As a consequence, since Antin’s use of narrative, or rather focus on narrative-related issues, is not an isolated case, it seems difficult to ascribe this formal choice only to this negative “crisis in American verse” described by Stephen Fredman. The elaboration of diverging strategies based on disconnection rather than the manifestation of hyper-connectedness in fact also corresponds to attempts to come to terms with the questions of integration both in composition and in reception. This appears as a necessary re-assessment of the poetic, once the collapse of conventional poetic forms has been seen for what it is: not so much a loss of generic specificity as the discarding of external and arbitrary modes of discrimination, such as cadence or rhyme, in favour of meaningfully controlled manipulations of the structuring modes specific to language. Here, as in Antin’s talk-poems, the focal point is not arrangement, and the neo-Romantic issues of invention and originality: what the poet has to deal with is that his work is primarily one of rearrangement and that this rearranging task is to be shared with the reader. Paradoxically, this does not imply a reformulation of the Modernist creed of impersonality, but the acknowledgement of the radically delusive nature of this position, as another avatar of the Romantic claim for the self’s universality. What emerges as universal here is the radical opacity both of self and other and that the poet’s function is to debunk the fantasy of emotional transfer through the poem, at the same time as he offers alternative exploratory modes. This can be done either by laying emphasis on the imagined nature of patterns of connectedness and the epistemological and hermeneutic limitations of discourse, as in Antin, or by frustrating the expectations of emotional discharge through the suppression of effect or by controlling the move from text to affect.
This, one could remark, goes against, for instance, Poe’s widely admitted theory of effect and of poetry (or narrative, as a matter of fact) as the vehicle for emotion or the instrument in an emotional power game. The reading of Gertrude Stein’s reflections on the functioning of emotional build-up in texts reveals her insistance on disrupting the mechanisms of this build-up, in order to assert its status as only optional. The famous example of how Tender Buttons, although in prose, manages to acquire the status of poetry through repetition and ellipsis—up to the point of a-grammaticality—need not be expounded here again. However, these methods are not the only ones she uses and indeed a poem such as “A White Hunter” (“A white hunter is nearly crazy,” 475) does not use the same devices: it isolates one sentence, whose syntactic organization is entirely straightforward, but which proves impossible to integrate within a narrative frame. This phenomenon foregrounds the prevalence of narrative in both writing and interpreting techniques, and, beyond genre, questions the status of the de-narrativized text. As Silliman puts it in his comment on this Steinian strategy and by linking it with Emile Benveniste’s observations, if confined to the level of the sentence, linguistic integration does not entail higher levels of meaning, thus excluding the communication of emotion, (Silliman 1986, 570) so that there is the possibility for a practice and a critique that would displace the locus of integration to a reflection on “the text as such,” to expand on Marjorie Perloff’s formulation about the “word as such” (1985, 215) in language poetry.
Thus if one compares the poetries of Ron Silliman and Lyn Hejinian with Antin’s, one finds what is another, more ruthless, more strictly systematized way of problematizing integration and projection through their repeated check-mating: whereas Antin does not defeat this impulse but underlines the constructed text and the simultaneously constructed self as potential decoys, Silliman and Hejinian both work at “preventing most leaps beyond the level of grammatic integration” (Silliman 1986, 571). This is performed through the use of an array of formal devices that because they are carefully controlled at the same time as specifically purpose-oriented, redefine the poem in terms of formality rather than in terms of expected forms. With what Silliman calls “the new sentence,” and the genesis of procedural rules of composition, sentences “are all sentences” with “no specific referential focus.” Furthermore the establishment of sentence/paragraph ratios undermines the expository conception of narrative to make it join with a form of the poetic that works from “the interiors” of language in a revised “continual torquing of sentences that is a traditional quality of poetry” (all quotes, Silliman 1986, 572). This allows for another approach to the notion of narrative, its inscription in or around the poetic, in the sense that narrative emerges as a fantasmatic stasis, which the text constantly works at disrupting. Here, to take up Bersntein’s words on Silliman, “narrative is not intrinsically tied to causality, development, chronology, characters, setting” (307). Rather the master narrative, which the text is expected to offer, is an ever-receding horizon, whose elusiveness entails the reflexive movement on language, discourse, and meaning. In his manifesto, Ron Silliman lists the “qualities of the new sentence” as follows:
1) The paragraph organizes the sentences;
2) The paragraph is a unit of quantity, not logic or argument;
3) Sentence length is a unit of measure;
4) Sentence structure is altered for torque, or increased polysemy/ambiguity;
5) Syllogistic movement is (a) limited (b) controlled;
6) Primary syllogistic movement is between the preceding and following sentences;
7) Secondary syllogistic movement is toward the paragraph as a whole, or the total work;
8) The limiting of syllogistic movement keeps the reader’s attention at or very close to the level of language, that is, most often at the sentence level or below.
