A review of Lyn Hejinian's 'The Unfollowing'
Part 1: To close the streaming eye
All is black shadow, but the lucid line
Marked by the light surf on the level sand,
Or where afar the ship-lights faintly shine
Like wandering fairy fires, that oft on land
Mislead the pilgrim — such the dubious ray
That wavering reason lends, in life’s long darkling way.
— Charlotte Smith, “Written Near a Port on a Dark Evening”
The poems in Lyn Hejinian’s The Unfollowing are to the sonnet what the prose poem is to verse. They are fourteen lines long and, more importantly, poems of love and loss. In the book’s press materials, Omnidawn publisher Rusty Morrison tells us that the poems are “a sequence of elegies” and that “they are not sonnets but antisonnets.” By disclaiming the sonnet, Morrison reaffirms Hejinian’s own sense of the poems. As Hejinian states in her preface to The Unfollowing: “The sonnet proper develops argumentatively, unfolding under the pressure of reasons appropriate to whatever problem or situation it is exploring. The ‘Unfollowing’ poems do not” (9). Hejinian admonishes the “merely line-counting” reader that in “a proper sonnet … something like resolution is achieved.” Sonnets remain “the summit of logicality”; in contrast, the poems in The Unfollowing “are intended to be illogical.” Morrison’s insistence and Hejinian’s demurrals compel us to view these poems as “against” or opposed to the very form that serves as ballast for Hejinian’s extraordinary poetic leaps.
I don’t really want to argue against the volume’s author and publisher, but I do want to argue for the idea that these poems are best understood as sonnets. The poems in this volume are profoundly engaged with the sonnet’s essential properties, one of those being its intricate logicality. Hejinian’s linguistic innovations and revelations, emotional protests and rebellions, formal insurgencies and mutinies, are best gleaned when read in terms of their radical instantiation of the sonnet form. As a sequence of sonnets, The Unfollowing enacts an artistic process that coincides with “a revolutionary practice of everyday life” (9). The Unfollowing extends the sonnet tradition, bringing it in contact with new ways of imagining self and culture, and providing other ways for the sonnet, not to mention lyric poetry more generally, to address both personal grief and cultural despair.
Hejinian’s remark that she “most certainly [had] the sonnet in mind when [she] decided to adhere to a fourteen-line constraint” is not purely incidental. These poems are not sonnets only because “an attentive, or perhaps merely line-counting, reader will come fairly quickly to the conclusion” (9). The sonnet has also always been an elegiac form, commemorating loss and trying to conjure from absence something that becomes the poem. So Morrison’s assertion that Hejinian has written “a sequence of elegies” is as symptomatic of their form as is their distinctive length. More than that, Phillis Levin, who might also determine that these are not in fact “proper sonnets,” nevertheless writes in The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: “As with most traditions, once the pattern became stable and recognizable” — for the sonnet, this happens in the Renaissance — “writers began experimenting with it anew, usually respecting its overall shape but continually pushing its boundaries” (xxlvi–xlvii).
In her estimation of what constitutes the sonnet, Levin goes even further: “A number of poems … defy or redefine the sonnet tradition, invoking the form they have broken” (xlvii). Where Shakespeare, a paragon of the form, is “clearing the stage for a new way of thinking and speaking about love and time, death and the power of rhyme” (lv), Robert Lowell later adopts “a graphic, antilyrical puritan realism, as if rhyme were a temptation to be resisted” (lxviii). In discussing Robert Lowell, Levin makes this astute observation about why sonnets matter: “The sonnet attracts ambition, an impulse toward emulation, and a desire to subvert both the form itself and perhaps [the writer’s] own ambition” (lxviii). As for Lowell, “The gravitational pull of the sonnet and its tradition was too strong for Lowell to resist, and he wanted to enter its force field. On some level, he knew what he was doing, that he was getting into something big, though he tried to diminish his expectations of himself and poetry” (lxviii). Similarly, Hejinian concludes her preface with this declaration: “Poems can’t achieve all this, of course — perhaps not even any of it” (10). By the time Hejinian says this, though, she has already plunged headlong into writing a sequence of poems that, on their face, seem untenable. The sonnet pits the poet against its intricate form and, in doing so, against herself and her own poetic praxis.
