Long Form Poetry as Biographical Method

This paper addresses long form poetry as non-fiction medium—specifically as biographical medium—discussing examples by writers such as Jordie Albiston, Susan Howe and Lyn Hejinian, to consider the diversity of ways in which poets are writing/documenting the lives of historical figures. My aim is to demonstrate how poetic biographies can extend our representations of these characters into new dimensions, using poetic play—the line, metaphor, frisson, juxtaposition, space and rhythm—to convey aspects of character and experience in innovative and exciting ways. I propose an extension of non-fiction writing into the poetic form as a way towards addressing historical inaccuracies and aporias, thus not only opening a space for the representation of marginal voices, but offering new frameworks for life writing.

Keywords: biographical poetry – contemporary poetry – Jordie Albiston – Susan Howe – Lyn Hejinian

move over Herodotus
move over Thuc’
move over Arthur Schlesinger
move over logographers and chroniclers
and compulsive investigators

for the poets are
marching again
upon the hills
of history
                       Ed Sanders (1975: 5)

normative language necessarily reduces truly new thinking—
                       Cole Swenson (2011: 65)

I can spread historical information words and words we can never touch hovering around subconscious life where enunciation is born in distinction from what it enunciates when nothing rests in air when what is knowledge?
                       Susan Howe (1998: 111)

What does it mean to write a biography in verse? How is this different to writing a biography in prose? What is enabled by the shift from sentence to line, by the poetic form overtaking conventional biographical formalities? These are questions that have increasingly preoccupied my thinking since I first encountered Jordie Albiston’s The hanging of Jean Lee in 2001. I was an undergraduate student at university, and a teacher lent me a copy of this small volume containing poems relating to the life—cut short, by hanging—of Australian petty criminal Jean Lee (born Marjorie Jean Wright). I was somewhat bewitched by the way in which Albiston attempted to convey the sad demise of a girl who fell in with the wrong crowd and was to become the last woman executed in Australia in 1951, for her involvement in the murder of an elderly man called Pop Kent above a shop near Lygon Street in Carlton. Perhaps it was the fabula that cemented this text in my memory—the events that led to Jean’s downfall did, after all, take place not far from where I studied Albiston’s book in Melbourne, Australia. Or, perhaps it was the fact that my first encounter with Jean’s life story had occurred in a poetic space that caused such resonance within me. Reflecting on this experience, I wonder if it sparked in me a recognition of the potential of poetry to represent real events and characters and to reveal something deeper than pure facts can convey.1

This essay examines long works by three contemporary poets—Jordie Albiston, Susan Howe and Lyn Hejinian—that each push the boundaries of (auto)biographical writing. I will look at how the long poem has the potential to address historical inaccuracies and aporias, thus not only opening a space for the representation of marginal voices, but also offering new and innovative frameworks for life writing. Before this exploration, however, I turn to Wolfgang Iser, who offers a useful framework for my discussion of each of these writers’ works, through his theorisation of a text that breaks convention in relation to representation:

Closed systems, such as the cosmos of Greek thought or of the medieval world picture, gave priority to representation as mimesis because of their overriding concern that whatever existed—even if it eluded perception—should be translated into something tangible. When the closed system, however, is punctured and replaced by openendedness, the mimetic component of representation declines and the performative one comes to the fore. The process then no longer entails reaching behind appearances in order to grasp an intelligible world in the Platonic sense, but turns into a ‘way of world-making’. (1989: 325-6)

I compare Iser’s conception of a ‘closed system’ to the kinds of historical practices which follow a conventional, supposedly ‘logical’ format—i.e. chronological, linear, coherent representations of historical figures, events and facts, turning what happened into ‘something tangible’, and thus concretising it as a known, authoritative account. Iser’s concept of an openended text, on the other hand, is more in keeping with the potential offered by what we may describe as non-fiction poetry—i.e. poetic histories and biographies, such as those discussed in this essay—where closed/stable/mimetic forms of representation are ‘punctured’ in favour of more performative modes of communicating the past, thus alleviating the pressure to garner facts and accuracies and set historical narratives ‘in stone’.2 As I will demonstrate in this essay, Albiston, Howe and Hejinian engage in their own ‘ways of world-making’ as they challenge conservative historical modes.

