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Does poetry have a public? This question circulates amongst indebted writers, whose fretfulness attests less to poetry’s obsolescence than crisis in its present contexts – from a pyramidal contest culture to the MFA as creditor and style guide. Professed anxiety concerning the social status of poetry appears somewhat ironic, however, where a workshopped writing of lyric intimacy presumes to span two spherical privacies, reader and author, by more or less proprietary means. Poetry has been a method of sequester, and to bemoan the absence of reception would be to mistake its would-be public for the proper obverse of the private sphere, namely a market.
This situation both commends and forecloses much coterie writing, not to mention the fantasies of autonomy commonly associated with the epithet “avant-garde,” supplementing a perceived lack of public reception with the self-appraisal of a closed scene. These highly social tendencies often begin in opposition to a perceived hegemony of style, and strive to formalize their own work as a counter-institution. Everybody knows how this story ends – the avant-garde become an institution, thus susceptible to criticism from traditionalists who place themselves on the side of a fantasized public only by dint of secondary exclusion. This oscillation of opinion surely accounts for the fate of many twentieth-century avant-gardes, up to and including the Language writing of the 1970s, a theoretically heady group tendency whose constituent texts emphasize indeterminacy and interpretation. Ironically, the reception of this writing, which sought to close the gap between the work of the writer and that of the reader, has tended toward extreme opprobrium on grounds of unintelligibility, academicism, and worse. Since the inception of this eventually nebulous school, politically motivated realists have stated their opposition in so many versions of the question: does Language poetry have a public? If not, and for want of one, whose interests does it serve instead?
Positions of the Sun, the latest book-length poem by erstwhile and exemplary Language poet Lyn Hejinian, posits a series of better questions: what poetries are already of the public? Are the self-exceptionalizing desires of artistic avant-gardes politically recuperable? Where might one locate the university in this equation, as a site of labor and a space of study, however suppressed by financial incentivation? How do individuals relate to larger demonstrations of agency and feeling, in and between moments of struggle? Composed between April 2008 and July 2015, the prose poems collected in this book correspond not only to the time of financial crisis but to the seasons of popular protest, insofar as these eruptions correspond inseparably themselves. The poem proceeds against the scenery of a university under an austerity regime, and the activity of the Berkeley Solidarity Alliance, a group responding with student and faculty pickets to a series of brutal cutbacks at the University of California, though it is far from straightforward reportage on the excitations of protest. As a work of theory on the social scale of a novel, Positions of the Sun tends closely to the cognitive framework of social experience, and the collective context of cognition, attempting a commensurate poetry.
After the fashion of Hejinian’s My Life, a modular work of memoir published in 1980, Positions of the Sun is composed of abruptly abutting propositions. Where the approach of My Life conveys the discontinuity of personal memory, the present text feels densely argumentative by comparison: a polyvocal and often polemical essay on group formation and dissensus. It is “mimetic of interconnectivity,” as Hejinian writes. As she issues major theses on psychoanalysis and society, dreaming and reality, myriad persons cross her path in their ungainly actuality; and Positions of the Sun carefully inventories the spaces of these shared encounters, embedding its abstract propositions in relation to a particular time and place, and amongst a particular group of people.
Out of Sequence
How can a work of personal writing render the parameters of public space? To start, Hejinian assigns her paragraph a categorical function. The text of My Life was initially comprised of thirty-seven sections with thirty-seven sentences each, a number derived from the age of the author at the time of writing – an ex post facto numerical constraint producing both fugal and fractal effects. Likewise, the text of Positions of the Sun is formed by a tension between quantitative completion and qualitative openness. But Positions proceeds indeterminately, where each chapter corresponds to a two-week span of writing, allotted in advance to the transcription of unfolding events. The text runs to twenty-six such sections, with an additional coda. This number calls to mind the Roman alphabet, a closed set of characters that remains endlessly generative in its re-combinability. In a demonstration against simplistic pictorialism, Hejinian presents an alphabetical list poem with line breaks for each letter, allowing an arbitrary symbol to index a restricted system:
Alphabet, use of apple in
Barrel, rotten apple in
Code, alpha for apple in
Dapple, apple rhymes with
Eden, apple not really the fruit in
Fall, apple falsely figures in man’s
The imposed order of this vocabulary, where each term shares an obscure predicate, mocks the prospect of closure, let alone definitive description. But Hejinian’s text is not so agrammatical as the odd litanizing gesture would suggest. The alphabetical rule deciding enjambment complements Hejinian’s formal predilection for sentences instead of lines, offering a kind of tiered or sequential punctuation. (In Hejinian’s 1978 poem, Writing Is an Aid to Memory, the indentation of each line is determined by the place of its first letter in the alphabet, conveying the surplus signification of the glyph to each stanza’s shapeliness.)