What results in The Unfollowing are sonnets that plumb the deep time relation between life and death. The poems use the sonnet to redress “death’s unacceptability” by utilizing non sequiturs to abjure the volta, the sonnet’s fundamental turn from experience to reflection, which typically appears after the eighth line. Harrowing the volta with a wayward illogicality, Hejinian refuses to respond to senseless loss with logic. As Levin notes, “The sonnet trains us to ‘to anticipate an irreversible turn’” (xxxvii); Hejinian deploys the sonnet in order to eradicate this irreversibility. Instead of using reason to raise experience up to the level of consciousness, the poems immerse consciousness in the world, replacing the “irreversible turn” with a wandering. There is no path, no crossroads, no hard left that leads us toward closure in these poems. Instead, Hejinian responds to grief by getting lost in the errancies of the imagination.
But if, as Levin suggests, “the volta, the sonnet’s turn, promotes innovative approaches because whatever has occurred thus far, a poet is compelled, by inhabiting the form, to make a sudden leap at a particular point, to move into another part of the terrain” (xxxix), then Hejinian’s poems don’t merely reject the volta; rather, they are all volta, every line another leap from the precipice, vaulting the reader into another context with a disjunctive force that uses the power of the volta paradoxically to stave off the sonnet’s “irreversible turn.” There is never a sober choice between “two roads diverged in a yellow wood” but only a hilarious blindfold spinning that leaves one too dizzy to walk straight ahead toward some fatally predetermined place.
The strategy, at least by way of analogy, recalls the fairytale about the man who caught a leprechaun and forced him to reveal the tree under which the leprechaun hid his gold. The man marked the tree by tying a ribbon around it while he went off to fetch a shovel to dig up the treasure. He made the leprechaun promise not to remove the ribbon. As leprechauns must keep their promises, the man returned to discover that a ribbon had been tied around every tree in the forest:
Along comes a wave casting spray as it bears — down on a man half-asleep on a
towel and half-awake in a rowboat adrift on a violent sea
The cold in this luminous season stings
Let us go then, you and I, in pajamas through the sky, in which we’ll dine on
rice and pie, we’ll drink from apples made of lace, we’ll topple statues,
invent space (18)
Like Emily Dickinson’s use of dashes at the end of her poems, Hejinian’s constant turning and leaping forestalls closure, swapping resolution for continuation by holding the irreversible turn in suspension. After all, such turns are usually fatal: everything disintegrates into salt or fades back to Hades. Just because we turn does not mean we can retrieve. Nor can we simply turn away and ignore what’s behind us. So let’s turn — and why not? — to veer off course and see where our ramblings might take us.
The non sequitur turns the volta against itself in a deliberate, productive reversal of hamartia. Reading The Unfollowing, we come to recognize that it is not the non sequitur “missing the mark” but instead the volta’s overzealous attempt to hit the X that leads to tragic downfall. Perhaps such a breach of the sonnet form, along with Hejinian’s absolute refusal to let anything follow from anything else, makes these poems into something other than sonnets. But this impulse to violate the volta is not without precedent in the sonnet tradition. As Levin writes, “Milton treats the voltaas if it were a physical barrier between this world and the next”; his volta seems to embody “the inexplicable reality of a dream” (lxii). Even more to the point, the Elegiac Sonnets (1784) of Charlotte Smith do not exactly trust “wavering reason” as they “delight to stray” and “wander”:
Smith’s sonnets reflect on the experience of being lost, without a goal, in a receptive state that Keats would call “negative capability,” and thus seem to shed some light on the dilemma facing the eighteenth-century poet. The writer of a sonnet must take the chance of not arriving anywhere significant at all. (lxii)
Sonnets need not fulfill the form’s expectations nor do what we expect them to. The sonnet, like other poetic forms, must change in response to the time in which it is written. When Smith took up the form “that leads from image to insight, from inquiry to understanding … this type of progression [was] antithetical to the modus operandi of the eighteenth-century tradition, where one begins with one’s conclusion, thinking deductively, not inductively” (lxii). Such thinking did not result in the destruction of the sonnet but rather “rekindled an interest in the form” (lxii). And what of the sonnet in the twenty-first century? What does the form mean for the poet of postmodernity and late capitalism — the poet who writes sonnets after Levin’s anthology, published in 2001, has already gathered its quires? The dilemma facing the twenty-first-century poet is that the writer of a sonnet must take the chance of not arriving anywhere at all.
