Writing and Defamiliarization with Lyn Hejinian

In recent poetry meanderings, I came across a poem by Lyn Hejinian in a Poetry Foundation podcast (called PoemTalk) that I find enormous enjoyment from and don’t talk about at social events.

Lyn Hejinian, 'constant change figures'

Lyn Hejinian, ‘constant change figures’

The poem itself – imaged here and linked appropriately – takes the reader on a circuitous rout of reflection and memory that the poem’s form reflects. It’s brilliant. You’ll have to read it a few times before it leaves more than an evaporating mnemonic impression. This is my attempt at working out some of its ideas and the further ideas it produces in me as a writer.

I spent some time with the piece. What I found interesting enough to chase after when I set the poem aside was Hejinian’s curiosity in everyday life and how we talk about it. She defends these things as important settings or subjects for avant-garde literature. Or any literature and art, for that matter.

Her work is a fantastic representation of Viktor Shklovsky’s theory of ‘making strange’ (in Russian: ‘ostranenie’), which is his view that art is the essential process of defamiliarization – that all things familiar must be taken under the lens of art to see them clearly once more. To put it succinctly, here’s the famous quote from Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose, which speaks for itself:

Held accountable for nothing, life fades into nothingness. Automatization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives, and at our fear of war. […] And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art. The purpose of art, then, is to lead us to a knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition. By “enstranging” objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and “laborious.” The perceptual process in art has a purpose all its own and ought to be extended to its fullest. (5–6)

Art and language is the act of “surpassing the things we’ve known before,” as Hejinian

Lyn Hejinian Portrait

Lyn Hejinian Portrait

puts it, and it requires us to look again and again at the old and the familiar with more than the lazy reaction that is mere recognition. This is a direct reflection of the form of the poem, which requires us to look again and again at the same lines made unfamiliar by where and how they’re repeated. The memory and form of the poem produces a perfect thesis for its semantics. Look again, and if it doesn’t make your head summersault, I’m not sure what will.

As a language poet who points back to Gertrude Stein, her work is a very convincing argument that nothing is said the same way twice because all things are said by difference voices at different times in different situations. This doesn’t lead us as writers to fearfully chase after originality or novelty, which are often gimmicks covering up shallow ideas. Instead, the artist’s job is to pursue truth, which is the dusting off of the old things we’ve known and have forgotten to look at closely because of their prosaic, recognizable nature.

As usual, no one can say it quite like Stein, whom Hejinian quotes in her book of essays,The Language of Inquiry: 

 It was all so nearly alike it must be different and it is different, it is natural that if everything is used and there is a continuous present and a beginning again and again if it is all so alike it must be simply different and everything simply different was the natural way of creating it then.

I always wished I could get away with writing like that in school. Grades, however, depended on me making clear sense. But we still see Stein’s sense despite our horror (and delight) in all her rule-breaking. Read Lyn’s poem again, and let the language and repetitions sink in…”It was all so nearly alike it must be different and it is different.”

I like Stein’s idea of continuous present and constant beginnings. If this were purely an inspirational post, I’d say that new writers can’t take the time to worry about making something unique, because, by their very voice, they do – because the present is continuous and each word is a new beginning. Ironically, that’s what we’re always striving to understand because it never becomes familiar.

If I were really organized and succinct, I’d be reminding myself (mostly) that art, like prayer, is a way of reminding us over and over to look without relying so utterly on our familiar memory (our “nature’s picture”) of a thing.

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