Sunday, April 20, 2008

STL #64: writing, memory, and knowledge

"a clock clink hardly the solid links/and retell, more retell, and all retell"

This post has been taking up time I don't really have right now, so I am posting it in less than finished shape. I hope to revisit and extend it sometime, probably into some other form.

Like a lot of people, I know Lyn Hejinian's work primarily through My Life, which is probably the only book in the so-called "Language" tradition to achieve anything like a 'breakthrough success' or become a 'beloved classic.' It is taught, though probably less than widely, in colleges and high schools. My Life is read and liked by people who have the curiosity to pursue the Language poet's critique of language as a representational medium, but who aren't consumed by that critique to the point where all language is inevitably about language. (And therefore can live a normal life.) I am more than the casual fan--I find language-oriented writing, which can sometimes but not always be sorted into the categories of theory and poetry, to be very powerful and a necessary mode for understanding the world today--yet I had never read Hejinian beyond My Life. I corrected that oversight by reading her earlier volume Writing Is an Aid to Memory yesterday, and since the edition was not in a fit condition to keep, I thought I should type up my notes for posterity (to put that memory into writing).* Where My Life was written in 37 blocks of prose (expanded to 45) that all relate to the title, Writing is written in 42 lineated blocks that explore the important relationship of writing to memory, and of both to knowledge. As readers of My Life and her theoretical writings (though it's all theory: ""writing constitutes the mind of the/theorist in the mind/Latin is a very genteel business") know, writing, memory, and knowledge all exist within the same medium--language.

In the Preface to Writing, Hejinian writes that she is "always conscious of the disquieting runs of life slipping by, that the message remains undelivered, opposed to me..." Memory, which follows along this rush of experience is "the girth, or again." Because the reliving the past again through language struggles to embrace the whole missing past (the girth of it), writing is not so much an aid to memory as a supplement, adornment, or extension of the past, or "a gain." The memorial function of language cannot fill in the gaps of onrushing time, but, paradoxically, it overfills these gaps: "Argument demonstrates that truth cannot end. Continuous quantities, like continuous qualities, are endless like the truth, for it is impossible to carry them." Prefiguring the images of cats and dogs in her poem, Hejinian ends the Preface with the suggestive line "Though we keep company with cats and dogs, all thoughtful people are impatient, with a restlessness made inevitable with language." This image of restlessness shows the pull of writing against the memorial function--though equipped to memorialize life gone by, it just as soon charge ahead.

Any individual section of this poem might be described by "that sweet little block/the taste of a larger pattern." The larger pattern is Hejinian's argument about memory and language which by nature of subject and medium is "endless like the truth. Like language, "memory only mimics/paint." Memory works, supposedly, by removing a part from a whole, and preserving it--but these blocks are necessarily pieces of the whole. Memorials, ruins, diaries, --these are seen again and again in her text. The complete sixth section reads

you must show yourself to catch
to be amused, to equate the man, to
shoot his autobiographical work.

This equation of the record and the subject is the idealized goal of language and memory, but is unattainable. Is the job of writing then "recognizing patterns or pruning the truth"? A lot of pruning happens in Writing. Periods of ellipses are broken down into physical images in the poem ("link rule dots"), and in fact the poem is brimming with conceptual "ellipsis [that] makes its promise leaving us to get out." Faced with these gaps, we are forced to ask "how did this happen like an excerpt"?

The question is difficult to answer, and difficult to ask. This writing is less than pellucid. The first line, "apple is shot nod" is uninterpretable as sentence, and followed immediately by non-signifying morpheme ("ness"). Throughout the poem, Hejinian incorporates little known words and coins nonce words like "ting," "persion," "guage". She truncates existing words ("guage" from "language") , and coins reasonably acceptable terms like "pensated change" (presumably thoughtful change), but because none of these are in dictionary, the poem moves along resistant to exterior authority. At one point she writes "I remember a very good joke, something which everyone/can understand/as thoughts should be." But aren't.

As a forty-two block poem unified by thought if not action, Writing, like any longish poem, begs comparison to other long poems, most notably for Hejinian are Pound's and Zukofksy's. LZ seems manifest in several places in this poem. In the Preface, Hejinian evokes Zukofsky in a passage, which sounds like a quotation from Bottom: "Knowledge is part of the whole, as hope is, from which love seeks to contrast knowledge with separation, and certainty with the temporal." LZ almost manifest in Block 19, from its numeric/alphabetic incantations to its violin music:

number city and numerical the alphabet
do trees in the thickness of thoughts
glides out of the minute
across as through thread
fiddle by the rough of hidden music
it were otherwise quickly and hours each rate
rough most better of recent dark
two borders a series takes
as through thick bits to any limit
fixing do trees glide two rates
trot of taught beauty
hour my daily connection like an edge trod
every blind fuddle something sweet.....

Block 32, on the other hand, might be an undercover appearance by Ezra Pound. On rereading, I find many potential references:

"all small colors have colors with an infinite number of/images" (Pound's gold)
"we may take the smoke between the eye/and a background" (historical backdrop)
"The mess of air rises five times bluer
of the same size
between the great variations and a background
veiled from a bench and without precise
limits vaguely economic
populist: sum at the daily paper is a little volume
bandit through chew deal abstract lack" (lateness in history, closer to Zuk's diction tho)

but what really struck me where these lines which I think acknowledge the weight of the cultural archive that is everywhere in Pound:

"history lovers look backward at the daily paper/thrown to a better philosophy"
"yellow-papered thousands but tacks/in depth or to speak to the house of a great man/chosen were from tent quotations"
"many other are luscious mentioned
chant ships may happen
cooper different wooden stack and pin.... goats and high wages
trade each social busily... ideas a happy little opera"

While Pound thinks of knowledge as the production of history, that can be combed through and sorted, as a "happy little opera" that can be contained in time and space. Zuk sees it as a function of language that is always rife with connection, with continuous quantities and qualities. I think that it is to Zuk's mission that Hejinian relates late in the poem:
"I suppose a dictionary with a rhythmic base
an impulse of remembering
could show what I could"

and in the final block

"I study is material
thoughtfulness collage bit river
the test apple bank as material think is
sense difference later differ doubt the


I mentioned that Writing predates My Life, but Hejinian had already started work on it as several hints divulge. She seems to refer to its structure: "nothing less is done in one year block/cut it only in dark reduction/how ness posites/autobiography sees the world." And she is more specific in referring to the thirty-seven annual blocks in "the more regretted cozy paradise/the nature of my thirty-seven of whom/my own astonished sequel." (The astonishment of My Life is seen in Writing as well, occasionally as "wonderment." Even as she was working on the volume at hand, it's evident that she had a sense of a major work in the offing: "I am impatient to finish in order to begin." Like many of the so-called Language poets, Hejinian has a sunny disposition toward her work and her world. The complications of language which prevent memory from definitively preserving the past aren't something to despair over: "memory is a trick of coincidence/which overturned has invisibly legible/use." That "legible use" is the always astonishing creation through language of memory and knowledge.

*If these notes seem more disjointed than usual, it is probably due to the fact that in getting rid of the book, I became intent on "saving" all the "good" parts I marked. I've tried to weave these into something coherent, but no doubt failed again.

**Cats and dogs appear throughout the poem. As an example, section 9 begins with allusion to the jazz idiom: "a cat is 'in time'/ between wind and water a queer character" while the first line of section 10 combines the wind and water into "rough plays smooth the surface of dogs"