Hejinian anticipates the possibilities and necessary alterations for her sonnets in her 1998 essay “La Faustienne,” published in The Language of Inquiry:
Changes are occurring … to notions of the author — the writing self — and therefore the genres that attempt to represent the intentions of the author are changing. It is precisely because definitions of the self have changed that the traditional genres that speak for the self (lyric poetry, for example) or of the self and its development (the novel) are either being consigned to an increasingly “old-fashioned,” conservative, or nostalgic position or are being subverted and reinvented to accommodate contemporary experience of being a person — a zone. (235)
The sonnet, the most trenchant form of poetry written in English and so in many ways the most traditional, is no exception to this rule. Levin asserts that “the history of the sonnet is partly a history of increasing realism … and a parallel increasing realism in the poet’s attitude to the sources of literary creation as being the substance of daily life — the singularity of lived experience — instead of a system of ideal, abstract concepts” (xlvi). And so following this continuum, we arrive at The Unfollowing and its “revolutionary practice of everyday life” (10). It is not enough to simply provide another record of conscious experience by “mak[ing] space for the self to hold audience with the ‘inmost’ self we may take for granted but often have trouble naming — a psychological or metaphysical entity called soul, mind, the cogito, consciousness” (xliv). Although this may have offered “a new way of thinking and being” a century or two ago, to write sonnets that “make space for the self to hold audience with the ‘inmost’ self” in the twenty-first century simply makes the sonnet feel “increasingly ‘old-fashioned,’ conservative, or nostalgic.” As Hejinian suggests, the form needs to be “subverted or reinvented to accommodate contemporary experience of being a person — a zone”; so Hejinian infuses the form that most foregrounds a desire for resolution with happenstance, accident, and freak incidental leaps in order to avoid the sonnet’s most essential compulsion. And rather than resolve, her sonnets spring open: “It did it did it did it / Turning everywhere in unkempt directions we must make now a new beginning” (22). Still, we feel the tension, the weight of the entire sonnet tradition pushing back against the writing, waiting for our minds to step into the form’s trap and make the poems slam shut again.
What is unprecedented in The Unfollowing is also something very familiar to the sonnet: these poems are attempts to cheat death and to cheat it by demonstrably living. Living is not logical; to avoid logic is to resist the thing that makes it so. These poems counter death’s alienating conclusiveness with a continuous absorption in surprise. The poems are not set against the form or the tradition of which they are apart, but they are an undoing, an unfollowing in the sense that they cut the thread that leads back out of the sonnet’s formal labyrinth, choosing instead to forge headlong into the maze. Because to do otherwise, to turn back and to follow the thread of tradition toward a logical exit, does not finally address “the illogical status of death in the context of life” (9). Using the sonnet to arrive at a logical resolution simply repeats death’s logical fallacy. Death, therefore, is not illogical because it doesn’t make sense but rather because death is the only logical outcome of life. As Hejinian writes in The Language of Inquiry, “the postmodern critique of binarism suggests that there may be no opposites, that Being (or the actual being of each and any entity) exists not because it is the opposite of non-Being but because it is ‘true of its own accord’” (249–50). That is to say, Hejinian’s intention to be illogical aligns not with the fatal logicality of death but with the irrational context of living.
