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Linguistic Innovativeness & Mnemonic Textuality in Lyn Hejinian’s My Life and Writing is an Aid to Memory


1. Introduction

Lyn Hejinian’s poems My Life (2002) and Writing is an Aid to Memory (1996) focus on the postmodern self by resorting to autobiography, memory and language play, which assigns to the reader the role of the co-creator. The poetry movement of Language Writing, which flourished during the ‘70s in the San Francisco area, addressed the issue of language colonization due to the imposition of syntax and grammar in an attempt to promote linguistic awakening. Moreover, Language Poetry being influenced by the postmodern poetic trends of the time has moved beyond all the authoritative traces imposed on literary history by breaking down fixed strategies and orthodoxies that have been haunting texts, that is to say language itself.

Language Writing exerts itself to unveil what is lurking within language. “Naming” is not just labeling but, as Julia Kristeva states, a way to “stabilize, organize and rationalize our conceptual universe” (Moi 159). Therefore, “by opening up the poetic,” Language writers foreground the gap between “what one wants to say […] and what one can say” (Vickery 7). What one can say emanates from the already articulated, in other words “a language which is itself a sociohistorical construct” (Ma 332-333). So, as Ming-Qian Ma declares, the gap is to be filled with an articulation that escapes “from the linguistic roundup,” frees itself from prescriptive grammars and resists “being captured and silenced by meaning as “the unconscious political element in linear grammaticization” (Ma 332-333).

Hejinian affirms that “poetry takes as its premise that language (all language) is a medium for experiencing experience. It provides us with the consciousness of consciousness” (Ma 7). In her writing, the idea of control is replaced by fragmentation, ambiguity, confusion and contradiction. The word develops itself by rejecting its status as a transparent signifier. There is no clear suggestion of a context, only brief flashes of it, reminding the reader of the need to remain close to the level of language, and immerse herself/himself into it. The syntactic indeterminacy characterizing Hejinian’s poetic writing – expressed in elliptical sentences, lack of punctuation, gaps, semantic shifts, word puns and so on – changes the writing and reading process into a playful, game-like experience. So language expands by breaking all its grammatical and syntactical boundaries, for example stanzas, and transforms the page into a field, a cosmic collage.

One of the utmost dynamisms of Hejinian’s poetic collage is memory, the basis of autobiographical writing which is a main line to be considered in this paper. The text becomes the “storehouse” of “individual memories” and the “repository” of “traumatic experiences” (Fowlie 165-166). In the text, the pronoun “I” is really what “I” remembers. Therefore, memory in autobiographical writing is the interim “core of selfhood” where self-portraying is self-knowledge itself: fixing, transmitting, “re-picturing” a memory means fixing, transmitting, “re-picturing” the self (Fowlie 165-166).

 Language writing through its female advocates has placed emphasis on the need of a voice for the violated female body and its traumatic memory/ies. The representations of the feminine body even today are generated by “masculinist underpinnings” that imprison femininity into claustrophobic objects due to the male gaze and enforce a heavily stratified memory on the female body. The reconstruction of a female “master thinker” is not the aim of such kind of writings. On the contrary, they provide an “a-sexual” axis that stretches “beyond the opposition feminine/masculine,” being converted into a “choreography” of an “indeterminable number of blended voices” and “non-identified sexual marks” (Moi 169).

My Life and Writing Is an Aid to Memory are two book-length poems composed in parallel. With My Life, Hejinian sets her own mark within Language poetry in terms of poetic experimentation and manifests her refusal to be categorized according to generic conventions by resorting to various writing styles, such as poetry, autobiography, storytelling and diary writing. Concurrently, the mathematically-calculated frame of her poetic creation, due to the analogous number of sections and sentences (either 37 or 45) one finds in it, mirrors the theatricality both of language and self as they are reincarnated into a matrix of infinite visions. In Writing Is an Aid to Memory, language, memory and writing coincide. For Hejinian, writing, being an act of remembering and forgetting, is an “aid” to this redefinition. Therefore, her work due to its self-reflectiveness emerges both as poetry and poetics and places itself in the midst of an intertextual dialogue between her own personal poetic views and those of other contemporary theorists.

