The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Spotlight on … Lyn Hejinian My Life (1980)


‘Poet, essayist, translator, and publisher Lyn Hejinian is a founding figure of the Language poetry movement of the 1970s and an influential force in the world of experimental and avant-garde poetics. Her poetry is characterized by an unusual lyricism and descriptive engagement with the everyday. She is the author of many poetry collections, including My Life and My Life in the Nineties (Wesleyan University Press, 2013), The Book of a Thousand Eyes (Omnidawn, 2012), The Fatalist (Omnidawn, 2003), and her landmark work My Life (Burning Deck, 1980). A native Californian, she teaches in the English Department at the University of California, Berkeley.

‘Like most Language writing, Hejinian’s work enacts a poetics that is theoretically sophisticated. While Language writing is stylistically diverse and, as a movement, difficult to reduce to a particular style, most writers in this group are concerned with writing in non-standardized, often non-narrative forms. Language writing is community-centered and often takes as its subject progressive politics and social theory. Hejinian’s work, for example, is committed to exploring the political ramifications of the ways that language is typically used. Her work differs, however, from the traditional, identity-affirming, political poetry of most left-wing writers as much as it does from main-stream poets. The poet Juliana Spahr has written of Hejinian, “It is easier to trace the influence of language philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s aphoristic statement that ‘the limits of my language mean the limits of my world,’ or to apply Viktor Shklovsky’s theory of ‘making strange’ to Hejinian’s poetry than it is to relate her work to the contemporary poetry usually anthologized in the Norton or Heath anthologies of American literature.”

‘Although Language writing tends to be anti-confessional and antirealist, Hejinian’s work does not reject these modes. Her long “novels” My Life (2002) and Oxata (1991) unabashedly draw on her own experiences and are in some ways recognizably autobiographical. Rather, Hejinian’s work insists that alternative means of expression are necessary to truly represent the confessional or the real. Her work, repeatedly concerned with biography or autobiography, explores the relationship between alternative writing practices and the subjectivity that these genres often obscure. The alternative form that Hejinian uses most frequently is what has come to be called the “new sentence,” a form of prose poem composed mainly of sentences that have no clear transitions. The gap created by a text that moves from subject to subject invites the reader to participate, to bring his or her own reading to the text.

‘Crucial to understanding Hejinian’s work is the realization that it cultivates, even requires, an act of resistant reading. Spahr noted, “Her work is deliberately unsettling in its unpredictability, its diversions from conventions, the way it is out of control.” In her essay “The Rejection of Closure,” published in The Language of Iniquiry (2002), a selection of her theoretical writings, Hejinian develops a theory of an “open text” that defines both her earlier work and her current work. “An open text,” she writes, “is open to the world and particularly to the reader….[It] invites participation, rejects the authority of the writer over the reader and thus, by analogy, the authority implicit in other (social, economic, cultural) hierarchies.” To provoke the reader’s participation, the open text engages in a series of disruptive techniques that expose the reader to the possibilities of meaning that he or she brings to the text.

‘Hejinian’s commitment to the Language movement and its techniques is evident throughout her work. Her first book-length collection, Writing Is an Aid to Memory (1978), investigates the confessional systems of memory and the difficulties of portraying these systems without smoothing over the questions they raise. An example of Hejinian’s “open text” is the autobiographical My Life. Spahr regarded My Life as “currently the most important of Hejinian’s work,” noting that it has attracted much scholarly attention. Poet and critic Lisa Samuels, in a similar vein, has advocated the inclusion of My Life in the academic “canon.” This work, through its attention to alternative and multiple ways of telling, refuses to invoke the transparent language conventions that typically compose autobiography.

‘On a trip to Leningrad with her husband, Hejinian met a variety of contemporary poets who would provide the inspiration for Leningrad (1991). It is a typical Language movement text, even written collaboratively, as is common in the movement. The four poets in this collection alternate voices and discuss various ways post-glasnost society forces them to confront their own politics of encounter. Hejinian’s engagement with Russian poets and poetics has profoundly influenced her work. Her years-long collaboration with the Russian poet Arkadii Dragomoschenko has resulted in a theater piece, film script, and translations of each into the other’s language. It also led to Oxata (1991), a work that displays Hejinian’s interest in form, prose and the self-disclosures of language. Based loosely on Aleksandr Pushkin’s long poem, Eugene Onegin, the work shows, in Marjorie Perloff’s estimation, how “the long poems of our time … cannot be pigeonholed.”

