The seeds of its own unfolding

PoemTalk on Lyn Hejinian's "constant change figures"

Lyn Hejinian at the Kelly Writers House in 2005 (photos by Blake Martin).

Editorial note: The following conversation has been adapted and edited from episode 15 of PoemTalk, recorded March 9, 2009, at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and transcribed by Michael Nardone. In this episode, PoemTalk host Al Filreis discusses Lyn Hejinian’s “constant change figures” with Thomas Devaney, Tom Mandel, and Bob Perelman. Listen to the show here. — Katie L. Price

Al Filreis: I’m Al Filreis, and this is PoemTalk at the Writers House, where I have the pleasure of convening friends in the world of contemporary poetry and poetics to collaborate on a close, but not too close, reading of a poem. We’ll talk, maybe even disagree a bit and perhaps open up the verse to a few new possibilities, and, we hope, gain for a poem that interests us some new readers and listeners. And I say “listeners” because PoemTalk poems are available in recordings made by the poets themselves as part of our PennSound archive.

Today, I’m joined here in Philadelphia in the Arts Café of the Kelly Writers House by: Thomas Devaney, poet, critic, teacher, reviewer extraordinaire, whose latest book of poems is A Series of Small Boxes; and by Bob Perelman, long-time Penn colleague from the Bay Area, of course, before that, author most recently of a book of poems Iflife, published by Roof Books, which we celebrated here at the Writers House when it came out, and recorded the reading for Bob’s great PennSound page, to which I happily direct everyone within earshot; and by Tom Mandel, one of the early language poets and the author of fifteen books. Tom studied with Hannah Arendt and Saul Bellow on the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, and taught at the U of C, the University of Illinois, and San Francisco State, where he was Director of the Poetry Center. How many years, Tom?

Tom Mandel: Oh, just one year.

Filreis: Just one year, that was long enough.

Mandel: It was an action-packed year.

Filreis: Tom’s most recent book To the Cognoscenti was published by Atelos in 2007. He is one of the authors, along with Bob Perelman among others, of The Grand Piano, an experimental autobiography. For the last two decades, Tom has been a technology entrepreneur. Welcome back Bob Perelman and Tom Devaney, and thanks, Tom Mandel, for making your way to Philly from Delaware, via Detroit?

Mandel: And Chicago.

Filreis: And Chicago, and for joining us on PoemTalk for the first time. How was Detroit and Chicago?

Mandel: Well, I went to Detroit for a Grand Piano reading, which was an enormous amount of fun. Seven of us were there and had a fabulous time, gave a really terrific reading, which someday soon, probably within the week, will be available to listen to, and maybe even a video to watch.

Filreis: That’s great, and the subject of our discussion today — Lyn Hejinian — was there?

Mandel: Yes, she was.

Filreis: That’s great. Our poem today is an untitled twenty-seven-line lyric by Lyn Hejinian, the aforementioned, which has been published once in a magazine and, I think, later in an anthology, but has not been collected in a book. That volume, a decade in progress, is to be called The Book of a Thousand Eyes, and will possibly consist of a thousand poems, or maybe three hundred ten, which was how many were complete the last time I checked with Lyn. A handful of pieces from the project appeared in The Little Book of a Thousand Eyes, published by Smokeproof Press, but our poem does not appear there. We’ll call it “constant change figures” from its first line, and our recording comes from a visit Lyn Hejinian made here to the Writers House in February, 2005 when she read this one and twenty others poems in the series. In the first line, the word “figures” is read, by Lyn, as if it’s a noun, but it strikes me as a verb.

Mandel: The first time through I think it’s read as if it is a verb.

Filreis: How does it work, Tom?

Mandel: I think it’s read as if it is a verb the first time through, as if it is a noun the second time, and, in the exact same pronunciation as when it was a noun, as a verb the third time.

Filreis: When it functions as a verb, what does it do, let’s say in the first couple of lines?

Mandel: What does it do semantically?

Filreis: Yes.

Mandel: Semantically, it says that change is what decorates, presents, and makes available to us the time we sense.

Filreis: So, it figures time.

Mandel: It figures time.

Filreis: Bob, what do you make of that particular repetition: “constant change figures”?