2. My Life: An Amphilogic Portraiture

The decoding of My Life brings on the surface a number of issues concerning the identity of the text and the status of the subject in it. For Hejinian, “the world is vast and overwhelming; each moment stands under an enormous vertical and horizontal pressure of information, potent with ambiguity, meaning-full, unfixed, and certainly incomplete” (“From The Rejection of Closure” 653). The poem itself, as an open text, materializes this immensity of the world through its own acquiescence and its incorporation in the process of creation. Hence, My Life as a text absorbs all potential identities by placing the reader in a flux between the illusion that s/he has discovered the mystic identity of the text and the doubt of whether the poetic quest is coming to a closure. This open text expands unceasingly on the page, which disputes the naturalness of poetry, while embodying direct autobiographical references that alight on childhood glimpses, stories, and a self which uncovers its psyche and consciousness in “an oral history on paper” (Hejinian, My Life 9).

Conversely, My Life dismisses this designation of autobiography as a self-representational plexus, what Leigh Gilmore calls a “confessional space” (54), and places the upbringing of the self alongside the process of the story’s constructedness:
Every family has its own collection of stories. […] There were more storytellers than there were stories, so that everyone in the family had a version of history and it was impossible to get close to the original, or to know “what really happened.”[…] My old aunt entertained us with her lie, a story about an event in her girlhood, a catastrophe in a sailboat that never occurred, but she was blameless, unaccountable, since, in the course of the telling, she had come to believe the lie herself. A kind of burbling in the waters of inspiration. […] what we wanted to hear was a story. A blare of sound, a roar of life, a vast array of human hives, reveling in education. What a situation. (Hejinian, My Life 14, 27, 15, 50)

Childhood and storytelling become adjoined spaces both acknowledging their constructedness and colonization by past prescriptions. In their role as constructs, they carry evocative imprints of history that reproduce the self only through mimesis. This postmodern self dissolves the author’s autobiographical past and refurbishes old histories and inscriptions into a fragmentary artifice that facilitates the manifestation of its rejection to closure.

The enforced silencing of women and the violated voice of women-authors expressed through repetitive possessives insinuates their positioning at the margins of life and canon of autobiography which has been assumed to be a masculinist property. Nevertheless, as Virginia Woolf underscored, “literature is no one’s private ground; literature is common ground” (emphasis added) (qtd. in Gilmore 63). Hejinian herself is also concerned with the female author in the contemporary world and advocates its existence as an energetic and restless specter:
She is lying on her stomach with one eye closed, driving a toy truck along the road she has cleared with her fingers […]Women […] “It’s the ’80s,” said one, “and we’re simply subjecting space to a non-historical perspective.” (Hejinian, My Life 19, 59, 154)
The doll image echoes the muteness, passivity and objectification imposed on the female body by masculinist discourses. Her impaired vision embodies this coercion by grand narratives and specifies the perils lying underneath the restricted and filtered vision of the world. Thus a lifeless doll, besides her confinement in a sand-made claustrophobic text, endures this incarceration by seizing the masculinist means, the “toy truck” of boyhood, in order to free her self.

 Thus far we have concluded that My Life serves as a re-writing of autobiography’s constructedness and more specifically a reborn poetic genre that includes the marginal perspective of the female author. It is of major importance at this point to explore how the text verbalizes the self through naming and “I-ness.” Author and poetic persona in mainstream autobiographical works are synonymous. Hejinian, however, redefines their relationship and this is illustrated through the restructuring of the self, the “I”. An essential reference to the “I” is formulated when it is seen in connection with naming. Hejinian herself has stated that “what naming provides is structure” (“From The Rejection of Closure” 655) which implies the posting of the subject in the social template, regarding the chronological and regional consistency of this subject. Subsequently, the self in My Life pronounces: “I remind myself, I don’t exactly remember my name, of a person, we’ll call it Asylum” (Hejinian, My Life 97).