Jordie Albiston’s Documentary Rhythms

In The H.D. book, Robert Duncan writes that:

Poems are events of Poetry, of our consciousness of making a universe of feeling in language. Celebrating, is it? or praying for? Of singing, of dancing, What Is.
            As our concept of What Is changes, our concept of form changes, for our experience of form is our experience of What Is. […] I begin to see, in terms of William James’s pluralistic reality, a sense of the total world emerging from many kinds of apprehension. (2011: 369-70)

We could use Duncan’s rather cryptic statements as justification for a new kind of biographical or historical narrative, and one in which ‘many kinds of apprehension’ of the ‘pluralistic reality’ that forms our experience might be given due recognition and representation. The hanging of Jean Lee manages to address the complexity referred to by Duncan in the way each poem attempts to meet Lee—through voice—at a different point in her life. The opening poem presents the singsong language of a birth column as it documents Lee’s birth:

            Birth Column

Dark delivery in dinky-di
Dubbo        a red-haired cherub
with waxen wings     born

between wars in 1919    to
Charles Wright and wife
their latest delight     is

welcomed by siblings two
boys and two girls    Charles
junior    little Florence

Dulcie and Ray    just past
A fortnight before Christmas
Day    Send your congrats

and best wishes to our
latest arrival   mother
and daughter    both well (1998: 3)

Here and throughout the book, Albiston draws on public files to construct the poems that constitute the narrative. And yet the focus is not on the factual content of these archival records. Rather, Albiston incorporates non-historiographical, poetic devices such as internal rhyme (‘Charles Wright and wife / their latest delight’; ‘Dulcie and Ray   just past / A fortnight before Christmas/Day’), an almost end rhyme (‘past’ / ‘Christmas’) and alliteration (‘Dark delivery in dinky-di / Dubbo’) to convey the details of Jean’s place of birth, parents and family. The sweet musicality of these tercets lends irony to the opening poem, and evokes a heightened sense of foreboding—we know the conclusion to Jean’s short life will be not so ‘dinky-di’, and the spaces and line breaks that punctuate the poem indicate a less harmonious, less congruent portrait to follow. The first two words—‘Dark delivery’—are particularly moving as a premonition of darkness and misery; for a subject whose life ended prominently in newspapers, Albiston begins this biographical document with another newspaper ‘delivery’, in which ‘delight’, ‘congrats’ and ‘best wishes’ are shadowed by anticipated darkness and despair.

A few pages on, we read ‘School Report (1928)’, which refers to Jean’s primary school years. The poem begins:

From Chatswood Primary for the parents
of Marjorie Jean Wright:
    It’s a pleasure
for me as a teacher to see a student so bright

and so hungry to learn of the world … (1998: 12)

Again, the internal rhymes offer stimulants for the reader’s ear and seem appropriate for conveying a moment in Jean’s life in which songs, nursery rhymes and patterns are part of early learning experience. The descriptions of Jean are also evocative of a primary school teacher’s report. There are lines throughout this poem that resonate with the reader—‘Her demeanour / is good   but that being said    she seems /  to reside quite a lot in her head and needs // me to throw her line after line in order to / tow her back from the wrack of her mind’. The implicit violence of this action, and the reference to the ‘wrack’, as a wreckage, foreshadows, once more, the unfortunate events in Jean’s later life. The last lines of this poem are particularly poignant: ‘Jean // is a girl of obvious promise and    handled / with care    she may yet make her mark in / the annals of this hopeful young nation’. We, the knowing readers, recognise that Jean will ‘make her mark’, though not in the way the teacher had hoped.

Towards the end of the collection, the poetic lines become more frantic and confused as Lee becomes hysterical after being given the death penalty. In the following poem, Lee feels the ‘almighty rod’ of God—she attended Sunday school until age nine, and was visited by a priest when in prison—and the inclusion of the words ‘pressing’, ‘pushing’, ‘split’, ‘flip’ and ‘breaks’, as well as the spaces between words within the lines, amplifies the subject’s breakdown:

God is pressing down on me
with His almighty rod    a
cross   my middle   kingdom
colony   He leans with all

His pounds    God is pushing
down on me   split that
spirit flip that lid     He breaks
out wildly from the Bible (1998: 71)

The formal shifts and changes noted when comparing poems across the different sections of the book convey a sense of movement throughout The hanging of Jean Lee as we progress through Jean’s narrative. The above examples also demonstrate Albiston’s incorporation of various voices and points of view in the expression of this story, moving against and away from a more traditional biographical third-person narration, which enjoys the façade of objectivity and accuracy. Through poetic narrative play, Albiston opens up new dimensions for biographical writing, and in so doing brings readers ‘close’ to the subject at the different stages of her unfortunate life. The fracturing of clauses with line breaks in the later poems, for example, helps to evoke Lee’s mental deterioration, and provides a more textually theatrical experience of the story, rather than one based only in fact and information.3 It is as if we are provided with a set of various lenses or frames through which to identify, and identify with, Jean.

Robert Duncan’s notes on a ‘pluralistic reality … emerging from many kinds of apprehension’ can be used to describe the diverse poetic framework that constitutes The hanging of Jean Lee, for the work adopts a mode of expression specific to Lee’s life story, and one which is not static, but open to shifts and changes that occur not only across a subject’s life, but also across the various forms of recollection. Of course, this particular framework has been chosen by the author, Albiston, as a specific means of communicating Lee’s sad story and this is by no means the only form such an exploration might take. Nevertheless, I contend that, through poetry and experiment, narratives of the past might be enlivened to meet those characters and events in writing more uniquely and appropriately than may be encountered through more traditional historical modes.

