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Crisis in the Humanities

What Lyn Hejinian's Poetry Tells Us About Chance, Fortune and Pleasure


from The Boston Review: February / March 2000

"Happy families are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." The famous opening sentence of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina means, of course, that happiness is a boring, unhappiness a challenging, subject to write about. Almost every poet would agree. Death, anxiety, desire, ecstasy, jealousy, despair, fear, loneliness: these are natural topoi for lyric, but happiness?

In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle defines happiness as the one thing "we choose always for itself and never for the sake of something else." "Honor, pleasure, reason, and every excellence we choose … for the sake of happiness, judging that through them we shall be happy. Happiness, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself." Precisely because happiness is thus a final and complete good, no man, says Aristotle, can be called "happy" while he lives, for at any moment his fortune may change. On the other hand, it would be absurd to call a dead man "happy," and so, it seems, no ideal exemplar of happiness presents himself.

Wittgenstein seemed to have solved this dilemma when he wrote, in his wartime notebook, "Only a man who lives not in time but in the present is happy."1 Time is the enemy of happiness in that both memory and anticipation of the future point to the death that is to come. For Wittgenstein, happiness is thus an inner state of mind, independent of external circumstances and the chance contingencies of position or fortune. In a famous aphorism, repeated in the Tractatus, happiness can't be defined. There is only tautology: "The world of the happy is a happy world." And further, "if I now ask myself: But why should I live happily, this of itself seems to me to be a tautological question; the happy life seems to be justified, of itself, it seems that it is the only right life."

Unfortunately for this notion of happiness as outside time, the adjective happy has the same root as the verb happen—and if something happens, it marks an event in time. The root of both words, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is the Old English hap, meaning "Chance or fortune (good or bad) that falls to anyone." More specifically (definition number 2), hap is "An event or occurrence which befalls one; a chance, accident, happening; often an unfortunate event, mishap, mischance." "That I be no more constreyned," we read in Caxton's Golden Legend, "to have soo many cursidnesses or ylle happes." But it could just as well mean (number 3), "Good fortune, good luck; success, prosperity," so that the element of hap that came to be stressed was (number 4), "Absence of design or intent in relation to a particular event; fortuity; chance."

The root hap, in any case, gives us hapless ("unlucky'), haphazard ("without design, random"), and especially happen, "to come to pass, to take place." Happen, according to the OED, is "the most general verb to express the simple occurrence of an event, often with little or no implication of chance or absence of design." But a subsidiary, and now obsolete, meaning of happen is "to chance to be or to come," "to turn up"—as in "Two Officers asked how we happened abroad so late." Meanwhile, happen on or upon continues to mean "to come upon by chance," as in "Just then, I happened upon him." And so the chancy element of happenings is central. As for happy, its first, now obsolete, meaning was "coming or happening by chance; fortuitous," as in "The wery hunter to fynd his happy prey." The notion of luck, chance, or fortune has never disappeared: "Having good 'hap'" meant "to be lucky, fortunate, favoured by lot, position, or other external circumstances": "He is happy that a harme hastely amendes." As for happily, it was originally haply, "By chance; perchance," which soon came to mean, "With or by good fortune, fortunately, luckily, successfully." Thus in Shakespeare's Henry VIII: "I am glad I came this way so happily."

Not until the Renaissance does happiness come to be seen as a state of mind not necessarily controlled by external fortune. Happiness, in modern parlance (OED definition number 2), is "the state of pleasurable content of mind, which results from success or the attainment of what is considered good." Happily thus means "with mental pleasure or content," and happy comes to be a synonym for "glad" and "pleased": "having a feeling of great pleasure or content of mind, arising from satisfaction with one's circumstances or conditions." And further (definition number 5), "Successful in performing what the circumstances require; apt, dexterous, felicitous."

"What," Wittgenstein asks, "is the objective mark of the happy, harmonious life? Here it is again clear that there cannot be any such mark, that can be described." We are back to the childlike tautology: "The world of the happy is a happy world." The German word for happy is glücklich, which means "lucky" (Glück is luck). Happiness, in this scheme of things, is always tied up with what happens, especially what happens by luck or chance.