Levin sums up her extensive introduction to the sonnet tradition in English by concluding that the sonnet “thrives because it offers a haven for complex emotions and memories, an innate holding pattern and stopping point, a guarantee that however dangerous or overwhelming the subject, the duration of the encounter will be brief” (lxxiv). But what if the whole point is to defy these very contingencies, to protract and delay, to refuse to accept the stopping point? To keep going, to extend the encounter because it is the brevity of it all that is what ultimately breaks our hearts, the closure that makes death unacceptable? There is an element of risk in navigating with the non sequitur to avoid the tangled logics that inhere to the sonnet form. It requires the author to improvise. As Hejinian puts it in a 2001 Jacket essay: “Improvisation has to do with being in time. And it has to do with taking one’s chances.” Sonnets made of non sequiturs avoid the sense of inevitability built into the form and even perhaps into language itself — the controlling calcifications of grammar and syntax that can strangely limit our means of communicating and thereby our connectivity. Instead, Hejinian’s poems insist on contingency, continuance, and openendedness by entertaining a series of imaginative alternatives that no one, not even its author, saw coming.
Part 2: “And if logic can’t prevail, perhaps hilarity can …”
… one inevitably discovers that language in a poem does not lay down paths that are always simple to follow. — Lyn Hejinian, “The Quest for Knowledge in the Western Poem”
We had been discussing plumbing, so her remark about astrology was a real non- sequitur. It is said that Petrarch reinvented the sonnet in response to Laura, an already inaccessible lover, whose untimely death at thirty-eight transformed his longing into despair. The Greek poet Theognis of Megara (sixth century BCE) wrote more than half of the extant elegiac poetry of Greece before the Alexandrian period, including the following: “Best of all for mortal beings is never to have been born at all / Nor ever to have set eyes on the bright light of the sun / But, since he is born, a man should make utmost haste through the gates of Death / And then repose, the earth piled into a mound round himself.” The poems in this book are attempts at keeping time, since “Time has no respect for things done without it” (28). Created c. 1493 by the medieval artist Bernt Notke, the Lübecker Totentanzwas destroyed in a bombing raid in 1942. Willie Nelson is the only honky-tonk musician to amplify a classical guitar more suited to playing Vivaldi than honky-tonk. The point of living is to point and keep pointing and yet again (Stein 9, 11): “The fog has rolled in, visibility is null, I wouldn’t know if someone were following me” (13). Avoid chronology at all costs — do not read by turning consecutive pages, as there are other ways around and through the text, even though all approaches, no matter how discursive, seem to arrive at the same place. The questions are implied and there are definitely no periods. The prison house of language burns as we fiddle, wonder, and dine. Delight hath a joy in it, either permanent or present. Laughter hath only a scornful tickling (Sidney 78). Hope opens pens, snaps naps, opines an opinion. Pray, let us live without being drawn by dogs, Esquimaux-fashion, tearing over hill and dale, and biting each other’s ears.
If only palindrome was actually a palindrome, it might be different, but, as it is, for things to happen, they must occur once and for all. This simile’s vehicle stops at both crossroads and railroad crossings. What sense is there in an ending when life continues without much continuity: “A landscape has endless false endings” (29). “The artifice of eternity” is a striking periphrasis for “form,” for the shapes which console the dying generations (Kermode 3). We cannot reach the intercessors of Silicon Valley at this time but we can name them: Agathius, Barbara, Blaise, Catherine of Alexandria, Christopher, Cyriacus, Denis, Erasmus, Eustace, George, Giles, Margaret of Antioch, Pantaleon, Vitus. Rats laugh when they are tickled: “A missionary pointed to the rat and one cannot say a terrible thing in a better way than that” (34). We want to go on together even when that is not possible: “She lowers owlets into your arms as if they weren’t complete without them” (26). Just in case you didn’t know, a “quirt” is a riding whip consisting of a short, stout stock and a lash of braided leather (19). How can we repeat something over and over without losing the sense of it and then getting nostalgic about it afterward: “The dog’s name is Reprisal, the cat is called Ball” (26). These poems are short — each one is eight lines long with an additional six lines — and the other formal requirements seem pretty straightforward: no rhyme scheme but rhymes throughout; the first line is repeated in the fourth and seventh lines; the second line is repeated in the final line; and only the first two end-words are used to complete a tight rhyme scheme which doesn’t exist, meaning that the poet writes only five original lines, where capital letters indicate repeated lines, thereby making the initial and final couplets identical as well, all while including tiles, snowballs, camels, and California (21, 33). When he first saw the prison that secured his defeat, Napoleon apparently said, “Able was I ere I saw Elba,” although it is unlikely he said this, since, when he was not speaking Corsican, he generally spoke in French (17). But language does not simply write and think for me, it also increasingly dictates my feelings and governs my entire spiritual being the more unquestioningly and unconsciously I abandon myself to it (Klemperer 15). One might feel the same lamentation by watching heliophiles file into their seats under the fluorescent lights for a lecture on poetry: “Some — the sung — the sun” (88–89). What a poem can achieve beyond its direct, active response to loss is hard to say, so instead we say, “bam bam … dam dam … ram ram” or “dap dat-a-dong, dat-a-dang, dap-a-dong”(15, 26).
