Lyn Hejinian (1941 -)

Life and Works

From time immemorial, and everywhere and always, poets of one sort or another are found striving as best they can to comply with the question of poetry as personal narrative. Such a demand has sometimes had shades of realism, or has been associated with precise cultural tendencies and references. But from Modernism on, authors have risked new polemical forms that have sometimes been misinterpreted precisely because they simple immediate references. I say this because it is obvious that Lyn Hejinian's work participates in this experimental effort, proclaiming the end of the division between personal and non-personal poetry. One example of this is that most her poems draw attention to an experimental autobiography organized in short lines and sentences "contradicting their effect by not allowing them to build either story or image." The poetic qualities of Hejinian's varied work are undeniable--one has only to observe the abundance of images and the unique language inspiring constant emotive interpretations. However, Hejinian's poetry certainly has a story, that of her own life--plus multiple directions taken up over and over again, in a different way on each reading.

Photo by Manuel Brito

A more detailed account of form and style in her texts would aid us to observe her strategy and range of vision. Hejinian's new paradigm or raison d'être is that the fragmented autobiography being told must take up the recognition of a poetic form that responds to our contemporaneity. For example, the structure and organization of Hejinian's most significant book, My Life, was first published in 1980 by the small press Burning Deck, run by the poets Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop. It was composed of 37 chapters on sections of 37 sentences each, a figure corresponding to the age of the author at the time of writing them in 1978. To the second edition (Sun & Moon 1987), Hejinian added 8 more chapter-sections, i.e. one for each of the intervening years up to 1986. On this occasion, all the sections had 45 sentences (8 more than the previous edition), inserted arbitrarily within the different sections rather than placed at the end. This accentuates the sensation of incompleteness in the composition, since ideas and memories of a life in process are recovered and introduced, continually reformed and completed.

We have before us a collage of memories, descriptions/parascriptions, lyrical emotions, portraits of characters and situations that can be shaped anew to allow glimpses of a chronological process. In this sense, the first sections are clearly dedicated to her childhood years with special emphasis on family and school relationships and vacation activities. A single sentence portrays this stage, "I was growing up as a cowgirl, a child doctor, a great reader" (34). Within this progression that comes to an end with references to her father's death, arrival of her children and greater literary involvement, "At this time, perpetual poetry, hence poetry without dread, and there were many poets ranting sympathetically, while I could not help, nor would, but have maternal passions, knotting the materials of sincerity" (101). It should be noted that even though she advances towards adulthood, childhood memories still persist: "Thinking back to my childhood, I remember others more clearly than myself, but when I think of more recent times, I begin to dominate my memories" (66). However, I would insist that the new edition of My Life, although enlarged, maintains the same script-line and strategy without altering the spirit of the 1980 edition.

In connection with this, let's see what further details we find in her own biography. Her birth on May 17th, 1941 made her parents Chaffee Earl Hall, Jr. and Carolyn Frances Erskine very happy. She grew up within an academic environment since her father was both a scholarly man and a potential fiction writer. He served as an academic administrator first at the University of California and then at Harvard University, which became Hejinian's alma mater and where she got a B..A. in 1963. Before this, she married John P. Hejinian in 1961 and had two children--Paull and Anna. By 1968 she returned to the San Francisco Bay area. Once divorced in 1972, she began a significant period in her life moving to the mountains of California. Her centrality as a writer and editor in the contemporary American poetic scene has its origins in the early 1970s. Her writing became increasingly exploratory and her editorship through Tuumba Press became an essential issue in the West Coast, where the innovative language poets were ready to emerge as the tendency continuing and surpassing the line Pound-Zukofsky-Olson. In 1977 she married jazz saxophonist Larry Ochs, returning to San Francisco, and entering into an intense dialogue with poets like Ron Silliman, Barrett Watten, Kit Robinson, and Carla Harryman.

She has been very active in the literary debates particularly on the West Coast, enjoying artistic admiration and social respectability. Her positive attitude to support young poets has made her a genuine popular icon, beyond the American limits as exemplified by the Award for Independent Literature that she got from the Soviet literary organization "Poetics Function" in Leningrad in 1989. She has travelled and lectured extensively in the United States as well as Europe. From 1981 to 1999 she co-edited--with Barrett Watten--the little magazine, Poetics Journal, and in the mid-1990s she taught in the Poetics Program at the New College of California. In the mid-1990s she became the co-director --with Travis Ortiz-- of Atelos, a new literary adventure, publishing cross-genre work by poets. The Atelos project when complete will consist of 50 volumes, and was nominated as one of the best independent literary presses by the Firecracker Awards in 2001. She also has collaborated with painter Diane Andrews Hall in The Eye of Enduring exhibited in 1996, and musician John Zorn. She has extended her creative curiosity to experimental films, like Jacki Ochs's Letters Not About Love, for which Hejinian and the Russian poet Arkadii Dragomoshchenko wrote the script. In the Fall of 2000, she was elected the sixty-sixth Fellow of the Academy of American Poets. She teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. Hejinian has been a model for modern poetry, primarily by representing a guarantee of vitality, honesty, generosity, and creativity.

