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Revue française d’études américaines

2005/1 (no 103)

  • Pages : 160
  • ISBN : 9782701141725
  • DOI : 10.3917/rfea.103.0079
  • Éditeur : Belin

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It may of course sound provoking to make the two terms “poetry” and “narrative” coexist in the same title, but it seems that this coexistence, however tense and problematic, cannot be denied, notably after Stephen Fredman’s Poet’s Prose and his assessment of what he calls the “crisis in American verse.” His volume effects a leap from the prose of William Carlos Williams’s Kora in Hell through Creeley and Ashbery to the “new poet’s prose” of, among others, David Antin, Ron Silliman and Lyn Hejinian. In the 1990 addendum to the original book, Fredman insists on what he deems the disturbing tendency of poetic prose to integrate theory to the point of confusing critical discourse with what would be the true poetic text. The issue here is that, according to Fredman, but not just him, some poetics would in fact be metapoetics and the poem only an example in a wider, subsuming demonstration. In short the outcome of poet’s prose would be a distressing poetic scene in which the poem is secondary to the reflection poets are developing as critics. Such an approach, which does take into account the central redefinition of genres which these poets try to achieve, seems to be too exclusively content-oriented and thus at least partially belying its initial project. Indeed it fails to do more than describe the specificities of the prose elaborated by the poets in question, and particularly to make one fundamental observation: that rather than being mainly product-oriented, these texts fall, to take up Michael Davidson’s words, into the categories of a “process—or action—oriented aesthetics” that as such they “offer the greatest challenge to the largely expressivist bias” and concern “the nature of poetry itself, whether it is regarded as a vehicle of communication for some prior meaning or a material component in the production of meaning” (211). This is one of the reasons why the notion of “narrative” is crucial and probably to be preferred to that of prose. One of the many arguments disqualifying the dichotomy between prose and verse, notably in English, rests on the insistence on the linguistic impossibility of a non-rhythmic pattern in speech—another being the vast range of alternative possibilities to rhyme in creating patterns, among which repetition at all levels, not only the syllabic. To follow Charles Bernstein’s reflection, repetition, juxtapositions, the rotation of units “induce reading along ectoskeletal and citational lines” and allow for the development of determined but less restricting “mechanisms of meaning” (36-37). Shifting the emphasis, even temporarily, from the monadic and solipsistic text to the modes of its production and to its organizing principles allows, as Bernstein specifies it about Mac Low’s procedural poetry, to see this text as a map or model:

The conception of the text as a map or model whose final constitution requires the reader’s active response is a theory of reading. […] In such writing the autonomy of a text is not broached, nor is the relation between reader and writer gesturalized or theatricalized. In contrast to the predetermined interpretations of a text based on the primacy of self or of logic, it is the formal autonomy of the text as model that elicits a response, an interpolation.


This is of course far-removed from Fredman’s text as an example for a theory, since the text as a map or model does not correspond to the applying of a theoretical dogma, but rather to the exercising of streamlined, non-dogmatic, non-imperial authority. Fredman’s focus on prose is probably the result of his concentration on the Williams tradition and the tension, which informs Williams’s work, between free verse and the obsessive search for a “new measure.” This, in Williams, culminates in the metrically questionable, albeit visually arguable, triadic line. Williams’s “poet’s prose” resides, according to Fredman, in his Kora in Hell improvisations, but these are early exercises in Surrealistic automatic writing and do not proceed from a radical questioning of lineation, nor from an alleged discovery of a form that would elude the artificial and arbitrary lineation of free verse. One could even go as far as to notice that Williams never claims the status of poems, nor of prose poems, for these “improvisations” and they remain a freakish, if fascinating, instance in his overall poetic work. Actually, the poets Fredman quotes as the victims and/or pursuers of this tragic crisis in American verse—Antin, Silliman, Hejinian—do not claim Williams’s inheritance so much as Stein’s.