Part 3: Is that all there is, Peggy Lee?
Behind Me — dips Eternity —
Before Me — Immortality —
Myself — the Term between —
Death but the Drift of Eastern Gray,
Dissolving into Dawn away,
Before the West begin —
— Emily Dickinson, “721”
So the sun itself goes west, but never to restore a lost relationship. — Lyn Hejinian, “The Quest for Knowledge in the Western Poem”
We might call the term between the metaphysical and the historical “the imagination,” when we are not calling it by other names like rose or Eros or sore loser. The imagination does not confine itself to content and its discontents. Insofar as poetry is “a dynamic process through which poetics, itself a dynamic process, is carried out,” as Hejinian writes in The Language of Inquiry (1), the text gives an inalienable context for our roving reconnaissance. But if “the act of writing is a process of improvisation within a framework (form) of intention” (3), then the non sequitur can serve as a mode of extreme self-improvisation while the sonnet may remain the “framework of intention,” even if what is intended is the formal undoing of the framework by the improvisational process, a process that seeks to free itself from the contingencies of form. Even so, “Form is not a fixture but an activity” (47). The form, too, is a dynamic process, so the form, too, is in flux. For example, if you listen to Guy Clark’s Desperado Waiting for a Train, followed by Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, and then by John Coltrane’s Ascension, all while reading The Unfollowing, the conceptual, the allusive, and the improvisational play off one another and raise questions of aesthetic value.
Such value is not based so much on what any poem “achieves” — a verb suspiciously full of evaluative expectation — but how a poem exists in historical and literary contexts that are ever changing. Levin writes that the sonnet lives a “double life” as “private confession and public memorial” (xxxix). And as Hejinian applies it: “The initial occasion for mourning was a personal one. … But in the time since … there has been much to mourn in the public sphere, too” (9). The fact that “there is ample cause in the world for real political anguish and justifiable cosmic despair” (9) makes the questions of aesthetic value not only personal — ways of being in the world — but also political — ways of being in the world with others.
The sonnet tradition in English has always been tied to forms of transnational capitalism: Levin reminds us that “Petrarch was the most eminent intellectual in Europe by the time Geoffrey Chaucer [who imported the sonnet to England] made his first journey to Italy … to begin negotiations with the Genoese concerning an English port for their commerce and with the Florentines concerning loans for King Edward III” (lii). The English sonnet then flourished at the height of European colonialism. Its conventional collocations of observation and rationalization neatly reflected Enlightenment ideals that resulted from an imperialist system of determining and exchanging value, or what Hejinian identifies as the Enlightenment’s “fundamental redefinition and reevaluation of the rules of knowing.” In its logical structure, the sonnet represents an exquisite encapsulation of “this scientific model for the acquisition of knowledge that produced something of what now seems definitively Western in our culture” (214).
Although leavened with improvisational play, enthusiastic leaps, and indeed, a vivacious hilarity, the poems in The Unfollowing nevertheless rage and indict and grieve by unsettling the staid properties of a form that has long instantiated “a scientific model for the acquisition of knowledge (along with the very idea of acquisition in relation to knowing and its value) … one that ever since has seemed nearly irrevocable” (214). By vandalizing the walls of its rooms, jamming what Levin calls its “basic structural possibilities” (lxxi), and denying it the power of its logic, Hejinian wrecks the sonnet in order to revoke Western culture’s “nearly irrevocable” structure of thinking and knowing. Historically and aesthetically, the sonnet is the right place for a poet to take such a stand: Hejinian holds that the sonnet replicates in miniature the way “Western knowledge itself has been a set of inventions, framed by perception but linked to anticipation” (212). Hejinian’s alchemy of the sonnet is an attempt to separate it from “capitalism’s rapacity” (9) and distill its elixir — love, a rarefaction within the tradition’s base metal that continues to be the sonnet’s essence — as a means of “dismantling control and reforming connectivity” (10).
