Original Criticism

Rick Brown: A Bloody Torpor: The Banality of Violence in Auden's "The Shield of Achilles"

W. H. Auden was a mercurial poet, frustrating and fascinating for his vibrant juxtaposition of the banal and poignant in his challenging poetry. His influences were legion, stemming from specific political issues such as warfare and class to more personal concepts such as Auden's constantly changing relationship with Christianity and his own homosexuality. One of the most powerful of the thematic strains that runs throughout Auden's work is the theme of warfare, especially in its relation to Auden's moral ambiguity and sometimes irreconcilable views on whether one should or should not engage in conflict. Perhaps the most interesting and relevant of the poems arising from Auden's interest and horror at the wages of war is "The Shield of Achilles," a work that paints a hideous portrait of modern life characterized by inevitability and martial horror and set amidst the classical lyricism and vitality of the Iliad of Homer. First published in 1953 and later included in the eponymous anthology The Shield of Achilles in 1955, the poem is constructed with alternating stanzas depicting the construction of Achilles' shield and a cruel, nameless war waged in modern times, with both strands of the poem ending in tragic fashion. As the poem develops, Hephaestus creates a shield adorned with unexpectedly banal and barren images, and the war continues on for the hapless inhabitants of the modern world. In "The Shield of Achilles," Auden juxtaposes the classical imagery of Hephaestus's construction of the eponymous shield with brutal modern imagery to illustrate the anxious meaninglessness of modern life, the warfare engendered by it, and the cruel social realities that lie behind both.

Auden's poem is replete with images of the absence of hope and meaning in modern life, and these images are made all the more poignant for their juxtaposition with the vibrance of the classical imagery of the Iliad. The world Auden describes in "The Shield of Achilles" is a horrific one, one bereft of inner meaning and whose only catalyst is the posturing of figures of authority. The environment is, as Auden describes, a "plain without a feature, bare and brown, / No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood, / Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down" (9-11). A featureless expanse physically and metaphorically, it is an environment in which the individual is a pointless being without any singular meaning. In essence, it is a world in which the individual has been crushed under the weight and enormity of life itself. The narrative of the poem describes a modern variation of the human race that can no longer be reduced to single individuals; it is, rather, an "unintelligible multitude" that is, at best, less a body of human beings than a statistical anomaly (Auden, 13). Their world is one defined by the absence of personal meaning, and they have become so degraded that they have taken to silently occupying their space as a "million eyes, a million boots in line, / [w]ithout expression, waiting for a sign," seeking not for personal revelations but for any sign of authority (14-15).

It is a form of life far removed from the vibrance and singular personal experience that defines the classical imagery of the Iliad, which Auden references in his description of Hephaestus's creation of Achilles' shield. The world that Thetis inhabits is one that stands in sharp contrast to Auden's modern environment, being defined in Auden's verse by the sheer brilliance of its construction, one in which "vines and olive trees" and "[m]arble well-governed cities" are prominent features (2-3). As Thetis watches Hephaestus fashion her son's shield, she imagines futilely that the imagery he crafts upon it will reflect her world's magnificence, its "ritual pieties, / [w]hite flower-garlanded heifers," and "[l]ibation and sacrifice" - for her, unlike the masses of modern life, there is no question as to life's hope and inherent worth (Auden, 24-26). Thetis's world is the antithesis of the cruel, impersonal world that Auden describes. Robert Pack explores this in his article "The Idea in the Mirror: Reflections on the Consciousness of Consciousness," stating that Auden uses the Homeric, mythical vision of life to provide a sharp contrast with the mundane, scientific reality that modern people live in, one in which the individual cannot appeal to personal or social meaning (61). Rendered against the fantastic imagery of Homer, the meaninglessness of that modern life is made all the more stark and unmerciful.

Such as in Homer's epic, Auden's poem also alludes to brutal fits of warfare and mindless slaughter resulting from the stagnant torpor of modern life, which he equates with his version of the shield of Achilles. In the modern world Auden depicts in the poem, the masses march blindly to conflict, being roused by ethereal voices of authority to take up any number of meaningless, supposedly just causes. In the words of Auden,

No one was cheered and nothing was discussed;

Column by column in a cloud of dust

They marched away enduring a belief

Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief (19-21).

They do not question the bizarre situation that compels them to fight, and thus they willfully partake in militaristic actions against whatever other masses they are exhorted to destroy. As such, their world is propagated with horrifying events resulting from their acts and those of their enemies, such as the binding of "three pale figures … [t]o three posts driven upright in the ground," an event that Auden describes in rather Biblical imagery (36-37). These occurrences do not trouble the masses, however; rather, they are simply taken as reality. This mindless acceptance is hardly surprising, given the futility and hopelessness of the world they exist in. Humanity in Auden's modern world has actually ceased to be, as life has left them stunted; as the poem mentions, they "lost their pride / And died as [individuals] before their bodies died" (43-44).

The stagnation of their life has destroyed them, and it is that stagnation that Auden so potently equates with the shield Hephaestus fashions for Achilles. As the article "Hephaestus' World: The Shield" by Eva Brann notes, the desolation of Hephaestus's shield is thoroughly modern in its imagery (42). Unlike the shield constructed in the Iliad, which is defined by its beauty and wonder, the eponymous shield of the poem is adorned with cruel, unbroken expanses of nothingness, featuring only an "artificial wilderness / [a]nd a sky like lead" (Auden 7-8). The base monotony of the shield is unrelieved by expanses of Thetis's lush greenery and seas; indeed, its only truly distinguishing feature is the harsh horizon between land and sky, a line which is, according to the article "The Poet and the Postwar City," largely meaningless in the "irrational wildernesses of metallic artifice" (Pearsall). Like modern life, the shield is stagnant, deadened, and featureless; it is cruel in its ambiguity and lack of meaning, and that absence of hope is the very essence that drives the people of Auden's poem to commit acts of horror in the hope of pleasing ethereal authorities.

At the heart of Auden's poem is a critique of the social realities that generate people willing to engage in such bloodshed, and Auden makes magnificent use of Thetis's harsh realization to illustrate the unanticipated consequences arising from false and immoral values. The unbridled cruelty and horror of the modern world Auden describes is best detailed in a passage from the poem about an unnamed boy's perception of reality:

That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,

Were axioms to him, who'd never heard

Of any world where promises were kept,

Or one could weep because another wept (56-59).

The boy, like most others of his world, lives in an atmosphere that is beyond hellish; it is illogical and viciously arbitrary. Auden's modern world has not only anesthetized its inhabitants on an individualistic and creative scale, but it has also destroyed any moral sensation that might have stayed their hand from committing acts of atrocity. Without the barest perception of a world that might abhor strife and violence, humanity has become simply unable to conceive of a reason not to propagate both. When the masses of Auden's world seek to please ethereal voices of authority, they do so likely hoping that they will find some sense of meaning. Because of their conditioning, however, although they do not aspire to become murderers, they become so nonetheless.

Their harsh epiphany is echoed by Thetis, who finds that the shield she has so desperately sought in order to protect her son is adorned not with images of beauty but of meaningless monotony. Like the inhabitants of Auden's modern world, Thetis is a product of her environment, which, although quite different from that of the harsh, impersonal modern masses, is just as misleading and deadening. Her world is that of classical Homeric virtue and beauty - great cities of wonders, religious rites that pervade life and grant it meaning, and an individualistic need for glory. That glistening fantasy obscures hard social realities, however; it does not show the privations of the poor or the dying wounded of the battlefield, choosing instead to celebrate pleasant imagery such as "athletes at their games" and "[m]en and women in a dance" (Auden 46-47). That world shapes her entire being, and as John Lucas comments in his essay "Auden's politics: power, authority, and the individual," what Thetis truly wishes is that Hephaestus will honor her distorted, "heroic" view of reality (162). What she finds in his shield, however, is a symbol of the futility of her son's life, of the hopeless future of "[i]ron-hearted man-slaying Achilles / [w]ho would not live long" (Auden, 66-67). The shield's barren visage reminds her of that stark truth, which is, in its inevitability and hopelessness, quite akin to the desolation of the hideous world Auden describes. Her perception, like that of the anesthetized masses, is ultimately proven misguided, and it leads to consequences that will define not only her life but that of her son's.

Such realizations lie at the center of "The Shield of Achilles," Auden's harsh juxtaposition of classical vitality and wonder and the hopelessness, warfare, and cruel social realities of modern life. In Hephaestus's shield, Auden depicts lives irreparably damaged by an absence of meaning, and ultimately driven to violence in the vain hope of achieving it. The cruel logic that runs throughout the poem is that of modern life, of wars motivated by the thinnest of justifications and lives defined not by their expression but by their lack thereof. In many ways, the poem is the realization of Auden's hell and humanity's reality, and its relevance has only deepened as the very fabric of life becomes continually more absurd. By contrasting the quiet horror of existence and warfare with the splendor and beauty of Thetis's hopes for Hephaestus's creation, Auden makes a damning observation of the darker aspects of an impersonal, amoral modern world. For Auden, dispirited by World War II and the loss of any remaining innocence he might have had about the motivations of humanity, "The Shield of Achilles" was not only a magnificent artistic achievement, but the startling articulation of a hope dispelled. If Thetis is left in anguished realization at the end of the poem, so too is the reader.


Works Cited

Auden, W. H. "The Shield of Achilles." The Shield of Achilles. New York: Random House, 1955. 35-37.

Brann, Eva. "Hephaestus' World: The Shield." American Poetry Review 31.6 (2002): 41-2. MLA International Bibliography. Ebscohost. 13 Apr. 2008 <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2002533021&....

Lucas, John. "Auden's politics: power, authority, and the individual." The Cambridge Companion to W. H. Auden. Ed. Stan Smith. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 152-164.

Pack, Robert. "The Idea in the Mirror: Reflections on the Consciousness of Consciousness." The Kenyon Review 9.2 (1987): 51-64. MLA International Bibliography. Ebscohost. 13 Apr. 2008 <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=1987028434&....

