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The Language of Inquiry

The Language of Inquiry

Lyn Hejinian
Copyright Date: 2000
Edition: 1
Pages: 447
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  • Book Info
    The Language of Inquiry
    Book Description:

    Lyn Hejinian is among the most prominent of contemporary American poets. Her autobiographical poemMy Life,a best-selling book of innovative American poetry, has garnered accolades and fans inside and outside academia.The Language of Inquiryis a comprehensive and wonderfully readable collection of her essays, and its publication promises to be an important event for American literary culture. Here, Hejinian brings together twenty essays written over a span of almost twenty-five years. Like many of the Language Poets with whom she has been associated since the mid-1970s, Hejinian turns to language as a social space, a site of both philosophical inquiry and political address. Central to these essays are the themes of time and knowledge, consciousness and perception. Hejinian's interests cover a range of texts and figures. Prominent among them are Sir Francis Bacon and Enlightenment-era explorers; Faust and Sheherazade; Viktor Shklovsky and Russian formalism; William James, Hannah Arendt, and Martin Heidegger. But perhaps the most important literary presence in the essays is Gertrude Stein; the volume includes Hejinian's influential "Two Stein Talks," as well as two more recent essays on Stein's writings.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92227-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. 1-6)

    In putting together this collection of essays, I have been aware of the fact that they will be read as poetics rather than poetry. But it would be a mistake to regard the poetics represented here as a discourse for which poetry is merely exemplary, one for which poetry stands at a distance, objectified and under scrutiny. Rather, these essays assume poetry as the dynamic process through which poetics, itself a dynamic process, is carried out. The two practices are mutually constitutive and they are reciprocally transformative. It is at least in part for this reason that poetry has its...

  4. A Thought Is the Bride of What Thinking
    (pp. 7-21)

    Prose is not a genre but a multitude of genres.

    Superficially, this says no more than that prose can be (and is) used in the service of one or another of numerous genres (all those, in fact, that are not poetry). But, this being the case, prose, taken in and of itself, may be regarded as the site of numerous simultaneous genres; it is a genre after all, a genre of multitudes.

    In 1975, when I wrote the three short works that came to comprise “A Thought Is the Bride of What Thinking,” it was in prose and in multitudes—...

  5. Preface to Writing Is an Aid to Memory
    (pp. 22-24)

    In the fall of 1977, not long after my family and I had moved back to Berkeley from Mendocino County (and into a neighborhood very near where I had lived as a child), Geoff Young, the editor of The Figures, invited me to write a manuscript for his press. The result wasWriting Is an Aid to Memory.¹In that work, I attempted to explore some epistemological relationships that hold time to language and language to time. This is an area that continued to fascinate me, and I took up the problem again when writingMy Life(the book that...

  6. If Written Is Writing
    (pp. 25-29)

    “If Written Is Writing” was written in 1978, specifically for one of the first issues of Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein’s journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, the advent of which seemed to invite (and even demand) response. Like most of the other poets with whom I was in constant conversation during this time, I felt under increasing pressure to write essays—or, rather, to write thinking: to propose, and especially to involve, poetry with politics and metaphysics. Such a project was very much at odds with commonly held notions of poetry as an unworldly enterprise. The sense of being at odds—the frustration...

  7. Who Is Speaking?
    (pp. 30-39)

    The question “Who is speaking?” is uttered from within the social relationship that binds together the problematics of power and ethicality. As the question was first posed in the early 1980s as a topic for discussion by a group of Bay Area women poets and intellectuals, it constituted a challenge to certain styles of discourse, lest they begin to circumscribe possibilities in the public life of the poetry community. Erudite, authoritative, contentious—that was one of the public voices of poetry. To contribute to its formation, one had to be able to produce commentary with enormous rapidity. One had to...

  8. The Rejection of Closure
    (pp. 40-58)

    “The Rejection of Closure” was originally written as a talk and given at 544 Natoma Street, San Francisco, on April 17, 1983.¹ The “Who Is Speaking?” panel discussion had taken place several weeks earlier, and with the “Poetry & Philosophy” issue ofPoetics Journal(volume 3) about to come out, Barrett Watten and I had just decided to devotePoetics Journal4 to the theme of “Women & Language.”² Within the writing community, discussions of gender were frequent, and they were addressed both to perceptible practical problems (instances of injustice) immediately affecting people’s work and lives and to longer-term questions...