This etymological paradox—the tension between a conception of happiness as a state of mind independent of time and circumstance, and a conception of happiness as chance-ridden and fortuitous—animates Lyn Hejinian's most recent book, Happily, a long poetic sequence first published in 2000 as a minimalist paperback by the Post-Apollo Press and then reprinted in The Language of Inquiry, a new collection of Hejinian's essays.2 Read against such earlier essays as "When Written is Writing" (1978) and "The Rejection of Closure" (1983), Happily intriguingly combines the techniques of two early Hejinian works—Writing is an Aid to Memory (1978) and the remarkable autobiography My Life, whose double incarnation (the 1978 Burning Deck version, written when the poet was 37, has 37 sections with 37 sentences each; the 1987 Sun & Moon revision changes those numbers to 45) suggests that writing the "self" is always an ongoing process.

In The Language of Inquiry, Happily is preceded by a piece called "A Common Sense," which is Hejinian's meditation on the meaning of the everyday or commonplace in Gertrude Stein's Stanzas in Meditation. "It was through participation in the everyday with its 'inevitable repetition,'" writes Hejinian, "that Gertrude Stein first came to understand the metaphysical as well as compositional force of habit." And she points to the sentence in Portraits and Repetition, where Stein says, "No matter how often what happened had happened any time anyone told anything there was no repetition. This is what William James calls the Will to Live."

To recount the past, Hejinian suggests, is to freeze it; to say "this happened" leaves no room for contingency. Repetition in a continuous present, on the other hand, assures difference, for no repetition, whether of word or deed, can ever produce an exact replica of a now-lost original. The resulting free play, she posits, is what James meant by the Will to Live. "And," she adds, "it is what here I am going to risk calling happiness." Happiness—and there is a footnote to this effect—not as the usual condition of "privilege bestowed by fortune (in the form either of luck or of money)," but happiness as the awareness of "what happens, happens as effects to beings—things that exist." Whether these things are good or bad is not at issue; what matters is that the contemplation of happening arouses the "wonder at mere existence"—for example, an "alertness to the liveliness of the present and the everyday, the mode of being that for Stein constituted 'complete living.'" "Happiness," says Hejinian, "is a complication, as it were, of the ordinary, a folding in of the happenstantial…. In this respect, it is unlike unhappiness, since unhappiness is a marked condition, firmly attached to plots (that of good vs. evil, of love and loss, etc.)," whereas happiness is an attentive awareness to the sheer contingency of happenings.

Like Wittgenstein, Hejinian thus relates happiness to presence. It involves "taking a chance … into the present," getting in time rather than meditating on time. Here the root hap comes in: Hejinian cites Nietzsche as saying that "Happiness arises out of chance, hazard, accident, events, fortune, the fortuitous." Its very contingency is a sort of blessing. "In its very ordinariness, [it] says yes."

What Hejinian doesn't say in "Common Sense" is that her meditation on happiness was triggered by a bout with cancer from which she had recently recovered. In one sense, then, Happily is her poetic response to reprieve, to the happiness the poet experiences in recognizing her reinsertion into a state of happening. The sequence, as Hejinian says in her headnote, was designed as "an affirmation of thinking, of thinking's substance and context (what happens), and of writing as the site of such thinking." Writing, in this instance, is less an aid to memory, as in Hejinian's first major book, than a mode of transformation whereby what the poet calls a "marked condition"—the what happened—is absorbed into the continuous present of happening and such related present participles as persevering and knowing.

Formally, Happily is a Steinian work, written in a series of sentences, exactly 250 of them, ranging from one word to eight lines, and divided into irregular "stanzas," perhaps on the model of Stanzas in Meditation. In her headnote, the poet talks about her "accordioning" sentences: "ones with solid handles (a clear beginning and a clear end) but with a middle that is pleated and flexible" so as "to allow for the influx of material that surges into any thought, material that is charged with various and sometimes even incompatible emotional tonalities."

