Paradise & Method: Poetics & Praxis
Northwestern University Press, $27 (paper)
The Language of Inquiry
University of California Press, $17.95 (paper)
Lyn Hejinian and Bruce Andrews represent two very different strands of Language writing. So different, in fact, that one might believe they had never met or shared any aesthetic or theoretic affiliations. Both have been prolific and have a propensity for putting out book-length poems: Hejinian is best known for My Life,although her recent A Border Comedy may eclipse that as her central, most distinctive work, while Andrews is best known for I Don't Have Any Paper So Shut Up (Or, Social Romanticism), but his 380-page Lip Service seems destined to spar with it for the critical spotlight. Unlike their peers such as Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein and Barrett Watten however, who had volumes of "poetics" out much earlier in their careers, Hejinian and Andrews have waited—Andrews until the late-nineties, Hejinian until last year. Each of these volumes contains numerous essays, interviews, reviews, and talks from nearly thirty years of activity; both authors have prefaced each piece with brief, contextualizing introductions that revive the spirit of their occasion.
Hejinian is known, generally, for meditative, philosophical writing that recalls William James as filtered through Wittgenstein and Gertrude Stein. She can be quite autobiographical, however obliquely, and is often, like Proust, inspired into reverie by the objects of her life. Her longer poems, such as My Life and Oxota: A Short Russian Novel, subvert conventional genres such as the novel, the memoir, the poem and the essay. Like Hejinian, Andrews has written on Stein, but in his own work one senses a closer affinity to the parole in liberta of Marinetti, the paranoiac interconnectivity of Burroughs, the zaum poetry of Khlebnikov and the global, fact-heavy poetics of Pound. While many of his psychological dispositions can be guessed from his work, his writing is hardly self-reflective in the usual sense. Genre issues, apart from the question of the border between polemic and poem, are not his concern (certainly anything suggesting fiction is anathema).
Nonetheless, each writer shares an interest in "poetics," a genre in itself distinct from literary criticism, theory, and memoir. Aristotle was the author of the first "poetics," a succinct outline of the value of such literary phenomena as mimesis, catharsis, plot, and characterization in the Greek epic and drama; the poet, for him, was primarily an "imitator," and the result of an engagement with poetry was a stronger relation to the whole, whether this be nature or society, not to mention a renewed faith in language as a transparent and absorbing medium. Hejinian and Andrews will likewise introduce new terms and occupy this clinical approach to literature, but the hierarchy of values is nearly reversed; rather than norms and absorption, for example, they both argue for disruption—down to the level of the sentence, letter and punctuation—and a self-awareness about how language is being used, with the belief that a rupture with the linguistic conventions of society can bring about a truly radical new view of democracy, in which the alienation of "economic man" is the fertile ground of what might be called "free thinking." Though postmodern "poetics" is not poetry, it generally foregoes a straightforward discursive style, and adopts instead a "marginal" language, one which—in the definition of Deleuze and Guattari—is an estranging ("deterritorialized") political idiom or argot by which to convey ideas, a sort of personal poetspeak. It often avoids the standard matter of prose works by poets—book reviews, for example, or encomiums to peers or predecessors—and gets right into the action of thinking through and among words. It also does not draw a sharp line between writing a poem and writing the essay itself—writing is writing, there is no "about" writing. In poets who lack the sense of imperative seen in these two volumes, such writing can be bogged down by "play"—the spirit of digression that courts disorder; but both Hejinian and Andrews are such disciplined stylists, and so consistently make a virtue out of brevity, that even when one is lost in their terminology and idiosyncratic idioms, one is nonetheless fascinated by the language itself, its deviations instigating in the reader the spirit of adventure.
Hejinian's writing is principally concerned with knowledge, and when this knowledge is not of the "self" it is of the world as filtered and perceived, proprioceptively, through the self. To this extent she is a psychological writer, though she seems, for the most part, to have skipped over Freud, and to rely instead on an earlier confidence that self-examination is a trustworthy path to a knowledge. "Someone refers to 'the courage of her convictions,'" Hejinian writes. "The difficulty lies not so much in adhering to one's beliefs as in determining their object—what it is one is having beliefs about. This is particularly problematic in a world that is both overexposed and, at the same time, through the invasive sentimentalization of the private realm, concealed behind the titillating surfaces of public display." Some of her paragraphs seem like notes to the self, as in the movie Memento, in which the protagonist, lacking any ability to create new memories, has to tattoo his body with messages in order to maintain any sense of life's continuity. Hejinian seems to find pleasure, if not an untapped resource, in the ability to lose one's direction, as the objects of her thought—"my car," "my convictions," "my style"—do not easily persist through time, but are willed forward by artful decisions. These decisions put the individual at the center of one's own world; they constitute the struggle to maintain engagement with the "everyday," to understand every second as moments of judgment: chance leading to choice. The persistence of matter may be untroubled in Hejinian, but the persistence of mind about matter is always an issue.