Pearsall, Cornelia D. J. "The Poet and the Postwar City." Raritan: A Quarterly Review 17.2 (1997): 104-120. MLA International Bibliography. Ebscohost. 13 Apr. 2008 <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=1998055481&...

Measured Chaos: Form in Anthony Hecht’s “More Light! More Light!” and “The Book of Yolek”

When I see a Holocaust poem which is rhymed and/or metered, I am reminded of an anecdote about the Polish fiction writer and poet, Tadeusz Borowski. When he was first arrested by the Nazis, he was detained in a holding cell in nearly perfect isolation and without pen or paper to write. In order to pass the time, Borowski composed poems in his head, counting off the meter by pacing back and forth in his small cell. Isn’t this the classic image of the poet using his art to combat adversity? I am hesitant to turn it into an academic exercise, but there is something critically inviting about that detail of his composing metered—that is, regulated and controlled—verse to combat his external lack of control and the chaos his world had become.

There is an immediate conclusion one might come to. The poet creates some semblance of order in a world which no longer does. That is likely a part of the impetus (conscious or unconscious) to write formalist verse in the face of chaos, whether it is the chaos of genocidal violence or that other, more common, human chaos. Even though Anthony Hecht did not suffer detainment at the hand of the Nazis as Borowski did, his poems “More Light! More Light!” and “The Book of Yolek” raise similar questions about the ordering of human chaos with poetic form, as well as certain other questions about the aestheticization of the Holocaust.

Let’s look first at “The Book of Yolek.” The sestina is a famously difficult form, often considered the most difficult, especially when one adds, as Hecht has here, the further constraint of meter. It is also often considered a showy form, one that is used to prove a poet’s mastery more than anything else. I would argue, however, that in this context, the rhetorical effect is quite different. The sestina’s reputation of showiness is precisely due to how difficult it is to write even a passable one. And again, Hecht adds meter to his versifying burden, thus making his effort all the more difficult. Here, the effort strikes me as respectful, almost as if Hecht is suggesting that writing about such material should not be easy—not in terms of content, of course, but also not at the level of form.

The poem also refuses the neatness form can give a subject matter, almost as if Hecht is additionally suggesting that while it should be difficult, it should not be clean and overly organized; not contained and utterly understood. For example, in stanza 6, line 4, we get an anapest, an iamb, an anapest, a trochee, and an iamb.  So, of the five feet, only two are iambs, meaning a majority of the line is not strict iambic pentameter (though it is pentametric, so it still attains the aforementioned ordering effect to a certain degree). This is set in notable opposition to the opening line of the poem, which neatly has five iambs. There are only a few other strictly iambic lines in the poem. One worth noting is the first line of stanza three—“The fifth of August, 1942.”  Is Hecht mirroring the precision of the date with the precision of his meter? I would argue that, at least in part, this mirroring of form and information is the effect we should see in the line.

“More Light! More Light!” is written in a less demanding poetic form, rhymed quatrains, but many of the same concerns obtain in this poem as do in the more formally complex “The Book of Yolek.” Hecht, widely admired as a virtuoso of form, purposely “messes up” his meter in both of these poems (and, given the many perfectly metered poems Hecht has published, it would be almost insulting to think this were mere error on his part). Writing about the Holocaust should be difficult, and damned difficult, he seems to be saying, but we must not delude ourselves that any perfect rendering of this material is possible. Also, I’d argue, this disruption of perfect meter is purposefully done in order to avoid putting a too perfect aesthetic veneer on such material.

Moving away from issues of form to issues of content, “More Light! More Light!” (supposedly Goethe’s dying words) is a title that invites multiple readings. Hecht is perhaps being ironic by using the dying phrase of the greatest German literary figure in a poem about the greatest German atrocity. Goethe was famously an avid humanist, an accomplished scientist, and a masterful writer. We could therefore see a dark irony in how far the German people had fallen from its ideal man, Goethe, to its most heinous man, Hitler. Another possible reading of the title is that it is an indictment of Goethe’s Enlightenment thought. Many consider Enlightenment thinking as the progenitor of the Holocaust, and so the irony of quoting Goethe would be quite different here. It’s not that Germany (or Europe) fell from some lofty height, but rather that the barbarism of the Nazis was always-already present in the humanitarian Reason of the Enlightenment. Yet one more useful reading is worth considering: Perhaps one of the poem’s messages is that Enlightenment humanism died with the Holocaust, just as Goethe died, and that the call for more light is in vain, as it was for Goethe. I am not concerned here with endorsing any of the above possible readings, but rather offer them as productive possibilities for reading the poem.

In closing, I want to return to my earlier point about the effort to battle chaos with artistic form. This makes immediate sense in the case of someone who experienced the Holocaust (or some other trauma), but in what ways is the rhetorical-aesthetic stance of someone who did not experience the Holocaust different in respect to form? Is it the subject matter that demands we try to re-order the universe, or is it the experience that demands it? Do both require it, but in different ways and with different ethical concerns? We could doubtless offer several answers to these questions, but no matter how we answer them, I maintain that they are among the questions that must be considered in regard to formal poetry and the representation of trauma.

On Alberto Rios

Alberto Álvaro Ríos, born in 1952 in Nogales, Arizona, is the author of ten books and chapbooks of poetry, three collections of short stories, and a memoir.  His books of poems include, most recently, The Dangerous Shirt, preceded by The Theater of Night, winner of the 2007 PEN/Beyond Margins Award, along with The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body, a finalist for the National Book Award, Teodoro Luna’s Two Kisses, The Lime Orchard Woman, The Warrington Poems, Five Indiscretions, and Whispering to Fool the Wind.  His three collections of short stories are, most recently, The Curtain of Trees

Valerie O'Brien: On “Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh XXI Dynasty”

Thomas James’ “Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh XXI Dynasty,” written from the perspective of the titular subject, uses imagery of the rebirth of the human body to depict the enduring vitality of the human spirit. In the poem, the speaker expresses a preoccupation with continuity through death, while taking pleasure in the changes her body undergoes through the process of her own mummification. The opening declaration—“My body holds its shape. The genius is intact” (1)—suggests the persisting wholeness of both organic and spiritual forms. Yet, it is followed immediately by anxieties about change, voiced in the lines “Will I return to Thebes? In that lost country / The eucalyptus trees have turned to stone” (2-3) and “Is it still there, that place of mottled shadow, / The scarlet flowers breathing in the darkness?” (6-7). Over the course of the poem, the speaker’s fears are replaced first by an objective delight in her rebirth as an aesthetic object and, subsequently, by a greater confidence in her eventual return to the corporeal. Though the poem suggests a distinctness of body and spirit in death, the final stanza of the poem envisions their reunification through an organic rebirth, rather than merely ingress into a purely spiritual afterlife.

The poem opens with a scientifically objective tone as, untroubled by occasional instances of violent imagery to describe the processes of organ removal and bloodletting, the speaker calmly details her own mummification in a list of steps: “On my left side they made the first incision” (10), “My brain was next” (15), “They slit my toes; a razor gashed my fingertips” (21). This detachment is maintained even in a particularly gruesome instance, when the mummy notes that she “paid no notice” to “a voice sway[ing] over [her],” as “A pointed instrument / Hooked [her brain] through [her] nostrils, strand by strand” (15-17). The ambiguity of the speaker’s perspective in referring to “[a] voice sway[ing] over [her]” suggests the persisting union of material body with spirit, either through the spirit’s location within the body or through the spirit’s identification of the deceased physical body as self. Yet the speaker’s tone of indifference towards the surgical procedures enacted on her body emphasizes the separateness of spirit and body in death: the spirit remains immutable, identifiable as Jemutesonekh, even while the body is dissected and replaced, piece by piece, with foreign objects.

Despite its apparent violence to the body, the medicalized ritual of mummification recreates the mummified woman as a work of art. The process of mummification that the speaker objectively describes suggests a relationship between womb and tomb, as the ritual surrounding her death becomes symbolic of rebirth. Following the removal of her brain, the speaker states, “For weeks my body swam in sweet perfume,” a kind of amniotic fluid from which she is “lifted … into the sun again,” now “scoured,” merely “skin and bone” (18-20). Notably, this in utero experience defines the mummy’s rebirth as an artistic, rather than a natural, process, for she is reborn through aesthetic ritual, rather than the labor of a human mother. Thus, Jemutesonekh’s rebirth through mummification employs medical language for an artistic end. This inextricability of the surgical and the aesthetic is captured in the homonymic double-meaning of “wound” as both physical injury (the surgical incisions, slits, and gashes performed on the body in mummification) and the past tense of “wind,” or the act of twisting (the wrapping and ornamentation of the mummified body). Despite the attention to the surgical processes enacted on the body in mummification, the poem suggests a preference for the aesthetic denotation of “wound”—as it appears in the line “My body wound itself in spools of linen” (35)—privileging the speaker’s experience as a form of aesthetic rebirth over a medicalized ritual of death.

Images of emptying and filling contribute to the aestheticization of the process of mummification and the conception of rebirth through death. First, Jemutesonekh is emptied of her vital organs: her “heart and liver” “washed” “in palm wine,” her “lungs… two dark fruit they stuffed with spices,” her “innards” “smeared” “with a sticky unguent” are “sealed … in a crock of alabaster” (11-14). Hollowed out, like a doll being stuffed and sewed her “empty skull [is packed] with cinnamon” and her bloodless body is “stitched shut” (21, 23). She describes her limbs as “chaste and valuable, / Stuffed with paste of cloves and wild honey” (23-24). Her eyes, also “empty,” are “filled … up” with “little nuggets of obsidian” (25-26). The systematic dismantling of her organic body and the replacement of its individual parts with sumptuous foods (cinnamon, cloves, and wild honey) and precious, durable materials (obsidian, basalt, bronze, and ruby) paradoxically preserves the body by dismantling and remaking it.

