Life taught, apparently as an exemplar of contemporary experimental poetry, in so many American colleges and high schools? More considerably, why might it be perceived to be worthy , a palatable "postmodern" work?

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