Excerpt from Writing Is An Aid to Memory by Lyn Hejinian 1978.
Reissued Sun and Moon Press, Los Angeles, 1996
By Michael Murray
apple is shot nod
ness seen know it around saying
think for a hundred years
but and perhaps utter errors direct the point to a meadow
rank fissure up to the pit
arts are several branches of life
little more science is brought where great
need is required
out becomes a bridge of that name
in the painting is a great improvement
but ink up on the human race
and return if the foot goes back
in the trunks of trees behoove a living thing
wedge war common saw
hard by the length of time the great demand is
ashes in water
that might be a slip of architecture
think was reduced to an improper size
blocks to interest who can visit
variations on ideas are now full
from a point of increasing
at only as four or we who nine
a little grace familiar with simple limbs and the sudden
Page one, section one; and retaining as near as possible actual page layout.
Our first questions must be: who is the writer and, what do we need to understand this?
Lyn Hejinian is identified as one of founding figures of the American L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers. We tend to think of them as connected with the New York School of writers. This is mostly erroneous, they have several features in common; for instance their approach to language use can be said to be a development of the New York School. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers are wide spread. Lyn Hejinian is based around the West Coast, San Francisco in particular.
Their particulars are according to their Repossessing the Word blurb, to ‘explore the ways that meanings and values can be realized – revealed – produced in writing. This involves an opening of the field of activity and not its premature foreclosure…. ‘
This ‘opening’ constitutes an attempt at writing where reference ‘like the body itself, is one of the horizons of language, whose value is to be found in the writing… before which we find ourselves at any given moment… the multiple powers and scope of reference (denotative, connotative and, associational),….’
Claudia Rankine notes Herjinian’s concern with the ‘referential possibilities inherent in language…’. And that ‘context, our surround sound, can exist for itself alone. Accident, chance, lawlessness, or uselessness are equal to reason, logic, knowledge, fair play….’
What has the author to say? In her Preface she writes, ‘I was always conscious of the disquieting runs of life slipping by, that the message remains undelivered, opposed to me. Memory cannot, though the future return, and proffer raw confusions. Knowledge is part of the whole, as hope is, from which love seeks to contrast knowledge with separation, and certainty with the temporal…….
This desire in expression, leads us to: I would add greatly to the beauty by those feeling conversant; o where to put them. With its indispensable side, where nothing is greater, the laws of shadowy detail, to the smallest detail…………
I hear, as if in the background, the voice of Laura Riding, and beside her Gertrude Stein.
So where are we with the text? At A is for apple.
And yet she posits other alternatives; she is not contrasting the apple, nor comparing it. The present-tense verb conjunction presents us with shot and nod; we are not aware of the relationship between the two, as yet. How can apple be other than it is, barring metaphor and simile?
Are the raw confusions in the naming of objects? I have in mind here Gertrude Stein in Tender Buttons: ‘seeking a way of naming things that would not invent names, but mean names without naming them.’
The confusion is perhaps in the relationships; if we associate the words rather than semantically structure them, then maybe we can come to some understanding of the writer’s intent.
Statements. Conditions. A laying-out of a ground plan: ‘In this work Hejinian began laying out her notions of the relationship of writing and memory along the lines of the ideas expressed … by Gertrude Stein.’ (Postscript by Sun and Moon Press – uncredited).
What is it to join two or more words into a semantic relationship? Is it not more valid to see frames of reference up against one another, like branes in the multiverse?
And then she brings in a quality. Again we are not yet sure of its relationship to any of the other parts of text. We pick up on seen… it around grouped around the term know, we can also have know it; so what we can now ask is, Is this what it is to know something? Familiarity as a condition for knowledge. And to express the knowledge, the saying, also as a condition for knowledge, a provable connection?
To prove, to disprove, are the test-bed of science and, by application, computer science and programming. In the science-reference we also have the basic of objective science: experiment, and recordable result, in observation: seen.
In this instance is a use of past tense which immediately alerts us to altering perspectives.
So we have knowledge as a quality, like love and beauty. We have an apple, foremost. We have from this, Eve’s apple of knowledge in the Garden of Eden; and also Sappho’s highest apple on the tree, that nods as it were, in the breeze blowing through (- the draft from angel wings bearing the torch of banishment in the Garden?) and shot with an arrow from Eros. Qualities. To desire is to gain, to have, knowledge.
Am I right in refusing to read here also Wilhelm Tell shooting the apple from his son’s head, in these first four words?
What is it to deny knowledge? Is it to know beforehand the parameters of the writer’s references? Or should we acknowledge the antisyzergy of this, the sublime and the ridiculous as all of a piece, as with and the sudden/ reverse?
Remember, Knowledge is part of the whole, as hope is, from which love seeks to contrast knowledge with separation, and certainty with the temporal…. ?
There are identifiable Ashbery-ian tropes at work here too: wedge war where a simple slip on the keys allows us to envisage other possibles/ variations on ‘wage war’ (Ashbery has a fondness for composing on an old typewriter); archaisms: behoove, as well as tense shifts; we have runs of seeming sense: think for a hundred years/ arts are several branches of life, etc.
Context begins to cohere around the statements, snippets: think for a hundred years becomes think was reduced to an improper size; time becomes apparent, a sense of change, a great improvement and its denial: variations on ideas are now full/ problems….
We gain the impression of coherence and incoherence, of coherence and dissolution into other coherences. Claudia Rankine’s comments on context are particularly applicable here: ‘Accident, chance, lawlessness, or uselessness are equal to reason, logic….’.
It is the nature of these contexts that has to be determined.
There are forty one sections to this book, a number of which are no more than three lines in length. Does this have a significance?
My Life, written in her thirty-seventh year, shortly after this book, has thirty-seven sections each of thirty-seven sentences, ‘each section paralleling a year of her life’ (postscript to Writing Is An Aid to Memory). The postscript points out, as cited above, that ‘In this work Hejinian began laying out her notions of the relationship of writing and memory’ , where ‘began’ is the main word; perhaps this is, then, only a ground plan, that the fully constructed plan was in her later book.
A commentator in the Feminist Review wrote of ‘Hejinian’s use of autobiography, as at once gesturing to the limitations of the theoretically naive self-knowing subject, steeped in the discredited assumptions of modernity, and the continuing cultural validity of and desire for narrative, identification, self-expression and referentiality.’
The commentator’s paper ‘makes sense of this equivocation, not through its use of feminized tropes assumed to subvert the linear assumptions of the genre and render the reader 'active', but through an attention to the ironical complexities of her own cultural positioning.’
‘Ironical complexities’: this is very much the Language of Inquiry, as it has been described by reviewers.
The poem posits a way of looking at language, a way of reading, that is at variance with the standard ones we use when encountering older, mainstream work.
We do not necessarily have to see the new work as counter to, or alternate to, that work, but as a continuation, an extension, of the querulous relationship we have that exists with language, knowledge, understanding.