Remembering Lyn Hejinian (1941–2024)


In Memoriam

Photograph by Rae Armantrout.

It’s hard to believe Lyn is dead, because her mind, her spirit, if you will, was always so full of life. The last time I saw her, when she was already quite ill, she talked about the comical way the Hollywood writers’ strike had affected commencement speeches, and about what she’d learned about AI from a scientist she knew on the Berkeley faculty. She was still engaged with the world, in other words, despite her situation. She was a very private person, yet she opened herself up to other people and to new experiences again and again. As she says in her book The Fatalist, ”I adventure and consider fate / as occurrence and happenstance as destiny. I recite an epigraph. / It seems as applicable to the remarks I want to make as disorder / is to order.” It was like her to see opposites (order/disorder) as part of a whole—which is not to say she couldn’t take sides against oppression. She could and did.

As a girl, she loved reading the journals of explorers. She was a kind of explorer herself. For example, in the late eighties, she taught herself Russian and traveled first with other poets and then alone to the Soviet Union to translate the work of outsider poets such as Arkadii Dragomoshchenko. (And she was scheduled to spend a winter with scientists in Antarctica when she was diagnosed with breast cancer some twenty-odd years ago.) She didn’t believe in borders or in endings. As she says in My Life, “But a word is a bottomless pit.” She didn’t think that was a bad thing. It made her curious.

She had a unique combination of generosity and discernment, equanimity and élan. I admire her more than anyone I know. Her generosity was utterly without self-interest; her curiosity was never intrusive. These traits shone in her poetry as in her life. When I had cancer in 2006, she helped to organize a kind of private fundraising campaign among friends and sent me several thousand dollars. Because of her discretion, I don’t know who had contributed what exactly, but I’ve always suspected she was a major contributor herself.

She has influenced countless other poets, but no one else could come close to writing a “Lyn Hejinian” poem. I was impressed, influenced perhaps, by the way her poetry was, to quote one of her titles, a “language of inquiry.” The first book of hers I read, back in the mid-seventies, was called A Thought Is the Bride of What Thinking. Back then the consensus seemed to be that “thought” was the province of philosophy. But as I’ve said, Lyn didn’t believe in borders. Her “October 6, 1986” poem in her book The Cell presents resistance as a kind of measuring device: “resistance is accurate—it / rocks and rides the momentum.” It is like her to cast resistance as a form of exploration, of appreciation even. That poem concludes with her characteristic humor: “It is not imperfect to / have died.” Those lines strike me with full force now. I want to scream that it is far from perfect that Lyn is dead, but she knew best.

Rae Armantrout

Lyn Hejinian, poet, essayist, translator, teacher, and activist, was a major force in American and in international poetry. Her influence and presence became even greater over the decades. Emerging out of the community-oriented avant-garde movement known as Language (L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E) poetry, a group that she helped found, Hejinian’s work stayed relatively faithful to her early aesthetic commitments, though her signature styles became more expansive and inclusive over time. She maintained fidelity to the founding influences of her community long after the Language poets were less active as a group; these influences included leftist and Marxist politics, social and cultural theory, and the writings of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Not all Language poets followed the same stylistic paths, of course. Gertrude Stein was a guiding example for Hejinian, who restored a Steinian sense of play to American poetry at a time when the playful experiments of John Ashbery were dominant. Hejinian’s work was always inflected with extra energy; she wished to explore and express experience via the “open text,” the “new sentence,” the materiality of words and grammar through nonstandard forms of telling. Most of her writing, from the various versions of My Life (which began as thirty-seven sections with thirty-seven sentences) through later works like The Unfollowing, deploys a structural intelligence that pushes against predictability. Her forms play against themselves via alternative syntax and grammar. Her styles—again, one thinks of Stein and the cubist writing of early modernism—are quite flexible, allowing for the exploration of daily life and daily consciousness.