But despite its homage to the Stein sentence, Happily strikes me as being less Steinian than Oxota, Hejinian's long, parodic Russian "epic" based on Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, an oblique homage to the etymological poetries of the Russian avant-garde. In The Language of Inquiry, Hejinian frequently cites the Russian Formalist theorists—Jakobson, Shlovsky, Tinyanov—from whom she traces her own concern for the materiality of language and its ability to effect ostranenie ("making strange"). Ostranenie, as Hejinian remarks in a recent essay on translation, posits relatedness as the primary quality of poetic discourse. Relatedness can be imagistic or syntactic, but, in the poetry of Ilya Kotuk and Arkadii Dragomoschenko, which she has translated, Hejinian finds it primarily in "a high degree of wordplay, often of a type that is dependent on etymological associations."

Here Hejinian parts company with Stein, whose unit of composition was the sentence, rather than the word as such. Like Susan Howe, Hejinian is fascinated by dictionaries, where "words in storage … seem frenetic with activity, as each individual entry attracts to itself other words as definition, example, and amplification." One thinks of Khlebnikov tracing the lineage of so ("with") in sol ("salt") and solntse (sun). Similarly, at the end of "Common Sense," Hejinian probes the definition of the word "meditation" in Webster's Ninth Collegiate Dictionary: "a discourse intended to express its author's reflections or to guide others in contemplation." But, she adds, "the word 'meditation' comes from the Latin, modus (measure), and from the Old English, metan (to measure), and for Stein it appears to mean a prolonged present cogitation."

And Happily is clearly motivated by the fact that happy and happen both derive, as I mentioned earlier, from the root hap, and that even the word habit, which has so much to do with happening, begins with the letters ha. Indeed, the poetic sequence orchestrates these words, together with a carefully plotted set of synonyms. Happen gives us take place, arrive, come, recur; hap generates chance, accident, hazard, event. But this is the beauty of the poem: the word happily—the adverbial form is preferable to the noun happiness, since modification is much more likely to produce contingency than is nominalization, which suggests a state of being—is always just happily, and it appears only three times in the sequence as compared to some twenty-odd uses of happen. No synonym, it seems, can do happily justice.

Consider the two opening stanzas of Happily:

Constantly I write this happily
Hazards that hope may break open my lips
What I feel is taking place, a large context, long yielding, and to doubt it would be a crime against it
I sense that in stating "this is happening"
Waiting for us?
It has existence in fact without that
We came when it arrived
Here I write with inexact straightness but into a place in place immediately passing between phrases of the imagination
Flowers optimistically going to seed, fluttering candles lapping the air, persevering saws swimming into boards, buckets taking dents, and the hands on the clock turning—they aren't melancholy […]

The day is promising
Along comes something—launched in context
In context to pass it the flow of humanity divides and on the other side unites
All gazing at the stars bound in a black bow
I am among them thinking thought through the thinking thought to no conclusion
Context is the chance that time takes
Our names tossed into the air scraped in the grass before having formed any opinion leaving people to say only that there was a man who happened on a cart and crossed a gnarled field and there was a woman who happened on a cart and crossed a gnarled field too
Is happiness the name for our (involuntary) complicity with chance?
Anything could happen
A boy in the sun drives nails into a fruit a sign (cloud) in the wind swings
A woman descends a ladder into mud it gives way
But today's thought is different

Constantly in the first line immediately provides us with a key to this complex meditation. Its primary meaning—"continuously," "always"—gives way to the secondary sense of "faithfully," "unwaveringly," as in Somerset Maugham's The Constant Nymph. The writing is happy because it is dedicated, committed: "to doubt it would be a crime against it" (line 3). But "happily" in line 1 is followed by "hazards," so as to remind us how "hap-hazard" these moments of writing, these "Hazards that hope may break open my lips" really are. To say "this is happening," to place oneself inside, is to proceed "happily." And here the notion of being in the midst of existence is opposed to the linear narrative of "We came when it arrived." To be inside of happening is to be attentive to contingency and chance, and to forestall the downward spiral toward closure, here imaged as flowers going to seed, "fluttering candles," "persevering saws swimming into boards," "buckets taking dents," and of course "the hands on the clock turning"—all these familiar items of everyday life defamiliarized by surprising modifiers, as when the flowers "optimistically" go to seed or the saws swim into rather than lacerate the boards they cut.