(Silliman 1986, 574)
One sees that Silliman’s “new sentence” is simultaneously a theory of composition and a theory of reading, which revolves around the issue of narrativization. The deconstruction of narrative permits the reinvestment of the non-sequiturs and syntactic tensions of lineation at the level of discursive logic. Thus the composition of Silliman’s Tjanting is structured into paragraphs of increasing lengths, made of an increasing number of sentences following the Fibonacci number series (un+1=un+un–1; i.e., 1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21…); at the same time, each un+1 paragraph is made of new sentences and altered repeats of all the sentences in the un–1 paragraph; the use of abbreviations draws the reader’s attention to the quiddity of words—which gives this at the beginning of the poem:
I started over & over. Not this.
Last week I wrote “the muscles in my palm so sore from halving the rump roast I cld barely grip the pen.” What then? This morning my lip is blisterd.
Of about to within which. Again & again I began. The gray light of day fills the yellow room in a way wch is somber. Not this. Hot grease had spilld on the stove top.
Nor that either. Last week I wrote “the muscle at thumb’s root so taut from carving that beef I though it wld cramp.” Not so. What then? Wld I begin? This morning my lip is tender, disfigurd. I sat in an old chair out behind the anise. I cld have gone about this some other way.
Wld it be different with a different pen? Of about to within which what. Poppies grew out of the pile of old-broken up cement. I began again & again. These clouds are not apt to burn off. The yellow room has a sober hue. Each sentence accounts for its place. Not this. Old chairs in the backyard rotting from winter. Grease on the stove top sizzled and spat. It’s the same, only different. Ammonia’s odor hangs in the air. Not not this.
Analogies to quicksand. Nor that either. Burglar’s book. Last week I wrote “I can barely grip this pen.” White butterfly atop the grey concrete. Not so. Exactly. What then? What it means to “fiddle with” a guitar. I found I’d begun. One orange, one white, two gray. This morning my lip is swollen, in pain. Nothing’s discrete. I straddled an old chair out behind the anise. A bit a part a like. I cld have done it some other way. Pilots and meteorologists disagree about the sky. The figure five figures in. The way new shoots stretch out. Each finger has a separate function. Like choosing the form of one’s execution.
(Silliman 2002, 16)
A lot of time could be spent tracing the repeats and their variations and observing how the incremental process allows both for the composition and erasure of a subliminal narrative, which responds to the pun in the title: Tjanting for the technique of dripping dye on a silk screen and thus preserving the gesture that created the object; and for “chanting,” the repetitive recitation that threatens the linear construction of meaning in text. Bob Perelman, in his description of this poem, stresses the fact that this practice does not fall prey to Jameson’s attack on parataxis as producing “a rubble of snapped signifying chains” simply because re-narrativization remains possible:
A primary element of each sentence is the fact of Silliman writing. This surfaces in the many references to the physical act of writing […]. At such times, the writing seems autobiographical, even though the narrative is focused more at the tip of the pen than in the memory of the writer. Larger narrative frames, theoretically repressed by Silliman’s use of parataxis, clearly return, even within a single sentence.
(Perelman 1996, 69)
What this analysis fails to integrate is the fact that re-narrativization is the reader’s doing and as such primarily reflects his expectations and his project. Thus Perelman’s reading concentrates on the metapoetic implications of the text—which are definitely a crucial dimension—but leaves out the issue of memory and memorization which is constantly raised in the rewrites and our re-readings. As the number of sentences exponentially increases, the capacities for exact rewriting and for reader-recognition decrease, so that the text seems to lose its systematicity when it actually systematically enacts the linguistic reality of combination from a limited, though sometimes perceived as limitless, stock.
