The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E School of poetry is full of works that are notoriously challenging to unpack for readers who are used to more clear attempts at “representational” or “realistic” poems. I put these terms into quotation marks because, as most poets from this movement would attest, the very idea of representing ideas through language is problematic in the first place. But a careful attention to the craft of these poems can heighten our appreciation of form and content beyond, if not in addition to, understanding that they “mean.” Craig Douglas Dworkin pays such attention to craft in his article “Penelope Reworking the Twill: Patchwork, Writing, and Lyn Hejinian’s My Life.”
Dworkin begins his article by pointing out one of the main reasons writers like Hejinian’s poems are perceived as “difficult”: instead of using regular “hypotaxis” in the writing of her text, she leans more strongly toward “parataxis.” In essence, hypotaxis is the organizational style most writers use to convey ideas, with smaller concepts subsumed underneath related, bigger ones in a way that clearly demonstrates their links. Parataxis, however, is a style of organization that puts ideas next to each other with no visible connective tissue to demonstrate the strength, type, or extent of their relationships to one another or to any overarching idea. In a paratactic piece of writing, like Hejinian’s, for example, a writer would put two or three seemingly unrelated sentences next to each other without doing the work for the reader of demonstrating how they’re related. An example of this is found in the section of My Life titled “A Pause, a Rose, Something on Paper”: “The plush must be worn away. On her walks she stepped into people’s gardens to pinch off cuttings from their geraniums and succulents. An occasional sunset is reflected on the windows” (535). Are these ideas connected? If so, how? It’s unclear, and Dworkin understands this to be the point, an attempt to defer readers’ desire for some kind of unified purpose or climax, leaving them unfulfilled in a way that is nevertheless satisfying (78).
Dworkin likens this style of writing to the “puzzled surface of [a] quilt” (59). Patchwork quilts had recently (as of the publication of My Life in the 70s) become a well-respected art form, elevated from the status of “mere” women’s work, created out of necessity by housewives rather than artisans. Women who made quilts would historically scrap pieces of fabric from important garments like wedding and christening gowns, alongside other colorful but unrelated fabrics, in order to create sewn-together works that would be visually pleasing because of the ways they juxtaposed thematically unrelated but visually complementary scraps into patterns. The patterns themselves, Dworkin explains, were often improvised upon, with seamstresses taking a known entity like the “Log Cabin” pattern and changing it up depending on how much of each fabric scrap she had, as well as how the colors would pair with one another in the finished product. Thus the seamstress used creativity both in the design of the quilt form and in its contents, though that creativity was often determined in part by necessity (i.e. what fabrics she had on hand). Recycling fabric and using scraps in multiple projects, or in multiple ways in the same project, is a feature of the art form. Dworkin also points out that quilting was both an individual and a communal endeavor, with the larger pieces of the quilt and the design work being completed in private, while the stitching and finalizing of the finished product often took place during “quilting bees” where women would gather together to exchange ideas, watch each other work, and share their time and talents with one another (61).
Dworkin’s argument is that, since Hejinian would almost certainly have been aware of the new focus on quilting as an art, it’s possible she may have been influenced in her writing to shape her own “autobiography” as a quilt-like work. There are many parallels between Hejininian’s book-length work of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry and a quilt made from scraps. For instance, Dworkin points out that, like a crazy quilt made up of multiple fabrics, Hejinian’s words and ideas seem to come from multiple sources, some quoted but not cited by name, with some quotes that don’t get put into quotation marks at all. This contributes to the idea of the poem as slippery in its source material—it’s a communal project, not able to be pinned down, with ideas posited by the mother, the speaker, and other characters blending together but none of them present as single unifying voices (63). The “Penelope” analogy comes in when describing Hejinian’s use of repetition—like Penelope crafting her work of fabric art over and over again using the same materials but with variations, Hejinian uses the same images and similar phrases again and again in different context, “leitmotifs” that alter from each other ever so slightly to hearken back to other such moments while doing something new thematically each time (71). Dworkin also compares the paratactic language in Hejinian’s poem with Gertrude Stein’s idea of “porousness”—where no word or sentence or phrase can be seen as essentially more important than any other in every context, leaving “pores” in meaning and interpretation—and likens this to the democracy of fabric crafts that have multiple, equally important loci for viewers to cast their attention and appreciation (68). Furthermore, the paratactic style of Heijenen’s work gives it an “anti-hierarchic” quality that puts it in line with other female-driven artworks like quilts (66). Quilts, like L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poems, are created and viewed by multiple people working in tandem to achieve communication of ideas that go beyond what can be easily spoken by a single, authoritarian voice. Though there are “thematic connections” between ideas found in different parts of My Life, Dworkin explains, they are loose enough to be interpretable in many different ways depending on the reader and on the part of the text the reader is focused on at any given moment, much like a quilt might utilize the same scrap of fabric in different places, a thematic constant that gets cut into different shapes or used within the overarching pattern in different ways (72).
I find Dworkin’s comparison between quilts and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poems, particularly Hejinian’s, to be compelling, and also to shed light on a new way to read these poems in general. If we already have a schema for looking at a type of art that pieces together elements in this manner, it is helpful to apply that schema when approached with something new (to me), like Hejinian’s works. I’m wondering—does the quilt metaphor apply to any of the other poems we read this week? And, is the historical connection with quilting’s upsurge as a recognizable art form strong enough for Dworkin to successfully make this comparison?
pictured: 19th c. quilt with a traditional Log Cabin pattern
Dworkin, Craig Douglas. “Penelope Reworking the Twill: Patchwork, Writing, and Lyn Hejinian’s ‘My Life.’” Contemporary Literature, vol. 36, no. 1, 1995, pp. 58–81. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1208954. Accessed 10 Oct. 2022.