May 19, 2010

I want to post this because these issues always come up in Christian (and secular) literature classes.

Hinging Hejinian: When "Openness" is not Enough

Some years ago, I had the pleasure of teaching a Contemporary Christian Poetry class. It was something I felt ready to do as I had just completed co-editing ODD ANGLES OF HEAVEN, but I felt I needed to supplement those poems with some representative essays on the poetics of the Post Modern and contemporary periods. Paul Hoover's POSTMODERN AMERICAN POETRY, A NORTON ANTHOLOGY, which I had just gotten in the mail, seemed like an ideal text. And it proved very useful as it contained not only some golden oldies--Creeley's jazzy poetic, Olson's justly famous "Projective Verse"--but it served up, as well, a good (and expected) menu of some of the newer poetics. State-of-the-art feminists, anti-capitalistic Language poets, and performance po-bizzers all got their turns at bat, each trying to create a new pagan aesthetic, each tying to knock the stuffings out of the, if you will, straw man patriarchal.

But it much of these writers' insights contained a little too much of the screeching foolishness many people have come to associate with Bill Moyers' most recent videos, some of the writing proved very thought-provoking as well, some even eye-opening. I was especially struck with how often these poets as essayists reflected the apparent poetics of many of the Christian poets in our anthology. That is, they could see and expound brilliantly on open-endedness,or, to put it in more overtly Christian terms, on the tenuous dark night of faith experience, on the working out of one's salvation with fear and trembling. But what neither camp could seem to come to grips with was the fact that "openness" is not the whole story, especially for the Christian poet. for us there is more, much more. An that "more," I would like to assert, has everything to do with what has come to be pejoratively called "closure." What I hope to show is that this whole other level of poetry writing, indeed, this whole other level of personal experience offers the other half of a GENUINE wholeness, one that is not available to those who choose to ignore it.

I would like to quickly emphasize here as well that neither of these forms of discourse: "openness" or "closure," negates the other form when it comes to creatively giving utterance go the Christian walk. The "openness" or sense of absence experience which makes up so much of our Christian days does not in any way contradict or make void the fact that it is often possible for us ecstatically and obediently bask, through infused grace, in God's absolute presence. And, at the same time, neither is it true, I hope to show, that the language of the one experience is sufficient to express the other.

It seemed to me as I was working on the anthology--and it still seems so--that today's Christian poets have been, perhaps, overly influenced by the contemporary, largely politically motivated notion that "openness" does, in fact, refute and negate closure. And it also seemed to me that the best place to respond to this error was where its point of espression was strongest. And that led me to Hejinian.

She is a very eloquent spokesperson for the notion of openendedness, and I would, to a very large extent, agree with what she has to say about that in her essay, "The Rejection of Closure." There she tells us that language encourages and partly answers a healthy longing we all innately have for wholeness, and that any kind of imposed closure, be that from the God the Father machine, or even from the purely sexual interpretations French feminists have put on that longing, is limiting. She tell us, too, that this very inability in language is helpful because it provides a medium of differentiation, and that through it we can come to grips with a world in flux.

Most of this, in its place, seems very good to me. But it's her larger take on the writing experience that I have trouble with. She very strongly states that no other way of seeing, writing is possible. Why, I had to ask myself, does she have to have such an either/or perspective? And how would she know that "closure," or life in God the Father, if such a life were to exist, limits anyone? Those of us who have, to some extent, experienced what we call His love would say that, on the contrary, He frees people, both in the living and in the writing. The limits she has set for us, I would like to argue, are simply not sufficient to contain our experience.

First, a closer look at what she does well. She provides keen insight into how poets attempt to find meaning within the very clay and process of composition itself. And further, she correctly points out that there are no easy or final ontological answers within the borders of that process. This is a crucial notion for us as well, because as Christians, Christian poets, we do the same thing in OUR search for the Truth in the complex situations we write about. It's the very process of composition that allows us a place and mean to myll over life in the darkness of faith in our efforts to make Williams' machine made of words.