‘A prolific writer, Hejinian’s work since Oxata has been various and wide-ranging. Her long “autobiographical” poem, My Life, has been twice reprinted and updated. Originally 38 stanzas of 38 lines—Hejinian’s age at the time of initial publication—the work is now 45 stanzas of 45 lines. Her long poem Happily (2000) met with great acclaim and was included in a collection of her essays, The Language of Inquiry (2002). Selecting from over 25 years of work, the book offers an illuminating glimpse of Hejinian’s influences and preoccupations, especially the centrality of Gertrude Stein to her development as a writer and thinker. Reviewing the book for the Boston Review, Brian Kim Stefans alleged that by “extending the frame of the ‘poet’s essay’ beyond issues of form and tradition and into an open-ended philosophical dialogue that engages with one in the very act of reading a book, alone at home or in a crowded cafe.” Hejinian’s continued interest in notions of the “experimental” is evident in some of her most recent work, including Saga/Circus (2009). Again in the Boston Review, Joyelle McSweeney noted how the two long poems of the book “make short work of narrative and dismantle genre with an alert and damaging wit.” McSweeney concluded, “the possibilities within Hejinian’s ouevre are inexhaustible, [h]er working and reworking of writing’s generic and epistemological potentials and capabilities is unending. In this life’s work, each falling short produces a conceptual distance into which writing can move.”

‘Since the 1970s, when Hejinian began writing, many of the techniques and interests of Language writing have moved from the margins to the fore of American poetry; Hejinian and her fellow Language poets such as Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein, and Rae Armantrout have also found employment in academia as professors and visiting writers, complicating the “oppositional” stance of much of their early work. Discussing the newly-anthologized status of language writing with Craig Dworkin in an interview originally published in Idiom #3, Hejinian noted “Both the big Messerli anthology and the Norton have the overt ambition to define and historicize a lot of activity, and they’re going to do that. They are going to be, for a long time now, the avenue through which people come to understand and be exposed to this work. That may be good for your generation: there it is, that’s history, now we can get on with what we’re doing. But for me, the big challenge is to remember that this story is not adequate, that it’s not the whole story, that these books don’t feel like what it really was—they don’t really show it.”’ — Poetry Foundation



Lyn Hejinian @ Wikipedia
Lyn Hejinian @ PennSound
Lyn Hejinian Imagines Life on Mars
‘Ten Remarkable Interpretations’, by Lyn Hejinian
“Things Predicted Are Always Restricted”: Lyn Hejinian’s Anti-Sonnets
‘Dreaming Something Else’, by Lyn Hejinian
Lyn Hejinian: Everything is Imminent in Anything
Lyn Hejinian and Russian Estrangement
Living (1983–85) by Lyn Hejinian
Encoding and Representing Repetition in Lyn Hejinian’s My Life
Resignifying Autobiography: Lyn Hejinian’s My Life
Linguistic Innovativeness & Mnemonic Textuality in Lyn Hejinian’s My Life and Writing is an Aid to Memory
Eight justifications for canonizing Lyn Hejinian’s My Life
Microreview: Lyn Hejinian, My Life and My Life in the Nineties
The Mnemonics of Autobiography: Lyn Hejinian’s My Life
The poetics of presentation: Lyn Hejinian’s My Life project
Objectivist Form and Feminist Materialism in Lyn Hejinian’s My Life
‘Infidelity to an Impossible Task’: postmodernism, feminism and Lyn Hejinian’s ‘My Life’
Buy ‘My Life’



Lyn Hejinian: Poetic Beginnings

Lunch Poems: Lyn Hejinian

Lyn Hejinian in conversation with Kate Fagan – 9 July 2014



from Jacket2


Filreis: There’s a beautiful passage in your book The Fatalist in which you get to say something that may or may not have to do with your My Life project — you notice I didn’t say may or may not have to do with “your life” —

Hejinian: That would be confusing for all of us.

Filreis: I’m missing the context of the whole when I quote this, but we can go back to it if we need to.

Hejinian: Isn’t every explanation like every autobiography (in which the author shows how everything in life ultimately holds together or how everything in life’s ultimately holding together is the life) sentimental?

Filreis: So isn’t every explanation like every autobiography — parentheses sentimental? And then: For that I want a large format and I don’t want my face anywhere on it.

Hejinian: You got that right.

Filreis: I don’t want my face anywhere on it. It’s not just a political catastrophe we are living through.