The question arising is how this locus that the self exists is outlined. Hejinian, in her article “Continuing Against the Closure,” offers a possible answer by declaring that this locus is “the sites of consciousness,” that is the “spaces in which an awakening of consciousness occurs, the spaces in which a self discovers itself as an object among others (and thus, by the way, achieves subjectivity)” (Hejinian, My Life 33). This space of textual realization, constant linguistic adjustment and restlessness is the “gap,” a zone of commas, breaths and associative leaps: “I was eventually to become one person, gathered up maybe, during a pause, at a comma” (Hejinian, My Life 33).

The genderless “I” preserves its neutrality throughout the poem in order to avoid heading for any precise discourse that would impose on it a single reading. Hejinian writes: “In the sentence, One turns […] one climbs […] one reaches […] one leaves […] I am the one” (My Life 114). By equating the word “one” with the personal pronoun “I”, she claims that anyone can insert herself/himself in this space which invites the reader to rewrite the designated activity. In this extract, antithetical linguistic elements, such as “Mischief logic; Miss Chief,” seem restless and frenetic with activity in their attempt to reject a possible semantic closure while going against the expectations of the reader. Aloofness, mystical darkness, tolerance and stillness co-exist in a developing self who claims “I-ness” as amorphous, edgy and yet discontent.

The way the “I” is appropriated in My Life entails an alternative reading of the poem as an autobiography of writing, of language being at those “sites of consciousness,” talking about its making and inviting multiple readings. The poem articulates itself thus:
The rolling work of writing is typing and retyping […] Remarkable scratches, nicks, notches, intervene. But as I’ve said before, I am nearsighted, and there are many figures in this scene which might form different scenes. (Hejinian, My Life 133, 138-139)

For Hejinian, this kind of writing never ends. On the contrary, she consents to its “typing” and “retyping” with a reader present as a co-creator. Roland Barthes, in his article “The death of the Author,” considers that “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author” (7). Nonetheless, would not that mean the death of the Female Author and consequently the silencing of the female voice as well? My Life indeed incorporates Barthes’ rejection of the autobiographical information as an interpretative source but simultaneously claims that the author who is willing to abandon the pedestal is not the one who relishes the safety of being mainstream but the one who appertains to the margin. Concurrently, My Life transposes the dilemma of the death of the author to the reader and assigns to her/him the role of the “modern scriptor” who, according to Barthes, “is born simultaneously with the text, is in no way equipped with a being preceding or exceeding the writing, is not the subject with the book as predicate” (5). The reader’s role of the “scriptor”, however, is not reserved only for writing but is extended to the re-scripting of memory as well.

3. Writing Is an Aid to Memory: a déjà vu delirium

The temporal meeting of Writing Is an Aid to Memory and My Life in their moments of creation in 1978 became the preamble for an on-going dialogue between the two texts. Lyn Hejinian renders Writing Is an Aid to Memory as an anorexic text that implements themes discussed in My Life, such as autobiography and language writing, through an altered body text marked by reduction and white spaces that substitute the linguistic hypertrophy of My Life.

The white spaces left on each page develop into sites of thought, eroticism and memory while functioning as a paratextual poetic medium. In the “Preface” to Writing Is an Aid to Memory Hejinian writes: “Work is retarded by such desire, which is anticipation of its certainty, and hence a desire impossible of satisfaction, in the future despite the grand decision to pull it present” (2). This erotic predisposition lies within the portraiture of language. Its discursiveness annihilates any assurance of “restoration,” which could offer a potential satisfaction to the individual and entails that all discourse is that of a persona towards an absent lover. Desires and longings are represented through an “intersubjectivity” constructed in “the textual presence of an absent other in the body of writing” (qtd. in Gilmore 151), in other words a lover’s discourse as Roland Barthes has described it. 