Indeed, when asked in interview what she hoped her readers would glean from Jean Lee that could not be gleaned from a prose biography or historical account, Albiston responded:

Breath. A sense of life. Prose historians seem to feel more shackled to principles of the known, less willing to imagine past certain accepted levels of inspired reckoning, for fear of threatening the factual parameters, of placing the ‘truth’ in some kind of academic jeopardy. Poets, on the other hand, have that wonderful thing called poetic license, where one is permitted to inhabit the subject a little more, interrogate the unknown a little more ... [A] historical biography is more susceptible to becoming a collection of dry facts without a lot of kinetic movement or energy in there, whereas poetry can access a special kind of frisson that is perhaps more available to poetry than to prose. (2013: 125)

This sense of ‘life’ and ‘kinetic movement’ of which Albiston talks can be garnered also in her earlier work Botany Bay document. Subtitled a ‘poetic history of the women of Botany Bay’ on the flyleaf, this collection works towards similar ends as Jean Lee; not purely concentrated on a factual unfolding of events recovered through piecing together archival documents and filling in the gaps, Albiston plays with the facts she has recovered, and incorporates the stylistic modes of the time (including sea shanties and convict songs) in order to meet these women in writing.4 Throughout this book, we are given, as in Jean Lee, many points of view, and the multiplied perspective unfolds as if to counter the misplaced authority garnered by historical narrative. Botany Bay begins with a shanty in first-person plural:

The Hull

Well below sea-level and sea-
sodden deck    we sway in our
oak pod like rotting fruit. We

are cut-purses housebreakers
strumpets and Whores   we
are shoplifters Curse-makers

footpads and more. We’ve
no morals or manners but
are debauched and depraved

anonymous sweepings from
the Old Country floor … (1996: 3)

Opening on the general/collective voice of these women, we picture a chorus-like gathering, a sense of the common experience of female convicts, treated like ‘anonymous sweepings’ from Britain, regarded as ‘debauched and depraved’ and stripped of their humanity. This sense of anonymity and marginality of these women—not only convicts but female convicts—is further suggested in the found poem ‘Inventory’, where supplies for the colony are listed:

(or What to Bring When Setting Up a Colony)

2 Barrels of Tar    700 Grubbing-Hoes
6 Hogsheads of Vinegar  12 Ox-Bows
Augers    Adzes    20 Pit-Saws   Forges
Fish-Hooks   Thousands of Drawers

100 Plains Measures   30 Box-Rules
60 Padlocks   5 Sets of Smiths’ Tools
1 Bible   40 Barrows   700 Bowls
700 Clasp-Knives   Chaldrons of Coal … (1996: 7)

Albiston has pulled this list of supplies (and their specific quantities) from archives, as documented in the ‘Author’s Note’, and she draws them together, through rhyme and rhythm, into a coherent set that ‘speaks of’ the foundations of the colony. But the inanimate objects conjure the idea of the women themselves—a nameless mass. Indeed, the last line of ‘Inventory’ refers to the convicts as a necessary aspect of this inventory—i.e. the cheap, laboring masses, ‘the surplus of England’s gaols’—required to set up the colony. But Botany Bay punctures the blanket of homogeneity, thrown over the nameless masses, to provide insights into the lives of specific, individual characters, in a sense restoring the humanity of these forgotten or downtrodden women. One of these figures is Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Rose McMadden, raped by a ‘master Munroe’. Albiston gives her a first person narratorial voice with which to curse her rapist, in ‘Lizzie’s Pact’:

If I had a message for
young master Munroe
it would be it would be
a fistful of flowers    a
wreath of my wrath   a
litany of lilies    sweet-
scented as blood    to
bloom and bloom in his
favourite room for the
term of his natural life. (1996: 5)

Another first-person ‘account’ is given to Eliza Walsh, a single woman who was keen to start up her own farm, but confronted difficulties for being unwed:

Eliza Walsh Gets a Grant of Land

I. Petition to Governor Macquarie

I want to tell you   I have made up
my mind to settle a Farm in this
Country   I have gained some land
at Richmond Hill I purchased with

personal bills    but require more
for my Cattle and Stock    and
despite my gender   and lack of
wedlock    petition just the same (1996: 35)

Albiston uses first person in various poems throughout Botany Bay document, as a means of giving voice to these largely unknown women. This approach also brings the reader close to the subject, as confidante. Each encounter affects us differently, as Albiston uses poetic techniques to portray something of the individuality of each female subject. Lizzie’s poem expresses anger and contempt—the anapestic rhythm lends a spitting quickness to the poem and places emphasis on the single syllable nouns ‘wreath’, ‘wrath’ and ‘blood’, stressing that she wishes death upon this master Munroe. Eliza’s communication is less fiery, though no less forceful, addressing someone (‘you,’ the reader) in a bid to be heard and a fight for equality. The tone struck by Albiston is speculative, though the shifts contribute to the overarching sense that these women of Botany Bay were unique individuals suffering different problems as they made their way in the world.

