Lyn Hejinian












Originally presented, in a slightly earlier version, in March 1998 at a Conference on Postmodern Poetry organized by Tony Lopez and Philip Terry; first published in Shark 1, 1998, Emilie Clark and Lytle Shaw, eds. Subsequently collected in The Language of Inquiry (University of California Press, 2001): 337-54.


Along comes something -- launched in context.

How do we understand this boundary?

Let’s begin by proposing it as a dilemma.

The term comes from the Greek, dilemmatos, and means ‘involving two assumptions,’ and so we begin by proposing that the boundary is not an edge but a conjunction -- that the dilemma bears the meaning of conjunction: encounter, possible confusion, alteration exerted through reciprocal influence, etc. -- the kind of situation that is typical, I might add, along borders between nations, between speakers of different languages, between neighboring ecosystems, etc.

But perhaps my phrase presents more than a dilemma, perhaps it’s a dilemma to excess, since the boundary or border of which I want to speak and the problem of understanding it entail multiple sets of paired assumptions. I could, alternatively, use the term aporia, but to do so (especially since the publication of his book, Aporias) would be to invoke Derrida more definitively than I'm willing to do, lest it predetermine the outcome of my reasoning. But, of course, the dilemma in and of itself (the dilemma which the phrase ‘in and of itself’ so aptly describes) is very much a feature of the poststructuralist postmodernist deconstructionist condition which we -- or which I, as a person and writer -- experience as exerting enormous pressure on our social and aesthetic situation -- which is to say, on our poetics -- a pressure which makes palpable the demand that we have a poetics.

It makes that poetics itself a dilemma -- or it has sense, dilemma (as a border under pressure of doubt, as a border in question) as one of its central features. Dilemma, in this sense, constitutes that part of a poetics which we could call its prepoetics -- a prepoetics functioning not as a condition either logically or chronologically prior to the formulation of a poetics but as a conditon necessary and simultaneous to it -- a current running through it.

If it is a responsible prepoetics -- that is, one that vigorously questions assumptions, including, or especially, its own -- this current includes, among other things, swarms of contradiction and ambivalence. Perhaps these are inevitable effects of the famous (or notorious) postmodern (or postpostmodern) negativity to which so much thought has been given -- thought directed toward the unthinkable and reflecting an obsession with the unknown, the meaningless, the unspeakable, the unapproachable, the unbearable, the impasse, or, as here, the dilemma -- leaving poetics (and poetry) to be practised in a gap of meaning (a gap produced originally, I would add, by the atrocities of war and social and economic injustice), a gap which extends into the current which I’ calling prepoetics but which one could also call reason.

Reason itself operates in the border between concepts -- and again between several interdependent pairs of concepts. Reason may even constitute such a border zone. The term names simultaneously two lines of causation, an efficient cause (one thing happened and that’s the reason the other thing happened) and a final cause, or telos (the other thing needs to happen and that’s the reason the first thing was made to happen). These reasons are often related: “because I love you I did this to make you happy,” etc. But there are situations in which the two line of causation are completely unconnected, of which the most readily described motivate the events that we dream. Say I happen one rainy evening to watch a documentary about rodeo cowboys and bronc-busting on the television. There are lots of scenes of horses throwing themselves and cowboys into the air, and scenes of horses and, more often, cowboys falling to the ground. That night I dream that I am riding horseback through a dry arroyo when a sudden torrential rainstorm occurs. Within seconds a flash flood is sweeping down the arroyo -- I am knocked from the horse and fall to the ground and the horse falls on top of me. I'm being crushed, and I wake to discover that the pillow has fallen on my face.

Here we have two narratives, a dream narrative and a waking life narrative. The denouement of the dream narrative (dream event B, being crushed by a horse) is, in the dream, a reasonable outcome of my riding a horse through an arroyo and encountering a flash flood (dream event A). In waking life, this same outcome is a reasonable response to having a heavy pillow fall on my head (waking reality event X). The same experience, then, or sensation of an experience, has two unconnected starting points, A and X, initiating two distinct lines of causation.


Along comes something -- launched in context.

It is almost automatic to us to assume that this something (on the one hand) and we (on the other) exist independently -- that something was independently elsewhere (out of sight and mind) prior to coming into the zone in which we perceive it and which we, at the moment of this perceptual encounter, designate as context. Furthermore, it is at the moment that we perceive this something that we ourselves come into that context -- into our coinciding (by chance?) with something. The context, in other words, is the medium of our encounter, the ground of our becoming (i.e., happening to be) present at the same place at the same time. By this reasoning, one would also have to say that context too is launched -- or at least that it comes into existence qua context when something is launched in such a way as to become perceptible to us and thereby to involve us -- whomever we are -- strangers (even if, perhaps, only momentarily strangers) to each other previously and now inseparable components of the experience.