There is also something spiritual—in the tradition of Buddhist poetics as explored by many West Coast writers, most notably Philip Whalen—in Hejinian's ideas, as when she writes in her introduction to Language of Inquiry: "Poetry, therefore, takes as its premise that language is a medium for experiencing experience." These sorts of doubling of words—"If Written is Writing," is the title of another essay—suggest a deep retreat behind one's mind in order to get perspective on how knowing actually works. Skepticism, the elite perspective of a hard-earned Western rationality, is matched with bodily discipline and thus questions all absolutes, including the authority of the skeptical mind itself, only finding satisfaction or assurance—further calls for discipline—when observing the mind in action. Consequently, this self-reflection takes on a social dimension—the heart of all of Hejinian's thinking—as one is, deep in the mind, a step further away from the socialization implicit in the "titillating public display" of hyper-mediating capitalist culture. Hence, this practice of thinkingthrough one's singularity, not in fear of it, is both aesthetic and ethical in nature.
Even Hejinian's essays that seem to be about the "social"—political ideas, relations of poetic form to social meanings, or feminist concerns—all hinge on the fact of the mind. In her 1995 essay "Barbarism" she re-reads Adorno's famous statement: "To write poetry after Auschwitz is an act of barbarism." The standard interpretation is that Adorno was declaring culture impossible in a world whose history had proven disastrous—guided by acts of the collective will in which such forms as the "lyric," now fallen from its "folk" status, cut off the individual from society. Hejinian suggests that his statement "can be interpreted in another sense, not as a condemnation of the attempt 'after Auschwitz' to write poetry, but…as a challenge and behest to do so." The poet, however, endeavors "not to speak the same language as Auschwitz" but instead to speak a language that is doubled, as incoherent babbling to the masters, poetry to the rest. Like Celan in his refusal to write "normal" German, or like Deleuze and Guattari in their description of marginal languages, the poet would "assume a barbarian position, taking a creative, analytic, and often oppositional stance, occupying (and being occupied by) foreignness—by the barbarism of strangeness."
This general idea becomes distinctly Hejinian's when she uses her metaphorically-tinged psychological language to give a deep reading of the nature of the interactions at the borders of consciousness. She writes: "Poetry at this time, I believe, has the capacity and perhaps the obligation to enter those specific zones known as borders, since borders are by definition addressed to foreignness," and continues:
The border is not an edge along the fringe of society and experience but rather their very middle—their between; it names the condition of doubt and encounter which being foreign to a situation (which may be life itself) provokes—a condition which is simultaneously an impasse and a passage, limbo and transit zone, with checkpoints and bureaus of exchange, a meeting place and a realm of confusion.
Like a dream landscape, the border landscape is unstable and perpetually incomplete. It is a landscape of discontinuities, incongruities, displacements, dispossession. The border is occupied by ever-shifting images, involving objects and events constantly in need of redefinition and even literal renaming, and viewed against a constantly changing background.
Meaning, for Hejinian, is at once fluid and contingent, not static and predetermined; the mind comes to experience it when a certain friction is created with the "other" of meaning—the guest/host dynamic, in which a guest (stranger, other) only becomes guest in the presence of a host (and vice-versa), is her chosen metaphor here. For her, "we have no other experience of living than through encounters," these encounters being on the level of the word, the "flash of an instant," which she terms—to foreground the ambivalence and contradictoriness of this exchange—xenia, the Greek word xenos being the root of both "guest" and "host." Her world resembles that of a child, where the constituent objects are always surprising a not quite "developed" mind. Nonetheless, this refusal to stabilize meanings is, in the context of Auschwitz, ethically-encoded, as it gives poetry "its enormous mobility and transformative strategies." The poet is a "rigorously attentive observer," the rough and tumble participant in Bergsonian time, in which the perceived permanencies of society are revealed to be ephemeral, provisional agreements among power-wielders and the dispossessed. Poetry's social interventions thus become a kind of social unweaving.
While the same sort of dynamism—a belief in fluid exchanges that undermine the oppressive rigidity of system—animates Andrews's thinking about poetry and language, he seems to collapse issues about the mind into issues about the use of language. That is, if Hejinian is a Jamesian psychologist, Andrews might be said to be a behaviorist, tied to data and observable activity. He is interested in the mind—in inner doubts, and the search for ethical surety—only when it connects to prospective (not speculative) action and escapes metaphysical hesitation:
Blabbing causing darkness, & darkness related to the closures, the incommensurability of experiences, the inability to see. "I try…to describe for you…But you will not listen." But we must agree. "Agreement was possible." Agreement was not readily possible; we weren't ready. Since there isn't some reality out there awaiting our objective operations. Instead, you find relativism grounded in practices, in the round of language, which demands responsiveness from us and not simply decipherment. Dialogues, in place of fugitive 'monologic,' as a means by which reality can beconstituted.