Permitting poetic license in order to ‘interrogate the unknown’, Albiston opens the text to explore a plethora of silenced women’s voices in a way more sympathetic to their representation in historical narratives. That is, where facts and records have failed their adequate representation, other means are drawn upon to bring these subjects into the realm of literary-historical ‘visibility’.

Albiston achieves the performative, open-ended text through placing information in the poetic context; by experimenting with documentary work which, as Cole Swenson notes, brings ‘language as art into the heart of the language of information’, and which creates a tension that ‘posit[s] an incommensurability at the center of the work, an irritant that demands attention and refuses complacency’ (2011: 55). Swenson argues that this ‘irritant’ spurs on an emotional engagement with the work, which ‘can’t be told; it must be felt, which can be achieved through imagination, but not through idea’ (58-9). Albiston’s work, I argue, evokes this emotional dimension, engaging in a ‘way of world-making’ that acknowledges that the past cannot be recovered in full, but can be felt through a more complex engagement with truth.

Susan Howe’s recovery of the irretrievable subject

Another writer who challenges the boundaries of literary history is the American poet Susan Howe. Metaphysical landscapes and textual fabrics set out across her pages constitute documentary work of a unique class; Howe’s oeuvre is, amongst other things, sharply honed on the margins of literary history, and her long poems represent a dedicated effort to speak the language of the margins in an ‘other’ tongue. Howe’s works—as with Albiston’s—are not the product of a poet merely meditating on lost souls and narratives; rather, her works are the result of dedicated archival research and historical enquiry. But far beyond constructing an easily digestible narrative of collected facts, Howe’s poems reach through facts in order to retrieve a deeper resonance for the reader’s experience. In other words, the play of Howe’s texts attempts to bring to light the many unique histories and characters that lie dormant beneath the weighty blanket of canonical metahistories. Howe writes that ‘[i]n history people are all dead. / The plot was this—the fantasy was this— / Her spirit flew in feathers’ (1990: 187). In other words, Howe implies that the historical canon stands for the ‘dead hand’ of the past, and that a poetic intervention may revolutionise history writing so that history is activated and made ‘live,’ and can be felt through language, as Duncan might say. This has important implications for the representation of marginalised or misrepresented voices in particular, as poetic techniques open pathways for relating the incommensurable or the irretrievable.

In her long poem The liberties, for example, Howe’s poetic ‘recovery’ of Jonathan Swift’s secret lover Hester5 ‘Stella’ Johnson sends us along seemingly competing trajectories—towards Howe’s personal, subjective recollections of her own Irish ancestors and her relationship to her Irish past6; but also towards a recognition of the broader, more publicly-shared experience of the Irish diaspora and the marginalised feminine. Little is known about Stella because their relationship was covered up, and Swift most likely destroyed her letters and poems. The Journal to Stella (the compilation of letters written by Swift to Stella and Rebecca Dingley between 1710 and 1713) can be taken as a monument to Stella’s erasure: as Howe notes, it contains only Swift’s letters to Stella, because ‘[n]one of Stella’s letters have been saved’ (1990: 151).7 Whether he considered her letters to be of so little artistic merit that they were not worth keeping, or he destroyed them in order to protect his own reputation, is a subject of debate.8 What we know of Stella survived only in Swift’s words. ‘Stella’ is therefore an emblem, in Howe’s work, for the silenced feminine.9

Considering the loss of Stella’s letters, it is important to observe that The liberties opens with a reproduction of an Irish airmail stamp, which displays an image of a flying angel10 (the Angel Victor, the Messenger of St. Patrick) carrying a banner which reads ‘Vox Hiberniæ’ (‘The Voice of the Irish’). The stamp raises the question of how we might write or hear a voice excluded from traditional histories, a marginal voice. A letter is intended for a recipient—to be ‘heard.’ The fact that this particular stamp is both Irish and from the twentieth-century11 suggests that this ‘letter’—perhaps all of what follows in The liberties—is not necessarily a symbolic recreation of Stella’s letters, but Howe’s letter—an appeal to the recipient, her readers, to listen out for these marginal voices.

On the first page of Part I, beneath the title ‘THEIR/ Book of Stella’, there is a column of text (Figure 1). Paul Metcalf, who describes Howe as an ‘Architectural Poet’, suggests that she is here ‘building a cathedral’, St. Patrick’s Cathedral perhaps, where Stella is buried (1989: 53). But Howe includes in this textual building words such as ‘dilapidation’, ‘recoiled’, ‘drift’, ‘rotten wood’, and she leaves wide spaces between words. This creates a visual and textual ‘picture’ of decay and disintegration: what seems solid is on closer inspection porous and heterogeneous. ‘Their’ book of Stella (i.e. not hers) is filled with gaps.