So, I have two questions about that fantastic passage. And we know better than to ask of a Lyn Hejinian piece of writing that uses newish sentences and juxtaposes things — especially given the context, you know, the way you composed this thing — then to jam those two things together, but in a way that is my question.

It’s not just a political catastrophe we are living through, which rhetorically implies it is a political catastrophe, but there are other catastrophes. So my question is: Beyond the political catastrophe we are living through, what other catastrophes are we living through? And what, if anything, does that have to do with this problem of explanation and autobiography in the desire to have your picture on the book My Life?

Hejinian: That’s a very good question, and almost impossible to answer adequately.

I was using the term political in a relatively narrow sense when writing that comment. In some ways, I think, one can use the term political to describe anything that affects humans, anything that affects living creatures. The ecological disaster that is underway now, I think, is a political disaster of a kind.

It certainly is being furthered by politicians. For example, those who won’t sign the Kyoto Accords, which is just the tiny beginning of acknowledging that there is a disaster underway.

But I also think there is a link to the word “sentimental” in that. I was playing on two sides of the term sentimental. One is the pejorative sense of “sentimental,” which I think informs the current climate that is always suggesting that what humans most want when they’re troubled is closure. That closure is going to resolve things. That we get over things once we have closure. And I am resentful of, and deeply troubled by, the impulse or the notion that we should all be getting over everything instead of actually living through it and maintaining ourselves in relationship to it.

So, in that sense it’s merely sentimental to try and get everything to cohere and then “have closure,” whereby everything is neatly fixed and fits together: the jigsaw puzzle is squared up, no pieces are missing, and you can put it back in the box and achieve closure.

But on the other side, I think that the term “sentimental” or “sentimentality,” in the eighteenth-century usage, is extremely interesting and dynamic and actually appears in what ends up as postmodern irony. Think, for example, of the work of Laurence Sterne — that would be maybe the most familiar writer, although if you are crazy about Diderot, you can look at some of Diderot’s writings also. It is very fragmentary and witty at the very point where lots of gaps occur, in, for example, Sterne’s novella or novel, A Sentimental Journey. That title, by the way, has been used repeatedly by modernist and then postmodern writers as an homage to Laurence Sterne, and precisely, I think, because of how sentiment works in it. For example, Victor Shklovsky, the Russian Formalist poet, wrote a book called A Sentimental Journey and the Bay-area Language School poet Kit Robinson wrote a long work called A Sentimental Journey, just to name two instances. In A Sentimental Journey, whenever anything occurs in which it is impossible to say anything about it, Sterne breaks off, and he breaks off often for very hilarious reasons: an orgasmic moment, or at the glimpse of an ankle, or the thought of a glass of wine! The ruptures or disjunctions are markers of feelings which are beyond speech, and markers of strong sensibility or sentimentality therefore, but not in a maudlin or easy way.

Another example is Langston Hughes’s two-volume autobiographical work: The Big Sea and I Wonder as I Wander. As you know if you are familiar with those books, they are written in vignettes, and very short vignettes. And between those vignettes is where the sentiment lies, where the deep emotion lies. He never speaks of homophobia, of racism, or of the difficulties of his life as a left-wing African American gay poet, but you feel it in the book, in those gaps. And they are also very ironic gaps. Irony arises when you say one thing and mean another, which is to say that you don’t say something — and it’s the not saying that is sentimental in the positive sense.

So, I am not sure how I said that in that sentence.

Filreis: No, it’s fantastic. So, the larger catastrophe is our failure to understand the latter sense of sentiment —

Hejinian: And to keep filling in the gaps with blather, drivel that is sentimental in the vulgar sense —

Filreis: So the picture on the faux-autobiography, on the autobiography, is a way of trying to do a “been there, done that, got it” thing.

So, do you remember to whom you were addressing or who is the addressee of that statement?

Hejinian: I don’t remember.

Filreis: Okay.

Hejinian: I really don’t. I’m not hedging here.