This passage—taken from an early "probe" of John Ashbery's The Tennis Court Oath—is an example in microcosm of many of the features of Andrews's prose style: voices in scare quotes dropping in unannounced (citations from Ashbery, in fact), use of italics for shoe-on-lectern emphasis (and not to accentuate the bon mot), and waves of meaning piling up rather than following syllogistically, as if the closure of a paragraph would betray the boisterous physics of the sentence. The emphasis is on how language, in the hands of a responsible agent (or writer), sets the stage for future activity, so that each moment of writing provides the gestational period for the next—Andrews's version of the autonomous linguistic play championed in literary deconstruction. Andrews is quite confident that the language of the public sphere is mostly owned and constituted by those in power—"In a relatively closed world of administered capitalism and its society of the spectacle, anything but the most extreme problematizing of language as well as of the unifying subject and its 'experience'…begins to look inadequate"—but believes that the the poet can combat this linguistic hegemony.
These concerns are consistent with Andrews's political science publications—he has been a political science professor at Fordham University since the mid-seventies. He believes that the State itself is a social agent, active in the construction of meaning, and that matters of foreign policy are often directly linked to domestic concerns (a dynamic that has increasing visibility in times of war, such as now, when foreign affairs have taken center stage after long being obscured). His most persistent interest has been the question of why America didn't pull out of Vietnam earlier; he sees a direct relationship between America's foreign policy and power gambits at home—opinion that is shaped actively through language by the State. This links his counter-socializing poetics with a global perspective that envisions America at the center, as the giant that crushes as it sleeps. As he wrote over twenty-five years ago in "Social Rules and The State as a Social Actor":
Most of a state's significant (or signifying, meaningful) foreign policies can be thought of in this way—guided and constrained by an array of domestic expectations which are considered legitimate, and by social conventions which both define and delimit those broader social purposes. If "meaning is use," then these social rules are rules of usage—for domestic society. […] Any historical course (or matrix, or lowest common denominator of actions, such as that old sawhorse, the national interest) is not therefore simply followed. Rather, the state actors make it up as they go along, as they pursue certain policies in accord with, or as delimited by, the domestic rules. Their goals reveal the rules, and to a certain extent, the rules constitute their reasons for acting.
As with Hejinian, the question of methodology is one of experience—how to take each moment as related not to a stable set of tropes (or even "genres") such as "national interest," but to figure these moments in a series of interactions that are "made up as they go along." Andrews hasn't published any political theory since the early 80s, but his writing in Paradise & Method continues to examine these "rules of usage" and how to torque, scramble, strike, or otherwise sound them (with a bow or with a sledgehammer) and thereby make them observable. He wishes to acclimate the reader to an entire worldview—this may account for the "paradise" of his title—that is involved in an overturning of stable, sanctioned meanings and that installs one as a "Technician of the Social," pushing for a "conception of writing as politics, not writing about politics. Asking: what is politics inside the work, inside its work?" Using the very language at hand—the words and rhythms of the poem itself—Andrews hopes to reveal, in as harsh a light as possible (readers of Shut Up know how true this is) the complex social vectors underlying even our most mundane activities and assumptions.
Both Hejinian and Andrews, far from Romantics in the classic sense, reflect the return of certain ideas related to Romanticism in poetry: the idea, for instance, that words and the mental events that poetry creates have a direct, if mystical, bearing on how the values of the world are legislated. Poets are not seen as psychic dictators, private aesthetes, shaman figures or permanent misfits, but as radical democrats whose minds are models—albeit extreme ones—for the adoption of certain progressive behaviors; hence they must maintain a certain proximity to the world. But whereas Shelley could posit the writer as a "lyre" openly responsive to the vicissitudes of "nature"—a sort of blind, articulating child—the Language writers could not be so innocent in the society of the spectacle, where sensibility itself became not just a problem of style but one of social being.
Their alienating, "marginal" language (operating, consequently, as an "argot" by which some might hope to recognize each other through the confusion of norms) is therefore not intended to drive a wedge between the poet and a non-initiate—many find "poetics" more confusing than the poetry—but as a problematizing interface, as a troubling of the ways one approaches the "page" as a structure for conveying meaning, to show that meanings are not discrete units "carved in stone"—authoritative edicts, ineluctable dogma—but a flowing current, like a river viewed through a glass floor. This interface illustrates "truth" by wringing the "true" of its claims to permanence; the contortions remind us of, and are truer to, this semantic flux, setting language against language in the determination of conversational terms, but with syntax also on-board as conspirator against false stabilities. In these reflections on truth, and on the juxtaposition between official and marginal languages, these two books make important contributions to our understanding of contemporary poetry, extending the frame of the "poet's essay" beyond issues of form and tradition, and into an open-ended philosophical dialogue that engages with one in the very act of reading a book, alone at home or in a crowded cafe. They each push for a concept of the mind that is positioned to accept the accidents and responsibilities of the everyday, that is primed to escape the propositions of the monoculture and to create life anew.