Figure 1: Susan Howe 1990 ‘The Liberties,’ in The Europe of trusts, New York: New Directions, 159


The final words of the poem tell us that ‘wisdom is a fox’ and ‘Liberties [are] unperceived’—if the fragments of Stella’s life have been construed to bury her (they don’t make sense), it is in the gaps, the spaces between words, that her voice might still be ‘heard.’ As Howe writes: ‘If you are a woman, archives hold perpetual ironies. Because the gaps and silences are where you find yourself’ (1993: 158).

Not surprisingly, in the pages following the column of ‘THEIR/ Book of Stella’, Howe allows the ‘blanks’ to take over as words ‘drift’ across each page, accentuating—and perhaps celebrating—the gaps and silences.

Figure 2: Susan Howe 1990 ‘The Liberties,’ in The Europe of trusts, New York: New Directions, 162-3.

As The liberties progresses, the conundrum of how to depict Stella’s character—she is visible only in invisibility, heard only in silence, seen only in absences—is developed further, as demonstrated in Figure 2. On the left-hand page Howe writes that Stella ‘must be traced … as a boy’; but she is not satisfied with this conclusion. As she asks in My Emily Dickinson, ‘How do I, choosing messages from the code of others in order to participate in the universal theme of Language, pull SHE from all the myriad symbols and sightings of HE?’ (1985: 17-18). When we turn to the right-hand page, we find a possible answer. Rather than tracing Stella as a boy (i.e. pulling her life from Swift), she turns first to a ‘boy-bird of the air’, and then to a woman-bird ‘known for the swiftness of her soul’ and with ‘hair blacker than a raven / and every feature of her face perfection’ (my emphasis, 1990: 163). On these pages, therefore, Howe’s already-drifting portrait of Stella leads us away from supposed representations of the ‘real’ (the ‘HALLUCINATION OF THE MIRROR’, as Howe writes a few pages on) and towards the ‘real plot’, which is ‘invisible/ everything possible’ (1990: 169). Cole Swenson writes that ‘while the primary goal of Howe’s research may be to create a base for her poetry, the goal of that poetry is, in turn, to constitute an alternative mode of knowledge, a mode in which truth has nothing to do with clarity, but rather with novelty. It’s a different kind of news in which only the unprecedented is true’ (2011: 65-6). The juxtaposition of human/bird, masculine/feminine, and real/fiction in The liberties creates a sense of instability and openness that forms a key part of what I consider to be Howe’s poetic biography of Stella.

In My Emily Dickinson, Howe says that ‘[p]erception of an object means loosing and losing it … One answer undoes another and fiction is real. Trust absence, allegory, mystery—the setting not the rising sun is Beauty’ (Howe 1985: 23). It is not surprising, given this suspicion of ‘holding down’ the past, that Howe’s search for Stella ‘return[s] in a fictional direction’ (Howe 1990: 159) as her portrait drifts into other stories, plays, fairytales and myths, which broadens the frame through which we might glimpse Stella’s character. For the next ten pages, fictional and mythical characters inhabit Howe’s playful and irregular lines: we see characters from King Lear and its Celtic predecessor, the myth of Lir and his swan children. Hoth the blind Norse god is also mentioned. There are allusions to Hamlet, Cinderella, Medea and Waiting for Godot. We get the sense that Howe is searching not only for Stella, but for an appropriate and adequate genre and language through which to write (of) Stella. It is fiction, rather than facts, that provide the resources to explore the absent and silenced.

Amongst these characters, the most important is Cordelia, who is introduced in Howe’s text by lines from the first scene of King Lear. In this scene, Cordelia seals her fate, by saying ‘Nothing’, rather than publicly proclaiming her love for her father. She does of course love Lear, but she is unwilling to debase this love by competing with her sisters for the inheritance of his kingdom. According to Lear, ‘[n]othing can come of nothing’; but to Howe ‘Nothing’ is everything, and ‘Nothing’ is, in a sense, the ‘real plot’ of King Lear, for it symbolises the inability to hear what Cordelia is really saying and the fact that she is, as a consequence, rendered silent. Cordelia becomes a figure for the excluded—‘reclasp her hands into obscurity’ (1990: 175)—and as such provides an apt parallel through which Stella’s life can be approached.