Lyn Hejinian My Life
Green Integer Books

‘Recognized today as one of the great works of contemporary American literature, My Life is at once poetic autobiography, personal narrative, a woman’s fiction, and an ongoing dialogue with the poet and her experience. Upon its first publication by Sun & Moon Press (the edition reprinted here) the publication Library Journal described the book as one that “is an intriguing journey that both illuminates and perplexes, teases and challenges, as it reveals an innovative artist at work.”‘ — Green Integer


A name trimmed with colored ribbons

They are seated in the shadows husking corn, shelling peas. Houses of wood set in the ground. I try to find the spot at which the pattern on the floor repeats. Pink, and rosy, quartz. They wade in brackish water. The leaves outside the window tricked the eye, demanding that one see them, focus on them, making it impossible to look past them, and though holes were opened through the foliage, they were as useless as portholes underwater looking into a dark sea, which only reflects the room one seeks to look out from. Sometimes into benevolent and other times into ghastly shapes. It speaks of a few of the rather terrible blind. I grew stubborn until blue as the eyes overlooking the bay from the bridge scattered over its bowls through a fading light and backed by the protest of the bright breathless West. Each bit of jello had been molded in tiny doll dishes, each trembling orange bit a different shape, but all otherwise the same. I am urged out rummaging into the sunshine, and the depths increase of blue above. A paper hat afloat on a cone of water. The orange and gray bugs were linked from their mating but faced in opposite directions, and their scrambling amounted to nothing. This simply means that the imagination is more restless than the body. But, already, words. Can there be laughter without comparisons. The tongue lisps in its hilarious panic. If, for example, you say, “I always prefer being by myself,” and, then, one afternoon, you want to telephone a friend, maybe you feel you have betrayed your ideals. We have poured into the sink the stale water in which the iris died. Life is hopelessly frayed, all loose ends. A pansy suddenly, a web, a trail remarkably’s a snail’s. It was an enormous egg, sitting in the vineyard—an enormous rock-shaped egg. On that still day my grandmother raked up the leaves beside a particular pelargonium. With a name like that there is a lot you can do. Children are not always inclined to choose such paths. You can tell by the eucalyptus tree, its shaggy branches scatter buttons. In the afternoons, when the shades were pulled for my nap, the light coming through was of a dark yellow, nearly orange, melancholy, as heavy as honey, and it made me thirsty. That doesn’t say it all, nor even a greater part. Yet it seems even more incomplete when we were there in person. Half the day in half the room. The wool makes one itch and the scratching makes one warm. But herself that she obeyed she dressed. It talks. The baby is scrubbed everywhere, he is an apple. They are true kitchen stalwarts. The smell of breathing fish and breathing shells seems sad, a mystery, rapturous, then dead. A self-centered being, in this different world. A urinating doll, half-buried in sand. She is lying on her stomach with one eye closed, driving a toy truck along the road she has cleared with her fingers. I mean untroubled by the distortions. That was the fashion when she was a young woman and famed for her beauty, surrounded by beaux. Once it was circular and that shape can still be seen from the air. Protected by the dog. Protected by foghorns, frog honks, cricket circles on the brown hills. It was a message of happiness by which we were called into the room, as if to receive a birthday present given early, because it was too large to hide, or alive, a pony perhaps, his mane trimmed with colored ribbons.



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. Unhappily, time seems more normative than place. Whether breathing or holding the breath, it was the same thing, driving through the tunnel from one sun to the next under a hot brown hill. She sunned the baby for sixty seconds, leaving him naked except for a blue cotton sunbonnet. At night, to close off the windows from view of the street, my grandmother pulled down the window shades, never loosening the curtains, a gauze starched too stiff to hang properly down. I sat on the windowsill singing sunny lunny teena, ding-dang-dong. Out there is an aging magician who needs a tray of ice in order to turn his bristling breath into steam. He broke the radio silence. Why would anyone find astrology interesting when it is possible to learn about astronomy. What one passes in the Plymouth. It is the wind slamming the doors. All that is nearly incommunicable to my friends. Velocity and throat verisimilitude. Were we seeing a pattern or merely an appearance of small white sailboats on the bay, floating at such a distance from the hill that they appeared to be making no progress. And for once to a country that did not speak another language. To follow the progress of ideas, or that particular line of reasoning, so full of surprises and unexpected correlations, was somehow to take a vacation. Still, you had to wonder where they had gone, since you could speak of reappearance. A blue room is always dark. Everything on the boardwalk was shooting toward the sky. It was not specific to any year, but very early.