Meanwhile, within the written text, Eros inflames the collision of constructed reasoning and paranoid instincts of desire by aiming at a self-realization that contradicts any impecunious thinking process. Moreover, as Regina Grol has highlighted in her essay “Eroticism and Exile,” the text, as a physical barrier, transforms into an “exile” where this “cognitive drama” is staged (2001). These exilic conditions are verbalized in Hejinian’s poem as follows:

   ever so made talk about love
                love writes our enjoyment in length
                    no more pretends to return to a simple utterance
          I rapped the ground […]
                             sharpen in the margin
chronic in an exact place
                                the duration of thinking […]
                       prison moves lower on the same page
                              figures seem to throw the whole
                           rather than dry
                             so violent who seemed careful
                               throwing the standard into such errors
                 of discovery
  it is some random maximum […]
                                          maybe the prisons should circulate
                                             never to because letters owl them fire
                            glass and improved children as they grew
              deeply between ardors and despair of success
                                mixture learned the constant two of them
                                                 with their pathos of morality
(Hejinian, Writing Is an Aid to Memory  8, 23, 26)

The exilic poem exorcises pretence and linguistic simplicity through the enactment of erotic aggressiveness, the rape of its own self. This struggle procreates the sharpening of the mind by accepting the lexical margin as its exilic setting, while advancing alterations within the mnemonic cognitive processes. The imprisoned page encloses this amorous activity and the language fragments perform in a manner of theatrical randomness by having “letters owl themselves fire” (emphasis added). Semantic and grammatical strictures are ardently denied and linguistic fragmentation transforms into a vibrant generative entity within itself. In this poetic battlefield, thoughts venture out as “improved children” who have been brought up between “ardors” and “despair” of satisfaction, to be directed in life by “pathos.” What Writing Is an Aid to Memory highlights, as stated in Carla Harryman and Lyn Hejinian’s “The Wide Road,” is that “desires are perceptions […] mediating the interplay of sensation with knowledge” (qtd. in Vickery 249). Therefore, they offer a “medium of acknowledgement, a way of identifying ourselves” (249) within a context of prescribed selves. 

Thus far, the poem’s very title enhances memory as one further stipulation which incorporates the acknowledgement of writing as an “aid to memory.” Memories form and transform their experiencing through constructive processes parallel to those of poetic creation by adjusting the textual fiber to a mnemonic “storehouse” where the “travesty” of the authenticity of experiences is abolished and distorted glimpses of future recollections are envisioned (Rigney 368, 391). Hejinian writes:

  a syllable is a suggestion
                 is the beginning of inclusion
              his imitation on the other
a flourish and a struggle in the same house […]
                                the substantial fit indicates a finish
                      or the possibility of a finish
between circumspect and retrospect there is only the time
                          of an idea
       fits that finally riddle an infinite nature […]
             lunch the laid of hidden half-moon
                   of recall called bits or shone or love
       is film of thoughts in books
  fixing of memory of erasing at any page
                             so the praise is a limit to any connection […]
a coincidence touches
a random more
          fishes or something after the present times
                        memory is a trick of coincidence
                                           which overturned has invisibly legible
                                      use […]
(Writing Is an Aid to Memory 4, 9, 19, 21)

All these “bits” of memory on paper resemble “an asynchronous mass of firing images” which outshine the narrative strictures of the poem by erasing, what Culbertson calls, the “masquerades” of the objective truths (Culbertson 183). Synchronic and diachronic denials and reassertions that the “fixing of memory” excludes unite in the juncture of “coincidence.” This is where the restlessness and paranoiac character of the text resides. Hejinian writes in Writing Is an Aid to Memory: “Madness is a medicine from which the length has slid” (13). Paranoia, however, proffers a continuum of interpretations and reflections of memory by repulsing its definition as a mental anomaly and proclaiming itself as a “regime of signs,” as Craig Dworkin records (248). Thus, paranoia appears to be a reminder of the constructedness of logic which further highlights the postmodern character of this kind of writing.