The metaphorical language used to describe this process of mummification, of death and rebirth, of emptying and filling captures the transformation of the spirit as well as the body. The poem’s most resonant illustration of this transformation occurs in the description of “[a] basalt scarab wedged between [her] breasts” that “[r]eplaced the tinny music of [her] heart” (27-28). That the speaker describes her organic heart as hollow suggests a deficiency in her human form, remedied by the scarab of volcanic rock that replaces it. The metaphorical language of the “tinny music of [her] heart” spiritualizes this image of filling, distinguishing it from the other references to the replacement of purely physical body parts. Importantly, the scarab, associated with the Egyptian god Khepri, represents “renewal rebirth, and resurrection” as a result of its tendency to “[hatch] eggs from … seemingly unpromising material,” including “the bodies of dead scarabs” (Doyle). Thus, the replacement of the speaker’s heart with a scarab evokes imagery of a spiritual rebirth more profound than the physical transformation she undergoes through mummification.

Though she is taken with her own new beauty and sense of self-importance, this aestheticized permanence is insufficient: though the mummy proudly identifies herself as “a precious object” (36, emphasis mine), a deeper sense of vitality persists. The assertion “I will last forever” serves as a transition in the monologue from a meditation on the immutability of her mummified form, “wound … in spools of linen” and “shut in [her] painted box” (35-36), to an enduringness of the spirit. In this shift, the woman anticipates a return to a more organic form. Her statement “I am not impatient— / My skin will wait to greet its old complexions. / I’ll lie here till the world swims back again” (40-42) suggests a permanence beyond that of her aestheticized, mummified state: these lines articulate the preference for the skin’s “old complexions” over the “luminous” skin, made “frail as the shadow of an emerald” through mummification (41, 32-33). The syntax of both “My skin will wait to greet its old complexions” (41) and “my body wound itself in spools of linen” (35), bestows a sense of agency on the body itself. Whereas the spirit has previously occupied a position of agency in the poem, observing the rituals enacted on the body in mummification, the syntax here emphasizes the action of the body instead. Here, the spirit infuses the corporeal body, reversing the apparent separation of the two in mummification.

In this shift toward the incarnate, living body, the poem ultimately restores the fruitful landscape of the woman’s life, enacting the return the speaker anticipates as the final stanza recalls the imagery of the first. In the last stanza, the speaker imagines a return to her father’s garden, which “will be budding, / White petals breaking open, clusters of night flowers, / The far-off music of a tambourine,” and where “[a] boy,” presumably her lover, “will pace among the passionflowers” (43-46). The language of the final stanza emphasizes the speaker’s organic corporeality: rather than envisioning a paradisiacal afterlife, the speaker confidently imagines a literal return to earth. She imagines her lover pacing, indicating that he has been awaiting her return, with eyes like “two bruised surfaces,” a darkness that evokes the exhaustion and grief of separation (47). She asserts, “I’ll know the mouth of my young groom, I’ll touch / His hands,” emphasizing the significance of embodied contact (48-49). Here, the line break reproduces within the poem the gap between the speaker’s body and her lover’s; the enjambment, enabling contact, engenders a delayed gratification, a shudder of ecstasy that redefines the poem.

Yet, the poem concludes abruptly with the question, “Why do people lie to one another?” (49). The question—namely, the nature of the deceit—is irrevocably ambiguous. However, the tone of this final question exhibits a marked contrast from that of her questions about continuity and return in the first stanza. The greater certainty in the speaker’s voice that death is not an end, realized through the restoration of corporeal form following her mummification, may guide us to one possible interpretation: human life possesses inherent sacredness, particularly over that of the valuable objects employed in the process of the speaker’s mummification. In spite of the vain and solipsistic pleasure she takes in her aestheticized, mummified form, the speaker demonstrates in the final stanza the priority of a more organic and vital immortality, an immortality defined by intimacy with another. The poem’s final images of the mummy’s return to flesh, and to fleshly ties, privilege the sacrality of the vital, embodied spirit, coupled with another, over that of the worshipful ornamentation of the body with precious materials in death. In other words, through the process of mummification the figurative enrichment of the spirit supersedes the literal enrichment of the body.



Doyle, Bernard. “Khepri.” Encyclopedia Mythica. Ed. Micha F. Lindemans. 3 March 1997. MLA

International Bibliography. Web. 5 Dec. 2012. 

Valerie O'Brien: On "S*PeRM**K*T"

In S*PeRM**K*T, Mullen uses linguistic play (primarily puns, rhymes, and aural associations) to produce a vision of “the supermarket as an environment of language,” as Mullen herself describes it in a 1999 interview with Cynthia Hogue for Postmodern Culture (qtd. on MAPS). Blending high and low culture, the immaterial and the material, Mullen uses avant-garde Language poetry approaches to represent the mass consumerism of the supermarket. This technique enables her to recreate this sphere of materialism as one that is abstractly structured by language rather than by commodities. Mullen’s supermarket (or “s*perm**k*t”) is filled not with products, but with language. The visual organization of the supermarket space is transformed into a site of linguistically driven associations and disorienting meditations on popular products. Unanchored, at times, from the material objects it describes, S*PeRM**K*T’s language emphasizes the inherent vitality of the linguistic realm.

However, S*PeRM**K*T is not comprised solely of verbal play; the familiar, fluorescently lit, aesthetically arranged domestic space of the supermarket also becomes a site of acerbic critique of capitalist consumption. In her interview with Hogue, Mullen describes the supermarket as “the reference point, the metonymic reservoir of ways that we see the world and ourselves in it.” As she notes in a 1997 interview with Farah Griffin et al. (MAPS), the letters missing from “supermarket” in the title—U-A-R-E—recall the old adage “you are what you eat”: our consumption, she argues, “construct[s] [us] as citizens” (Hogue). Thus, her sordid rendering of the products she features in S*PeRM**K*T—petroleum, pest killer, cereal, pork, baby food, dairy products—translates to the sordidness of their consumers and American consumption culture broadly. Though the richly allusive S*PeRM**K*T expresses a nostalgia for popular domestic products and cultural symbols that claim to uphold traditional American values, the poem immediately subverts this nostalgia by portraying the products and the dominant American ideologies they represent as irremediably sexist, racist, and imperialist.

Mullen selects products associated with cleanliness to highlight instead the grounds for their existence: the uncleanness of America’s “wholesome” domestic spaces. This emphasis on filth is most conspicuous in the poem about pest killer. The section begins with the Raid advertising slogan—“Kills bugs dead”—followed by a parodic critique of it: “Redundancy is syntactical overkill.” Mullen then suggests that the product (and also, perhaps this syntactic repetition) offers consumers “a pinprick of peace at the end of the tunnel of a nightmare night in a roach motel,” where the “noise” of cockroaches “infects the dream” of those sleeping in the “roach motel,” but also the “American dream.” Near the end, the movement adopts the language of imperialism, parodically asserting the righteousness of the pest killer consumer’s cause, affirming the supposed cleanliness of domestic spaces that the poetic imagery has already undermined: “We dream the dream of extirpation. Wipe out a species, with God on our side. Annihilate the insects. Sterilize the filthy vermin.” Here, the “American dream,” “infect[ed]” with the “noise” of roaches, becomes a dream of mass extermination, absolute annihilation of the enemy.

Another poem in S*PeRM**K*T abounds in porcine puns that critique Americans’ gluttonous appetites for food, sex, violence, and money—concepts that easily bleed into one another. Using pork as a starting point, Mullen suggests that American consumers are the real “pigs.” The double meaning of the movement’s opening sentences—“Off the pig, ya dig? He squeals, grease the sucker.”—suggest acts of violence, which transition into an idiomatic phrase evoking sexual voracity: “pour the pork.” The playful masculine endorsement of this sexual gluttony—“Pig out, rib the fellas”—also illustrates the violence inherent in the sexual act. Later, the phrases “hog wilding” and “a pig of yourself” elicit visions of excess and a lack of self-control. The section’s equally playful and perverse emphasis on flesh, particularly that of an animal culturally regarded as unclean and gluttonous, calls attention to American hyperconsumption, a kind of individualized imperialism of immoderate indulgence in commodities.

Later, Mullen reveals the contemptible politics of a product that seems relatively innocent—baby food. The “Adorable babyface jars” of Mullen’s S*PeRM**K*T perpetuate racism in their homogenous representation of infancy: “Pastel puree of pure pink bland blue-eyed babes all born a cute blond… Sterile eugenically cloned rows of clean rosy dimples and pamper proof towhead cowlicks.” Product and uncritical consumers alike are implicated in this prevalent pattern of discrimination. Near the end of the section, the focus shifts from the food itself to a cruder, related product: the “durable superabsorbent miracle fibers” of diapers designed to contain the various forms of waste the product generates, “as solids break down,” causing “a land [to fill] up with dead diapers with funky halflife.” In this image of excrement, Mullen accomplishes her aspiration to “take … detritus and turn it into art,” “recycling” the “commercialized, debased” language of the supermarket and repurposing it through the linguistic play of S*PeRM**K*T (Hogue). 

Gwendolyn Bennett Bibliography



“To a Dark Girl.” Opportunity 5.10 (October 1927): 299.

 “Advice.” Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets. Ed. Countee Cullen. New

            York: Harper and Row, 1927. 156.

“Dear Things.” Palms 4 (October 1926): 22.

“Dirge.” Palms 4 (October 1926): 22.

“Epitaph” Opportunity 12.3 (March 1934): 76.

“Fantasy.” Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets. Ed. Countee Cullen. New

            York: Harper and Row, 1927. 158.

“Hatred.” Opportunity 4.42 (June 1926): 190.

“Heritage.” Opportunity 1.12 (December 1923): 371.

“Lines Written at the Grave of Alexander Dumas.” Opportunity 4.43 (July 1926): 225.