Bob Perelman: A lot of things. I’m thinking how different it is looking at the poem on the page, hearing the poem, and then remembering the poem. It changes quite dramatically, it seems to me, in those various instantiations. I totally agree with what Tom says about the play between process and product, between fluidity and solidifying into Gestalt, and that’s what she’s doing throughout. I think the poem contains the seeds of its own unfolding, self-undoing and redoing. It is trying to teach us as it goes along how to read, unread, and reread it.

Filreis: Tom Devaney, what is your sense of hearing the poem? Does the sound wash over you? Do you forget the obligation to pull semantic meaning out of it since it’s obviously repeating lines, and one has a feeling that maybe randomly it’s doing so?

Thomas Devaney: No, you feel the repetition — that insistence of new meaning — in each line. Each time she writes “the constant change figures,” she’s enacting that feeling of the Steinian “nothing can be repeated, only said with a different insistence.” So, that’s the feeling I get right away. It gives you that feeling on the page of what the memory process feels like, through word play and repetition.

Filreis: Tom Mandel, you look like you’re about to say something.

Mandel: Just that I see plenty of Gestalt in the poem. The poem is three sets of nine lines. The first set of nine is repeated in the second set and the third set with significant variation. In the second set, the first line appears twice; and the second line, “the time we sense,” does not appear at all. In the third nine-line set — the second repetition in other words — the second line, “the time we sense,” appears twice, whereas the first line, “constant change figures,” doesn’t appear at all.

Filreis: Is there an algorithm?

Mandel: There’s no algorithm. There doesn’t need to be an algorithm, but there is a clear pointing. First of all, if you will, to the leading position of the first two lines — “constant change figures/the time we sense” — as, in a way, the seed out of which the whole poem emerges. And those two lines, “constant change figures” and “the time we sense,” are repeated in a significantly different way from the other lines in the poem.

Perelman: It’s funny, I mean I know Stein is —

Filreis: Back there somewhere.

Perelman: Yes, back there somewhere as crucial to Lyn’s writing. Then there’s Stein’s continuous present, which this poem certainly is an example of, but it’s also, I think, a kind of meta-commentary on the continuous present. There are three different modes of time. There’s sense, there’s experience, and there’s memory. Sense might be the immediate sensory present: hearing each word. The way Lyn reads it at first, she really emphasizes the line breaks.

So, sense would break things down into the present, and would tend to break things into smaller and smaller atoms. Experience is a longer, mid-range present: when you hear the whole sentence, that’s the experience, or the whole poem. Then, there’s the residue. If we all just stop and think “what do we think about this poem, what’s the memory of this poem,” it’s a much different being, certainly, than reading the poem, or rehearing it. I think all of those different instantiations, aspects, states, are what the poem is trying to invoke. And I’m now remembering, actually, one of Lyn’s early talks, “Chronic Ideas.” When I heard her read the first line “constant change figures,” I heard “constant” as echoing “chronic” and “figures” as echoing “ideas”— chronic ideas from thirty years ago.

Mandel: Great.

Perelman: So, on the one hand you have a paean to change and the constant sliding along of the present, but you also have this continuity of the constant change going back thirty years.

Filreis: And I’d also add, thinking back to Language poetry’s manifesto moment, if there was such a thing, where you might say: we call memory nature’s picture, and we’ve got to do something different. Let’s do something different. Memory isn’t so simple. It’s not just Proustian. There’s something else going on.

Tom Devaney, you were going to say something.

Devaney: I was also going to say that it’s not Proustian memory. There’s a distinction being made, and the whole poem is about differences in that sense. I kept thinking about passing on its effect, and Tom’s earlier comment about seeing how the poem was working physically on the page … but the poem, for me, feels like it is passing on its effect. You can feel the effects in the poem enacting, but also literally passing on and over its own sense of enacting as well, and so I really respond to those lines: “passing on its effect,” and “surpassing things we’ve known before.”

Mandel: And yet, that line can also mean passing on its effects.

Devaney: Right.

Perelman: I think I’ll pass on that.

Devaney: Nice.

Filreis: That’s fabulous.

Perelman: Many of these lines, words, syntactic recursions are a bit like Freud’s primal words, where they also mean their opposite: passing, surpassing.

Filreis: Experience is constantly qualified in this poem.

Mandel: But it’s the last word in the poem, and the writer knows what she is doing, so that the last question in the last five lines —

Filreis: It is an implied question.