Thus, with Talking (1973), David Antin radically moves on from his previous practice of collage poetry to improvisation and the production of what he calls “talk-poems.” Simultaneously composed and performed in front of an audience, the poems coalesce from the interplay of conjectural thinking and what exhibits itself as biographical experience. They stem from a vision of poetry that in part draws the consequences from Williams’s desire to find the poetic in the colloquial and vernacular, but that owes more to Stein’s approach to the peculiarities of language and its grammatical ambiguities. However, Antin’s conception of poetry as “the language art” (1980, 130) also has its roots in contemporary linguistics and the studies of Labov on the speech of ghetto kids. In an attempt at displacing poetry from the privacy of confined composition on the limited space of the page to the domain of public practice in the line of visual arts installations, Antin shows how the traditional categories that organize our definitions of the poetic can be undermined and must adapt to diverse modes of reception. The installation mode provides a set of constraints that differ from procedural composition, but, as we shall see, only so far. Indeed when Antin’s talk-poems are compared with the disrupted narratives of Ron Silliman (notably in Tjanting) or the incremental autobiography of Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, the issue of poetry as basically a language construct becomes more visibly organized and theorized: the text appears as constantly self-referential at the same time as self-erasing, transferring the autobiographical dialectics of revelation from self to sense, or rather from the constitution of a self for others to see into to the elaboration of a text for us to read into—if we can. By imposing new constraints on composition, be it in the Cage tradition of chance generated texts, in the Perec line of underlying mathematical formulae or following the demands of “the new sentence,” the poets emphasize how fragile and illusory the smooth surface of text actually is and put into perspective the multiplicity of minimal shifts which break the comforting process of projection and identification in reading and open onto wider existential as well as poetic questionings. The aim of this paper will thus be to argue that these poetic experiments are not mere variations or deviations from the poetic tradition of verse-formatted poetry, nor the concrete expression of preexisting abstract theories. On the contrary, they evidence the notion that the very practice of poetry necessarily has theoretical implications and that these implications are inscribed in the very materiality of the poem. By attempting, through the insistent iteration of procedures, to define the qualities of the poetic text in terms of contextual constraint and textual form, these poets push back the limits of genre, but in no way do they dissolve them into the vagueness of some neo-transcendental vision of the poetic as in anything or any text.

David Antin: story vs. narrative


When asked to comment on his early work—those poems that look like poems in terms of lineation—, David Antin emphasizes the fact that they all possess “some method or procedure for employing” either “collage-related techniques” (David Antin to the author, 21 Feb. 2000) or other selecting modes. What is more telling is the fact that Definitions, Code of Flag Behavior, Meditations and Autobiography constitute prolegomena to his later poetics of discourse (see Aji) and the apparently narrative-based talk-poems: there is a continuity rather than a break between his diverse practices of poetry. Sherman Paul has underlined this continuity by relating it to a wider plan of “assaulting conventional form,” most visible in the fact that “the titles of his works name genres” (17). This includes the key text of “Talking,” which marks a turning point in Antin’s work and the initial organization of the performance events that have dominated it since then. In spite of all accusations of formlessness, the talk-poem has emerged as a highly codified textual mode that, rather than merely questioning the iconic value of the written text by apparently replacing it by the spoken word, exhibits it as what it is: the result of a series of gestures that regulate the production of meaning, in such a way that the poetic text does not stand alone any more, nor only in reverence or reference to other texts of a select canon, but is inscribed in the wider realm of human activity, and communication. To return briefly to Charles Bernstein’s phrase, Antin’s poems can indeed be read as “maps” or “models,” each of them being one possibility for action within a set of circumstances whose variants are strictly determined. Thus, composition regularly occurs in public, in front of the tape-recorder, by the stop-watch, and the specificities of place and occasion are always defined in the opening of the poem. The title of the piece most often functions as a riddle (“california—the nervous camel” [2001, 54-72], a provocation (“the structuralist” [1993, 157-207] or a tense formula (“radical coherency”, [1981, 177-191], which also provides an anchoring for the whole of the piece, the focal point where the different phases of the poem are articulated. The text unfolds according to a pattern of successive digressions or associations, which, in performance, crystallize to produce “serial definition[s]” (Perloff in Antin 2001, vii) affecting all the aspects involved in working not only with but in language. In this respect, the talk-poems are at the same time events that the spectator and/or reader witnesses and intimations of what else or further can be done by exploring the language-determined range of epistemological possibilities. Consequently the issue of genre might become a moot issue, since genre is turned into an empirical category—and not a prescriptive one. Since genre is, in Antin’s words, “defined by the history of the performances you remember taking place within it” (1993, 159), the simple gesture of naming the talk-piece a talk-poem leads to radical questionings of the nature of poetry. These questionings are more common to the post-Duchampian visual arts scene but they are perhaps more acutely perceived in the field of poetry since the very delimitation of the self’s modes of inscription in the text is at stake.


