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  • The Closures of the Open Text: Lyn Hejinian’s “Paradise Found”
  • Jacob Edmond (bio)

I want to open up for discussion a topic that has to date remained largely closed, due, ironically enough, to an emphasis on openness. As Meir Sternberg observes, from modernism’s “turn, in practice and theory, toward the open ending,” to poststructuralism’s “preaching [of] endless indeterminacy,” the literary-critical climate of recent decades has overwhelmingly favored openness over closure, obscuring “the family likeness underlying the extreme models” such that even “the poetics of anti-closure at its most radical” involves “multiple closure” (519–20, 568–69). Reflecting this tendency, the claim to openness pervades both the self-presentation and critical reception of Language writing, concealing the closures of its open text. This, at least, I will argue, is the case for Lyn Hejinian, one of the most prominent writers to have emerged from this highly influential late-twentieth-century U.S. literary avant-garde, and the one perhaps most closely associated with its rhetoric of openness. While, as Alan Golding notes, Language writers have used openness to signify an emphasis on linguistic opacity, autonomy, and polysemy and the rejection of organicist notions of naturalness, presence, and immediacy (“Openness” 80–88), Hejinian’s writing exhibits a striking preoccupation with total [End Page 240] linguistic transparency, correspondence between language and world, epistemological closure, and perfect understanding, all of which she associates with the term paradise. Her essay “The Rejection of Closure” (1984), her long poem The Guard (1984), and her later essay “La Faustienne” (1998) all grow, directly or indirectly, out of this preoccupation. In these texts, paradise, as complete closure and perfect knowledge, partakes in a formal and thematic dialectic such that the reemergence of the desire for paradise always accompanies its repudiation. On the one hand, this dialectic reflects the sense in Language writing that “closure is always imposed socially even when it is resisted poetically” (Golding 82) and responds to the consequent need, as Language writer Bruce Andrews puts it, “to frame what’s open against the dangers of closure” (“Total” 50). But on the other, it underscores Marjorie Perloff’s argument that for writers such as Hejinian, the “individual talent” matters more than “the specific avantgarde ‘tradition’” (“Avant-Garde Tradition” 139). In Hejinian’s texts, the “generative struggle between the two impulses” (“Rejection,” Writing 291) does more than acknowledge the dangers of closure in order to achieve the “drastic openness” called for by Andrews (“Poetry” 31). It also provides a further frame or enclosure around this dynamic, dialectic openness. By incorporating the desire for paradise, closure, and perfect knowledge, Hejinian’s writing points to the ways in which the putative freedom promised by the dialectic of the open text itself constitutes another paradisal vision, another form of closure. At the same time, the reassertion of closure and paradise allows Hejinian’s poetics to go further than simply acknowledging “how the imaginary pervades public life,” a recognition that Charles Altieri sees several Language writers, including Hejinian, failing to move sufficiently beyond (“Fate” 86). Notwithstanding Altieri’s suggestion otherwise, closure and paradise in Hejinian’s writing mobilize the distinctions and desires necessary for a poetics to “elaborat[e] versions of the imaginary” which preserve its “sense of explorative projection,” while conveying an equally acute sense of its dangers (“Fate” 92, 78).

To discuss Hejinian’s work in relation to closure, paradise, and perfect knowledge seems at first glance radically counterintuitive, since the totalizing, overarching, transcendent visions that these terms imply appear to be fundamentally at odds with her poetics. Her most frequently cited and widely anthologized essay is, after all, [End Page 241] entitled “The Rejection of Closure” and calls explicitly for a poetics of the “open text” (“Rejection,” Language 43).1 Moreover, the now considerable body of scholarship on Hejinian frequently echoes these terms, explicitly or implicitly referencing the essay.2 Likewise, both “The Rejection of Closure” and this scholarship build on influential conceptions of textual openness developed in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, such as Roland Barthes’s “plural text,” expounded in S/Z (1970) and “From Work to Text” (1971), and John Cage’s process-oriented poetics, articulated in his “lectures” in...