And while it is true that a Christian might choose different language to express the same process, St. Paul's phrase "work out your salvation with fear and trembling" is the one that always comes to mind for me; but at his or her core, heart, the Christian poet usually engages in exactly the same enterprise. He, like his more secular counterpart, wrestles with language, with meaning as he attempts to apply the Gospel to his work and life, as he struggles to find Jesus in what he is doing. But Hejinian makes the crucial mistake of thinking that that wrestling makes up the entire poetical process for everyone. It does not, at least for the Christian.

For us there is even more "openness." And that "more" can be found, oddly enough, within her very notion of "closure." Faith is the result and the precursor of presence, and the boundaries it provides, along with the Presence make it possible for poets to lyrically express a truth that is purely given. And while this apparent contradiction might seem confining to the uninitiated, it is in reality anything but. It is, rather, freeing in the extreme. A poet can emanate truth, reveal something of God's own heart. he or she can occasionally live in that overwhelmingly illumined peaceful place of absolute Presence, in complete freedom, and, if lucky, he or she can find a "closed" group of words and symbols to express the joy in that experience. This is a paradox, granted. But Christianity is loaded with them.

Moreover, I would argue that this life of faith, this "closed system" is the ONLY place that can offer us this kind of freedom. It's a good place, a joyful place; it's a place so full of joy, in fact, that it has its own subjectively mimetic lyricism; it's a place where the expression of the interior presence, where a given reality can, at times, give actual form to that Life with a capital "L," at least as close as we can get to It given out still, though saved and being-saved, good natures. (It could be convincingly argued, I think, that the only place where "essence" and language perfectly reflect each other, where they become one in fact, is when the word "Jesus" is used to heal someone--the Eucharist being the material manifestation of that union.)

It's interesting to note that there's a delicate irony in Hejinian's perspective here. one could argue that this reality evades Hejinian and many others, at least in part, because they think too much like they might accuse a Christian of thinking, a curious twist considering the title of her essay. Her thought process, upon close inspection, reveals a "closed" either/or tendency which could well be seen to have its roots in Puritanism, whatever spin latter-day Transcendentalists try to put on it. Writing and the spirituality connected with it, for her, provide only two ways: "closure," the bad thing, the place of the damned, or "openness," the good, the place of the elect. For her, if one is unfortunate enough to fall among the "closed" crowd, well, there is not room for him in her heaven. Let me take you through some of her essaygs to show you what I mean.

She says, early on, that "the world" is "vast and overwhelming," that "each moment stands under an enormous vertical and horizontal pressure of information, potent with ambiguity, meaning-full, unfixed, and certainly incomplete" (653). And while her us of the "certainty" may suggest some hostility toward a perceived Christianity here, I would argue that she is not far from us in this statement. The recorded lives of the saints are full of similar dark night of faith experiences. It would be short-sighted, unchristian of us finally, I think, to dismiss her observations out of hand, as many knee-jerk conservative Catholics would, because they, on he surface, may seem a rather pagan take on the human condition. There is much truth in what she says. How, after all, do we love in every situation we find ourselves in? And how exactly do we make our lives a prayer anyway? Not easy things to answer given the often tangled days within which we find ourselves. We pray, stumble, imitate the saints, do the best we can. And through grace, God turns our lives into something good.

Not that all this uncertainly need get the better of us, of course, nor is it the whole picture. We have a Church to guide us. God, Emmanuel, is with us, in the Eucharist, in the praise He inhabits. And this is precisely where Hejinian misses the boat. She has no concept of the absolute side of things, of God's nature, His presence. For her, longing and language are pretty much all we get. There is no inner separate transcendent reality which can use language to make itself palpable, that seeks to use it to place people in a communion of love. there is only a heavy-footed rummage through a void as the artist searches ponderously for meaning.

"Language generates its own characteristics in the human psychological and spiritual condition" (654), she says. Hejinian clearly is something of a language behaviorist here. Language, the clay, is the only means we get to shape our realities, and one would assume, with those shapes, to "know" anything. That is, what it gives us is the only tools we'll ever wrestle with to find out what it means to be alive. And here, as I feel I must repeatedly emphasize, she's not far from the truth.

