Lyn Hejinian’s “Allegorical Activism”

The revelrous, rebellious writing of Hejinian—arguably our foremost poet-critic—works against our sense of psychological and political isolation.

I come face to face with a still life, but it isn’t even still; even it isn’t still.

—Lyn Hejinian, Tribunal


A German goldsmith covered a bit of metal with cloth in the fourteenth century and gave humankind its first button. It was hard to know this as politics, because it plays like the work of one person, but nothing is isolated in history.

—Lyn Hejinian, My Life


We live in the world, but also in language. This is the fact of our being. And from this (seemingly banal) fact stems the radical writing of Lyn Hejinian, a founding member of the Language movement and arguably our foremost poet-critic. For many of her readers, Hejinian has managed to alter what we think of as a life. Rather than made of Virginia Woolf’s crystallized “moments of being,” life—for Hejinian—is instead a form of ongoingness, marked by relation and contingency and formed through the play of language and of the imagination, as well as through historical forces. As she writes in the epigraph above, it’s “hard to know this as politics, because it plays like the work of one person, but nothing is isolated in history.”

Hejinian’s revelrous, rebellious writing continually works against our sense of isolation. Her texts—which now number more than 25 volumes of poetry and critical prose, as well as numerous translations and collaborations—are maximally alive, responsive to an ever-evolving present in which the personal and the political are inextricably linked. This ongoing commitment to aesthetic and political resistance is why she remains, in her seventh decade, an avant-garde writer. “At the heart of avant-gardism,” she explains, “is the belief that artistic practice should aim to produce not bodies of works but series of actions. It’s for this reason that we can term avant-gardes movements rather than schools. They are activist.”1

As is true in art, so too in politics, and even in psychology. “Subjectivity is not an entity but a dynamic,” as Hejinian explores in her masterwork My Life, first published in 1980. “There is no self undefiled by experience, no self unmediated by the perceptual situation; instead there is a world and the person is in it.”2 To pretend otherwise, she suggests in her most recent book of poems, Tribunal, is to be a tyrant:

The tyrant closes the world tightly around himself, he is in the embrace of his own narcissism.

With the melancholy of self-condemnation and a pen, I, also a tyrant, draw a wall.

Stand, attend, account, shout.

All ideas but no acts so no association, no activism, no theater.

A tyrant proclaims that the future dreams of him, which only means that old age dreams of him

In this negative vision, which links authoritarianism with narcissism, the writer is figured as the self-enclosed “I” who, like the political tyrant, demands obedience and obeisance. Here we have everything that Hejinian is not. Instead, in each of her books she enacts the alternatives to such reification, creating dynamic and active spaces of perception and invention.

Hejinian’s war on tyranny is not new. We see it in myriad ways throughout her earlier works, in her antilyricism, her “rejection of closure,”3 and her revelation of language’s slippages. As is true in the work of Language writers more generally, there has always been a politics to her poetic forms.

What is new in her most recent books is the explicit emphasis on political activism and the turn toward allegory as a gesture of what she calls “wild captioning.” Both Tribunal and her recent prose work Positions of the Sun theorize and perform the radical pleasures of an immersive writing. Perhaps more importantly, they are both works of “allegorical activism, or of activist allegorizing, as an artistic and as a political practice … in the service of activating some of the creative potential in everyday life.”4

Such motile work resists description. Indeed, often when critics write about her work, they lift from the poems’ disjunctive atmospheres those moments that crystallize as aphoristic thought. But that doesn’t give much of a sense of the effect of her writing, the way it works in and on the present. And since Hejinian wants to make “writing that is generative rather than directive,”5 one would have to describe not what it says, but what it does.


This Is Not an Essay on Poetry of...

By Maureen N. McLane

So, what does Hejinian’s writing do? And how does she manage to bring her antiprivatization activism into aesthetic form? In many ways, Positions of the Sun carries forth the project of the now canonical My Life; the books share, as Hejinian notes, an interest in “chronological organization, paratactic structure, attention to the ‘sentence’ (as distinct from the ‘line’).”

But while My Life unfolds in the past tense and carries along with it memory, which “provokes a ready pathos,” Positions is committed to bringing forth a vision of collective life in the present. The book begins with the sun’s rising, and the illumination it brings. Not of the mind—of things.

The sun is rising. Chuk-a-chuka-chuk, chuka-chuk, chuka-chuk. How we love it! The petals of the sun flare, waver, bend, spin. Someone sings. Light comes through a window, falls across a plate, illuminates the mottled surface of a shark’s tooth, a small red pocketknife. Humans are forever creating new allegories out of things they find in the world. A feather, a paper flag on a stick, and an ivory chopstick are stuck beside an upright tulip in a jar.