As strangers (foreigners), it is hard for us to find the ‘right words’ (themselves simultaneously demanding context and serving as it) for what we experience in that perception and involvement.

Usually comparisons are the first things foreigners make. “The dark castle on the hill is like a cormorant on a rock stretching its crooked wings in the sun” or “The pink wet light in Saint Petersburg on a winter day is like a summer San Francisco fog,” etc. Such comparisons, reaching out of the present situation to another, previously experienced, recollected one, may appear to constitute the ‘making of a context’ for the current context, but a context made in such a way is a transported one, acquired by way of metaphor. And such metaphors, cast in the form of similes and intended to smooth over differences, deny incipience, and to the degree that they succeed, they thereby forestall the acquisition of history.

But the phrase or sentence with which I’ve become obsessed, “Along comes something -- launched in context,” announces a moment of incipience; one could even say that it is itself, as a phrase or utterance, a moment of incipience -- an appearing, a being born -- coming into what Hannah Arendt calls “the condition of natality,” the condition we all have in common.

Something which wasn’t here before is here now; it appears and it appeared to us, and it is acknowledge by the sensation this is happening. And as such, as a moment of incipience or point of natality, it constitutes, in a very particular and crucial sense, an action -- since (to continue Hannah Arendt’s argument) it is “engaged in founding and preserving” something, which “creates the condition for remembrance, that is, for history” and it thereby undertakes “the task to provide and preserve the world for, to foresee and reckon with, the constant influx of newcomers who are born into the world as strangers.” This “new beginning . . . can make itself felt in the world . . . because [it] possesses the capacity of [itself] beginning something anew."


To value the new was, of course, a widely held and explicit tenent of modernist aesthetics, as in Pound’s often cited commandment, “Make it new.” Viktor Shklovsky’s more thoughtful, more self-reflexive, and better-analyzed aphorism, “In order to restore to us the perception of life, to make a stone stony, there exists that which we call art” takes the behest further, making newness not an end in itself but a strategy employed for the sake of the enhancement of experience --and as an affirmation of life. “Only the creation of new forms of art can restore to man sensation of the world, can resurrect things and kill pessimism.” Shklovsky goes on, of course, to elaborate a now familiar set of devices intended to restore palpability to things -- retardation, roughening, etc. -- that are major elements (and, in ways that can be taken as troubling, even the stock in trade) of so-called innovative poetry to this day (82 years later)). Contemporary poets -- myself among them -- have embraced this project. Comments variously repeating or attempting to extend Shklovsky’s proposition appear throughout my teaching notebooks:

Language is one of the principal forms our curiosity takes.

The language of poetry is a language of inquiry.

Poetry takes as its premise that language (all language) is a medium for experiencing experience. It provides us with the consciousness of consciousness.

To experience is to go through or over the limit (the word comes from the Greek peras (term, limit)); or, to experience is to go beyond where one is, which is to say to be beyond where one was (re. the prepositional form, peran (beyond)).

Imagine saying that at one stage of life, one’s artistic goal is to provide experience (new or revivified, restored to palpability) and at another (later) it is to provide the joy of that experience.

After how much experience can one feel free of the fear that one hasn’t lived (the fear of an unlived life)?


And to a degree what I am attempting to say here is also an extension of the poetics implied in Shklovsky’s aphorism.

It is the task of poetry to produce the phrase this is happening and thereby to provoke the sensation that corresponds to it -- a sensation of newness, yes, and of renewedness -- an experience of the revitalization of things in the world, an acknowledgment of the liveliness of the world, the restoration of the experience of our experience -- a sense of living our life. But I want to argue that to produce such a sensation is not necessarily to produce knowledge nor even a unit of cognition but rather to discover context and, therein, reason.

Admittedly several obvious (and boringly persistent) problems arise when experience is assigned primacy of place in an aesthetics and its accompanying discourse of value -- when it is given the status of final cause and taken as an undisputed good. First, giving preeminence to experience would seem to demand what gets termed 'authenticity.'

Happily, one can debunk this on the same basis that one can debunk a second problem, which I could describe as anti-intellectual and ultimately philistine. In assuming a positive value to experience for its own sake, and in advocating thereby an art which heightens perceptibility, one risks appearing to privilege sensation over cogitation, to promote immediacy and disdain critique. There is a danger that one implies that the questioning of experience may serve to distance and thereby diminish at least aspects of it, and that this is antithetical to ‘real’ artistic practice. This is the basis of art’s supposed hostility to criticism, theory (thought), and occasional hostility even to examination of its own history. Or, to put it another way, on these grounds, the philistine romantic attempts to ground his or her rejection of context.