“Moon Tonight.” Anthology of Magazine Verse for 1927. Ed. William S. Braithwaite. Boston:

B. J. Brimmer and Co., 1927.

“Nocturne.” Crisis 27.1 (November 1923): 20.

“On a Birthday.” Opportunity 3.33 (September 1925): 276.

“Purgation.” Opportunity 3.26 (February 1925): 56.

“Quatrains.” Crisis 27.2 (December 1923): 65.

“Secret.” Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets. Ed. Countee Cullen. New

            York: Harper and Row, 1927. 155.

“Song.” Opportunity 4.46 (October 1926): 305.

“Sonnet I.” Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets. Ed. Countee Cullen. New

            York: Harper and Row, 1927. 160.

“Sonnet II.” Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets. Ed. Countee Cullen.

New York: Harper and Row, 1927. 161.

“Street Lamps in Early Spring.” Opportunity 4.41 (May 1926): 152.

“To Usward.” Crisis 28.1 (May 1924): 19 and Opportunity 2.17 (May 1924): 143-144.

“Wind.” Opportunity 2.23 (November 1924): 335.

“Your Songs.” Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets. Ed. Countee Cullen.

New York: Harper and Row, 1927. 157.


Short Stories:

“Tokens.” Ebony and Topaz: A Collectanea. Ed. Charles S. Johnson. Manchester, NH: Ayer Co.

            Publishing, 1927.149-150.

“Wedding Day.” Fire!! (1927): 25-29.


Editorial Column:

“The Ebony Flute.” Opportunity 5.4 (April 1927): 122-123.

“The Ebony Flute.” Opportunity 6.4 (April 1928): 122.

“The Ebony Flute.” Opportunity 4.44 (August 1926): 260-261.

“The Ebony Flute.” Opportunity 5.8 (August 1927): 242-243.

“The Ebony Flute.” Opportunity 4.48 (December 1926): 391.

“The Ebony Flute.” Opportunity 5.12 (December 1927): 376.

“The Ebony Flute.” Opportunity 6.2 (February 1928): 55-56.

“The Ebony Flute.” Opportunity 5.1 (January 1927): 28-29.

“The Ebony Flute.” Opportunity 6.1 (January 1928): 24.

“The Ebony Flute.” Opportunity 5.6 (June 1927): 182-183.

“The Ebony Flute.” Opportunity 5.7 (July 1927): 212-213.

“The Ebony Flute.” Opportunity 5.3 (March 1927): 90-91.

“The Ebony Flute.” Opportunity 6.5 (May 1928): 153.

“The Ebony Flute.” Opportunity 4.47 (November 1926): 356-358.

“The Ebony Flute.” Opportunity 5.11 (November 1927): 339-340.

“The Ebony Flute.” Opportunity 4.46 (October 1926): 322-323.

“The Ebony Flute.” Opportunity 5.10 (October 1927): 308-309.

“The Ebony Flute.” Opportunity 4.45 (September 1926): 292-293.

“The Ebony Flute.” Opportunity 5.9 (September 1927): 276-277.


Reviews (Selected):

“Review of Banjo, by Claude McKay.” Opportunity 7.8 (August 1929): 254-255.

“Review of The Grand Army Man of Rhode Island. By Lillian Buffum Chace Wyman.”

Opportunity 4.45 (September 1926): 295.

“Review of The Lonesome Road, by Paul Green.” Opportunity 4.45 (September 1926): 294.

“Review of My Spirituals, by Eva Jessye.” Opportunity 5.11 (November 1927): 338-339.

“Review of Plum Bun, by Jessie Redmon Fauset.” Opportunity 7.9 (September 1929): 287.

“Review of Salah and His American, by Leland Hall.” Opportunity 12.3 (March 1934): 92.

“Review of Sorrow in Sunlight, by Ronald Firbank.” Opportunity 4.42 (June 1926): 195-196.


Magazine Cover Art:

“Christmas Carols.” Crisis 27.2 (December 1923).

“Pipes of Pan.” Crisis 27.5 (March 1924).

Untitled. Opportunity 4.37 (January 1926).

Untitled. Opportunity 4.43 (July 1926).

Untitled. Opportunity 8.12 (December 1930).


Newspaper/ Journal Articles (Selected):

“The American Negro Paints.” Southern Workman 57 (1928): 111-112.

“Edmund T. Jenkins: Musician.” Opportunity 3 (November 1925): 338-339.

“The Emperor Jones.” Opportunity 8.9 (September 1930): 270-271.

“The Future of the Negro in Art.” Howard University Record 19 (December 1924): 65-66.

“I Go to Camp.” Opportunity 12.8 (August 1934): 241-243.

“The Harlem Artists Guild.” Art Front (May 1937).

“Jobless Actors to Present Frank Wilson Play.” The New York Amsterdam News (14 July 1934):


“Negroes: Inherent Craftsmen.” Howard University Record 19 (February 1925): 172.

“Toward an Art Center?: Ancient and Modern Negro Art Shown in Exhibition” The New

            York Amsterdam News (23 March 1935): 9. 

Belinda Wheeler: “Gwendolyn Bennett’s Career: A Brief Snapshot”

Gwendolyn B. Bennett (1902-1981) was a key figure in the development of the Harlem Renaissance and was a mainstay in the Harlem arts and education communities long after the Renaissance ended. Between 1924 and 1928 Bennett enjoyed her most successful publishing period. She published over thirty poems, short stories, and reviews in leading African American magazines and anthologies, including Countee Cullen’s Caroling Dusk (1927), Charles S.

Eight justifications for canonizing Lyn Hejinian's My Life

In the past few years, the second edition of My Life (Sun & Moon Press, 1987) has become a clear candidate for academic canonization. With this process underway, it is worth investigating why Hejinian's autography is so popular, so likable. (I use the word "autography"1 because this is the story of a languaged self, a written "I," rather than the autobiography of an experiencing human.) Why is My Life taught, apparently as an exemplar of contemporary experimental poetry, in so many American colleges and high schools? More considerably, why might it be perceived to be worthy, a palatable "postmodern" work? This second version of the question is perhaps preferable, since Hejinian's work is hardly a national bestseller: reprinted for the sixth time in 1996, it had sold at that point something over 8,000 copies. Still, such a figure makes it considerably more successful than most other non-mainstream poetic writings.


The abundant attention to My Life in small prestigious journals like Temblor, and brief mention in a number of critical books, joins increasing comment in more mainstream academic journals: Contemporary Literature has had two articles on the work in the last four years, and American Literature recently published one. Increased mass gains gravity, of course, but critical attention to Hejinian's book is not simply a function of previous attention. This book accesses a number of categories for pleasure and familiarity, both literary and cultural.

Perhaps the most obvious category for My Life is American autobiography. So I want to begin by quoting perhaps the most obvious example of that genre, Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, addressed as a letter to his son:

Now imagining it may be equally agreeable to you to know the  Circumstances of my Life, . . . and expecting a Week's  uninterrupted Leisure in my present Country Retirement, I sit to write them down for you. To which I have besides some other  Inducements. Having emerg'd from the Poverty and Obscurity in  which I was born and bred, to a State of Affluence and some  Degree of Reputation in the World, and having gone so far thro' Life with a considerable Share of Felicity, the contracting Means  I made use of, which, with the Blessing of God, so well succeeded,  my Posterity may like to know, as they may find some of them  suitable to their own Situations, and therefore fit to be imitated.

As the linguistic version of a prosperous and happy American life, My Life is a descendent of Franklin's hopeful perfectionisms. The very first section indicates that "Leisure," "Affluence," and "Felicity" characterize both Franklin and Hejinian: "I was in a room with the particulars of which a later nostalgia might be formed, an indulged childhood" (8). Praise for this work makes perfect sense in a culture which likes poetry to mesh personal experience (autobiography) with language play, and life stories to be edifying (when they are not, that is, more or less prurient cautionary tales). What follows is an interconnected array of categories for the popularity of My Life: these are intended to be suggestive, applicable beyond the explorations carried out here.


1. Understandability


In rough terms, Hejinian's creative writing divides into two modes. On one hand, works such as Writing Is An Aid To Memory (1978) and The Cell (1992) are quite linguistically and poetically complex. On the other, My Life, and some of her other work, presumes a broad-ranging understandability. From the naive free-spirited play of her first book, the gRReat adventure (1973),2 to the hopeful and only vaguely political passages in her collaborative work in Leningrad (1991), she often writes with a simplicity people don't generally call to mind when they think of "postmodern poetry." As evidence from My Life suggests, Hejinian operates in this mode--writing for understanding--quite consciously. Consider an excerpt from her essay "If Written is Writing" (published in 1978, the year she wrote the first edition of My Life):

The text is anterior to the composition, though the  composition be interior to the text. Such candor is  occasionally flirtatious, as candor nearly always so.  When it is trustworthy, love accompanies the lover,  and the centric writers reveal their loyalty, a bodily  loyalty. . . . Marvelous are the dimensions and therefore  marvelling is understandable -- and often understanding.  (rpt. in The Language Book 29)

As with many of Hejinian's comments on writing, this passage profits from further explanation. But its terms are those of understanding: the process of writing ("the composition") intercourses with the product of writing ("the text"), "love" (the words) keeps company with "the lover" (the writer), and the interpenetrating "dimensions" exist in a comprehensible ("understandable") state. Process, product, the "bodily" writer, all combine to produce a marvel of comprehension. Arguably, this description indicates the complexity the "centric" writer must endure in order to produce understandable writing. The crucial point, though, is that the resulting product is clear. In this accessible mode, Hejinian conceives of herself as a centric writer, loyal and clear-minded, and in this mode she has produced a handful of books.

In latter years, though, Hejinian has not facilitated access to some of her most understandable writing. In 1994, for example, Sun & Moon Press issued The Cold of Poetry, which reprints most of her hard-to-find earlier works. It leaves out, however, three early works which are arguably her most accessible: the gRReat adventure, A Thought is the Bride of What Thinking (Tuumba Press, 1976), and A Mask of Motion (Burning Deck, 1977). These three works are now pretty well confined to rare books rooms. So despite some darkening and complexifying of My Life in its second version (a pattern I shall return to), it remains the one most understandable work of hers which is readily available. How interesting that it is the one the academy most attends.