Indeed, the irruption of narrative in the poem must be distinguished from the accepted although paradoxical presence of story in the poem: the epic and its avatars are within sight but not there as the center of attention is displaced from the story-line or succession of events to the issue of their interpretation through narrative and the serialization of narratives. In fact, with Antin, this distinction is worked out in different ways, which enlighten several facets of his work and have consequences on the very evaluation of what may pass through the poetic text of the talk-poem. Here Antin’s own ways of stressing the difference and its implications for his poetics are interesting because each time symptomatic of the high stakes lying in his discarding the conventional modes of poetry. Thus in his recently published conversation with Charles Bernstein, he emphasizes the technique of narrative as bringing about realizations about the self’s agenda:

Stories are different every time you tell them—because they allow so many possible narratives. For years I’ve been thinking of stories and narratives as two related but different things—the inside and the outside of the human engagement with transformation. For me a story’s the shell, a kind of logical structure, a sequence of events and parts of events that shape a significant transformation. While a narrative is the core, the representation of a desiring subject, somebody’s confrontation with a significant transformation that he or she works to bring about or avoid. So every time you tell a story from a different point of view, you get a different narrative. The same events look different because their parts look different and combine differently.

(Antin & Bernstein 11-12)

What is important is to observe how this notion of combination and its signifying power functions at all levels, not just in the combination of event-related sequences, but microscopically in the combination of lexemes, as Antin points it out to Marjorie Perloff:

“By context,” Antin has remarked recently, “what I mean is that when the word ‘red’ hits the word ‘wine’ the lexeme pair triggers a set of associations with remembered images or narratives scenes […]. Forming the invisible linkage of the metonymic chains […] are sets of potential narratives our memories can provide, that support or block certain connections.”

(Perloff 2001, 129)

It also functions macroscopically in the combination of narratives as examplified in this comment on Wittgenstein’s lecturing mode—an indirect way for Antin to define his own performance mode:

Example was piled on example; and although the examples were often fantastic, they were sometimes mere concretizations—most narratively situated concretizations—of some ordinary fact. And these situations were always described in precise detail in everyday language. But the students were accustomed to a particular philosophical genre in which there is a single line to an argument, no matter how ramified—a chain of consecutive connections they could hang onto.

(Antin 1998, 159)

What joins these three assertions is obviously the concern with narrative as informing all type of discourse (including the poetic) in a non-generic way. One obvious consequence is the possibility of narrative to be seen as transgeneric, not only questioning the tripartition of genres, but also, through the substitution of plot with dramatized time and space unity in enunciation, asserting another function for the poetic than the masked romanticization of a fictitious self. In this context, the poetic reconstructs itself as the genre in which the metaphoric is indeed replaced by the metonymic, and each narrative replays, without resolving it, the problem of narrativization. The poetic thus ceases to be the genre of individualistic self-centeredness and self-expressiveness in fixed conventional formality or formlessness, to become a locus for problematic constructions of self in discourse. This is done notably by Antin through relentlessly multiplying narratives in both paradigmatic and syntagmatic organizations. They are the units which combine and are combined at the same time in the process of constructing provisional meanings for a self in flux, constantly under “transformation” or construction.


For Antin, but not solely, narrative is indeed, as Christian Moraru suggests, “structuration, repeated construction (grounding) of selhood in the wake of decisive critical moments and in socioculturally specific contexts” (86), but this construction of the self is far from being the sole aim and effect of the talk-poem. This would in fact omit this notion of hyper-connectedness, which Antin unfolds in his comment on Wittgenstein. As Hank Lazer has pointed out, this system is an echo system, which sends the listener/reader back to modes of composition and reception specific to the poetic, the systems of rotations and the citational readings that Bernstein describes in relation to procedural poetics:

The impression that I end up carrying away from an Antin talk poem, especially after sustained consideration of it, is that almost everything in the talk is connected to something else in the talk, and that the stories bear important off-rhymed relationships to one another.