"This psychology is generated by the struggle between language and that which it claims to depict or express, by our overwhelming experience of the vastness and uncertainty of
the world and by what often seems to be the inadequacy of the imagination that longs to know it, and, for the poet, the even greater inadequacy of the language that appears to describe, discuss, or disclose it." (654)

This is well said and certainly accounts for the struggles of any writer who labors through the hard critical work, the discursiveness, the first person spirituality, self-absorbed or otherwise, associated with the craft. But again, these things do not make up the sum of the process. There is an area of pure lyricism available to poets as well, an area in which writing can be animated by, and reflect the surety of the Holy Spirit. And while Hijinian later in her essay does come to an intuited sense of this truer other-centered spirituality, she doesn't really know to contextualize it and leaps to the easiest, most comfortable port in her storm:
As Francis Ponge puts it, 'Man is a curious body whose center of gravity is not in himself.' Instead it seems to be located in language, by virtue of which we negotiate our mentalities and the world; off-balance, heavy at the mouth, we are pulled forward. (654)

Drawn though she is toward the real Center of things, she veers off, insists on mistaking the created thing, language, for the One who ultimately deserves credit for giving it form. She does, thankfully, if only for a moment here, move the focus from herself as shaper of the only valuable and provisional meaning possible in her world. And she's right, too, in insisting that language does offer a valuable working place, a place where we can find some tentative solutions to temporal )and therefore temporary) problems. But what she missed is that language can give us so much more than just that. Words, besides offering their own beauty, offer us the closest non-sacramental correspondence possible to who God is. And in the language that praise gives to us, we are free to bask in the cherubs of an attendant joy; we are free to be God's little trumpeters, His holy noise!

To put it baldly, there is no such pervasive good fruit to be found in Hejinian's kind of language materialism. Creatures simply can not offer it. Instead, she's too often only left with club-footed phrases, words like "overwhelming," "uncertainty," "inadequacy," "off-balance," "heavy at the mouth," and "are pulled forward."

And while it's true that we as Christians can experience all that too, it's absolutely vital to note that is not all we get. The very fact that we, not to mention language, are not the center of our lives is ultimately a cause for celebration among us, not heavy-mouthed despair. We need and are grateful--gartitude is the mother of joy--for God's response: revelation, direction. and that's what makes us wax lyrical. Gratitude moves in us and the right words can be there, at least for that portion of the process. this is the half that Hejinian misses.

Again, I don't want to give the impression that language is all roses for the Christian poet. It is not. There is much tearing that goes on--and language bites back. But it would be an even greater crime to leave the giver of the gifts available unacknowledged. With Him comes a grateful spirit, and with that, praise, unreflective poetic movement; God Himself can dance on bright waters. And it is in those moments when words, purely given (almost purely taken), can appear, because it is in that place, if only for those moments, that can finally feel Integrity, Wholeness. We are able to respond with our whole beings, as free and nearly complete men and women; we are able to almost perfectly express that. That given state doesn't last, of course. heaven can not be totally here, or yet. But it is, as some saints have said, all the way there as well.

There is no corresponding joy in Hijinian. She has nothing to be that grateful for. There is only the language, for her, a suit with nothing in it but a fine weave of cloth. Granted, that's a fine thing. But for the Christian, that's only one of its properties. Language is the timbrel and harp, and in the hands of a Christian it can reflect that "still point," that fleeting moment of ecstatic repose that is a promise as well as a partial fulfillment. Hejininia misses that.

"Language itself is never in a state of rest" (654), she claims. And she's right, at least a good deal of the time. Language has a fluid quality that makes it marvelously tactile. It can help us work through the stuff of our daily lives. It can help us come to tentative meaning, closer to Meaning, yes, and we should be thankful for that. And because we are not medievalists or Puritans, we can appreciate its more-then-symbolic properties as we would any gift. It is a thing to be enjoyed. there is the pure joy of childhood here, as there is in any gift, a joy Hejinian can never really fully appreciate, I would argue, because she can never stop along the side of the road, because she keeps mistaking language for God. "The 'rage to know,'" to use her words, "is one expression of restlessness produced by language" (655).