The sun moves as the mind does, over things, and becomes itself an allegory for the mind. “The sun moves relentlessly,” she writes, “slowly but without caution; with each change of position, it withdraws its light from one thing and casts it onto the next, allegorizing and then de-allegorizing and then re-allegorizing again. Continuity is made, not found.”

In this allegory of her own practice, with its commitment to the “paratactic present”—in which perceptions arise one after the other, in a nonhierarchical unfolding—the anxieties that govern daily life momentarily give way. Why? “Anxiety is an engine as well as a product of postmodern affect,” Hejinian writes; it “renders synchronization (the bringing into pleasurable play of numerous facilities attentive to numerous experiences) impossible. It cuts humans off from the medium in which they live—present time.”6

To counter this distraction, “the writer of everyday life” creates a “paratactically configured work [that] keeps first her and then our attention on immediate particulars in the present tense, since that is the tense of cognitive time.” Hejinian’s work returns us to that present. In so doing, it shifts things somehow, unleashing once again happiness from the happenstance.

“Tribunal’s” poems reveal the connection between revelry and rebellion.

Yet the “pleasurable play” Hejinian brings to her work does not erase suffering. Instead, her work exists alongside it. Take, for example, The Unfollowing (2016), an elegiac book that borrows the sonnet’s 14 lines but disrupts its logic. Hejinian makes each line a non sequitur; as she writes, she “wanted each line to be as difficult to accept on the basis of the previous and subsequent lines as death is for we who are alive.”7

From this strategy emerges a new form of thinking, which, as Tim Wood writes in a review, is “all volta.”8 The mind, which is prone to make connections, is forced here, as throughout Hejinian’s work, to leap. In that leaping, we are aware that the meanings we make are provisional and passing, and that’s all to the good. Indeed, as Hejinian writes in the preface to The Unfollowing, “If logic can’t prevail, perhaps hilarity can, as an attribute of a revolutionary practice of everyday life, dismantling control and reforming connectivity.”9

And yet the pressures on the present are considerable, and the ludic potential in attention feels ever more under threat. Already in 2011, in an essay entitled “Wild Captioning” that addresses the aftermath of the financial crisis and the privatization of public education, Hejinian worries that, faced with such historical reality, “a liberatory, open-ended, nonjudgmental … ethos—that of postmodernism in its positive manifestations—is giving way to something less generous or capacious under pressure of a yearning for dependable paradigms, stable fundamentals, and believable authorities.”10

What might resist this yearning? Hejinian writes hopefully of “late style” (referencing Theodor Adorno and Edward Said), which, she explains, “enters aesthetic practice either late in the biological life of an artist or late in the cultural life of a society, and it is characterized by a release of an unmanageable overflow or surfeit of material into a work that can barely contain it.”11 Such “an overwhelming complexity of experience and thought, along with the emotional excess that accompanies them, is the emanation of the (let us hope dialectical, as well as aporetic) condition of both artistic practice and of political protest today—wherein dedication is not unlinked from pessimism, imagination is not unlinked from reality, love is not unlinked from knowledge.”12

This late style, and a concomitant renewed commitment to probing the relation between politics and aesthetics, shapes Hejinian’s two most recent books. Both Tribunal and Positions of the Sun address the affective world of allegory and its provisional making of meaning. They are ultimately utopian works, born, through protest, out of a dystopian reality.


Resistance without Rhetoric

By Peter Campion

Tribunal began in the early days of the Trump campaign. The anxieties of his ascendance permeate the three long sequential poems that compose the book, and as a whole, the book stands in implicit judgment on our “Time of Tyranny.”

This phrase is the title of the central section, which, like The Unfollowing, is composed of sonnet-length poems. Here, though, all the lines are enjambed, as if to emphasize following itself. These poems achieve a continuity of maximal torque, felt especially at moments that indicate belonging or relation at a logically impassible juncture; conjunctions, prepositions, and similes serve not to naturalize connections but to make aporia felt in a text where “bridges abound or the bridges are out.”

“Every situation can be taken as subject to a proposition / at stake at this stage of the state,” but the form of allegorical reading that Hejinian’s works require is one that “brings about a synchronization, which is by nature short-lived, unstable, and improvisatory.”13 From this synchronicity emerges a “pathos unfettered / and anarchic,” which Hejinian is adamant to clarify “as indicative of its strength, not its weakness.”14 And allegory, usually seen as an interpretive gesture, “resists interpretation. It is an act, not an exegesis.”15

Tribunal’s poems reveal the connection between revelry and rebellion. Both derive from the Latin rebellare, and it’s through the Old French reveler, “to rise up in rebellion,” that the verb revel comes. I find these poems especially timely now, as we emerge from isolation, faced with the work of assessing and collectively reanimating the present.

