poem index

On Happily

Written by

Lyn Hejinian
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Year

2001
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In responding to Dubravka Djuric's question about the origins of my interest in writing, I said that it was the materiality of writing that first drew me to it, the prospect of working with "the typewriter and the dictionary." This is accurate as far as it goes, and I find among the quotations I've written into notebooks over the years a number describing the author's being prompted to creativity not by an idea or experience but by the materials of his or her medium. Thus Roland Barthes writes: "The word transports me because of the notion that I am going to do something with it: it is the thrill of a future praxis, something like an appetite. This desire makes the entire motionless chart of language vibrate." Eugène Delacroix: "The very sight of my palette, freshly set out with the colours in their contrasts is enough to fire my enthusiasm." Paul Valéry: "I go into an office on some business or other. As this includes writing I am handed a pen, ink, paper all perfectly assorted, and I scribble some quite trivial phrase. I enjoy the act of writing to the point of wishing to go on writing. I go out, walk down the street, taking with me an urge to write, to hit on something to write about."

But the impulse to write does not receive its charge solely from writing's material character. I have equally been excited into the activity of poetry by its revolutionary character and by its capacity to do philosophy.

I do not mean to make a grandiose claim to being a "revolutionary." But I have thought that the function of poetry was to address problems and to address problems very often puts one in opposition to established power structures, and not just those that would exercise authority over aesthetics.

It would be equally grandiose of me to claim status as a philosopher. And yet, in the end, it is as philosophy--as the making and seeing of connections (to repeat Wittgenstein's formulation)--that poetry participates in knowing what we can and can't know about the world and how to live in it.

Poetry's ability to contribute to the work of doing philosophy is intrinsic to its medium language. Every phrase, every sentence, is an investigation of an idea. The last essay of the book, "Happily," is, as the title suggests, an affirmation--an affirmation of thinking, of thinking's substance and context (what happens), and of writing as the site of such thinking. "Happily" takes the shapes of thinking, the phrases of poetry, as manifestations of life, and the essay, ultimately, is an affirmation of living.

Some of the ideas the essay incorporates are closely related to those I attempted to articulate in "A Common Sense," but here, in addition to the question of happiness, I was interested in the happenstances it inhabits, and in the "incorporation" itself of happiness--in the incorporation of thought as a coming-to-be in sentences. The grammar of sentences, both standard and invented, had again become a subject of fascination and even a pressing concern, and this continues to be the case.

One grammatical device appearing in the work is the one producing "accordioning" sentences, ones with solid handles (a clear beginning and a clear end) but with a middle that is pleated and flexible. My intention was to allow for the influx of material that surges into any thought, material that is charged with various and sometimes even incompatible emotional tonalities. These emotional tonalities make it impossible to say with certainty that one is happy, for example, just as they make it impossible to say that one is not. That is, one is never solely happy. " I mean, of course," as Robert Duncan says, "that happiness itself is a forest in which we are bewildered, run wild, or dwell like Robin Hood, outlawed and at home."

I should, I think, acknowledge some creative indebtedness. Along with varieties of what Ron Silliman has called "the new sentence" in his own work, as in that Barret Watten, Carla Harryman, Bob Perelman, Jean Day, Kit Robinson, and others, the sentences of three writers in particular have been central to my attempts to develop and amplify sentences of my own: Bernadette Mayer's radiating and run-on sentence, with its seemingly infinite capacity for digression; Leslie Scalapino's sentence of nonseparation, of simultaneity, of fragments conjoining into wholeness in mental action; and Clark Coolidge's sentence of abrupt hinges, sudden linkages. I should also acknowledge an obvious influence in Gertrude Stein's writing of and in sentences. And I am happy to confess a love for the sentences of Marcel Proust and for those of the writer who inspired him, John Ruskin.

Portions of "Happily," occasionally in somewhat different versions, have appeared in Boundary 2, Debt, lingo, Interchange, Shiny, Mirage #4/Period[ical], Kunapipi and Kenning. I am grateful to the editors of these magazines for their encouragement. Beyond that, and from the very start, I owe a debt of gratitude to Simone Fattal, who, in commissioning a work for her Post-Apollo Press small book series, invited "Happily" into existence.