Hejinian’s poetics strain against linearity, hence the emphasis on cardinality rather than order. This produces a range of formal effects identified with the initial output of the so-called Language writers: in particular, the sort of readerly assemblage that Ron Silliman famously terms “the New Sentence.” The name is somewhat provocative, for what was new about the New Sentence, in the mid-seventies at least, had nothing to do with sentences themselves, but with their placement in a paragraph consisting entirely of digression as a formal method. In the writing heralded by Silliman, “the paragraph is a unit of quantity, not logic or argument,” such that the expectation of sequential revelation is abandoned, and each sentence may be explicated only with reference to the “total work.” In many of Hejinian’s projects, these formal parameters are set in advance of writing and only await population by subjective incident, much as an empty allotment of days anticipates unforeseeable activity.
Beyond this intentionally produced opacity, there is ample diaristic precedent for Hejinian’s numerically constrained outline, affording two weeks to the aggregation of each chapter-stanza. This time-based approach recalls the writing practices of Bernadette Mayer or Steve Benson, for example, both of whom use temporal constraints to thematically delimit a creative exercise in its lived specificity. Mayer’s book-length poem Midwinter Day documents December 22, 1978, from start to finish, while her 1994 epistolary, The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters, spans a term of pregnancy. Steve Benson’s usually extemporaneous works are often composed with particular material parameters, such as a gifted notebook, where limited space dictates an allotment of time only in retrospect of social necessity. With these extra-textual constraints in mind, the title of Hejinian’s text assumes regulatory importance, as the sun charts the arc of each day, its movement relative to standpoint.
The diurnal generality of this poem only multiplies its public remit – this is not the lapsed time of a quantitative conceit, but the messily qualitative time of social experiment, narrating a season of protest. In this staging, Hejinian makes political demands upon style: how can the finite and self-referential weft of a given text address the social totality of which it is a quirky specialization, other than symptomatically? Positions of the Sun comes as close to novelistic representation as discontinuous poetry can manage, using a spate of proper nouns to index and attribute the manifold activity of a nebulous assembly. Hejinian herself alludes to the appearance of seventy discrete characters in her afterword, whose individual activity both focuses and reframes the bustle. Most of these names are tripartite – Askari Nate Martin, Roy Robinson Trelaine, Alice Milligan Webster, Lorna Kelly Cole – giving the impression of a genealogy or census, two equally exhaustive genres.
These are not the only names that populate the text, which slows at one point to enumerate the storefronts flanking a passage through the city in capital letters, a typographical belligerence equivalent to the effects of signage. This list offers a conflicted portrait of nominally public space, alternating business names with a parenthetical remark as to their services. Hejinian assumes a utopian contrariness toward these tacky fixtures, which nonetheless allude to a suppressed collectivity in their brazen publicity:
ELMWOOD HEALTH AND MERCANTILE (previously the ELMWOOD PHARMACY, but Vicki the proprietor couldn’t afford to keep on the dour pharmacist, and the whole place is within a few days now of going out of business altogether) … PAPYRUS (one of a chain of greeting card, wrapping paper, specialty invitation shops, with rapidly changing personnel); LORA’S CLOSET (a children’s clothing shop, specializing in used clothes, wooden toys, and seconds); FILIPPO’S (a mediocre Italian restaurant); BLOOMING ALLEY (a flower stall situated in the alley connecting the West side of College Avenue to a small parking lot) … YOUR BASIC BIRD (a pet store, its interior a cacophony of parrot calls, budgie squeaks, and fluttering canaries and finches) … LOLA (a gift shop); LULULEMON …
Historically, the literary catalogue has a vexed relationship to the cities it would name, both overriding and attesting to the specificity of place. As Louis Aragon confesses at the outset of his psychogeographical memoir, Le Paysan de Paris, one literary precondition of the documentary urge that he visits upon a favorite passage of the city is its assured destruction, in order that his written impressions may supersede actuality. To such thinking, the city is a given user’s dream; whereas the literary overlay that Hejinian sets forth is less a version than an emanation, with far too many named corollaries to disappear into a narcissistic user’s reverie.