Writing Is an Aid to Memory appears to be a chronicle which records the “transcription” of experience into memory and that of memory into writing, outlining their workings in parallel lines of inscription. This underlines the simultaneity between experience and memory and endorses their asynchronicity. Hence, as a form of resistance to dominant discourses Writing Is an Aid to Memory deposits actively itself within its making, within its own written body. Bodies within the social matrix are personifications of identities and, therefore, another site of polished truths. Moreover, the boundaries of the body, as that of identity, are defined by what “otherness” consists of.

Writing Is an Aid to Memory, however, as well as My Life, instead of placing “otherness” outside its borders it encircles it by disregarding its recognition as “other” both in its thematic core and in its linguistic paroxysm. Thus, the poetic corpus emerges as an androgynous body:

                 I am composed of human limbs until no longer capable
                               of nature […]
distraction of nature […]
                                                there the error of judgment is almost
and white to the edge of conclusions […]
                   I glance toward what the eye can pronounce aside […]
                                          will is barking)
                      new signs of addition is always something left
                                   the addition of distance moves with the
addition of distinction
                 I must fly recollection over the others
(Hejinian, Writing Is an Aid to Memory 42)

The text with its “human limbs” mimics an androgynous body which is “no longer capable of nature” but of a “distraction” from it, since it denounces its former gendered performativity. Its ambiguous shape remains eternally open-ended against the whiteness of the lexical and marginal gaps that the poem’s typographical layout creates. As a final point, memory is converted into an allegorical allusion to the refutation of a historicized past encounter as well as to an abortive site for gendered poetic façades as evidenced in the line “I must fly recollections over the others.”

The androgynous solution is not a mere rejection of masculinist discourses; on the contrary, it could be perceived as an attempt to redefine authorship and poetic textuality. In correlation to the “death of the subject,” as discussed by Barthes, it broadens the possibilities of female authorship, which was previously suppressed by institutionalized practices, while inserting the reader within the poetic construction. The masculine and the feminine attributes one finds in the androgynous poetic body, should be ascribed to the female syntactical “dependency” of the poem’s lines and to their semantic “nurturance” by the linguistically autonomous, in a male fashion, word components. Consequently, the “mutually exclusive binary matrix” of identification a gendered subject would propose is substituted by a continuum of interpretative resources within one body/text. Hejinian with her hypertrophied and anorexic texts improvises poetry writing by acknowledging the necessity of constructing an androgynous poem that fabricates experience through language.

4. Epilogue

Lyn Hejinian, through autobiographical and mnemonic poetic frames, renders language as a substance of poetry that acknowledges its “predicating” and “structural” role in the cosmic space of latter and former, as well as, individual and extended history (Sussman 1194). The conceptualization of experience, thought and memory remains central in her work and is forwarded as an enduring site of apprehension since it constitutes the fissure through which matrixes of textual fabrication and linguistic promotion are exposed (Kalaidjian 320). Her writing questions its own existence while inviting the reader to engage into a process of re-membering and re-constructing the poetic text as it unfolds in front of his/her own very eyes.

Maria Kaltsa
Aristotle University of Thessaloniki
PhD Candidate in Linguistics


Works Cited
Primary sources
Hejinian, Lyn
---. Writing Is an Aid to Memory. Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Press, 1996.
---. “From The Rejection of Closure.” Postmodern American Poetry. Ed. Paul Hoover.
New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company, 1994. 653-657.
---. My Life. København and Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2002.

Secondary Sources
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Gilmore, Leigh. Autobiographics: A Feminist Theory of Women’s Self-Representation. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1994.
---.  “Polishing truth: confession, gender, and autobiographical authority.”. Autobiography and Postmodernism. Eds. Kathleen Ashley, Leigh Gilmore, and Gerald Peters. Amherst: The U of Massachusetts P, 1994. 54-78.
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Rigney, Ann. “Portable Monuments: Literature, Cultural Memory, and the Case of Jeanie Deans.” Poetics Today. 25.2 (Summer, 2004): 361-391.
Sussman, Henry. “Prolegomena to any Present and Future Language Poetry.” MLN 118 (2004): 1193-1212.
Vickery, Ann. Leaving Lines of Gender: A Feminist Geneology of Language Writing. Hanover and London: UP of New England, 2000.