Her early books, A Thought Is the Bride of What Thinking (1976), A Mask of Motion (1977), Writing Is an Aid to Memory (1978), and Gesualdo (1978) follow the general impression that meditation and poetic autobiography--where time or its perception becomes ambivalent and where explicit references may be mixed with more transcendental poetic reflections--represent for her a literary medium that faithfully reflects the poetic labor of the persona. It also serves to re-create herself, seeing how life itself can turn into a poetics created by others. This awareness makes us appreciate these books not so much as someone writing a simple diary but rather organizing a narrative that aims to create a history of explorations into the same literary process it is immersed in.

This same approach was assumed and enlarged by this author in My Life, her most legendary work. As pointed out earlier My Life contains experiences and stories and comes to its apotheosis in Hejinian through the importance of the word itself, "A word is an expectation" (82), and the sentence, "A sentence is a metaphor since when I see it continually before me, it impatiently asks for my work" (105). On the one hand, the value of the word and its consequences is a constant theme in her literary career and this interest is connected to the strong polysemic character it may have in her poetry. On the other hand, the sentence acquires vital importance. This is visible as notably increased in her literary productions, e.g. in the creative works Sight (1999)--in collaboration with Leslie Scalapino--and some sections of The Cold of Poetry (1994), also when she deals with this question in her essays "The Rejection of Closure" and "Language and "Paradise".


The eight sections of The Guard (1984) shift the atomism from descriptive stanzas to individual lines and words for which she claims careful attention. The frequent use of suspension marks implies possible interrelations between the author's creative process and the reader's subjective agency. This period clearly contrasts, for example, with her work published in the 1990s like Oxota: A Short Russian Novel, where the organization (9 books, including a "Coda," comprising 270 chapters) and a much more recognizable form disposition (free sonnets) are present. We often associate this sense of liberation with a positive attitude, although there are critics who warn us of some problems due to the chaos or confusion provoked by such texts. This is especially important when it might have alienating consequences affecting thought, reality or the self.

The Cell (1992) is another Hejinian's poetic sequence written over a period of her life from October 6, 1986, to January 21, 1989. Here she recurrently rationalizes about the "person", though she offers no principle of judgment. The title itself, "The Cell," performs a powerful intellectual structure to understand the processual condition of imprisonment, biological life, and social order. All poems are chronologically arranged and provide some dialectical thinking for various political agenda. In any case, simultaneity or synchronicity in events are typical issues in Hejinian's poetry, a device used with insistence in "The Green," included in The Cold of Poetry (1994). Here, she begins by stating revealingly that "There are many figures in this scene which might form separate scenes" (127). However they appear totally interlinked, shaping sentence by sentence a visual collage of sensations. The same happened in My Life where the characters appeared and disappeared in both time and space. But when we finish reading it we are left with the impression that it all contains correspondences and we are able to connect different characters and situations. It is true that the convergence point occurs in the author herself, but the hermeneutics of this book lead the reader to a subjective plane of thought and reflection. The question to ask is: why is the narration of her life so dispersed? The most obvious answer lies in this very use of synchronicity developed through each chapter or poem. Such a technique transfers memories and their relevance to present life-experience, to the page. In doing this, she develops a discourse that separately and in conjunction re-examines the actions, contexts, and voices of a whole life.



Later, in Happily (2000), Hejinian extends her voice to a more emotional territory. In my view, she becomes more transcendentalist grouping questions to see if they cohere, through their connection to nature and especially localized within the self. With no fixation or orientation, many of her lines constantly resignify and recontextualize a pretended stable identity. Her two other latest books, The Beginner (2001) and Slowly (2002), are full of statements like, "One cannot dream until one begins (The Beginner 42), or "Subjectivity at night must last hours with/ nothing to judge but itself" (Slowly 17). In this way, we realize immediately that she is forcing us to jump from one perception to another, to constantly confront diversities that drive us to re-order and above all re-interpret what is happening in the text. Ultimately, we are faced with language, which declares us human.

Hejinian shocks her readers, making them aware they are in an interpretive tour de force with an epistemological strategy aimed at awakening them to a highly reflexive language, its nature and what derives from it. To explain this, she published The Language of Inquiry (2000), a book of essays responding to what it is to experiment, especially attached to Gertrude Stein, the writing process, the nature of the self and the role of perception.

Undoubtedly Lyn Hejinian's desire for alteration rather than for foresightedness contains an element of liberation, which importantly seems to take form better in a diary than in conventional poetry. Hejinian trusts blindly in the combination of poetic images with a language in the very process of composition, "A large vocabulary finds its own grammar, and, conversely, a large grammar finds its own vocabulary" (My Life 69). It requires an almost mystical faith to believe that this encounter can happen, but there is no doubt that however disordered or magical, interesting or amusing it may be, she breaks free of everyday life and allows the reader to take pleasure and reflect on the creation of poetry; not because that poetry is remote from ordinary experience, but because it is made familiar. This is Lyn Hejinian's approach. Of what one may infer from her praxis, her duty as an artist is certainly not keeping to the story with singleness of purpose. One form springs from another, "Can one "feel" that it is an instrument of discontinuity, of consciousness? (My Life 25).


Manuel Brito (Universidad de La Laguna)