She's so hard after meaning on her own terms, in fact, that she misses the fun. And though she has an intuited sense that the Knowable might be had in a more spiritual realm, she doesn't quite know how to get there. The extent to which this is so can be found in her description of how the very real sense of absence inherent in the discursive or self-ish use of language pushes us toward meaning. "The knowledge towards which we seem to be driven by language, or which language seems to promise, is inherently sacred as well as secular, redemptive as well as satisfying" (655). I would have used "reflects" rather than "seems to promise," but she's not far from the kingdom. She actually values the redemption at some deeper level.

But what really surprised me in all of this was how she manages to refute the real redemption through her discussion of language. She does so by playing the Puritan, the stereotypical Calvinist! Like the American Transcendentalists who came before her, whose zealous banner she continues to raise, she can't shake who she is reacting against. She's as much a Puritan as Whitman:

"The NOMINA SIN NUMINA position (i.e., that there is an essential identity between name and thing, that the real nature of a thing is immanent and present in its name, that nouns are numinous) suggests that it is possible to find a language which will meet its object with perfect identity. If this were the case, we could, in speaking or writing, achieve the at-oneness with the universe, at least in its particulars, that is the condition of paradise, or complete and perfect knowing--or of perfect mental health." (655)

This is classic either/or thinking, the kind we would excoriate our Freshman Composition students for engaging in. but here she embraces it with both arms. Either one is "saved," completely and forever from the dunghill of the her nature, or such a thing is not possible. (Here, as with so much of the criticism regarding Christianity in American literature, this stereotypical Calvinist notion is taken as the defining Christian position!) Amazing! We are fallen, yes, but we still sin. But that does not mean we are not well-intentioned now, nor does it mean we were without some good--the natural law, in itself an expression of a salvageable nature--before. We, as St. Paul says, will continue to work out our salvation with "fear and trembling" for the rest of our lives because in the attempt to apply Christ's saving work in our lives we still fall so often. this does not mean we need to scupulously examine our every movement as a Puritan might. No. Rather what we do need to be aware of it our need for a continuing grace, mercy. And as St. Paul says, we walk by faith and not by sight. We can't depend on our sense to ascertain anything. What we can do, rather, is be confident because of who God is, because of how He is. Really, would you give your child a stone if he asked for a fish? All this is cause for even more praise. Poets can come as close to that perfection as grace and talent and openness will allow them as it changes their lives, and to the degree that they ask a love Father for that perfection. But that doesn't mean that every word will reflect a continually experienced personal paradise. Nor does it mean that writers will lose their stories in the process either. Rather, each individual and pitched personal story serves to magnify the Lord in every person's telling. We can rejoice because God continues to show us such mercy, all the while giving us abundant life in the process.

All this is nowhere in Hijinian. She, rather, having thus short-circuited her own direct search for meaning with the either/or fallacy, leaves herself no option but to seek her naming, structures, where she can not so perfectly find them. Her context remains spiritual, yes: Benjamin Lee "Whorf goes on," she says, "to express what seems to be stirrings of a religious motivation: 'what I have called patterns are basic in a really cosmic sense.' There is a a 'PREMONITION IN LANGUAGE of the unknown vaster world'" (656), but she has given up on sign posts--fallen creature that she is--and predictably, soon begins to wander all over the road.

Instead of realizing that the center is a redemptive God, the One who gives all things meaning as well as identity, she, as I have said, focuses on the created thing itself, its potential: language and what the process involved in using it can never, by her own admission, adequately reveal.

What she doesn't seem to realize is that finding what matter in life, in language, is not a matter of choosing some self-serving sense of "openness" over an equally skewed notion of closure. It comes only through the ruthless pursuit of truth. We can love the Absolute, live in that love, in, at time, that praise, and we an enjoy the gift of language, purely, in ways that are ecstatic. But we have to apply what Love teaches us in our lives as well; and we have to do so often in "fear and trembling." Both aspects are part of the Christian experience. Hejinian, chooses rather, for her part, to be true to only what she can generate, sense.