The liberties foregrounds Howe’s radical departure from the conventional texts written by the ‘Masters’, (indeed, such a text is impossible to conceive in Stella’s case due to a lack of recorded details on her life) and urges the reader to actively engage with the ‘writing’ of history, as the reading process must negotiate between image and text, presence and absence, body and mind, fact and fiction. In a very different way to Albiston’s work, then, Howe’s texts also present ‘open’ landscapes in which meaning is in a constant state of flux and creation, extending beyond the physical body of the text and refuting the transparent ‘clarity’ of a hegemonic discourse. Swenson is helpful once more when she writes that

through interstices opened up by figurative language, ambiguity, juxtaposition, sound relationships, and rhythmic patterns, room can be made for those aspects of truth that can’t be articulated … the fully complex version [of truth] must incite the imagination of the reader, must get the reader beyond simply absorbing facts and into a responsive engagement with them because that engagement is a crucial part of truth. It’s the emotional part, which can’t be told; it must be felt, which can be achieved through imagination, but not through idea. (2011: 58-9)

Swenson continues, in relation to Howe’s work, that ‘normative language, by its very normativity, cannot accommodate the act of thinking; it can only accommodate thought, its prepackaged past tense’ (65). In this sense, we might assess Howe’s poetic-historical practice as a staging of ideas that can be grasped/performed by the reader, but which don’t present themselves as truths unequivocally authorised by the text. Importantly, Howe’s portrait of Stella becomes an indirect expression of a life that cannot simply be reinserted into history or confined within a traditional text. As this suggests, it is not only Stella who is ‘swift’ (dependent on and yet avoiding definition by the text), but also the reader, who skips and jumps from genre to genre, history to poetry and fiction, in order to negotiate these disparate fragments. The liberties helps us imagine a new kind of biographical representation/portrait of the feminine and of the multiple frames that shape—without ultimately imprisoning—such a subject. This process—staged by Howe but enacted by the reader—presents itself as a key dimension of this new kind of historical/biographical text.

Lyn Hejinian’s ‘open’ autobiography

American poet and scholar Lyn Hejinian addresses the interplay between text and reader when she refers to the concept of the ‘open’ text (which resembles, and precedes, Iser’s concept of openended systems of thought):

The open text, by definition, is open to the world and particularly to the reader. It invites participation, rejects the authority of the writer over the reader and thus, by analogy, the authority implicit in other (social, economic, cultural) hierarchies. Reader and writer engage in a collaboration from which ideas and meanings are permitted to evolve. The writer relinquishes total control and challenges authority as a principle and control as a motive. The open text often emphasizes or foregrounds process, either the process of the original composition or of subsequent compositions by readers, and thus resists the cultural tendencies that seek to identify and fix material, turn it into a product; that is, it resists reduction and commodification. (2000: 43)

Hejinian’s definition of the open text is clearly applicable to Howe’s The liberties, and indeed all the works in Howe’s oeuvre, where the play of the text ‘resists the cultural tendencies that seek to identify and fix material, turn it into a product’—that is, Howe does not attempt to portray an ‘authentic portrait’ of Stella from which a reader might draw the conclusion ‘now I indeed “know” the life of Stella’. Rather, The liberties invites the reader’s active engagement with negotiating the complex components of the text in order to produce meaning. Howe therefore relinquishes authorial control over her biographical portrait, and disseminates the responsibility of meaning-production amongst readers. Such an ‘open text’ therefore not only provides a medium through which the biographical subject resists ‘reduction and commodification’, but also presents an opportunity for writers to approach subjects that have been excluded from canonical histories.

Hejinian exhibits this preference for the open text—in which the reader’s ‘participation’ in meaning-making is invited—in her own works. Indeed, this discussion of poetic biographies raises interesting questions regarding the writing of self and past—the autobiography. Whereas the former draws on archival sources and documents, the latter draws primarily on memory. While biographies will always necessarily confront questions of historical and archival accuracy or adequacy, works of autobiography are no less complex as the writer enters the uncertain territory of memory and confronts the archive of the ‘I’. This is an area that Hejinian actively interrogates through her seminal text My life. This book-length work­—often categorised as prose poetry or poetic prose—presents an autobiographical text in which poetic sentences—each seizing a new image seemingly disconnected from what came before and after in the sequence—draw us through the work:

    A pause, a rose,             A moment, yellow, just as four years later, when
    something on paper       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 pattern 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. The windows were narrowed by white gauze
curtains which were never loosened. Here I refer to irrelevance, that rigidity
which never intrudes. (Hejinian 2002: 7)

My life instigates slow reading; we are experiencing a series of flashbacks, fleeting pictures of intangible memories, where nothing is necessarily irrelevant; little details assume importance in recollecting the more significant events (for example, the colour yellow brings the poet to her first memory as a very young child in a cot, and this leads her, through colour, to the ‘purple’ memory of her father returning from war). Reading onwards, we discover one of Hejinian’s guiding principles when she says: ‘What follows a strict chronology has no memory. For me, they must exist, the contents of that absent reality, the objects and occasions which now I reconsidered’ (16) and ‘[t]he synchronous, which I have characterized as spatial, is accurate to reality but it has been debased’ (21). Whereas chronology (characterised as temporal) is the Historian’s guide, synchrony presents itself as the poet’s guide, and memory is the thread. The ‘life’ is documented according to how it is remembered, so that, rather than pursuing temporal threads that follow the order in which past events unfolded in time, Hejinian is pursuing the connections between memory-images. This work represents, then, an autobiographical reflection through the mind of the ‘I’ writing.