"Context," we read in the next stanza, "is the chance that time takes." "Is happiness the name for our (involuntary) complicity with chance?" Yes, but not because "Anything could happen"—that pious cliché—but because when something does happen, we cannot define what it is. The "marked condition" of plot—"there was a man who happened on a cart and crossed a gnarled field and there was a woman who happened on a cart and crossed a gnarled field too"—cannot yield happiness. For to look at what happened this way is to objectify events and thus to undermine the world of the happy, to become aware that "A boy in sun drives nails into a fruit," that "A woman descends a ladder into mud it gives way."

"There is really no single poem," Hejinian remarks in a 1995 dialogue with the Serbian poet Dubravka Djuric, also in Language and Inquiry. She cites Jack Spicer's letter to Robin Blaser, in Admonitions: "Poems should echo and reecho against each other. They should create resonance. They cannot live alone any more than we can."3 This affords an apt description of the mode of Happily, in which accordion sentences, interrupted by aphorisms and pithy statements, mime the processes of mind whereby the poet tries to remain in the suspended state of existing happily in a state of contiguity—of metonymy rather than metaphor. The very notion of the individual poem—closed, confined, surrounded by white space, and hence marked—goes against the notion of contingency that is so central to Hejinian's ethos. Yet—and this gives her meditation its edge—even in an open sequence like Happily there can't help being lapses into linearity:

I can always wait sometimes, other times impatience overcomes me like a disease effacing the fingerprints of the naked hand on my inner nature which chance bothered to put there, beauty scratched out, and history answered in the affirmative

Impatience and insistence are blocking factors, as is nostalgia:

Nostalgia is another name for one's sense of loss at the thought that one has sadly gone along happily overlooking something, who knows what.

Avoid clear definition, doctrine, clear-cut dialectic. And so the poem avoids overt connections—meter, rhyme scheme, a structure of images, controlling metaphor—in favor of those hidden connections produced by those variants on hap and their synonyms and homonyms. Hence sentences are left incomplete, pronouns like "it" remain undefined, prepositions signaling time and space relations are indeterminate, and sentences don't directly connect and are, at any rate, eminently interruptible, whether by questions, maxims, narrative interludes, or merely non-sequitur. "The world of the happy," no longer quite the "happy world" of Wittgenstein, is subject to everything that happens.

In this context, uncertainty (the word and its cognates appear frequently toward the end of the poem) is a virtue: "Of each actuality I'm uncertain and always was uncertain and such uncertainty is certain." Chance teaches the poet to trust finitude, to dwell, as Emily Dickinson put it, in possibility. The sentence "It's between birth and death our commonality and our own birth and death we are incapable of experiencing" obliquely points to Wittgenstein's terse formulation, "Death is not an event of life. Death is not lived through." True, near the end of Happily, there is a chill in the air: "Come winter," we read, "I see particularly the foreshortened perspective disguise retreat and in no way get arranged." And as the poem ends, the talk is of "preparation for what will come next." "That," says the poet, "may be the thing and logically we go when it departs." The rupture seems definitive—a long way from happening and happily. But it's only "logically" that we go when it departs," and logic has been abandoned from the beginning. So the death note is muted, a poignant reminder even as "happily I'm feeling the wind in its own right."

Chances are that the cycle will continue: "Every moment was better later and it greatly changed appearance." Like Hejinian's re-visionary My Life, Happily faces toward the future, toward those "beginnings that reason can motivate but not end." In its enactment of the Flaubertian principle that "sentences" should be "erect while running," Happily is less memory piece (the what happened) than an ode to a happy contingency. •

Marjorie Perloff's most recent books are Wittgenstein's Ladder and Poetry On & Off the Page. She just retired as Sadie Dernham Patek Professor of Humanities at Stanford University.

1 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Notebooks 1914-1916, 2d. ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 74.

2 Lyn Hejinian, The Language of Inquiry (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 2000), pp. 383-405. The sequence, double-spaced in the Post-Apollo edition, is here normalized.

3 The reference is to Jack Spicer, Admonitions: The Collected Books of Jack Spicer (Santa Rosa, Calif.: Black Sparrow, 1975). | Back to Marjorie Perloff's Homepage | Back to the EPC Homepage