William James Talks About
Lyn Hejinianís Saga/Circus:
A Transcription

transcription by Norman Weinstein

Ms. Stein insisted that I make public my ruminations concerning Ms. Hejinian’s new book, and I could never say no to Miss Stein, in spite of my objection that my appreciation of “modern” poetry stopped with Tennyson. “Tennyson!” she enthused, “you couldn’t have a better prelude to reading Hejinian!” So I capitulated, although Ms. Stein had to further encourage me by relating Ms. Hejinian’s serious consideration of my philosophy, such as it psychologically has become. So I commenced.

To my amazement, the comparison of Tennyson to this 21st century lyrical writer was completely apt. Tennyson’s “Maud” seemed the poet’s inspiration, passionate states of consciousness in flux personified. Before Tennyson, I was aware of William Blake doing the same in his prophetic poems, but the density of his congested allegorical poetic landscape was more than this poor pragmatist could bear. And not a trace of Blake’s sermonizing could I detect in the apparently modest Ms.Hejinian. Most properly and primly, she seems to follow several of the lessons of my former student Ms. Stein. Ms. Hejinian’s personifications of intellectual passion are in the grain of Ms. Stein’s Three Lives and The Making of Americans.

But I divert in beginning with literary parallels when I really want to persuade you to read Ms.Hejinian in order to experience the delight of a mind “at sea” (in every sense), and a mind with the riot-beauty of a three-ring circus. How does a modestly dense book of poems bridge the imagination of water and of the circus? At the risk of immodesty, I suspect that Ms. Hejinian was quite taken by my image of thinking being either in flight or perching. Her book opens with the entrance of her main character “Lola” into a circus world of phenomenal surprises moment by moment. The book’s opening line, whether attributed to Ms. Hejinian, or to the personification of the author’s passionate intellectual quest, invites us to think philosophically in the depths: “The dog on the leash knows the secret of freedom.” So we enter this poem with paradox and contradiction as thick as the sweet salty scent of popcorn under the big top. Lola appears and disappears like a mirage of a circus act – or I might say that Lola, the name of this poet’s restless, relentless questioning of the nature of reality -- is continually in flight like the sparrow outside my Cambridge window, living deeply and widely between perching and flying.

Thinking is like that. The first half of Ms. Hejinian’s book half caught me in mid-air, perhaps more like a trapeze artist between swinging hand-holds than a swallow in mid-flight. She presents a reader with a circus-like profusion of those knotty, paradoxical moments when words enchant, and misguide, cause our sense of being securely anchored in our lives to slip, transforming us to a crowd of clowns within our skin, slipping on hidden banana peels everywhichway. Lola is our ever (un)dependable guide to our insecure footing in the world. As Ms. Hejinian has it, “Lola enchants the world, she takes it to be real.” and even better, “Someone always comes along to punish the entertainment for hiding the fact that it’s real.” The punisher in this instance I imagine Hejinian to mean formal education, although she miraculously has entered the English department of the University of California keeping her poetic genius fully intact. “Maggie” in this book must be the resilient curiosity of the author no English department can quell, for Maggie proclaims, “Education should provide us with more than merely material for justifying our opinions.” There wasn’t a day at Harvard when I wasn’t explaining that very insight to my students. To be more than opinion-propping, we need to study strong books of tough-minded thinking about thinking. That this thoughtful epic of thinking about thinking assumes the absurdly irrational gaiety of a circus, with none of the linguistic gravitas of a philosophical school, should come as no surprise. Yet I was shocked -- and deeply pleased. And will conclude with reflections about the book’s second and concluding portion.

Lola’s Houdini-like entrances and exits in the book’s first section alchemize into the flux of consciousness depicted as a great sea journey in part two, an odyssey as ambitious and fraught as Odysseus’. No better literary clarification of my “stream of consciousness” exists that these lines opening “The Distance,” originally the beginning of Saga/Circus.

How inviting circumstances can be!
All that’s in view gives us the present. The world
We knew
Was always the same but the present
Is that
In which one can see everything
Differently, the waves as green lilies, the wind
As a bobbing water bird, the distance
As a concert hall, but our emotions
Are obscure. We need music. . .

Aristotle was correct for all eternity when he insisted the poet’s genius resides in metaphor-making. And this passage reveals the poet’s speed and elegance in matching unlike with like in the sea’s ever-wavy mirror of mirrors. Also I’m moved by Ms. Hejinian’s awareness of how the musicality of words, perhaps another insight from Ms. Stein, connects us to wellsprings of passion our unmusical reasoning mind can disconnect us from.

There is a great deal more I could say about the 37 stanzas of “The Distance” rounding out this psychological epic of your century and mine. But Mr. Pierce and Mr. Wittgenstein are impatiently waiting to join me at the faculty club.

One last remark: I have heard of the poet Laura Riding who I understand “abandoned poetry,” a terrifying decision, choosing a second career in philosophy since she understood poetic language as necessarily duplicitous. This seemed foolish for any poet not in the mad grip of a Platonic romance, if my wit be forgiven, and Ms. Hejinian has surely proven with this poem how the philosopher within the inquiring and ever-curious poet can thrive. On another occasion, I will speak about my own thwarted ambition to write poetry rather than one long prose epic of philosophical psychology. Until then, you would do well to learn poetry and philosophy under the spell of Ms. Hejinian’s enchantment.