  9. Language and “Paradise”
    (pp. 59-82)

    The Guard,the last publication in the Tuumba chapbook series, appeared in September 1984, a year after my first visit to the Soviet Union and my first meeting with the poet Arkadii Dragomoshchenko (to whomThe Guardis dedicated).¹ “Language and ‘Paradise,’” a purported exegesis of portions of that work, was written a year later, after a second, much longer visit to the USSR. There is, then, a Russian context for these two related works—a context which is more fully developed, of course, in my “short Russian novel”Oxota.And the figure of the guard(ian) has an identity in...

  10. Two Stein Talks
    (pp. 83-130)

    In 1933 my father, Chaffee Earl Hall Jr., an aspiring writer (he became an academic administrator and a notable painter), wrote to Gertrude Stein. He was a college student, attending the University of California in Berkeley, to which he commuted from his parents’ Oakland house. Like Stein, he too had grown up in Oakland, or more precisely in an enclave within Oakland known as Piedmont, in what was to him a terrifically stifling middle-class milieu. He was most certainly a misfit there, with a personality and interests that were largely incomprehensible to his parents and peers, and with dreams of...

  11. Line
    (pp. 131-134)

    My brief comment on “the line” was written in 1988, prompted by an invitation from Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein to contribute to the “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Lines” section of a book onThe Line in Postmodern Poetry.¹ The topic was of interest to me because, after a prolonged period of working with sentences, I was eager suddenly to disrupt their integrity, escape their confines. For me, the “new sentence”² had taken on declarative properties so pronounced that they were (as Bob Grenier pointed out one day in conversation) beginning to sound like imperatives; to me they had become claustrophobic, oppressive.


  12. Strangeness
    (pp. 135-160)

    The metonymic association that justified (to my mind) a comparison between lines of travel, lines of investigation, and lines of poetry in the early talk (see the previous essay, “Line”) did so on empirical grounds. This talk was one of a series curated by Bob Perelman and it was given at the San Francisco Art Institute, probably in 1979. I no longer have a copy of the talk nor of any notes I used in preparing it, but I remember the occasion with particular clarity. I derived the logic motivating the talk very much as I derived that of “Strangeness,”...

  13. Materials (for Dubravka Djuric)
    (pp. 161-176)

    On April 2, 1990, the Serbian poet Dubravka Djuric wrote to me from Belgrade with some interview questions for a short essay to accompany her translations into Serbian of sections fromMy Life.The essay, interview, and translations appeared in the journalPoljain December 1990.

    The questions were fairly basic, as was appropriate for their context, but in looking back over them now, I particularly appreciate Dubravka Djuric’s interest in the relationship between social materiality and literary praxis. The point that there is such a relationship (that poetry is a socially material practice), and that I had exploring it...

  14. Comments for Manuel Brito
    (pp. 177-198)

    I wrote the “Comments for Manuel Brito” in response to a set of fourteen questions that I received from Manuel Brito, a scholar and editor based in Tenerife, in the Canary Islands. With the intention of conducting interviews with several American poets, Brito had been doing research in the library at the University of California, San Diego, whose Archive for New Poetry in the Mandeville Special Collections contains materials relating to the work of numerous contemporary American poets. In the end, Brito interviewed twelve poets: Rae Armantrout, Charles Bernstein, Norma Cole, Michael Davidson, Carla Harryman, Fanny Howe, Michael Palmer, Jerome...

  15. The Person and Description
    (pp. 199-208)

    In the fall of 1988, Carla Harryman undertook to curate three evenings of discussion on “The Poetics of Everyday Life.” They took place in Berkeley at Small Press Distribution, and most of the papers that were given were subsequently published inPoetics Journal9: “The Person” (1991).

    The discussion in which I was invited to participate was addressed to the person, seemingly a figure of everyday life and even, one might say, a figure that dominates it. It is at the level of the everyday that one can most easily speak of “my life.” It is at this level that...