Predictable events and language are fundamental to the understandability of My Life. It has been pointed out 3 that Hejinian represents an all-American girlhood; but most of the book's events are more those of the expected surface of a privileged American childhood in the prosperous 1950s. So far so good, born in 1941, and educated at Harvard, as Hejinian was. We go from cars to kitchens to parks to books, in scenes of childhood and adulthood, and unexpected particulars are generally overmastered by predictable events.

The understandability of the language is not quite as predictable. Marjorie Perloff calls this a celebration of "language we all recognize" (225). Such a claim of course depends on a certain definition of the "we": Hejinian's educated English conveys the sense that more impenetrable language is always to hand but never used. Consider these lines from section 37:

A sense of definition (different from that of description, which is a kind of storytelling or recounting, numerical,  a list of colors) develops as one's sense of possibility,  of the range of what one might do or experience, closes  with the years. So I gave it away. I can only offer the  apologies I have committed. When we first moved in, the  neighbors on the left complained about the saxophone, but  eventually, as we became familiar, they began to feel well  disposed towards us, friendly, until the noise was what  they liked most about us, since it proved them tolerant  and generous. Planes of information intersect, coincide. (90)

In the terms of this passage, Hejinian gives away definition in favor of description.4 This preference for description is underscored by the fact that the last three sentences of this passage were inserted in the second edition, as if to clarify and illustrate the original. Words, events, and the poetics of the work itself are described. Perception of description, not interpretation of definition, becomes the reader's task. Telling description is a matter of intersecting and coinciding, rather than defining, information.5

The danger of calling this "language we all recognize," or pieces of an all-American girlhood-grown-to-womanhood, is that the book's accessibility risks being seen as generic, fully identified either with known language or known cultural habits. That is, as definition. What blocks such definition, in the passage above, is a mixture of the language we really might all recognize--neighbors and noise--with other language that only a particular segment of the population will attend to: about subtleties of definition, description, and planes of information. But even these subtleties are avowedly not complex because they are not "defined." Again, defining is associated with what "closes," with what the speaker has given away.

Such guidance systems (frequent self-explanations and simple diction) preserve the non-specialized nature of this work. It does not swim in private enigmas, it teaches us how to read it--as Wordsworth said good poetry should do--and it is consistent in its self-presentation. Above all else, perhaps, it is not terribly difficult in vocabulary or ideation. Hejinian's descriptive understandability makes a world of accessible verbal grace. This is by no means a criticism. It is meant to describe a "postmodern" writing that never turns away from possibilities of understandable meaning.


2. Motivated Proceduralism


The consistent self-presentation begins at the structural level of My Life. Joseph Conte identifies two distinctive postmodern poetic forms, the serial and the procedural (3, 13-44). In first and second editions, My Life fits the pattern of proceduralism, with its untraditional (unprecedented) predetermined method of 37 (then 45) sections, with 37 (then 45) sentences each. It is also, based on Hejinian's 37 (then 45) years of age, a perfectly personal form. Her proceduralism is thus at least doubly motivated--by the personal and the literary--in a kind of arithmetics of autobiography. Compare, for example, Ron Silliman's use of the Fibonacci number series as the procedural determinant of Tjanting. Silliman's chosen grid has an arbitrary relation to the literary; it appears random, however deliberately chosen.6Hejinian's method, because its artifice is not inexplicable or (apparently) perverse, might well be more palatable to teaching and critical worlds in search of reasons, and wary, or weary, of the postmodern arbitrary.

Her method also evinces a kind of internal organic form, further linking the personal and the literary. We might call it a crystalline organicism, thinking of something like Clark Coolidge's The Crystal Text and of Hejinian's claim, in a second edition sentence, that "One could base a model for form on a crystal or the lungs" (48). This postmodern organicism is not the psychological variety of Romanticism, arising out of and seeking to inscribe a real-world moment. Nor is it the linguistic organicism of a modernist like Wallace Stevens, whose poems thread lyricism out from itself in a linear fashion. Hejinian's organic form can be invaded and grown out at any point, as it is in the second edition, in which she adds eight new sentences to each previous section and eight new sections to the whole. Again, we have the stability of a traceable form (growing "organically" from the subject) balanced with the experimentalism of a new variety of form.7

Another detail which enhances the personalized literariness of Hejinian's procedure is the literary pedigree of the headnotes, the repeated poetic phrases which signal each section. Though used in an innovative way, these echo a tradition of elaborated headnotes stretching from medieval rubrics of forecasting to the marginalia in the late version of Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner--or better yet, the headnotes to the chapters in his Biographia Literaria.8. Some of Hejinian's headnote phrases are beautifully "imprecise": for example, "What is the meaning hung from that depend" (16) "Preliminaries consist of such eternity" (95). But the majority are clear and simple, calling out phrases that continue to resonate: "I laugh as if my pots were clean" (78); "The greatest thrill was to be the one to tell" (65). The headnotes, then, are in the position of clarifiers, and in a tradition of authority and guidance. They make an innovation of tradition, a personalized use of recognizable form. Their slanted guidance functions something like song choruses, identifying and re-inscribing their songs. And as one of the book's many repeated phrases has it, "the obvious analogy is with music."9

These procedural graces combine to make the literary scholar and teacher feel at home, linked to the literary past and given stylistic footholds into the postmodern, which looks less chaotic (than, say, Susan Howe's The Nonconformist's Memorial) in the light of My Life.


3. Prose Poetry = Sincere Complexity


Prose is our culture's language of sincerity, in which we expect to be most able to say what we mean and see what is meant, to be understood and to understand. The place of message. Poetry is our culture's language of complexity, idiosyncratic sensibility, the language of artifice.

Prose poetry, then, might afford the best opportunity for sincere surface play, for deep artifice, a joining of the power of prose clarity with poetic complexity. This is the model of prose poetry in My Life. And while it is surely a model filtered through Silliman's speculations about the prose poem in The New Sentence (Roof Books, 1977), it differs sharply from the difficult amalgam of poetry and prose that characterizes a writer like Gertrude Stein. Hejinian makes prose and poetry coexist but not melt into each other,10 in what she calls "A healthy dialectic between poetry and prose" (64). Compare, briefly, sentences from Stein's portrait of "Matisse" with an excerpt from My Life. First, Stein's words: "Very many did come to know it of him that he was clearly expressing what he was expressing. He was a great one. Any one might come to know that of him. Very many did come to know that of him. . . . Very many were wanting to be doing what he was doing were not wanting to be expressing anything being struggling" (330-31). Now, an excerpt from My Life:

It was at this time, I think, that I became interested in  science. Is that a basis for descriptive sincerity. I am  a shard, signifying isolation -- here I am thinking aloud  of my affinity for the separate fragment taken under scrutiny. Yet that was only a coincidence. The penny disk, the rarer  dollar disk. Her hair is the color of a brass bedstead. (52)

For all their affective simplicity, Stein's sentences are vastly artificial. They foreground wordplay and make precise meanings nearly invisible, emptied of immediacy into absolute ways of saying and knowing, for example "not wanting to be expressing anything being struggling." In Hejinian's lines, there is no such sustained instability of the sentence. We hear complete sentences, shards of sentences, and explanations of why "separate fragments" are "taken under scrutiny" (again, here, the second and third sentences are second-edition interpolations that clarify the passage's subject). We get, that is, both the pleasing complexity of poetic discontinuity and rhythm and the guiding clarity of prose's "descriptive sincerity."

The compact between poetry and prose operates in diction as well as in syntax. If poetry is meant to be the language of the unexpected, where juxtapositions enliven language, much of this book's "poetry"--idioms, clichés, and so on--reveals and emphasizes the "poetry" of the everyday, the poetics of the ordinary, the poetry of prose. The following passage, for example, mixes self-explanation with "ordinary" sentences which are themselves moved by subtle poetic sounds and connectives: "This autobiography of expansive sensations is divided horizontally. Mrs. Butterworth isn't racial. I was pregnant and needed a rocker. There was a moving crowd of crows loud above the swaying trees. The T-shirts hanging from the line flapped like plump birds along the shore" (61). Hejinian is celebrating, by extension, the poetry of all language, and such celebration is consoling to language users. Bruce Andrews, by way of contrast, refuses those kinds of consolation.

Hejinian does express some discomfort about prose comforts, claiming in My Life that "Proses is props" (62), and in "The Composition of the Cell," "64.1 When I get nervous I'm narrative" (Cold of Poetry 117). But the prose grounding of My Life is never abandoned. She is using prose as a mode of understandability, to guide the book. Such clues as "This autobiography of expansive sensations is divided horizontally" are not like the postmodern meta-commentary of a writer like Italo Calvino, steering us from uncertainty to greater uncertainty. The poetized prose of My Life might compare, paradoxically, to Hejinian's description of Stein's literary vision (in Temblor 3): "She saw things in a present continuity, a present relativity, across the porous planes of the writing." The mix of prose and poetry in My Life matches such paradoxes--presence and ongoingness, presence and comparability, a plane which is also full of holes--to sustain a particular balance of real and ideal. As Hejinian writes in a later section, "It is precisely a special way of writing that requires realism. This will keep me truthful and do me good. . . . Of course I want things to be real! . . . Minute discriminations release poetic rather than cerebral effects" (101). If prose is the language of the real world, Hejinian riddles it with poetry to celebrate, simultaneously, the idealization of reality which is languaging and the "minute discriminations" in languaging which make for poetry.