And here is the basis for a dismissal of these two related problems. One cannot meaningfully say “This is happening” out of context. At the very moment of uttering the phrase, ‘natality’ occurs. And from that moment of incipience, which occurs with the recognition of the experience of and presented by the phrase along comes something -- launched in context through the phrase this is happening, we are in context, which is to say, in thought (in theory and with critique) and in history.

There is no context without thought and history. They exist through reciprocation of their reason. Otherwise there is no sensation, no experience, no consciousness of living. And, to quote Tolstoi just as Shklovsky does: "If the complex life of many people takes place entirely on the level of the unconscious, then it’s as if this life had never been."


As I have said, the recognition acknowledged and sensation produced by the phrase (along comes something -- launched in context) produces another phrase of recognition and sensation, this is happening. It is a phrase with a referent (something -- launched in context), and with an array of particular and important senses. First among them is the implicit but definitive sense that ‘this is real’ -- although, paradoxically, that part of its context which we would term its referent is not necessarily verifiable. For example, were I to claim now to be writing/have written this under conditions of enormous duress or, alternatively, in the spirit of just clowning around, it would be verifiable that I said so but not that I did so. And yet, at least in my imagination as I pictured writing under duress and clowning, I did do so. The realty of the imagined also needs to be affirmed. A second sense accrues to the first one. To the affirmation that ‘this is real’ is added, through the act of recognition and acknowledgment, a sense of one’s own reality -- and this realization -- of a co-reality consisting of correlation and coexistence -- occurs not through the Cartesian logical operation (cogito ergo sum) but by virtue of our context -- a shared context, although it is important to note that it is not the basis or substance of any determinate commonality, and one about which there is something more to be said.

To some extent, I have let the term history stand as a near synonym to the term context. This is something which, depending on how I would define history, might prove to have some legitimacy, but it shouldn’t, if it is to be a central element in the constituting of a poetics, go unexamined. But if one sees history as, at the very least, a set of relations -- or, to be more precise, of active correlations (co-relations) -- then that seems not too far from a workable characterization of the context of something. And it not only allows one to situate that something within history as a descriptive and explanatory account of what has happened, but it also gives something a history with a future. Context is a past with a future. That is the sense of the phrase this is happening. That is what gives us a sense of reason.


There are things
We live among 'and to see them
Is to know ourselves.'

So begins George Oppen’s famous poem “Of Being Numerous,” a poem which I read as a testing of the same context, the same reason, that I, perhaps with less clarity and certainly with more verbosity, have been engaged with here. I had not been consciously thinking about Oppen’s poem (nor, by the way, about this essay) when I first wrote and then began to study the phrase which initiated this essay: along comes something -- launched in context. But certainly it has a parallel in the lines that follow those of Oppen’s that I just quoted: “Occurrence, a part / Of an infinite series . . .”

One can argue that Oppen (who, as you know, stopped writing poetry for a number of years and instead devoted himself to political activism) separated practical politics from poetry, but this is not identical with separating theoretical politics and ethics from poetry; it is not the same as doing away with a poetics.

Oppen’s poem reflects (on) deep ambivalences over issues which have resurfaced with some sense of urgency in recent discussions about poetic practice, particularly in several recent papers that Barrett Watten has presented and in what turned out to be a controversial talk presented by Bob Perelman at the August 1996 poetry conference organized by Romana Huk in New Hampshire. There, if I read them correctly, Perelman implicitly and Watten explicitly take contemporary “innovative” poetry to task for its withdrawal into numerousness. This is not to say that they reject “numerousness”; on the contrary, they espouse it vigorously both in their politics and in their aesthetics. Nor is it to say that a poetics of possibility is wrongheaded. But if we stop there, we risk a directionless pluralism, one we may claim as a politics but which stops short of activating relationships within that plurality -- and lacking participation in that forming of relationships, “possibility” is likely to turn into what I believe to be a dangerous immanentism.

Similarly, to substantiate possibility as an absolute or to offer it as the telos of a totalizing vision was very much not Oppen’s aim in writing “Of Being Numerous.”