Mandel: “But what of what/in the time we sense/surpassing things we’ve known before/passing on its effect/is experience.” So, you can’t let that go. And I would just say, as far as the Stein goes, as Steve Lacy says, “everything is an influence.” The relationship of a poem to the history of literature is just the price of entrance to thinking about and engaging with the poem. So, even though we are in an academic setting here, I wouldn’t want us to dive too deeply into Lyn and Stein.

Filreis: Okay, so warned. Getting away from Stein, let me try and do something really stupid, except for pedagogical purposes, and try to paraphrase that fabulous question that ends the poem. You tell me if I’ve got it wrong, or if it makes no sense at all: “To what extent is ‘experience,’ what we call ‘experience,’ to what extent is experience the result of our living in time (moment-to-moment duration), which produces senses that are familiar, yet move us forward on to new effects?”

That would be my paraphrase of the question. Or, in other words, to what extent is experience the confluence of the present we know and what of the present is new?

How did I do?

Mandel: You did great, except that the frame of the question is what is experience? “But what, of what dot dot dot is experience?”

Filreis: But see, I think there is a harder critique of experience at the beginning of this poem, and we might agree about this. That is to say, this thing we call experience isn’t much of a guide to what we know of the present, and formulating how we will proceed wholly into the next moment. This thing that we call experience, in the end, I think, is dubbed an ideology. It’s a way of thinking that’s not necessarily what this poem is going to be about. Does that make sense?

Mandel: Sure, yeah.

Filreis: I remember the first sections of My Life, so this is Lyn Hejinian essentially trying to imagine the languaged self as a premature being, I guess you could say. And there, there is all this Freudian identification language: the memory of the pattern of rows on the wall, and all that stuff. There’s something about this that makes me think of it as a kind of mature lyric contemplation version of the kind of gauzy, Proustian baby-language self in those first sections [of My Life]. This makes me think of that. It makes me think of My Life, only it’s a little more theoretical, a little more abstract. The language is less concrete.

Can I throw something out that I think we may want to say for any learners out there — sophomores, as it were symbolically? Something that we may have not stressed enough, which is that this poem is the perfect example of a poem that is semantically about the way it is as a form. Does somebody want to comment on that? It is about how it must change, but it also changes.

Devaney: Well, even the line that Tom and I had two different readings of: that’s an example of the interruption being built within the poem. It still gives me the effect, whether it’s an interruption or not, of how something is feeling. She’s enacting this kind of experience in the language, through the insistence — talking about experience, but creating a new experience in the poem itself, and not going outside of that.

Perelman: It’s funny, though. I’m saying this while I’m looking down at the page, which, again, is cheating from the listener’s point of view, but, nevertheless, here are the first four lines:

constant change figures

the time we sense

passing on its effect

surpassing things we’ve known before.

In the fourth line, that “before” gestures to before the poem started. It actually gestures outside of the poem itself.

Filreis: Speaking now more generally about poetry, what is the virtue of a variations poem like this, a poem that reuses its lines and, I suppose, in an aural sense mesmerizes us?

Mandel: So, probably in some ways in our time, John Coltrane is the great artist of this kind of repetition. One of the things it does is it keeps more of the work in the present. It keeps more of the work in the mind of the listener/reader at any single time.

Filreis: It keeps us going.

Mandel: It definitely keeps us going.

Perelman: It can also, it seems to me, emphasize that edge of novelty: What is just a little bit different about this? You just heard this, but you didn’t hear it just this way.

Filreis: Make it new in a different mode, surpassing the things we knew before. Well, I can’t resist, though Stein has been jokingly banned.

Mandel: No, not banned — banished.

[Laughter.]

Filreis: Lyn Hejinian, in one of her two talks on Stein, which she has reprinted in her wonderful book of essays The Language of Inquiry: Essays and Poems, quotes Stein in “Composition as Explanation” as follows:

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.

Anybody want to comment on the relevance of that? Or not relevance?

Perelman: Yeah, Stein. It’s funny how the first time you hear that — or when, in my case for instance, you first taught it — you emphasize its break with the long syntactic periods of, say, Henry James or William James. It’s the continuous present —

Filreis: That William James talked about, but didn’t write like.

Perelman: Yes. But, in fact, Stein is not all that un-Jamesian. She puts big demands on medium-term memory and comparison. The continuous present is a little like the rabbit that the greyhounds chase. Meanwhile the bettors are keeping track of the number of laps that the greyhounds are running, to fill out this metaphor. The mid-range attention is very important — let’s go back to Lyn — it’s very important in this poem. Try and read this poem as one complete thought, as one complete sentence, holding the whole thing in that mid-range of your attention. It’s kind of a staggering load, but I think it’s just barely doable. It’s a very different kind of experience than, say, memory or than sense.