Similar strategies can be seen at work in My Life by Lyn Hejinian. Although the poem’s title announces an autobiography, with all the conceptualizing involved in a unified narrative of self-making, one is confronted with a formal construct whose basic unit is the “new sentence,” which functions around patterns of repetitions, “some phonic, some imagistic, and some syntactic” (Davidson 213). The overall structure of the text is regulated by the biographical data of the poet’s age: the first version of My Life, published when Hejinian was 37, contains thirty-seven chapters of thirty-seven sentences; the second version, composed at 45, adds eight chapters and eight sentences to each of the former chapters. The result is the enforcement of a limiting factor to the extension of My Life, congruent with the finitude of living, whereas the local disconnectedness, corrected by the connecting networks of repetition, sends back to the vagaries of memory and its mysterious, but neither arbitrary nor rational, processes of association. The chapter headings are excerpted from the rest of the text, most times non-descriptive and non-specific. The poem is presented by the poet as an instance of what she calls an open text, offering a possible rearrangement of statements that obviously have been reshuffled from the raw matter of living and can potentially undergo further reshufflings, on the poet’s part as in the second version, or on the reader’s part as he attempts to narrativize the autobiographical text :
Another kind of arrangement and rearrangement device is repetition—as in my book My Life, where certain phrases recur in the text, each time in a new context and with new emphasis. […] Since context is never the same and never stops, this device says that meaning is always in flux, always in the process of being created. Repetition, and the rewriting that repetition becomes, make a perpetual beginning, like Stein’s beginning again and again; they postpone completion indefinitely.
(Hejinian in Perelman 1985, 273)
It is this postponement to the end of My Life which, as Bob Perelman remarks, makes it that “My Life does not belie its title” and that “the artificially inserted memory is emotional and lyrical” (Perelman 1996, 72). The procedural text responds to an experience in disconnectedness, which is not perceived negatively but as an integral part of existence, and which the poem can render through the adoption of specific forms. The issue of genre is here totally undermined as the poet decidedly abandons the notion of form as inherited for a conception of form as programmatic. Thus in “The Rejection of Closure,” Hejinian commits herself to a concept of form as generative in itself: far from ordering chaos, it can restore the epistemological and hermeneutic quandaries that logic and rationalization had erased.
When I began thinking about “the rejection of closure” and of this talk, one of the first, and most pressing questions concerned this relationship of form, or “constructive principle” to “materials”—the materials including not just the language (words) but the ideas and perceptions. Can form make chaos (i.e., raw material, unorganized information, uncertainty, incompleteness, vastness) articulate without depriving it of its potency, its generativity? Can form go even further than that and actually generate the potency of uncertainty, incompleteness, vastness, etc.? I think the answer to this is yes, that this is in fact the function of form in art, that form is not a fixture but an activity. […]
For me a central activity of poetic language is formal. In being formal, in making form distinct, it opens—makes variousness and multiplicity and possibility articulate and clear. While failing in the attempt to match the world, we discover structure, distinction, the integrity and separateness of things.
(Hejinian in Perelman 1985, 275)
Thus, the text of My Life traces not so much the story of Hejinian’s life as one, then two of its narratives, which through inner patterns of repetition and recontextualization produce an intimation of the construction of self as in flux or, in her words, as “in position”:
I have an experience of being in position, at a time and place, and of being conscious of this. But this position is temporary, and beyond that, I have no experience of being except in position. All my observations are made from within a matrix of possibly infinite contingencies and contextualities. This sense of contingency is intrinsic to my experience of the self as a relationship rather than an essence. […]
It is here that the epistemological nightmare of the solipsistic self breaks down, and the essentialist yearning after truth and origin can be discarded in favor of the experience of experience.
The person, in this view, is a mobile (and mobilized) reference point, or, to put it another way, subjectivity is not an entity but a dynamic.
(Hejinian 2000, 202-203)
This is why the experience of reading My Life is not one of reception but of recreation, in which the reader is associated to this dynamic of subjectivity and made to acknowledge it as pertaining not just to autobiography but to any kind of writing. The poem tackles the fundamental issue of representation and the usurpation of any type of fictitious distanciation. Here narrative intervenes in the poem as a presence/absence, attractive and repulsive at the same time, a risk to be taken only hesitatingly and locally, within the boundaries of the sentence. It often seems to be the truth the poem hints at through paradoxically concrete abstractions:
It was only a coincidence. The tree rows in orchards are capable of patterns. What were Cæsar’s battles but Cæsar’s prose. […] I insert a description: of agonizing spring morning freshness, when through the open window a smell of cold dust and broken early grass, of schoolbooks and rotting apples, trails the distant sound of an airplane and a flock of crows. […] I was learning a certain geometry of purely decorative shapes. One could base a model for form on a crystal or the lungs. She showed the left profile, the good one. What she felt, she had heard as a girl. The point of the foghorns is that you can’t see them, need to hear them. More by hive than by heart the mathematics of droves makes it noticeable. It was May, 1958 and reading was anti-anonymous. She disapproved of background music.
(Hejinian 2002, 64-67)
Several sentences work on a polysemy, which makes them applicable both to the existential referent and to the writing in progress and the reflections it triggers. Or rather, this polysemy shows the fusion of life and text—life as text and text as life, in all their ambiguities and uncertainties.