Structure and Cities
This formal difficulty of both cities and texts is addressed directly throughout Hejinian’s writing, which is itself constituted by the tension between preplanning and occupancy. Poet and critic Jeff Derksen, in Annihilated Time: Poetry and Other Politics, explicitly identifies Hejinian’s writing with an architectural analogue, that of the Megastructure:
The Megastructure is situated at the end of a grand modernist instrumentalist gesture of social and spatial planning which sought to extend into the totality of life, and at the beginning of a postmodernist project of collage, historical references, and vernacular use of architecture that opened toward the current emphasis on flexibility.
By now, the megastructure is an icon of a bygone futurism, cynically applied throughout the capitalized city, but Derksen’s essay propounds a literary afterimage of the megastructure as a utopian accommodation of uncertainty. For Derksen, the characteristic underdetermination of content or utility describes Hejinian’s modular concept of writing, as a gesture toward redeeming structure rather than any contemporary virtue such as flexibility – and as a dialectical assertion of totality from within the present moment. “Within the city’s buildings, the immediate is under perpetual translation and transmission,” Hejinian observes, which insight commends any representational pretense to form.
This structural predicament extends into an argument, as Positions of the Sun presents a major essay on the contemporary situation of the so-called avant-garde. Hejinian begins from the relatively credulous standpoint of reception in order to assert marginal insouciance:
How does a writer, or a serious artist of any kind, make it possible for someone to understand, and then to care about, what he or she is doing? It isn’t out of arrogance that the avant-garde writer doesn’t linger very long over the problem (if there is one) of accessibility implicit in such a question. One key goal of the historical avant-garde was to assert the primacy of art’s autonomy, from which would extend its authority and its self-evident right to significance.
This description condenses a megastructural conceit: the writer cannot accurately anticipate either use or value, but can instead tend to structure and design. Hejinian rejects this fantasy of creative autonomy, which may only express a division of manual and intellectual labor. Rather, insofar as many avant-garde movements aspire less to the future than to immortality, Hejinian insists upon the historicity of their groundbreaking desires.
Hejinian clearly rejects any tactical plea of extra-historicity, describing an artistic partition within society. And her restatement of the problem of autonomy as a question of accessibility impels this essay’s initial question: does poetry have a public, or alternately, what sort of public does poetry project? As Hejinian phrases it: “What schemes bind accessibilities together, what tapes keep sites off-limits, and what are those sites, seemingly so distinct from what’s accessible?” This line of questioning helps to demystify accusations of willful difficulty leveled at the arts, where problems of restricted opportunity and access are attributed to style as though its syntax or vocabulary were already and inherently private. But the public language of Hejinian’s text is not concerned with the university in general as a dispensary of knowledge or style; rather, these sentences address the University of California as a contestable site of employment and investment, narrating pushback by students and campus workers against massive tuition hikes and layoffs. Such material concerns offer a far better place to start a conversation about accessibility and school, where the latter reproduces class values as discourse. Seeing as Hejinian’s contemporaries in the Language school are frequently derided as remote academicians, it seems especially important that a fight to decommodify education — a fight both for and against the university — should serve as backdrop to this essaying poem. From this basis, one might formulate several important questions. On one hand, how often do detractors of an academic tendency simply fault the object of study for the difficulty of acquiring an education? On the other hand, more pressingly, how has the university shielded radical, if not expressly avant-garde, desires from politics, during the Cold War in particular? Hejinian poses these questions only obliquely, appearing to propose a popular experimentalism, immediately forged from the material of social movement.
Throughout Positions of the Sun, Hejinian offers robust thinking on the relationship between the collective and the individual. One suggestive effect of her trademark parataxis is that where a reader’s attention is concerned, any two sentences in succession have the appearance of a logical sequence; so it appears as though the answer to a question (“what are those sites, seemingly so distinct from what’s accessible?”) when the text continues: “We know of a person sleeping that he or she is alive but we wouldn’t say, as he or she sleeps, that he or she is living his or her life.” This statement of Wittgensteinian linguistery, extrapolating a normative rule from common usage, belongs to a poetic micro-genre at which Hejinian excels; for the separate persuasiveness of such sentences, corresponding to respective ‘language games,’ is coyly mitigated by the drifting registers of the so-called Language poem.