4. Inhabitability


The diction of prose poetry is one detail of the way My Life represents "real life" as a translation into ideal life, imaginable and inhabitable by many language-transfixed Americans. Such an ideal life has to do with the happiness project (of which more in a moment) and almost has to be characterized by occurences which are not too singular or idiosyncratic. Sure enough, as Hejinian puts it, "The years pass, years in which, I take it, events were not lacking" (69). Prosaic event is translated into poetic ideal, as this passage shows:

The sudden brief early morning breeze, the first  indication of a day's palpability, stays high in  the trees, while flashing silver and green the  leaves flutter, a bird sweeps from one branch to  another, the indistinct shadows lift off the crumpled weeds, smoke rises from the gravel quarry--all this is metonymy. The 'argument' is the plot, proved by the book. Going forward and coming back later. Even  posterity, alas, will know Sears. (59)

What kind of day? What kind of trees? What kind of birds or weeds? Which Sears in which town? The lack of specialized detail makes these spaces and memories languaging Americans might all inhabit.

As we might also inhabit the very "I" of the book. In autobiography, the I of memory is of course not the I remembering. This obvious separation of one I from another is multiplied exponentially in Hejinian's work.11 To consider the difference between idiosyncratic autobiography and the way Hejinian idealizes or linguistically reconstructs this life report, compare a passage from 1976 (from A Thought is the Bride of What Thinking, unpaginated) with what we might call the autographic translation in My Life. First, the earlier passage:

What is possibly my earliest recollection is of a  brilliantly yellow flower sharp on the grass. From  that period also come other purely visual memories. I remember clearly particular wallpapers, the small  yellow roses on the yellowing paper in my grandmother's  room, the faded green stems and leaves, and the dark  green paper of my own bedroom. In still another room  was a pink paper, newly hung, which I tore off the wall  in long strips as I lay in my crib for an afternoon nap.  Because my memory is visual in its nature, that I should  have become a painter follows logically. Yet, though my  father was a painter, I am not.

And the start of My Life:

A pause, a rose,               A moment yellow, just as four years  something on paper         later, when my father returned home                                           from the war, the moment of greeting                                           him, as he stood at the bottom of the                                           stairs, younger, thinner than when he                                           had left, was purple -- though                                           moments are no longer so colored.  Somewhere, in the background, rooms share a patterns of small  roses. Pretty is as pretty does. In certain families, the meaning  of necessity is at one with the sentiment of pre-necessity. The  better things were gathered in a pen.

In the first passage, autobiography charts specified childhood places and experiences. In the second, autography intermingles common cultural history with the writing that gathers it in a pen, that tells an inhabitable story. The text not only enacts this relinquishment of the stable "I," it invites it: a yearning for a flexible, linguistic, even de-gendered "I" pervades the work. In her essay "The Rejection of Closure," Hejinian claims that language is ungendered: "the desire that is stirred by language seems to be located more interestingly within language, and hence it is androgynous" (Writing/Talks 283). Not only androgynous, but even disembodied. As Hejinian wrote later, "I myself feel that the physical body is astoundingly alien -- as if I had the amazing possibility of being intimate with my own otherness, which is an animal" (Aerial #5, 33).

Hejinian's focus on androgyny and bodilessness in language may explain why subjectivity becomes a loosened force in My Life. The work always has a narrating "I," but it is isolated, neutered, questioned, as these excerpts indicate: "And if I feel like a book, a person on paper, I will continue. What is the gender on paper" (76); "Pronouns skirt the subject" (77). Nor does the "I" necessarily progress or sequentially develop. This nonlinear self-telling is intensified in the second edition, in which each section has grown by eight randomly inserted sentences, further destabilizing any sense that the "I" might be located and progressively tracked. One appeal of this "I" is the suggestion that anyone can wear it, one "I" fits all. This inhabitable I, by the way, is unlike the concern with obviating the "I" that many see as a critical project of Language poetry. If word focus and phrasal repetition make My Life a Language text, its I-centeredness does not.

In addition to refusing Language poetry's excision of the "I," Hejinian's subjectively motivated proceduralism rejects classical modernism's preoccupation with so-called "objectivity." Hejinian's subjectivity recalls the personal (and uncanonized) modernism of a poet like Parker Tyler. In his long poem The Granite Butterfly (1945), Tyler speaks from the heart of a subjective sensibility which produces neither impenetrable self-confessions nor a refusal of shared humanity: "Some poets . . . have admired the obstacles that fixed literary forms place in the path of a creative artist, and feel that in surmounting these one may reach the highest art. But art itself is never the question. It is only the artist that matters, his personality and his fate, which are linked indissolubly with his time." Though this focus on the human is not what Hejinian usually preaches in her essays on writing, it is what her writing itself often enacts, and most keenly in My Life.


5. The Happiness Project


Given the genre context of My Life, it is instructive to compare it to the earliest autobiography of a woman, The Book of Margery Kempe. This is a medieval story of spiritual ecstasy and misery which Margery recounts to a priest. The most striking difference between the two works is the absence of any extremity at all--but particularly of pain and suffering--in Hejinian's autography. It contains neither grappling with evil nor even any real resistance to circumstances. The author lives in language and sees that it is good. This is a portrait of the artist as fulfilled and confident: "After any visit to a museum," the book asserts, "at home I impulsively haul out my paints and never expect disappointment" (97). Sometimes Hejinian sounds like a trusting child of Ben Franklin: "I will not despair; my hope is 1) to rise daily before seven, 5) to avoid idleness. There cannot be ups without downs" (98). But Hejinian's is not a self-improvement project; there is no sense of inadequacy or undeservingness here. Even what might be a worthy question--"Am I a kind, a good person." (81)--is formed as a statement, not a question. Its relation to a truly questing "I" is undercut by its phrasal flatness.

Happiness, the book seems to say, is a blessing that has been worked for and bequeathed as a gift to the child. This legacy is strikingly evident at the end of the second edition, with her grandfather's observations on the unnecessity of happiness. It is as though this is a story of Americans who make good emotionally on the backs of their less happy progenitors: "happiness is worthless, my grandfather assured me when he was very old, he had never sought it for himself or for my father, it had nothing to do with whether or not a life is good" (115).

Not to say that Hejinian is unaware of what she calls the "constructedness" of her project. "The trend of my theory," she writes in a second edition sentence, "may sometimes run utopianward in reality" (100).


6. The Absence of Evil


The decision to efface difficult moments makes this a document of the daylight hours of life, devoid of sex, violence, tragedy, and even any particular sorrow. Even in an apparent reference to someone's (presumably her father's) death by cancer, the emotive referent is obscured by the verbal sea it swims in: "It was cancer but we couldn't say that. A name trimmed with colored ribbons. It was a warning that ‘things will go our way' no longer. Snakes cannot roll like hoops and bees do not definitely suck their young wholly formed from flowers" (69). This is a moment when the deliberate constructedness of the happiness project is thrown into relief.

Two things seem to be going on here. The first is that language is not life and therefore can be made to tell stories as one likes it to. The second is that Hejinian does not like to ponder wickedness. If language can enable the self to lose gender and other fundamental attributes, language can cause all things to appear beautiful. Because it is not experience, language is never horrible. Living in language--poetizing one's life--removes the powers of horror from experience. There is no fucking or shitting here, no Kathy Ackerisms. Not even Carla Harryman masturbating on the phone, as she does in there Never was a Rose without a thorn "I want to come before the collector gets off the phone. I look at the nude, her slatted body, her pillarlike knee, the tough looking genital area. But not her face which I choose to avoid as I come into my hand" (12).

Hejinian has coauthored a piece with Harryman: called The Wide Road, it is often erotic and charged with otherness. In one of a series of letters they exchanged about this collaboration, Hejinian expresses bafflement about evil, about the "trauma" that is so dominant elsewhere in the "postmodern" art world (thinking again of Acker, or of the violating photographs of Cindy Sherman). In response to Harryman's query, Hejinian writes:

And so I arrive at violence and an aspect of the  eroticism that Bataille addresses and about which  I feel, at the very least, trepidation and a degree  of unfamiliarity. . . . I don't know how to think about  this -- about torture for example. Violence in this  sense disrupts and destroys the integrity of the other's  self. This is so repugnant to think about that I -- I  guess I have to reject it altogether. (Aerial #5, 30)

This is a wonderful angelicism, perhaps anticipated by something Hejinian wrote in 1976, in a Transcendental and Wordsworthian moment. Even in spite of itself, in spite of its freedom from morality, art will serve human uplift, plaire et instruire: "Most often, in fact, the work [of art] itself maintains ethical neutrality. (However, it's [sic] effect is usually beneficial, in that great Art serves as great Nature does, to both elevate and humble the observer. This is its effect, but not its purpose.)" (A Thought is the Bride of What Thinking).

It is worth keeping in mind, if we teach My Life as an avatar of 1980s poetic postmodernism, that it keeps on the sunny side. Hejinian's additions in the second edition, however, are almost programmatically darker and more complex than the contents of the first edition. I don't want to overstate this change, but it is traceable and often pronounced. One example in the fifth section will serve to make the point. Added sentences are in brackets:

A glass snail was set among real camellias in a glass  bowl upon the table. [Pure duration, a compound plenum  in which nothing is repeated.] Photographed in a blue  pinafore. [The way Dorothy Wordsworth often, I think,  went out to 'get' a sight. But language is restless.]  They say there has been too much roughhousing. (17)

Here both diction and literary/historical allusion make the second edition's language and approach more adult, if you will. In this same section, a sentence is added about the death of a child who had fallen down a well-fitting, "in which he was wedged, recorded, and died" (16). Not every addition so clearly serves to make the work more complex; but most do.


7. Wordsworthian Romanticism


The complexifying of language and event in the second edition of My Life rescue it from a perhaps excessively Wordsworthian idealism, as though in a fit of penitential realism Wordsworth might have gone back to The Prelude and devoted some lines to Annette Vallon (see Jerome McGann's essay, in this issue, for more on Wordsworth's exclusion of negative and morally questionable life events from The Prelude). Certainly, when Hejinian writes of "The pre-life of an individual" (73), asserting that "I am a stranger to the little girl I was, and more -- more strange" (75), it is difficult for the literary reader to avoid thinking of Wordsworth. Like Wordsworth ("trailing clouds of glory . . . From God, who is our home"), Hejinian is aware of her benevolent origin and upbringing. And like Wordsworth, Hejinian constructs her life story for its happiness benefits.