“We live in toppled times under a feat of tyranny,” as Hejinian writes—so how to resist? And how to resist melancholy, which we might think of as the privatization of emotion? As Hejinian writes in Tribunal’s final section, “Ring Burial,” “Rubble is the quintessential allegorical material, the stuff of figure meanings. / Out of laughter, astonishment spreads, bewilders, demolishes.”

Astonishment is the single word I most associate with Hejinian—those who know My Life will remember its recurring phrase, “we who ‘love to be astonished’”—and the continual surprise of her work thrills me. In Tribunal, she urges, “Let’s not / fake getting lost, let’s do it, let’s not do it intermittently, let’s be / lost, disoriented and never to be bound so all can hear / the hiss of the adverbs we shoot into tyrants’ eyes.” This is of course a call to enter the collective space of both the book and the street with abandon, and to occupy it together.

It’s hard not to feel we “are undertaking / a task too late in the past of the future”; still, she insists, “To revolt is to inquire, to continue as undead.” What matters is how we live, and it’s in the particularity of our actions—figured above as “adverbs”—that our resistance comes to be felt.

The final poem of the sequence “Time of Tyranny” imagines a world reformed through collective action.

Together we all devalued the tyranny of value

of which the Monashee Mountains are but peaks perched on a single branch

of a boundary marking pine tree, a stack of inches, a time

frame within which the anxieties of the young are like pigeons ashamed

before a goose beset by wizening luck and love. Weird

as cabbage is reminiscence, interpretation donkeys, intersections

revolve, we play cards and glitter with skepticism which we find

better than a scythe, it is the present directed at our patience. Elusive clouds

drip, milk generates its own reward of which the plumage

of any egret is a mere suggestion and muslin a mockery

which tyranny cannot thaw, torture cannot make

unkind. On a white bird drawn by chance words are what

but a trundling shock, come too near, then setting off

in attendant sparks that ignite a conflagration of opinion.

As Hejinian writes, “Allegory … bears affinities with fantasy. It is immoderately associative, and thus slightly mad. And, unlike the symbolic, it offers little comfort. It is in this respect, as a polemical figure, that it has political potential. Allegory … makes things current.”16 And, I think, it is a current that moves horizontally through writer and readers alike, through the everyday, charging the moment.

The point of resistance, whether political or aesthetic, isn’t just to effect a different future but also—and perhaps more importantly—to alter the present. “Even if we don’t win, right now matters,” Hejinian explains in a recent interview. “It really counts what you’re doing. Don’t postpone the doing of it. … Part of the mandate of being alive is to actually live your life.”17 There is no other place, no other time. It’s for this reason that Hejinian ends Positions of the Sun with these lines from Wordsworth, thinking back to an earlier moment of revolution:

Not in Utopia——[…]

But in the very world which is the world

Of all of us, the place in which, in the end,

We find our happiness, or not at all.


This article was commissioned by Eleanor Johnsonicon

  1. From Hejinian’s “Pedagogical Notebook,” which she shared with my students and me when she visited campus several years ago.
  2. Lyn Hejinian, The Language of Inquiry (University of California Press, 2000), p. 203.
  3. This is the title of a talk Hejinian delivered in 1983; the corresponding essay is published in The Language of Inquiry.
  4. The word allegory doesn’t appear even once in The Language of Inquiry; at that point, she emphasized that her work functioned metonymically. See, in particular, the essay “Strangeness,” first published in 1989, for an account of the value she puts on metonymy, which she connects with the paratactical compositional strategies that continue to shape her work. The shift toward allegory emerges, as far as I can tell, first in her 2009 Gailey Lecture at UC Berkeley, “Positions of the Sun: Latitudes and Lucy Church Amiably,” then in her 2010 essay “Amor Fati” (published in The Grand Piano, Part 7 [This Press, 2008]), and then in her 2011 essay “Wild Captioning,” Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences, vol. 20, no. 1 (2011). See, in particular, the latter for an early version of the concerns that culminate in Positions of the Sun, in which she considered titling the book “Wild Captioning.”
  5. Hejinian, Language of Inquiry, p. 43.
  6. Hejinian, “Wild Captioning,” p. 290.
  7. Lyn Hejinian, The Unfollowing (Omnidawn, 2016), p. 9.
  8. Tim Wood, “All Volta,” Jacket2, November 7, 2016.
  9. Hejinian, The Unfollowing, p. 10.
  10. Hejinian, “Wild Captioning,” pp. 280–81.
  11. Ibid., p. 280.
  12. Ibid., p. 283–84.
  13. Ibid., p. 291.
  14. Ibid., p. 296.
  15. Ibid., p. 296.
  16. Ibid., p. 286.
  17. ‘A Fable for Now’: Kate Fagan Interviews Lyn Hejinian,” Cordite Poetry Review, November 1, 2017.
Featured image by Steve Johnson / Unsplash