Lyn Hejinian was an extremely gifted and beloved teacher and colleague; an activist working to support labor interests in her places of employment; a translator who brought the works of such poets as Arkadii Dragomoshchenko to American readership; a publisher who helped found three independent presses and the organization Poets in Need; she was a cherished friend. I valued the time we spent together on two collaborations, both initiated in the nineties after we attended some conferences together. We discovered our aesthetic and ideological affinities overlapped after serving on a few panels. After realizing that we shared an interest in sentence diagramming, Lyn suggested we meet at the Musical Offering, a café in Berkeley halfway between our houses, to diagram sentences together. At first we were simply reading grammar books and studying alternative diagramming styles, but then we began diagramming sentences we loved on white sheets of paper. There was always more than one way. Our second collaboration was a group of “flexible sonnets” that sometimes involved fifteen or sixteen lines; we’d pass a poem back and forth until we had a satisfactory number of lines. We decided at one point that we should write a little more or less than a line each time, in order to confuse readers who might think they could tell the “Brenda lines” from the “Lyn lines.” We had a third collaboration in mind: to take a roll of adding-machine paper out to the Berkeley pier and write one very long sentence in a day. But these projects all had to be set aside because of our busyness in our teaching and in our family lives. I treasure the memory of time spent with Lyn, I treasure her writing and influence; she will be greatly missed.

Brenda Hillman

On Saturday, February 24, my friend Roxi Power called from Santa Cruz and told me that Lyn Hejinian had died. We talked for a long time then. I recalled her writing, of course, remembering the collaborative book Sight that she’d written with Leslie Scalapino, which I’d taught in a small class at Penn State—a reading group for graduate student writers on what was possible and on what attentions our work asked of us. And some years later I’d been able to contribute a few lines to the back of her Book of a Thousand Eyes (which she wrote “in homage to Scheherazade”): it’s a big fine book on the night, three hundred pages, and in it she stretches the old bifurcations of sun and moon into a single and magnificently varied waking hour.

And we recalled her at once principled and generous ambivalence about what “best” might mean in her introduction to the 2004 Best American Poetry volume, where she wrote, “What is, or isn’t, a poem? What makes something poetic? These questions remain open. And the fact that there are no final answers is one source of the vitality of the art form.” (Bernadette Mayer once wrote, on her own sonnets, “If there are no conclusions why do we wish for them? Love must be a subject I felt.”)

More recently, at UC Berkeley, in a moment when it was crucial, Lyn supported Samia Rahimtoola and me in our ultimately successful effort to move the focus of the collapsing Berkeley Poetry Conference to the work and presence of writers of color. And in one of my very earliest moments at the university—almost twenty years ago!—she came by in her PT Cruiser and, in the same long afternoon, took me to a place she loved—the Oakland Museum of California—and then to two places that she thought, correctly, that I would love: Jack London Square with its “street-running” railroad traffic, and Redwood Park, where, walking, she and I came—and happily—upon coyotes.

C. S. Giscombe

Wherever Lyn directed the gaze of her attention, a profusion of insights and interconnected idea-possibilities grew. Her generosity to her own intellect, to her process of generative, rigorous, and perpetual thinking, and her generosity to the younger poets and scholars she was in continual, and kind, correspondence with, felt like they came from the same abundant place. She acted as if we could build a world where we are all thinking together, with a rigorousness that is not antithetical to joy, or to creative impulse, or experiment. In one of the last emails she wrote to me, she said, “My question of the moment is ‘what do you think about beauty?’ I’m referring to beauty in art (poetry, film, dance, music, painting, sculpture, etc.), not the beauty of leaves, animals, mountains, etc.” I wonder if she knew how soon her death would be; still in that moment she was directing her gaze at a question that interested her, dedicated to exploring the contours of our world and finding whole structures to share. In My Life, as her father is dying of cancer, she writes, “we never wanted more than something beginning worth continuing which remained unended” and later in that same passage, “Acts are links, and likewise ideas.” Lyn’s mind and life wove many links. May we all carry our bits and pieces of her work onward; her insight, her inquisitiveness, her generosity, into the vast intellectual continuum her bright light is leaving behind.

