Poet #2: Lyn Hejinian

Lyn Hejinian

“Reading Lyn Hejinian’s Happily can make one imagine a second, somewhat happier Stein telling stories in single long or short lines that are aware of one another as they go about their own affairs.”
Bob Perelman

While a sophomore in college, I took a poetry workshop taught by a graduate student named Mark Tardi. Mark had a wonderful gift for thematic grouping, and his class syllabus reflected this. That semester, our assigned readings came solely from still-breathing, female poets: Barbara Guest, Rosmarie Waldrop, Harryette Mullen, Joan Retallack, Thalia Field, Lisa Jarnot, Erin Mouré, and Lyn Hejinian. (For the record, we also read Gertrude Stein; the inclusion of a then-dead writer was, no doubt, our university’s mandate).

Hejinian, born in the San Francisco Bay Area, is commonly associated with the Language poets, a postmodern avant garde movement whose work – in the simplest of terms – challenges its readers to participate in creating the meaning of the poem. A comprehensive discussion of the movement is outside the scope of this post, but the curious can learn more here (and here!), or simply deduce what they can from the excerpts contained below.

Happily (excerpt)

Every day we may never happen on the object hung on a mere

When and where one happens it will surprise us not in itself but
in its coming to our attention not as something suddenly
present but as something that’s been near for a long
time and which we have only just

When we might ask did we begin to share that existence

What have we overlooked

Nostalgia is another name for one’s sense of loss at the thought
that one has sadly gone along happily overlooking some-
thing, who knows what

Perhaps there were three things, no one of which made sense
of the other two

A sandwich, a wallet, and a giraffe

Logic tends to force similarities but that’s not what we mean
by “sharing existence”

The matter is incapable of being caused, incapable of not being
so, condensed into a cause – a bean, captive forever


Because this object is so tiny

A store of intellect, a certain ethical potential, something that
will hold good

Like ants swarming into pattern we get to the middle of the
day many distinct sensations that must be it

Music checks the relaxation the contrasting aspects constantly
changing set going

The ceaseless onset cuts this recognized sensation hurrying
after it alive

It seems we’ve committed ourselves

One of the things that struck me about Happily was how every line felt like a crooked, sighed-out aphorism, and I mean that in best possible way. The “Stein” contained in the work – the linguistic reinvention and playfulness – coupled with the simple truths that seemed to keep popping up kept me engaged throughout my initial reading. The lines operate as autonomous units, but – as Perelman notes – they are also aware of each other. The effect is both alienating and beautiful.

Hejinian’s breakthrough work, My Life, is an unusual biography that eschews traditional details in favor of minutiae. The original version comprises 37 poems – one for each year of Hejinian’s life – and each poem contains 37 lines. An updated version, written eight years later, contains eight new poems, with each of the 37 original poems receiving eight new lines.

As for we who “love to be astonished” (excerpt – full poem here), from My Life

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. My mother had climbed into the garbage can in order to stamp down the accumulated trash, but the can was knocked off balance, and when she fell she broke her arm. She could only give a little shrug. The family had little money but plenty of food. At the circus only the elephants were greater than anything I could have imagined. The egg of Columbus, landscape and grammar. She wanted one where the playground was dirt, with grass, shaded by a tree, from which would hang a rubber tire as a swing, and when she found it she sent me. These creatures are compound and nothing they do should surprise us. I don’t mind, or I won’t mind, where the verb “to care” might multiply. The pilot of the little airplane had forgotten to notify the airport of his approach, so that when the lights of the plane in the night were first spotted, the air raid sirens went off, and the entire city on that coast went dark. He was taking a drink of water and the light was growing dim. My mother stood at the window watching the only lights that were visible, circling over the darkened city in search of the hidden airport.

Hejinian is the author of numerous books of poetry and essays. She currently teaches at University of California, Berkeley.

(photo © Carolyn Andrews)


One Response to “Poet #2: Lyn Hejinian”

  1. […] Poetry Project Just another WordPress.com weblog « Poet #2: Lyn Hejinian Poem #5: Big Time […]

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