  16. The Quest for Knowledge in the Western Poem
    (pp. 209-231)

    The somewhat sardonically titled “Quest for Knowledge in the Western Poem” was written in 1992 for presentation at the Naropa Institute’s Summer Writing Program. 1992 saw various quincentennial celebrations of Christopher Columbus’s “discovery of America,” and a large part of Naropa’s summer program was devoted to a critique of the historiographic framing of that event. The essay was subsequently published inDisembodied Poetics,a collection of Naropa lectures edited by Anne Waldman and Andrew Schelling.¹

    The reference to the “West” is to be explained in part by the quincentennial context, but in its emphasis on the frontier (or on the...

  17. La Faustienne
    (pp. 232-267)

    The first version of “La Faustienne” was presented as a talk at Temple University, Philadelphia, in March 1994. The subsequent revisions (and, I believe, improvements) are much indebted to Barrett Watten, who was of great help as I was preparing the essay for publication (it appeared inPoetics Journal10: “Knowledge” in 1998).

    I had not yet read Marina Warner’sFrom the Beast to the Blondewhen I wrote “La Faustienne,” but Warner’s wonderful book came out at around the time I was doing so, and I read it several months later.¹ Though she only briefly mentionsThe Arabian Nights...

  18. Three Lives
    (pp. 268-295)

    The essay called “Three Lives” was written in 1998 as an introduction to a planned Green Integer Press edition of Gertrude Stein’sThree Lives.¹ The invitation to write such an introduction provided me with a context in which to examine Stein’s approach to psychological investigation. It forced me to confront Stein’s interest in human character in the light of my own seeming resistance to such an interest. To apply critical analysis to another person’s character has seemed to me to be of dubious ethicity and I have had doubts, too, about the possibility of trusting any of the findings of...

  19. Forms in Alterity: On Translation
    (pp. 296-317)

    In August of 1998, the Swedish Academy sponsored a four-day Nobel Symposium on “The Translation of Poetry and Poetic Prose” in Stockholm. I was invited to participate as a discussant on the panel devoted to “The Translation of Metrical and/or Rhymed Poetry” and to present a response to a paper by Judith Moffett, a formalist poet and translator of nineteenth-century Swedish narrative verse. As it happened, pressing circumstances made it impossible for Ms. Moffett to get anything more than the title and a brief synopsis of her paper to the discussants until very near the date of the symposium, and...

  20. Barbarism
    (pp. 318-336)

    In the spring of 1995 I spent a month in Australia and New Zealand, visiting various universities to lecture and give readings on a tour very kindly organized on my behalf by Professor Anne Brewster, who was then teaching at Curtin Institute of Technology in Perth, Western Australia. The preceding fall at New College of California I had taught a course called “Romantic Theory and American Event,” focusing on both parallels and disjunctures between the (usually European) literary imagining of “America” and writings that came out of actual experience of it (but that were not necessarily more “realistic” as a...

  21. Reason
    (pp. 337-354)

    Reason constitutes both the method and the object ofWestern philosophical investigations. It is philosophy’s fundamental concern. But as a foundation it is everywhere fissured; reason is a concept that constantly bifurcates.

    As a method, reason is analytic. It asks why things are as they are, but it also asks if and why they must and should be so; it identifies determining principles or events (both perfect and efficient or proximate causes) and it makes choices (determining on final causes). It is this latter area that is of particular interest to me in relation to poetics, which I see as a...

  22. A Common Sense
    (pp. 355-382)

    In various conversations over the years, Charles Bernstein has taken exception to my use of the termtheoryto apply to anything that poetry does. In part, as I understand him, he objects on the grounds that theory detaches itself from the object of its scrutiny and pretends to authority over it. And I suspect that he might also share Ludwig Wittgenstein’s view that theory has no practical value. (“For me,” Wittgenstein is quoted as saying, “a theory is without value. A theory gives me nothing.”)¹

    Having myself posited theory as a near-synonym for thought, I wanted to examine more...

  23. Happily
    (pp. 383-406)

    In responding to Dubravka Djuric’s question about the origins of my interest in writing, I said that it was the materiality of writing that first drew me to it, the prospect of working with “the typewriter and the dictionary.”¹ This is accurate as far as it goes, and I find among the quotations I’ve written into notebooks over the years a number describing their author’s being prompted to creativity not by an idea or experience but by the materials of his or her medium. Thus Roland Barthes writes: “The word transports me because of the notion that I am going...

    (pp. 407-420)
    (pp. 421-422)
  26. INDEX
    (pp. 423-438)