The famous Wordsworthian "spots of time" are also paralleled in My Life, but as reinscriptions of language rather than recollections of needed moments of grace. Unlike Hejinian's, Wordworth's program of benevolence is grounded in loss and suffering, what he calls "the ministry of fear." Further, Wordsworthian "spots of time" are fundamentally objective, even divine, moments that later and repeatedly serve a healing function for the troubled psyche. His poetry is a report and an enactment of this benevolent scheme.

Hejinian's might be better called "spots of language," personal experiences as linguistic encounters. If Wordsworth brought words to explain the significance of his spots of time, Hejinian's spots of time are always word-bound. This verbal memory is most obviously inscribed in the repeated phrases that echo throughout the book and serve their turns as headnotes: "We have come a long way from what we actually felt," "The plow makes trough enough," "One begins as a student but becomes a friend of clouds," "Yet we insist that life is full of happy chance." But the entire scene of memory in My Life is word-bound. Language makes the event what it is and also, later, makes the event conjurable and acceptable. Instead of Wordsworth's two consciousnesses, the "then" and "now" of being (see The PreludeBook II, 27-33), Hejinian's focus is on language, the "thens" and "nows" of words. Consider an excerpt from both first and second editions:

The coffee drinkers answered ecstatically, pounding  their cups on the table. How to separate people from  principles. A healthy dialectic between poetry and prose.  Good days go by fast, too fast. On the low rectangular  coffee table was a rack for the postcard collection.  A lot of questions, a few answers, the progress of  questioning, the spot on the brain where these words will  go. For example, I remember the blue coat with the red  piping but I don't remember myself in it. (64)

Here we return to spots of language visited before ("A healthy dialectic between poetry and prose," "The coffee drinkers answered ecstatically"). These spots serve as linguistic touchstones for the introduction of new memory material, and for the very consideration of how memory might work, which "spot on the brain" holds the words of experience. At the phonemic level, too, language drives the memory. In the parallels of "coffee drinkers . . . pounding cups," "people from principles" and "poetry and prose," we hear words connecting and driving memory experiences. Words act like the memory object of "the blue coat with the red piping," which operates to put the memory in descriptive clothes but not to elicit the "I . . . in it."

Another Wordsworthian resonance comes in the potentially continuous additive structure of the book. It serves as a kind of Prelude that can be written and re-written as the author ages and wants to alter her material, since additions come in the middle of the work, in its revisability, rather than only at the end. To write a work which can be grown out, in the manner of the crystalline organicism I suggested earlier, is to inscribe into the work both presence and absence. That is, the fact that eight sentences, not present in 1980, can materialize in each section in 1987, suggests that many more sentences not in appearance do potentially exist. (Something in the way that there are sad stories not told in this happiness project.) The sentence becomes the amplifying building block, at the same time self-sufficient and a microcosm of all other already-present or potential sentences: "To some extent, each sentence has to be the whole story" (67). As the work declares, "We never wanted more than something beginning worth continuing which remained unended" (71).


8. The Consolation of Poetry


My Life argues that language is enough. The Wittgensteinian inheritance--the limits of my language are the limits of my world, language is itself the vehicle of thought--is written as an inheritance not of loss but of sufficiency. As Hejinian wrote in 1978, "we [are] obsessed with our own lives, which lives being now language, the emphasis has moved. The emphasis is persistently centric, so that where once one sought a vocabulary for ideas, now one seeks ideas for vocabularies" (L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E 29). We relinquish ourselves to the representative government of language, and language does not disappoint us: it shapes our world and gives it back to us.

We have come a long way from what Augustine felt. What he saw as the inadequacy of language to tell of the human becomes in My Life the adequacy of what is, the happiness project, joining the adequacy of what is told. As Hejinian wrote in her essay "Language and Realism," "things take place inside the writing, are perceived there, not elsewhere, outside it. It is the nature of meaning to be intrinsic, in other words, immanent, as the meaning of any person is, of me, is me, the person. That is how a poem means." The writing, that is, tells itself, includes within it all the necessary elements of its meaning. Such pure sufficiency makes poetry even more than Wordsworth's "abundant recompense": it aspires to a complete consolation.

Lisa Samuels, University of Virginia

Works Cited

Conte, Joseph M. Unending Design. The Forms of Postmodern Poetry. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Harryman, Carla. there Never was a Rose without a thorn. San Francisco: City Lights Book, 1995.

-- and Lyn Hejinian. "A correspondence from The Wide Road." Aerial #5, 1989.

Hejinian, Lyn. A Thought Is the Bride of What Thinking. Tuumba Press, 1976.

--. The Cold of Poetry. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1994.

--. "If Written is Writing." The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Ed. Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein. Poetics of the New. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.

--. "Language and Realism." Temblor 3, 1986.

--. My Life. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1987.

--. "The Rejection of Closure." Writing/Talks. Ed. Bob Perelman. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985.

Perloff, Marjorie. The dance of the intellect. Studies in the poetry of the Pound tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Stein, Gertrude. Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein. Ed. Carl Van Vechten. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

Tyler, Parker. The Granite Butterfly. A Poem in Nine Cantos. Ed. Charles Boultenhouse and Michael Fournier. Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 1994.


1. "Autography" is a term apparently gaining in currency, as evidenced for example by Jeanne Perreault's use of it in Writing Selves. Contemporary Feminist Autography (University of Minnesota Press, 1996). Perreault discusses Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Kate Millett, and Patricia Williams; she also points to earlier users of the term "autography," notably Michael Ryan in "Self Evidence" (review in Diacritics, June 1980) and Jane Gallop in "Writing and Sexual Difference: The Difference Within" (in Writing and Sexual Difference, ed. Elizabeth Abel, Chicago, 1982). I don't intend my use of the term to have any feminist overtones.

2. As far as I know, this book was never reprinted after its small initial run. In an undated letter posted May 1, 1973--inserted in the privately owned copy I looked at--Hejinian wrote to Oyez press asking if they had any interest in publishing the gRReat adventure: "It was printed for me by a friend, for distribution through the Brain Frame Company," which was dedicated to "open art distributed freely and reciprocally through the mails. As it turned out, postage for the distribution of the book was far too expensive." Presumably, Hejinian soon gave up the idea of finding, as the letter puts it, "someone to publish it properly."

3. By Marjorie Perloff, for example: "My Life conveys what the archetypal life of a young American girl is like: '‘Even rain didn't spoil the barbeque, in the backyard behind a polished traffic, through a landscape along a shore' (p. 73)" (225). The two pages on My Life in Perloff's book would seem to be the beginning of Hejinian's critical canonization. Though Perloff is writing about the first edition of My Life, her words are the single blurb on the back cover of the second edition.

4. This point bears an uncanny resemblance to one made by Perloff in her new book Wittgenstein's Ladder. Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). Writing of Wittgenstein's turn to grammar after 1929, she summarizes his changed attitude towards language: "Description thus replaces explanation" (58). She later quotes Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, "We must do away with all explanation and description alone must take its place' (PI #109)" (135). Perloff devotes a few pages to Hejinian in this new book, but she never mentions My Life, which might well belong to Perloff's list of recent works "written under the sign of Wittgenstein."

5. Which is the differently worked point of Craig Douglas Dworkin's quilt metaphor in his essay, "Penelope Reworking the Twill: Patchwork, Writing, and Lyn Hejinian's My Life," Contemporary Literature XXXVI, 1 (1995). Dworkin writes: "the visual pleasures of the irrevocably puzzled surface of the quilt offer a model for a reading of My Life that values the very incomprehensibility so often objected to in contemporary writing and so well illustrated by the deliberately fractured and fractal nature of Hejinian's work" (59).

6. Silliman's procedure is not entirely arbitrary, of course--he considers the Fibonacci number series a figure for the truth of Marxist thought. See Jerome J. McGann, "Contemporary Poetry, Alternate Routes," in Robert von Hallberg, ed., Politics and Poetic Value (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 268-74.

7. Not that basing form on a subject's age is entirely unprecedented. Surrey, for example, wrote his eulogy for Wyatt, "Wresteth here," in 38 lines, Wyatt's age when he was dispatched by Henry VIII.

8. For example, "An affectionate exhortation to those who in early life feel themselves disposed to become authors" (XI), "Supposed irritability of men of genius -- Brought to the test of facts -- Causes and occasions of the charge -- Its injustice" (II), "On the imagination, or esemplastic power" (XIII), "A chapter of requests and premonitions concerning the perusal or omission of the chapter that follows" (XII), or, my favorite, "The former subject continued" (XX).

9. And so with motion as well, reminiscent of the way Virginia Woolf brings back words and phrases in The Waves (Hogarth Press, 1931; rpt. Penguin, 1992). Woolf's recurrences are never exact, however; so we might say she presents more obviously than Hejinian does the impossibility of repetition or "accurate" representation. Bernard can say "'As you passed the door of the tool-house I heard you cry "I am unhappy". I put down my knife. I was making boats out of firewood'" (9), and Neville can say "'We were in the tool-shed making boats, and Susan came past the door. And Bernard dropped his boat and went after her taking my knife'" (13), and the point is finally "'There are no repetitions for me. Each day is dangerous. Smooth on the surface, we are all bone beneath like snakes coiling'" (163).

10. Again on the matter of literary pedigree, Hejinian's alternating compact of prose and verse parts is loosely reminiscent of the prosimetra in, say, Dante's Vita Nuova, with its prose narrative, interpolated poems, and technical commentaries.

