by Lyn Hejinian
In my proposal I wrote that I wanted to write an innovative autobiography. (At the moment, I’m not sure if I’m really doing what I imagined. But…) When I think of the words ‘innovative autobiography’, I think of My Life. My Life is one of those ‘life-changing’ books for me. At a time where I was dissatisfied with the way I was writing and feeling bored and stifled, it showed me that there were alternatives to the conventional lyric poem, and it was ok to write without line breaks and it was ok to be disjunctive! I remember being entranced by My Life — Greg had a copy of it and showed it to me one day in our Modern Poetry lecture (he was taking both Modern Poetry and Contemporary Poetry; Hejinian was being studied in Contemporary Poetry) and then I went to the library later and got myself a copy to look at. A few weeks (?) later I started writing disjunctive lineated poems (with much less emphasis on metaphor and epiphany than usual). Then I started experimenting with prose poetry…
One of the key features of My Life is the use of ‘The New Sentence’ — a term coined by Ron Silliman to describe particular prose works by various language writers. Ron Silliman has a long essay about The New Sentence and lists the qualities in a complex way, but I think Bob Perelman explains The New Sentence pretty well: ‘A new sentence is more or less ordinary by itself but gains its effect by being placed next to another sentence to which it has tangential reference…..Parataxis is crucial: the internal, autonomous meaning of a new sentence is heightened, questioned, and changed by the degree of separation that the reader perceives with regard to the surrounding sentences.’ In my writing I haven’t been using parataxis very much, but I am feeling like I want to go back to using it a bit more. Do I re-write my ‘straight’ prose paragraphs and make them more New Sentence-y or do I just start something new? Argh, I don’t know. I’m getting sick of being so precise and controlled in the ‘straight’ prose, but then the languagey poems are so crazy and disjunctive. What if I combine the ‘straight’ prose paragraphs and the languagey paragraphs into a new type of paragraph, and that could just be the main container that carries the whole story. Best of both worlds.
Hejinian breaks narrative convention by presenting sentences without clear transitional links. She switches tenses, and drops in unspecified pronouns from sentence to sentence, multiplying the number of interpretations. (‘I was learning a certain geometry of purely decorative shapes. She showed the left profile, the good one. What she felt, she had heard as a girl. The point of the foghorns is that you can’t see them, need to hear them. She disapproved of background music.’) I have done this in my more languagey poems, and people said they were confused and wanted more clarity (Who is this? Is this the mother or the daughter?) The point is to be a bit confused though…the point is that the daughter and the mother’s identities overlap…and things that have happened in the past (to the mother) affect the daughter in the present. And things that have happened in the past to the daughter affect the mother in the present.
Normally, autobiography involves linear and transparent story-telling — the author gives dates and names and facts, making links between events, people, and emotions. But in My Life, the reader has to make the links, and to participate in the creation of meaning. So in a way they are becoming part of the autobiography. Chronology is usually an important part of an autobiography, but here everything is happening at once; we jump from the past to the future to the present to the past, etc. In a way this is an accurate portrayal of the human mind — in everyday life, our thoughts are constantly jumping around, going from a childhood memory to a future plan in an instant. I wanted to jump around too, with my ‘straight’ paragraphs, but I don’t know if that is a good idea — maybe swapping between the two types of paragraphs is enough jumping around, and I should make the ‘straight’ paragraphs more or less chronological. Perhaps chronology and time and plot can be aided by using repetition. Things get mentioned, occur again, and then get altered — a way of showing development without working too consciously on plot. I don’t want plot to be the focus of the book — I want the language to be. In My Life, there are phrases which appear and re-appear throughout the book: from my count, the phrase ‘A pause, a rose, something on paper’ appears 18 times. Examples: ‘I found myself dependent on a pause, a rose, something on paper.’ ‘A pause, a rose, something on paper implicit in the fragmentary text.’ The repeated phrases help to hold the book together — they provide stability, familiarity, and cohesion among fragments. They signify development, memory, passing of time — the phrases are the same but are not the same, because the context is different, (as Stein says, there’s no such thing as repetition) just as the autobiographical subject is always both the same and changing with time and circumstance. In my work, I have repeated certain objects/phrases/ideas, but I need to a) make sure it’s clear that I’m deliberately repeating things and that I don’t just have a tic or am lazy and b) that I don’t over-do it and ruin the subtly of it!