If this suggestion, that wakefulness is predicative of living, appears intuitive, it wouldn’t be because nothing transpires in sleep; but because the sleeper remains a passive recipient of oneiric content, inaccessible to others. A suggestive theory of the popular unconscious proceeds from this description of sleep as a social lacuna. “Avant-garde art is an art of shared wakefulness (and perhaps an art of insomniacs),” Hejinian declares in manifesto-like fashion. To this view the social, as the proper medium of artistic activity, is a common dream. (Elsewhere, the privations of sleep are spatialized: “This isn’t a city that ‘never sleeps.’ There’s no bus service between 1 and 5 am. The city is knotted.”)
With this turn, Hejinian personalizes an impasse of many historical avant-gardes, recasting the Modernist work of intra-referential autonomy as a form of social withdrawal, lacking symbolic traction. Over the avidly bibliographizing course of Positions of the Sun, Hejinian moves between The Psychopathology of Everyday Life by Sigmund Freud and The Critique of Everyday Life by Henri Lefebvre, implying something like a revolution of their common object. The tension between antisocial sleepiness and open language is vividly rendered in a dream vignette:
I dream of boards that are made of words instead of wood – “sayings”: colorful slats composed of graffiti, white, pink, aquamarine (the colors with which kitsch seashell objets are decorated). The walls of the subsequent shack, built of these words/boards, are fissured with cracks; the shack is cold and public. I come to this profound conclusion about the nature of language: everything by virtue of it is permeable. Then I dream of a beach; in the dream the word for it is plague, then plage, then page. But I no longer have dreams like that. Dreams are false secrets. That dream is locally trapped in the running after names.
Wordplay is key to any poetic project, and slippage is assured. But in this passage, Hejinian comes to reject the private interchangeability of things. Hereafter, whatever fond node of association becomes a word, they are elaborated together, as a public syntax. In this respect, dream interpretation is not antithetical to public life, but a conceptual recuperation of heretofore cordoned psychic and emotional space. The dream quoted above appears to allegorize such an endeavor, for the house of sticks that Hejinian describes is less a prison-house of language than a shanty of common and recombinable material.
Hejinian’s description of the individual unconscious as “locally trapped” resembles a Marxist critique of psychoanalysis associated with the work of Valentin Voloshinov, whose work finds some of its few American executors in the milieu of Language writing. Commencing from the standpoint of structural linguistics, Voloshinov rejects the postulate of the unconscious altogether, preferring to treat this reservoir of proto-social information as ideological runoff. With great sociological ambition, Voloshinov recommends that any theory of language should include an apprehension of the totality of conditions shaping practical use, in which meaning consists. There is no personal symbology, Voloshinov decides, proceeding from a close but partial reading of Freud, in whose account the personal and historical contingency of unconscious material is already clear. This turn from psychology to social linguistics emphasizes use above all else, such that Voloshinov’s categories have very little descriptive purchase on the useless, extravagant, and even secretive activity of the unconscious.
Near the outset of this book, Hejinian dwells at some length on Freud’s work around bumbling and deferral. Linguistic slips may betray something like unknown knowledge, but the fact of this substratum tempts Hejinian to consider other socially irrecuperable material: “a secret so secret that nobody knows there’s a secret is an example of uncaptioned knowledge.” This highly original description of the unconscious presumes organized repression. The unconscious, Voloshinov writes in Freudianism: A Marxist Critique, “abhors words. We cannot acknowledge our unconscious desires even to ourselves in inner speech.” Voloshinov finds this secrecy – call it uncaptioned – inadmissible, and Hejinian’s rejection of dreams as “false secrets” surely involves the status of this captioning, by which socially moot material becomes accessible to thought and action.
Throughout Positions of the Sun, dream vistas blur with quotidian intrigue; named vectors of mass demonstration and cohabitation extend a discontinuous soliloquy. One might say that the text is only so many captions on captions, enacting a powerful suggestion – “that one possible intention of avant-garde poetry is to obliterate secrecy, so that nothing in it is the outcome of a compulsion to tell.” In this description, the compulsion to tell is itself a means of separation, as the formal effects of lyric intimacy depend upon secrecy – the speaker vaults an arbitrary wall erected within language and affect in order to bestow the emotional spoils of selfhood upon a similarly alienated neighbor. “For a writer of bourgeois inwardness, the highest achievements are dreams,” Hejinian affirms, which brook no arbiter outside of oneself.