—Cody-Rose Clevidence

I met Lyn Hejinian in the mid-seventies. I loved her 1976 Tuumba book, A Thought Is the Bride of What Thinking, her second book, though for most of us the first:

Lucidities, or, lights (a starry angular). The staring, bright varieties of word and idea. I’ve always thought so, one who is willing and quite able to make use of everything, or anything. On the nectarine and the clarinet distinction casts a light, in its turn. One has only to look at the thing, and think a little.

A Thought embodied the kind of free-thinking poetics I was looking for at the time.

Still am.

Lyn started Tuumba Press with that book, setting the type and doing the letterpress printing in her house in Berkeley.

At about the same time, I published my own first two books, though much less elegantly than Lyn’s Tuumbas: I xeroxed my typescript and made side-staple editions that Susan Bee and I called Asylum’s Press.

Were these pockets of poetry insane asylums, as many seemed to think, or places of refuge?

The second book published by Tuumba was Western Borders, one of Susan Howe’s first books. I read it just as I began a lifelong friendship with Sukey.

Lyn published my book Senses of Responsibility in 1979; it was the twentieth Tuumba pamphlet, and only my second book after those two from Asylum’s.

Asylum had company: at around the same time Lyn published Senses of Responsibility, she also published pamphlets by Bob Perelman, Bruce Andrews, Ron Silliman, and Rae Armantrout, all of whom remain the closest of friends.

Which is just to say, Lyn, nine years older than me, helped define the world I would inhabit for the rest of my life.

Bruce and I, in turn, featured Lyn in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E in 1979, with an appreciation by Robert Grenier and “Smatter,” a prescient essay by Lyn: “Putting things together in such a way as to enable them to coincide, to make that kind of motion, is, like the ‘collage’ and the ‘cluster,’ an attempt (by analogy with music’s chord) at suggesting (since that is all one can do) simultaneity, hoping for inherence, haphazard, happy chance.” After these two pieces, we appended a short bibliography that advertised a xerox of A Thought Is the Bride of What Thinking for $1.58. (I had assembled a set of out-of-print books and would send copies out at cost.)

In 1980, when Lyn published My Life with Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop’s Burning Deck press, I wrote a review for Ken Edward’s Reality Studios in London (collected in Content’s Dream: Essays 1975–1984): “She gets to this: humming a nameless, a tuneless, tune—which is, perhaps, only the aspiration of poetry—not to reassure while surviving, retrospectively, as song; or such seem to be the terms of this work. A life, the things of a life, put in order. I dwell in these things. Fonder of the place we’ve found—absolutely!—maker, founder, of the place we have domesticated, accultured, found with our lives.”

I am foundering here, trying to grasp the times we first met, which keep slipping away, as Lyn now does. So much came after: her foundational essays, her decades of teaching, her generative and generous publishing and editing, her exchanges with Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, and, above all, the dozens of dazzling poetry books, each distinct, the ensemble creating among the most magnificent and delight-filled bodies of work in postwar American poetry.

Returning to those early days: Lyn offered to let Susan Bee and me stay at her place in Willits, north of the Bay Area—a rural cabin without electricity or running water that she and her husband, jazz adept Larry Ochs, had lived in, along with their two children, before they moved to Berkeley. City folks on an adventure, Susan and I followed the directions to a remote house, which seemed to be at the top of a mountain; anyway, way, way up a hill. We arrived at dusk and found a lantern but, try as I might, I couldn’t get it lit.

I remember I set aflame the perforated housing around the wick.

I figured I wrecked the thing.

Next morning we drove down the mountain to find a phone.

Lyn taught me how to keep the light lit.

“One has only to look at the thing, and think a little.”

—Charles Bernstein