Lyn Hejinian


It's true that I think about the line more than about any other formal element in writing. To some extent, at any given point in my work, the line is both its starting place and its eventual achievement-the instigation of an idea and its realization. And, of late, this has been especially the case, given my inclination to "reject the sentence (or at least my own uses of it) except as it is modified by the line (which discontinues the sentence without closing it).

Where Montaigne writes of his project, in "Practice," "This is not my teaching, this is my study," the distinction seems pointedly applicable to the one I find myself currently making between the sentence and the line. The authority of the line (intrinsic) is different from that of the sentence, and momentarily I have lost faith in what I can say in a sentence.

Imagine then that I turn to the line in order to begin again, writing, basically.

If there is such a thing as a perceptual rhythm (and possibly .there isn't), the line would be its gauge in my work. The line affixes detail to time, and it is at least rhythmic to that degree. In any case, it is for me the standard (however variable) of meaning in the poem, the primary unit of observation, and the measure of felt thought. The 'writing' of the line begins as an act of observation, and it is completed by recognition of the thought that it achieves there. The tension set up by the co-existence of beginning and end at each point excites the dynamics of the work, and it is vital to my thinking within it.

Even as an observation, the line is selective and expressive with regard to perception; it is already complex--that is, a number of--decisions have been made before there is a line.

A musical analogue to the line might be the thematic phrase, which initiates the piece and serves as the focus of all its parts and devices, but in a poetry in which every single line is internally complete and is of equal weight and importance, the situation is considerably more complex. In this imaginary musical composition, the diverse elements of the piece work to elaborate and fulfill its central theme, whereas in the poem all of the poem is about any single line in it, and any line is basic and central.

In positing the line as the basic unit of the work, I realize that I am denying that function to the word (except in one-word lines). In this sense, syntax and movement are more important to me than vocabulary (the historically macho primacy of which I dislike in any case).

A poem based on the line bears in it a high degree of semantic mutability. Lines, which may be rigid or relaxed, increasing or decreasing, long or short, ascending (questioning) or descending (decisive), predisposed (necessary) or evolving (speculative), representative of sequence or of cluster, redistribute meaning continuously within the work.

The integrity of the individual line, and the absorbing discontinuities that often appear between lines-the jumpiness that erupts in various sections of the work (whether the result or the source of disjunctive semantics) --are so natural to my 'real life' experience that they seem inevitable--and 'true.' And so, at this point, it seems natural to me to write with them.

(Lyn Hejinian. "Line." The Line in Postmodern Poetry. Ed. Robert Frank and Henry Sayre. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1988. 191-192.)