11. One of the first reviewers of My Life seems to have been primarily struck by the force--what he called the "Brownian movement"--of its destabilized "I." See Bruce Campbell, "'As Permeated Constructedness,' Lyn Hejinian: My Life," in Temblor 9 (1989), 192-93: "we must recognize that Hejinian's book cleaves to the generosity of 'my,' not its appropriation. We might ask, however, whether we truly want such generosity" (192).

Gwendolyn Bennett’s Anniversary Issue of “The Ebony Flute”

Gwendolyn Bennett’s (1902-1981) “The Ebony Flute” column (1926-1928) in Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life was a pioneer in African American magazine circles. The brainchild of Bennett and Opportunity editor Charles S. Johnson, Bennett’s column was created in direct response to “the growth of Negro literary groups throughout the country and their manifest concern about the activities of other writers” (August 1926, 241). When Bennett first began “The Ebony Flute” in August 1926 she noted that her column would contain “literary chit-chat and artistic what-not I stumbled upon” (260). Closer examination of her columns, however, reveal that from day one Bennett created a structured, yet personal, column that applied “fragmentation inherent in an interdisciplinary field” by dividing it into different subjects and then systematically discussing important topics of the day (Howsam 75). Each month Bennett’s column reached approximately 11,000 Opportunity readers and its popularity spawned other columns such as Countee Cullen’s “The Dark Tower.” Bennett’s friendly, tailored discussions each month played a leading role in the development of the Harlem Renaissance by fostering congeniality between diverse groups, offering an alternate view of controversial figures or topics, giving readers national or international updates, and promoting reader involvement. All of Bennett’s nineteen columns support this thesis in one form or another, but one particular column that has yet to be critically analyzed is Bennett’s August 1927 anniversary column. This column shows a confident Bennett providing her audience with the conversational, yet informative and well-structured discussion readers came to expect.

One of the first ways Bennett established a dialogue with her diverse audience each month was to begin the column with a warm, friendly greeting that eased her readers into the conversation. The anniversary column is no exception:

As I go about this month’s mental gymnastics I am in quite a festive mood…just one year ago this very month ‘we’ came into being…I say this ‘we’ in the true Lindberghian fashion…and so this month I, in the role of fond parent, am celebrating the first anniversary of my brain-child, The Ebony Flute. At birth this instrument was destined to be a ‘literary chit-chat of artistic what-not’…fate has not as yet played us too foul and we are still keeping up the what-not side of the bargain. (242)

To further connect with her diverse audience Bennett went on to celebrate many of the diverse texts and people who were discussed in her column over the past year:

This has been an eventful year for my child and me what with the appearance of Tropic Death, by Eric Walrond; [William Stanley] Braithwaite’s Anthology of Magazine Verse; The Second Book of Negro Spirituals by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson; Fine Clothes to a Jew by Langston Hughes; The Pamphlet of Negro Poets by Alain Locke […] Nigger Heaven, Tom-Tom, and Black April have cast intelligent light on the subject of artists by the other group. (242)

Readers would have been aware of the racial diversity mentioned in this list, but they would have also been aware of the interracial and intergenerational collaborations that took place while creating some of the aforementioned texts, such as Braithwaite’s (a Caucasian American’s) decision to include material by African Americans and Caucasians in his anthology and Alain Locke’s commitment to helping members of the New Negro movement, such as Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes publish with a significant press, Simon and Schuster.

In keeping with Bennett’s commitment to establishing stronger connections between diverse groups, and to providing the suitable context for new readers that would make them feel welcome, she reminded her audience about how her column’s title came into being:

And by the way, while I am dancing a jig over this first birthday I don’t want to forget the godfather of this column…for the benefit of those who were not among my audience last summer let me say that there appeared in Theatre Arts Magazine for October, 1926, a poem entitled ‘Harlem’ by William Rose Benet [a Caucasian American poet] in which the line, I want to sing Harlem on an ebony flute, occurred…and so I called this column the ‘ebony flute’ and it was not but recently that I reminded Mr. Benet that he was the godfather of my column…he took the relationship very graciously and I gleaned further that he is still reading what we have to say here each month which is not faint praise coming from a godfather who himself writers a literary column. (242)

Bennett further sought to unite diverse communities by addressing controversial issues or defending controversial figures. One of the most controversial figures during this time period was Carl Van Vechten and the publication of his book, Nigger Heaven (1926). Many African American writers and editors supported Van Vechten and his novel, including Bennett, Johnson, and Hughes, but there were an equal number of African Americans, including Cullen, Locke, and Crisis editor, W.E.B. Du Bois, who deemed the novel “an affront to the hospitality of black folk and to the intelligence of white” (“On Carl” 516). Bennett referred to Van Vechten or his book in fourteen of her nineteen columns, including lengthy discussions about the author or his novel. Bennett’s brief mention of Van Vechten’s book in her anniversary column’s opening “celebration” paragraph, its placement alongside some of his greatest supporters and critics, and the fact that Bennett recognized that readers already knew his name, reflected Bennett’s continuing support of the writer and her belief that a text like Nigger Heaven was just as important to celebrate as Locke’s The Pamphlets of Negro Poets.

            Another significant feature of Bennett’s column, generally, and her anniversary column, specifically, was her national or transnational updates. Harlem was abuzz during this time with people actively seeking to better the African race artistically, but Bennett also knew there were people around the country and the globe who were interested in lifting up the African race in other ways. By providing these updates Bennett showed her readers that the Renaissance was expanding well beyond Harlem and it helped her readers further connect with the developing movement. In her anniversary column, Bennett mentioned the work of Alain Locke and his commitment to African nations:

Dr. Locke has sailed for Europe and in addition to the translation of [René] M. Maran’s book he will make a firsthand study of the work of the League of Nations in African reconstruction with particular reference to the administration of the African mandates. This investigation is under the auspices of the Foreign Policy Association and is made possible by a grant from the Pauline Wells McCabe Memorial Fund. (243)

Though, arguably not as significant to the African race as Locke’s critical assessment of the League of Nations in African reconstruction, expatriate-entertainer Josephine Baker’s reported marriage to “Count” Giuseppe “Pepito” Abatino was also noteworthy. Though it would later be revealed that Abatino, Baker’s manager and companion, never technically married Baker (many believed it was a publicity stunt), and that he was technically never a count, the news of such a celebrated and successful expatriate-African American marrying a man with royal ties further demonstrated the limitless possibilities for African Americans:

[…] speaking of Josephine Baker reminds me that the altogether remarkable ‘Jo’ has done the inimitable again…according to the New York Morning World for June 27th she has now become Countess d’Albertini…in Europe she has been exposed to royalty and in the manner of the true stage darling has captured one of the nobility in matrimony…her words on the subject are gems: ‘He sure is a count—I looked him up in Rome. He’s got a great big family there with lots of coats of arms and everything.’ (242)      

Another significant way Bennett’s column was significant was its ability to spark creativity in its diverse audience. Each month Bennett provided her audience with news about upcoming contests and encouraged them to participate:

As for the contests et al there are a few juicy morsels for this month; The Penn Publishing Company at 925 Filbert Street, Philadelphia, Pa., will offer their annual play contest again this year. The closing date for the manuscripts to arrive in that office is December first of this year…there are to be five prizes—First: $1,000; Second: $500; Third: $250; Fourth: $150; Fifth: $100…the royalties for production are to be divided equally between the authors and the publisher. In view of the Krigwa Players having won a $200 prize at the Belasco Tournament this year this contest might be an interesting try for an aspiring Negro playwright. […] A fund has been donated by [pianist and composer, Ignacy Jan] Paderewski for the purpose of encouraging serious creative effort among musicians in the United States…the contest is open to anyone who is an American-born citizen or born abroad of American parents…There will be two awards—one of $1,000 for the best orchestral work not exceeding fifteen minutes in performance; the other of $500 for the best piece of chamber music. The judges are to be George W. Chadwick, Fredrick S. Converse and Henry Hadley…the address for the manuscripts is Mrs. Elizabeth C. Allen, Secretary, 296 Huntington Avenue, Boston, Mass. (242)

The diverse type of contests listed in this, and other “The Ebony Flute” issues, reflected Bennett’s strong commitment to the arts, generally, and her desire not to favor one artistic genre over another. Her decision to also include additional information about the contest, such as the address for competition entries, shows that Bennett wanted to provide her readers will the vital information immediately so they did not have to waste time finding out those details and could instead focus on creating and mailing their entries. Finally, the placement of the contest information, usually in the middle of the column, was also important. By talking about the contests in between information about noted artists or events occurring inside and outside of Harlem and encouraging “unknowns” to enter, Bennett placed her audience in the center of the conversation, suggesting that it might not be long before they would be praised in her column.

Bennett’s “The Ebony Flute” anniversary column, and her other monthly columns, represent an important time capsule that highlighted various topics that were of interest to her diverse readership. Rather than simply provide readers with a simple “chit-chat” column, Bennett carefully structured her discussion with diverse topics, genres, people, and texts in such a way that had a direct and lasting impact on the Harlem Renaissance.



The August 1927 reproduction of Bennett’s “The Ebony Flute” column in Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life is published with the permission of the National Urban League. The spelling and usage in the excerpts have remained in their original form except for obvious typos, which have been corrected. Ellipses not enclosed in brackets are in the original document. Special thanks to the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture and New York University’s Faculty Resource Network for supporting my Gwendolyn Bennett research.

Works Cited

Bennett, Gwendolyn. “The Ebony Flute.” Opportunity, Aug. 1927: 242-243. Print.

---.  “The Ebony Flute.” Opportunity, Aug. 1926: 260-261. Print.

Du Bois, W.E.B. “On Carl Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven.” W.E.B. Du Bois: A Reader. David

            Levering Lewis, ed. New York: Henry Holt, 1995. Print.

Howsam, Leslie. Old Books and New Histories: An Orientation to Studies in Book and Print

            Culture. Buffalo: U of Toronto P, 2006. Print.

Johnson, Charles S. “Introduction to The Ebony Flute.” Opportunity, Aug. 1926: 241. Print.