(Lazer 168)

Thus the examination, for example, of “radical coherency” yields a succession of moments, from the poet’s introspective start about the decision to do talk-poems, through the account of a tragi-comic trip to Sears with his mother, to the death of his grandmother. Each of these moments is of such bathetic complexity in the network of its minute reformulations of the initial question that quoting from the poem proves difficult. The issue of narrative oscillates between that of focalization and that of integration into larger units of discourse. One finds that Antin’s text exhibits processes of syntactic integration that culminate with the idea of discourse as both an epistemological and a hermeneutic tool and of the poem as the place where this tension is repeatedly enacted. To this extent, the conclusion of “radical coherency” may seem abrupt in its cryptic description of the grandmother’s death and her last words. The interpretation provided for her apparent delirium is no principle of coherence, but evidences the self-constructing efforts at making it cohere residing in the production of connected narratives:

she died and recently thinking of this rambling set of

words it occurred to me that i could imagine a

coherency i mean i have no conviction about what

she was really talking about yet i knew

(Antin 1981, 191)

Epistemological and hermeneutic concerns lie at the core of David Antin’s poetics, but never as a-priori theoretical assumptions that would find their examplification in the poem’s production. Rather they emerge as the unavoidable recognition of the non-dogmatic nature of all texts, their provisional status and elusive significance, at the same time embedded in and enacted by the poem. The form of Antin’s poems, without justified margins, without punctuation or capitalization, as well as the constraints of public performance and controlled editing, embody the humility of a de-lyricized self, re-contextualized within a world not wholly knowable and only partially accounted for in language. The resort to narrative signals this aim to dissolve the fixities of connections assumed in the conventional patterns of lineated poetry: the coherence is something we can just “imagine.”

Disconnected connectedness as system: Silliman and Hejinian’s “New Sentence”


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:

Not this.

What then?

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.

Conclusion: narrative as a poetic device


From these considerations, one might infer that the return of narrative in some contemporary poetries corresponds to the attempt at showing both text and self as constructs defined by contingencies, among which formal constraints. Procedure allows for the materialization as well as conceptualization of this fundamental reversal of the notion of invariable form and of the conception of poetry as the place either for the narration of history (the epic) or for unrestrained self-expression (the lyric). Narrative is the detour leading to the experimental confrontation with the constant interplay between selfhood and otherness. This project, be it with Antin, Silliman or Hejinian, can be actualized through diverse narrative modes, from hyper-connectedness, to more or less loosely connected disconnectedness. These narrative strategies share a common concern with making the processes of structuring apparent rather than offering a structured product. The redefinition of poetic form implies, for these poets, resorting to narrative, as a means to exhibit the systemic nature of language per se, outside the codified field of conventional poetic forms. By doing this, they perform a revelatory gesture of estrangement—as far to the margins of genre as the language art will allow them. Yet narrative is not the sole option in performing this poetic Copernician revolution.


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Quelles sont les modalités et les conséquences d’un retour de la narration en poésie? Il ne s’agit pas dans cet article de voir cette prose poétique comme une crise de vers, mais bien de déchiffrer des formes nouvelles qui permettent à la poésie contemporaine de sortir de l’impasse d’un vers libre conçu comme informe pour aller vers des règles de composition signifiantes. La rigueur de la poésie de David Antin, Ron Silliman et Lyn Hejinian est dans ces contraintes élues qui, loin de vider le texte poétique de tout contenu, le replacent dans un contexte où texte et sujet poétiques sont relus en termes de contingence événementielle et exhibés en tant que produits des systématismes, inhérents ou modélisés, du langage.


  • poésie américaine
  • narration
  • David Antin
  • Lyn Hejinian
  • Ron Silliman


  • american poetry
  • narrative
  • David Antin
  • Lyn Hejinian
  • Ron Silliman

Plan de l'article

  1. David Antin: story vs. narrative
  2. Disconnected connectedness as system: Silliman and Hejinian’s “New Sentence”
  3. Conclusion: narrative as a poetic device

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