The work was first written in 1980 and revised in 1987; Hejinian constructs each edition so that the number of chapters and the number of sentences in each chapter corresponds with her age at the time of publication—what Lisa Samuels terms an ‘arithmetics of autobiography’ (n.d.). Each revision, then, required the addition of new lines and chapters, so we can see that the representation of one’s life is not a static thing, but subject to revisions, tectonic shifts and alterations over time. What is more, the ‘I’ is revealed not as a coherent, stable identity, but as plural, polyvalent, multi-faceted; a changing thing, and constituted of different voices in different contexts. Hejinian conveys a sense of the plurality of the self, as she notes in her essay ‘The Person and Description’:

The ‘personal’ is already a plural condition. Perhaps one feels that it is located somewhere within, somewhere inside the body—in the stomach? the chest? the genitals? the throat? the head? One can look for it and already one is not oneself, one is several, incomplete, and subject to dispersal (2000: 207).

Indeed, a related work, My life in the nineties, was published in 2003, and it begins: ‘What? is the fiftieth year of my life now complete? such a living life? such an inconstant one? Imagine the film equivalent of this, one shot per sentence, the shot of this one of….’ (Hejinian 2003: 7). The ongoing nature of the poet’s project exemplifies Hejinian’s attempt to ‘meet’ the slipperiness of the remembering ‘I’ through the writing itself. As readers, therefore, we are not necessarily led to identify a single ‘I’ of the text, but rather, we give in to the play of language as it explores and ‘swills around’ the self. And while details, facts and accuracies cannot be retrieved through this document (and the fact of the rewriting of the work twice suggests this inability to recover the past fully and completely), the reader instead experiences a deeper sense of Hejinian’s negotiation between her self, her past, and her world.12

In My life, Lyn Hejinian notes that ‘History hugs the world’ (2002: 93). At first a seemingly innocuous phrase, a history that hugs the world may be one that stifles it, suffocates it, or perhaps holds it in a fervent grip, in the pursuit to know and preserve its stories and voices—to be all-encompassing, reductive, conquering. If, as Susan Howe says, ‘History is the record of winners’ and ‘[d]ocuments were written by the Masters’, what happens to the voices that are excluded or which cannot be heard? (1990: 11). This question perhaps urges a loosening of the embrace of History, a more ‘open’, flexible relationship between the historical account and the worldly subject.

The long works of the three poets discussed in this essay each present unique alternatives to canonical modes of writing: Jordie Albiston combines documentary (archival) information with musical play (rhythm, rhyme, breaks and pauses), evoking a performative aspect through which the inarticulable may push against traditional historical boundaries; she also refracts her biographical portraits through multiple voices, enabling readers to identify with the characters through different points of view. Susan Howe, on the other hand, resists the historical tendency to frame her biographical subject, inviting her readers to negotiate the difficult terrain of her poetic landscapes in order to celebrate the irreducible, unknowable fact of Stella’s character; fictional characters intrude into her story as a way towards locating, or understanding, the unknowable historical figure. Lyn Hejinian engages synchrony in order to meet her ‘self’ in the archive of the ‘I’ through the process of writing autobiography.

It is interesting to note at this point that, while a more traditional biographical text will usually obscure or hide the ‘I’ writing in favour of projecting a sense of impartiality, authority or objectivity, the ‘I’ of Howe and Albiston is very much present in their respective works, through their recognisable writing styles. Indeed, Howe explicitly refers to herself as the ‘I’ searching the archive, and does not attempt to disguise her role as historical redactor.13 These various approaches to poetic (auto)biography, then, highlight how poets are able to allow for more complex engagements with knowledge, tending to the inexorable tensions between knowing and not knowing as they pursue details of the past.

Arguably, a shift away from prose historical narratives and into poetic terrain expands the opportunity for diverse play with historical material—in other words, different poets may develop their own methods for historical recovery, using line, rhythm, juxtaposition, metaphor and space in unique ways according to their own interactions with the past through archives, sites and other records. The examples I have discussed in my essay demonstrate the malleability of poetic renderings of historical subjects, and suggest that there is much potential for poetry to illuminate aspects of the historical imaginary—the incommensurable, the inarticulable, the indeterminate—hitherto unexplored within the parameters of most conventional biographical writing.