p.s. Hey. ** David Ehrenstein, My pleasure. Joe was very shy in public, much less so when not. ** Sypha, Hi, James. Good to see you. Well, you’ve been plenty busy and productive, so time well spent away. I need to get the AS bundle. I keep forgetting to order it. Aces about the new stories. What is ‘the Pleasant vein’? As simple as it sounds? ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi. I was surprised to find that online, I must admit. Oh, great, big congrats about the X-R-A-Y acceptance. Congrats to them mostly. Wonderful! Such a good context/mag. Yay! ** Steve Erickson, They’ve done short videos, but they’re not online. I saw one in a museum show. I thought their thing worked better in stills. Ah, yes, it sounds like panic is setting in over there. Here, strangely, everything seems completely normal. I haven’t noticed any change in anything. We’ll see, though. I’m not on instagram, so, no, I don’t follow that page. I’ll go see how much I can check out before the pop-up ‘you don’t belong here’ thing stops me. So what does your doctor suggest? Tough it out, or … ? ** Bill, Me either. Re: cotton candy. It has become something that seems far, far better viewed than tasted. You’re right, I’m not surprised you’re into those, although I hadn’t predicted you would be in advance. Thanks about the TV thing. It’s a seriously cursed project, and pretty has been for years. Bon day! ** Okay. Today I’m spotlighting a great, recent-ish but total classic novel/prose book by the inimitable Lyn Hejinian. Hope you enjoy. See you tomorrow.


  1. “Another example is Langston Hughes’s two-volume autobiographical work: The Big Sea and I Wonder as I Wander. As you know if you are familiar with those books, they are written in vignettes, and very short vignettes. And between those vignettes is where the sentiment lies, where the deep emotion lies. He never speaks of homophobia, of racism, or of the difficulties of his life as a left-wing African American gay poet, but you feel it in the book, in those gaps”

    This is what’s kown as a “Structuring Absence”

  2. D.!,

    Hey babe. Missed ya. Let’s for sure! I’ll huu when I’m town. I’ll be in town Thursday through Sunday, then I’m off to Edinburgh? Can’t wait. I’m going to freeze to death LOL. PGL would be hard as hell to rip off! Big love

  3. Dennis, re: Pleasant, yeah, it’s essentially just fiction where conflict has mainly been eliminated/played down and good things happen to the protagonists and so on, essentially the opposite of horror fiction in other words (to provide an example, one story I’m doing will be called “Uneventful Oregon Trail” which will be about a family in the 1840’s that travels the Oregon Trail and gets to their final destination with no misfortunes or pitfalls). When I wrote myself into HARLEM SMOKE as a cameo I joked how I had abandoned the horror genre for the Pleasant and while I wasn’t serious at the time I thought it might be a fun thing to do as a way to get writing again, to say nothing of a challenge as it’s hard to write upbeat cheerful stuff when one’s mood has been one of apocalyptic despair… though in some ways these are easier to write than horror stories as I don’t need to focus on atmosphere as much, or coming up with a “scary” ending (that latter point was always the thing I hated about writing horror the most TBH).

  4. Hey Dennis!

    How are you? Feels like it’s been a while. Reading anything, watching anything, playing anything? Maybe it’s from the mounds of school work and readings I’ve been doing, but lately I’ve been in the mood for video games. Not sure where to start. I heard The Witness was a good puzzle game.
    I don’t really have anything to report. That Guyotat memorial thing I was planning isn’t actually happening. The project is too big for my limited resources and time. Might have to save it for a later date. In the meantime, I’m just trying to keep my head down and out of trouble. Finish school and all that. I’m now thinking about Grad school, believe it or not. Seems like a crazy idea, so we’ll see how it pans out.
    Hope you’re doing well, KK

  5. I was at the Writing Short Stories class this evening, and there’s a few folk there involved with a Dundee-based creative writing group called Nethergate Writers which seems pretty good. They get together and discuss their work and it encourages them to develop their practice. I guess whether it’s the Nethergate Writers or the Language Poets, collaboration can be a big motivational force.

    Big round of applause when I told them of my X-Ray story success! I read out the scary haunted mannequin story too, which went down really well. There’s only two weeks left of this course now and I’ll be sorry when it finishes.

  6. I don’t know what’s going on, but I felt awful today. I think I’m dehydrated, and this may be the cause of the dizziness, but no matter how much water I drink, I am always thirsty. As far as I know, Klonopin withdrawal would not cause that. I will have my third doctor’s appointment in which I discuss this problem tomorrow. That place when you feel like crap, doctors are suggesting things that don’t appear to be solutions but you have to keep trying to pull ideas from them is really frustrating.

    The hostile takeover of Cahiers du Cinema is a national shame.

    The tone of the American media is so apocalyptic – and not coming out of nowhere – that I feel like avoiding it and watching cartoons for the next few days.

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