Today I tried to write in Civic square but it didn’t work. I tried to write by the waterfront too. It sounds nice, writing en plein air, in the sun, gleaming inspiration from the environment and people walking by…but it doesn’t work for me. I can’t write in public. In pubic I am a prop, an object, I am part of the spectacle. I can’t relax.
I’m at home now. In town I bought some shoes and went to the supermarket. I’m always at the supermarket. I seem to run out of food very quickly…
I looked at my bookshelf and picked up The Seven Ages by Louise Glück. I haven’t read this book for ages. I used to be obsessed with Glück in 2009 and at the beginning of 2010. Feels like so long ago. Glück and Plath and Mark Strand were my main models for poetry a few years ago. Then I had a dramatic change in writing attitude and style.
Look at these titles: The Seven Ages. Moonbeam. The Sensual World. Mother and Child. Fable. Solstice. Stars. Youth. The Balcony. Copper Beech. Study of My Sister. August. Rain in Summer. The Empty Glass. Unpainted Door. Time. Aubade. Screened Porch.
They just scream: trying to transcend through metaphor and epiphany. The Empty Glass?! Are you kidding!
We were supposed to be, all of us/a circle/a line at every point/equally weighed or tensed, equally/close to the centre. I saw it/differently. In my mind, my parents/were the circle; my sister and I/were trapped inside. (from Summer Rain)
There was too much, always, then too little./Childhood: sickness./By the side of the bed I had a little bell — at the other end of the bell, my mother.// Sickness, grey rain. The dogs slept through it. They slept on the bed,/at the end of it, and it seemed to me they understood/about childhood: best to remain unconscious.(from Time)
We’re all dreamers; we don’t know who we are.//Some machine made us; machine of the world, the constricting family./Then back to the world, polished by soft whips.//We dream; we don’t remember. (from Mother and Child)
There is still something very attractive about Glück. The direct language, the rhythm, repetition, the emotional hooks. I can’t write like this now (or anymore?) though. Everything’s too neat and constructed, a bit formulaic, you know the epiphany’s coming…the poems are what Hejinian would call ‘closed’ texts. I don’t think that these are bad, or inferior to texts that are ‘open’; open texts have their problems too…I don’t think the lyric should be pitted against language poetry. I mean…sometimes you’re in the mood for The Wild Iris. Sometimes you’re in the mood for My Life. Overall though, I am less interested in Glück and other lyrical poets like her at this time in my writing life. This kind of writing feels too familiar, conventional — it’s what we’re expected to write, being poets. A personal experience coupled with a string of images leading to a climax: a reflection on what it means to be a person with feelings!! When you write the ‘Glück poem’, you have to try and find the ‘perfect’ word, the ‘perfect’ metaphor. This sort of poem implies that it is possible to accurately capture the world through writing. It implies that the poet is special because they see the world a certain way and they want to express their view through a poem so that everyone can see how special they are…
I find that writing this sort of poem can be very inhibiting, because you are constantly striving for perfection, unity of content, the balance of sound and sense…It was so freeing when I started caring less about the perfect word and perfect metaphor and started caring more about what happened between the words. Disjunction is okay! I stopped using metaphors completely, and these days I use them very rarely.
But what can I get out of this book at this time in my writing life? I am still interested in the lyric phrase but am interested in using it as part of a larger less lyrical whole. Like, I can see myself using lyric sentences to add texture, or just using a couple to stand alone as very short poems…I am interested in juxtaposition and layers.