End notes

  • 1. An earlier version of this personal recollection of my first encounters with Albiston’s work appeared in my introduction to an interview with the poet, published in Rabbit: a journal for non-fiction poetry, Issue 9, Winter 2013, p. 122.
  • 2. For further elucidation of these ideas, see Wilkinson and Alizadeh, Realpoetik Manifesto: a declaration in progress, 2012.
  • 3. Albiston notes in interview that ‘gaps and lacunae can be responsible for what is missing as much as for upsetting or destabilising what is there. […] And because poetry has to do with the minutiae of language and operates on such a delicate and intimate level, there’s opportunity to celebrate the smaller, less sensational moments of a life’ (2013: 127). Albiston’s most recent collection The Book of Ethel is composed of ‘micro-portraits in verse’ of the poet’s maternal great grandmother, who emigrated to Australia at the age of fifteen. It celebrates the ‘less sensational moments’ of her ancestor’s life, such as cooking in the heat of a ‘lean-to scullery’, or buying pepper-mint sweets from an old Cornish woman.
  • 4. In her ‘Author’s Note’, Albiston says that her use of archival material is reflected in the poems, which are ‘variously cast as bush ballad, newspaper report, missive, journal extract, inventory, lament, dialogue, dream, and so on’ (1996: 1).
  • 5. She was also known as Esther Johnson.
  • 6. Howe’s mother, playwright Mary Manning, was Irish, and Howe remembers fondly her trips to Ireland with Manning as a child.
  • 7. In his introduction to the Journal to Stella, George Aitken argues that Swift wrote these letters in a code language so that he and Stella could ‘be alone’ in their correspondence to safeguard their intimate relation (xxxv). In my view, it seems also to infantilise Stella and, given that Stella exists for us predominantly through her relation to Swift, it restricts our access to the adult Stella and has therefore contributed to her erasure from public memory.
  • 8. Swift’s own letters were only posthumously published.
  • 9. For a detailed discussion of this work, see article my 2013 article ‘“Stella” Through the Drifting Portrait: Susan Howe’s Poetic Recovery of the Marginal Identity’.
  • 10. The angel might also allude to Benjamin’s winged ‘angel of history’, with its face turned to confront the ruins of the past, as it is propelled into the future. See Benjamin 1968, 259-60.
  • 11. Seven different designs of Irish airmail stamps were issued between 1948 and 1965. They all depicted the Flight of the Angel Victor carrying the banner over several Irish historical landmarks.
  • 12. It is interesting to note that, whereas Albiston incorporates first-person voice to engage our sympathy for her respective women-in-history, Hejinian’s first-person perspective underscores the slipperiness of memory.
  • 13. For more on this, see Wilkinson, ‘“Stella” through the Drifting Portrait.’
Works cited: 

Albiston, J 1996 Botany Bay document, Melbourne: Black Pepper

Albiston, J 1998 The hanging of Jean Lee, Melbourne: Black Pepper

Albiston, J 2013 The book of Ethel, Glebe, NSW: Puncher & Wattman         

Albiston, J 2013 ‘Interview with Jordie Albiston’ conducted by Jessica Wilkinson, RABBIT: a journal for non-fiction poetry 9, 120-36

Benjamin, W 1968 Illuminations (1955), edited and with an introduction by H Arendt, trans H Zohn, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World

Duncan, R 2011 The H.D. book, edited and with an introduction by M Boughn and V Coleman, Berkeley: University of California Press

Hejinian, L 2000 The language of inquiry, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press

Hejinian, L 2002 My life (1987), Kobenhavn & Los Angeles: Green Integer

Hejinian, L 2003 My life in the nineties, New York: Shark Books

Howe, S 1975 ‘The end of art’, Archives of American Art 14:4, 2-7

Howe, S 1985 My Emily Dickinson. Berkley: North Atlantic Books

Howe, S 1990 The Europe of trusts. New York: New Directions

Howe, S 1993 ‘Talisman interview’ with Edward Foster in Howe, S The birth-mark: unsettling the wilderness in American literary history, Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 155-81

Howe, S 1998 ‘Ether Either’ in C Bernstein (ed) Close listening: poetry and the performed word, New York: Oxford University Press, 111-27

Iser, W 1980 ‘Interaction between text and reader’ in S Suleiman and I Crosman (eds) The reader in the text: essays on audience and interpretation, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 106-19

Iser, W 1989 ‘The play of the text’ in S Budick and W Iser (eds) Languages of the unsayable: the play of negativity in literature and literary theory, New York: Columbia University Press, 325-39

Iser, W 1989 Prospecting: from reader response to literary anthropology, Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press

Metcalf, P 1989 ‘The real Susan Howe’, The Difficulties 3:2, 52-6

Samuels, L ‘Eight justifications for canonizing Lyn Hejinian’s My life,’ Electronic Poetry Centre at http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/samuels/mylife.html (accessed 20 September 2013)

Sanders, E 1976 Investigative poetry, San Francisco: City Lights Books

Swenson, C 2011 Noise that stays noise: essays, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press

Swift, J 1974 Journal to Stella. 2 volumes, edited by H Williams, Oxford: Blackwell

Wilkinson, J 2013 ‘“Stella” through the drifting oortrait: 
Susan Howe’s poetic recovery of the marginal identity,’ in A Vickery and J Hawke (eds) Poetry & the Trace, Glebe, NSW: Puncher & Wattman, 202-15

Wilkinson J and Alizadeh A 2012, ‘Realpoetik manifesto: a declaration in progress’, The Victorian Writer, 34 (republished in Cordite Poetry Review)