Peter Nicholls, in a recent essay entitled "Of Being Ethical: Reflections on George Oppen," points to a resonant relationship between Oppen’s concept of the ‘numerous’ and characteristics of what is being explored under the rubric of ‘community’ in recent books by Jean Luc Nancy (in The Inoperative Community), Giorgio Agamben (in The Coming Community), and Jean-François Lyotard (in The Differend), among others. As Nicholls points out, disturbed both by the totalizing mythos exemplified in Ezra Pound’s writing and by what he termed “the closed universe, the closed self,” Oppen sought, “a poetics founded on the (philosophically) simple recognition of actuality -- ‘That it is’ -- [which] would ultimately concern itself with an equally ‘simple’ and non-agonistic perception of social relationships. Viewed in these terms, poetry might offer a way of acknowledging the world and others without seeking to reduce them to objects of knowledge.” Poetry would sustain “the relationship between things -- the relationship between people; What it is rather than That it is,” as Oppen put it.”

But to say that a poetics is “founded on the . . . simple recognition of actuality” is not to say that it ends there. The concluding section of “Of Being Numerous” consists entirely of a passage from a letter Walt Whitman wrote to his mother, a passage describing a public monument seen in dying light. It is the Capital Building in Washington, DC, which is surmounted by an idealized figure of an American Indian in full feathered headdress -- a monument whose intended symbolism must have been of dubious merit to Oppen. The last word of the passage, “curious,” is separated from the text, placed the distance of a stanza break away.

Whitman: April 19, 1864

The capitol grows upon one in time, especially as they have got the great figure on top of it now, and you can see it very well. It is a great bronze figure, the Genius of Liberty I suppose. It looks wonderful toward sundown. I love to go and look at it. The sun when it is nearly down shines on the headpiece and it dazzles and glistens like a big star: it looks quite


Oppen, writing about this passage (in a letter to John Crawford), commented: " . . . the poem ends with the word 'curious.' I had set myself once before to say forthrightly "We want to be here," and the long poem ends almost jokingly with 'curious'. But it is not a joke entirely. If I were asked, Why do we want to be here--I would say: it is curious--the thing is curious--Which may be referred to, briefly, as O's Affirmation."

This affirmation’s operative term -- curious -- is situated in yet another of the multivalent phrases which constitute the reason of (and for) my title: it is curious -- the thing is curious. One reading of this phrase could lead to a paraphrase that says something like, “the thing is odd, the thing provokes curiosity,” but another paraphrase could be that “the thing itself exercises curiosity”. The latter interpretation may push Oppen’s intended sense, but not, I believe, with a result that he would dislike.

The term curious, just as it names both a subjective condition (“marked by desire to investigate and learn” or by “inquisitive interest in others’ concerns,” nosiness) and a condition of some object (“exciting attention as strange, novel, or unexpected”), it also names an interaction between curious subject and curious object, an interaction within the terms of curiosity. As Oppen says in another letter, “I ended with the word ‘curious,’ of which the root is curia: care, concern[.]"


What Oppen so aptly calls an “affirmation,” though it concludes his poem, has a place at the start of it as well, since “affirmation” is what substantiates the phrase “There are things,” and since it is curiosity -- “care, concern” -- which makes that phrase and those things count. But there is another way in which this “affirmation” is not conclusive; “O’s Affirmation,” like the affirmation which is a feature of the poetics I am describing -- one that constantly questions assumptions, especially its own -- is lodged in a dilemma, and therefore in that activity of mind which we term doubt. This doubt is not entirely unlike what Keats called ‘negative capability,’ but what is at stake is affirmation of our deepest reason, the one that tells us that things and our experiences of them count. That is what it means to be in history and in a history with a future -- to be in reason.

But what we don’t want, of course, is a reason that plows its way to authority.

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt elaborates a notion of a community of reason (in my sense of the term) constituted through action, creating new and hopefully ever better dilemmas for itself. Such a community of reason is boundless, according to Arendt, “boundless because action, though it may proceed from nowhere . . . acts into a medium where every reaction becomes a chain reaction and where every process is the cause of new processes . . . This boundlessness is characteristic not of political action alone, . . . the smallest act in the most limited circumstances bears the seed of the same boundlessness, because one deed, and sometimes one word, suffices to change every constellation. Action, moreover, no matter what its specific content, always establishes relationships and therefore has an inherent tendency to force open all limitations and cut across all boundaries."

Authority over being is thus dispersed, not because of the boundlessness but in the boundlessness. We don’t -- as writers or as persons -- go beyond “all limitations” and “all boundaries” -- we enter and inhabit them. Faced with the notorious gap in meaning, we may ask What should we do? But we already know what to do. And this knowing what to do is neither derived from nor does it produce guidelines -- either prescriptive, proscriptive or even descriptive. It is, rather, intrinsic to living in context. Not to totalize, not to pre or proscribe -- we know that this is some of what we must do. And we know that this is something we must do because we are alert to the context in which it must be done -- in history and in reason.


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