She speaks about the potentially curative language theories of French feminists, yokes them with the spiritual "rage to know," which for her is "In many respects a libidinous drive," one which "seeks also a redemptive value from language" (656). In short, she tries to help initiate a newer Pelagianisitic Solipsism, a more comfy revelation. She quotes Elaine Marks.

"The project for these French feminist writers is to direct their attention to 'language and the unconscious, not as separate entities, but language as a passageway, and the only one, to the unconscious, to that which has been repressed and which would, if allowed to rise, disrupt the established symbolic order, which Jacques Lacan has dubbed the law of the Father.' "(qtd. in Hejinian 656)

Each to his or her own evangelization, gospel, no question. But it's important to map the distinctions. These folks would judge the Gospel by psychological or political theories, not the other way around. This is a fundamental flaw and is based on a misunderstanding regarding the human condition. They, like other Enlightenment folk, believe they can perfect themselves without the aid of revelation. And beyond even that, were one to look on a purely physical sense level, there is another, more direct consideration: which offers the better fruit?

Hejinian pulls back from making the rage to know quite so blatantly sexual as the French writers in question seem to, but it's clear whose ax she's grinding and in which direction she intends to aim it. No surprises there.

It becomes a matter ultimately, I think, of do you want the truth or do you want yourself, do you want God or do you falsely want to be Him. It's something we all have to fight with in one way or another, whatever side of this fence we happen to be sitting on. You can see this struggle in Hejinian when she makes an attempt to line up with "avant-garde" writers. (I don't know about your experience, but no one I know could ever get away with actually using that expression seriously: "the avant-garde." Cream pies have always been in order.) Hejinian, however, has no such qualms; she tells us in the most serious tones that

"What is striking to me . . . was that the kinds of language that many of these writers advocate seems very close to, if not identical with, what I think of as characteristic of many contemporary avant-garde texts--including an interest in syntactic disjunctions and realignments, in montage and pastiche as structural devices, in the fragmentation and explosion of subject, etc., as well as an antagonism to closed structures." (657)

This concern with limits, being on the edge of things brings mind some comment I heard by a fellow named Miller on PBS concerning the difference between Mozart and Salieri. The gist of his comments went something like this. Salieri was always concerned with being original, and because of that, he never was. Mozart, on the other hand, never gave it a thought. It also brings Pound to mind--his comments about innovators and imitators.

All this, again, in not to dismiss Jejinain. (We all have to wrestle with out egos.) When it comes to language and the ordinary, she has much to say:

"In the gap between what one wants to say (or what one perceived there is to say) and what one can say (what is sayable), words provide for a collaboration and a desertion. We delight in our sensuous involvement with the materials of language, we long to join words to the world--to close the gap between ourselves and things, and we suffer from doubt and anxiety as to our capacity to do so because of the limits of language itself." (658)

She's on the money here. (I think of Eliot's complaint in THE FOUR QUARTETS.) Whatever our poetic high points, our moments of infused contemplative experience with the God who made heaven and earth, who is absolutely holy, who is the same "yesterday, today, and forever," knuckleheads that we are, we still have to work out our day-to-day salvations in the present moment, with all the uncertainly that entails. As poets we still have to marshall our critical abilities, make tough choices, go with faith to where th process leads us.

It would be a mistake to fall into the stereotypical Calvinist trap ourselves. What is missing in our experience as we wait and work for heaven, after all, allows us work and the good room to do it in. And as we do so, we will "discover," in her words, "structure, distinction, the integrity and separateness of things" (658) in a way that those who don't believe in an absolute Lord never, in my opinion, really can. That, along with the personal gratitude that comes from it, is our gift to give. I can only hope that all of the marvelous Christian poets I have been fortunate enough to work with, can add something of this Absolute sense of god in their, in many cases, breath-taking ruminations on the "fear and trembling" level. Many already have. I think Denise Levertov, Luci Shaw, Richard Wilbur, perhaps some Kelly Cherry--I'm sure there are many others. After all, if we don't speak the Gospel, who will?