Filreis: Tom?

Mandel: And one thing I might add is that this work, and much of Lyn’s work, owes William James a great debt, if that’s the right word for it, as it does to Stein.

Filreis: Or through Stein to William James.

Mandel: Well, through Stein to William James, but directly also.

Filreis: And I think it must be said, although this is a little hard bibliographically, that The Book of a Thousand Eyes — which might be three hundred poems or four hundred poems, but will still be probably called The Book of a Thousand Eyes … Well, I’ve read thirty or forty of these things and listened to some of them, and it strikes me that she is trying to do not this precisely, but this kind of thing in a lot of these poems. I can’t help but think, and it’s very impressionistic, that the book is a kind of cubistic gesture at all the ways, the thousand ways, of looking at a blackbird — this mid-range level of attention you’re talking about tried in many different ways. It’s quite an experiment to do this as a series of short poems rather than as a longer one.

Well, before we get to the Gathering Paradise segment of our show, let me ask each of you to offer a brief final word on this poem, something, maybe, more on what you get from it. So, who wants to start?

Mandel: What stands out for me in the poem — and it’s a fabulous poem, no question — is the structure of the three different sections. To account for that takes us away from the history of literature, or the influence of a particular player in that history, to the work. It puts us where we are alone with those two lines, with the difference that their differing positions makes in repetition, and with our own lives.

Filreis: Well-argued and, in a way, slightly askance, if that’s the word, from Bob’s idea that we have everything we need in the poem, but there’s also a gesture to something that happened before it. It works very well. It’s a great argument for an autotelic experience of a poem. Bob, final word?

Perelman: I want to bring, maybe just being a bad boy, Stein back in one last time.

Filreis: Just after Tom made this great speech about how all that we need is in the poem.

Mandel: I love Stein. I’m not being anti-Stein.

Filreis: No, I know you aren’t.

Perelman: But here’s why: again, just looking down the page at the last five lines — “what of what/in the time we sense/surpassing things we’ve known before/passing on its effect/is experience” — and how I’m actually less certain than ever whether that’s an assertion or a question. I’m now thinking of Stein and her “Poetry in Grammar” and doing away with as many punctuation marks as possible, including, as I remember, the question mark, since you should know if it’s a question or not. But, in fact here, you don’t know if it’s a question. You really could construe it as a statement, or as a question: what is this experience? what is this poem? Okay, now we can take Stein back out of it. The poem itself is asking that question, but Stein is a useful heuristic.

Devaney: Following up on Tom and Bob’s points that there are intentions in the poem, and then there’s language: the lines that just kept coming up — “the time we sense/called nature’s picture” — that line, “nature’s picture,” it keeps sticking out to me as something trucked in there. So, there are intentions, and then there’s language. That language is being used to do something.

Filreis: Thank you, Tom.

We like to end PoemTalk with a minute or two of Gathering Paradise, a chance for several of us to spread wide our narrow hands to gather something really poetically good to hail, commend someone or something going on in the poetry world. Who wants to gather a little paradise?

Perelman: I want to shout out to Ron Silliman’s The Alphabet. It just came out recently, really a major event in American literary history.

Filreis: Published by Alabama?

Perelman: Yes, published by Alabama. Good for many years of reading. And, can I do two? Just because it’s been out for years and years, and I finally picked it up, Keith Waldrop’s Seriamis If I Remember. I finally read it and it is fantastic, so just to shout out to that, too.

Filreis: Thank you, Bob, for those two gatherings of paradise. Tom Devaney?

Devaney: Bobbie Louise Hawkins is one of my new favorite writers. Her book of prose out by United Artists is so beautiful, so unhampered. She’s eighty-one or eighty-two, and I love her.

Filreis: Well, that’s all the octogenarians we have time for on PoemTalk today. PoemTalk at the Writers House is a collaboration of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing and the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania and the Poetry Foundation. Thanks to my guests, Bob Perelman, Tom Mandel, Tom Devaney, and to PoemTalk’s director and engineer James La Marre, and our Rotterdam-based editor, the infamous Steve McLaughlin. This is Al Filreis and I hope you’ll join us again soon for another PoemTalk.