The consistency of dreams is one of displacement, in which respect they are already language. Hejinian asserts the constant necessity of interpretation that inheres within the everyday: “I am not against interpretation. On the contrary, it is an activity I tend to engage in with near abandon, seduced by the cognitive pleasures and constructive possibilities it promises, though usually, at interpretation’s end, I’m aware of the arbitrariness, or incompleteness, or gratuitous weirdness, or obviousness, or heavy-handedness of its outcome.” In light of this gratuitousness, it seems obviously strange to speak of an end to interpretation, which serves here as a word for an individual’s agentive stake in the social. Likewise, Hejinian’s interest in dreams remains Freudian insofar as it is interpretative rather than cryptanalytic, “syntactic rather than semantic,” preferring a kind of social allegory to the private substitutions of metaphor.
Throughout Positions of the Sun, Hejinian elaborates upon the massively multi-interpretive endeavor of dreaming collectively. In this respect, the heterogeneous voicings of the text are resolutely non-exhaustive in their attribution. “Perhaps encyclopedic ambitions are best fulfilled unsystematically,” Hejinian writes, marking the tension between totality and multiplicity that Derksen describes by way of the megastructure. If anything, one might suggest that this particular avant-garde text is less architectural than urbanistic in its setting and design.
On this point, Hejinian sets out to reclaim the term “avant-garde” from synonymy with “weakly categorical” labels such as “innovative” or “experimental,” insofar as these denote little more than stylistic tendencies, lacking political vision. Hejinian’s own avant-garde desires entail a transformative disposition toward reality. “In the early days of the Language Writing scene, it was not just structures and methods we changed,” Hejinian relates: “we also changed each other.” Accordingly, Positions of the Sun is a text with a social form, whose seventy-odd characters work on reality together, whether arranging music or protesting in the streets. If “the paratactic present” of this writing is intended to resist the allure of unseemly generalization, it nonetheless tends to a picture of totality.
Positions of the Sun
The sun remains a central metaphor, as the title of the book alludes to an everydayness that cyclically divides linear time. “Chronology is not the proper syntax of time,” Hejinian asserts, and her account of human activity as so many concurrent eddies in a stream effectively spatializes the temporal conceit organizing the text, reconstituting the tension that Derksen describes between empty form and unanticipated content. “Everyday life (vernacular repetition) is everything that forms common grounds,” Hejinian says, alluding to a manner of cohabitation in the language of both poetic and architectural antecedent. After the suggestion of Henri LeFebvre, one of Hejinian’s primary interlocutors, one may read the solar conceit as a cross-rhythm to mechanical progress, postulating a less alienated human presence on the earth.
The eponymous positions of the sun not only correspond to times of day, but describe a source of energy that suffuses the totality of life on earth, indicating a standpoint of collectivity. Hejinian begins with a generic aubade: “The sun is rising.” This extends throughout the text, blessing every endeavor: “O sun on the avant-garde,” Hejinian exclaims, reestablishing its self-professed specialism on a shared planet. According to Georges Bataille, earth’s sun is a blinding emblem of pre- and post-scarcity, an obviously communist beneficence. It is a public institution in its rising, and the proper obstacle to be negated by a skeptical epistemology. Hejinian adopts a similarly praiseful paganism: “Were the sun able to see everyday life to its depths, it might think heretically, with us.”
This language of heliocentrism and heresy evokes enlightenment: a program of exaggerated independence underpinning many avant-gardes. But Hejinian rejects this focal metaphor for a more comprehensive solar allegory, derogating the ideal of a single individuated intellect. Her speakers are each of the sun without anyone presuming centrality unto themselves. In this, the book describes a phased practice of cohabitation and collaboration, attuned to named and unnamed masses. “The sky above is clear, the moon is in phase. On the other side of the world the sun shines. There are many solar allegories – ”
Hejinian uses this glaringly evident sign of totality to organize registers of difference, suggesting a calendrical and categorical analogy to the megastructural conceit by which Derksen reads her earlier work. In this respect, as a record of inchoate struggle and an inquiry into the sentimental basis for collective engagement, Positions of the Sun comprises a major extension of a singular life-writing project, canvassing beyond the author’s dreamlike recollection in a spirit of public creativity, and remaking the contexts of its political legibility.
Cam Scott is a poet, critic, and non-musician from Winnipeg, Canada, Treaty 1 territory. He is the author of ROMANS/SNOWMARE, published by ARP Books in 2019, and the artistic director of send + receive: a festival of sound.