To thwart the sense of closure in the sonnet, then, is to challenge the ethical underpinnings of Western thought. In the same year that Levin’s anthology of the sonnet came out, Hejinian had occasion to write this (in “Continuing Against Closure”):
And, though there is little evidence of completion and closure to be found in the actual state of things, and though the notion may seem a fiction to an empiricist, still, these fictions can exert cosmic fascination; as theology, even as ideology, they can be compelling. And, though I have termed closure a fiction, the desire for closure can exert real (though in my opinion often disastrous) influence.
The effort and impulse to write sonnets that are discursive rather than encyclopedic, sporadic rather than categorical, is finally to make us conscious of the way the sonnet form seduces us. Hejinian’s sonnets may even get us to reflect on the consequences of our urge to be seduced by the form’s epiphanic resolutions. Not only are we trained to expect an irreversible turn, but we might also be addicted to the sense of closure the sonnet promises. As Hejinian adds, “If closure is problematic ethically it is untenable semantically, since nothing can restrain meaning, nothing can contain all the implications, ramifications, nuances, and connotations that cascade and proliferate from any and every point in any and every instance of what is or is thought to be. And nothing can arrest the ever-changing terrain of ubiquitous contexts perpetually affecting these.” The reward for accepting the sonnet’s irreversible turn is that we can dismiss the ironies, contradictions, and paradoxes as an inexorable resolution “by definition, establishes the condition of ‘no consequence.’” And so we abdicate responsibility to the sense of inevitability reaffirmed by the form.
Of course, I am talking here about the sonnet in the abstract. Many particular sonnets ironize the form’s sense of closure and oblige us to keep reading for new “implications, ramifications, nuances, and connotations.” As Levin reminds us, the sonnet’s sense of resolution has always been an illusion. The very reason for the sonnet’s apparent reasonableness is that it grapples with the incommensurable and attempts to use its metrical and musical logic to tolerate the intolerable. A basic existential paradox of life always undergirds the exigent contradiction of the form: that is, if living could explain death, it would cease being living, and if the sonnet could compensate for loss, the poem would make itself obsolete. Morrison rightly says, “there is no simple logic to life in its aftermath.” Aftermath is the right word: its first meaning is what occurs after a catastrophe or disaster, but its archaic, original meaning was a second mowing, the crop yielded from the grass that has already yielded a crop. The sonnets in The Unfollowing are that second crop, yielding from a form that has already yielded a fundamental mode of poetic thought yet another way of lyric imagining.
What this means, though, is that while many sonnets expose the ironies and contradictions inherent in the form, few if any sonnets have evoked “the ever-changing terrain of ubiquitous contexts” as Hejinian has in The Unfollowing. These poems not only put the sonnet to other tasks but also ask us to read sonnets as a form, even the “traditional” ones, in new ways. We need not follow the logic of the sonnet to discover its meaning. Nor must we anatomize it into its constituent parts to realize its structure. And if we do, we must now reckon with the consequences of those structures of thought. As Hejinian writes, “We witness sequiturs without transition and non sequiturs with them. Logic inserts itself everywhere and narrative follows as fast as it can though often it can’t keep up with events since they advance in leaps that leave logicians behind.” So it is. We must give up the aspiration to conclude.
Hejinian, Lyn. The Language of Inquiry. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction. London: Oxford University Press, 1966.
Klemperer, Victor. The Language of the Third Reich. Translated by Martin Brady. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.
Levin, Phillis, ed. The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English. New York: Penguin, 2001.
Sidney, Sir Philip. An Apology for Poetry. Edited by Forrest G. Robinson. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1970.
Stein, Gertrude. Tender Buttons. Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Press, 1991.