This is no. 71 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
In her essay “Erasing the Signs of Labor Under the Signs of Happiness,” poet and translator Sophie Collins takes issue with the idea that translation work should always be filled with “joy.” Despite often feeling excited by translating, she writes that the process also “evokes feelings of uncertainty and self-consciousness, and—perhaps more frequently than might be imagined—breakdown and frustration.” I don’t translate but I can sympathize with this experience, which I associate with reading and writing. Not having grown up in a bookish household, a part of me—however much I read or write—still finds books hard, inscrutable things. And if hard things allow for a kind of pleasure, it’s a pleasure laced with darker feelings of failure, apathy, and self-doubt.
At a Zoom event in May, Sophie and I chatted about a poet and critic we both admire: Veronica Forrest-Thomson—a writer who’s helped both of us think about how to read and understand poems. Over the last few months, I’ve been running an online course based around Forrest-Thomson’s Poetic Artifice, a barbed, idiosyncratic monograph published after her death in 1975 at the age of twenty-seven. It begins with a question: “How do poems work?” For Forrest-Thomson, one way that poems work is by refusing normal sense. In doing so, they bring to the surface what she calls the “nonmeaningful aspects” of language: sound patterns, echoes, connotations. These aren’t “nonmeaningful” in the sense of being meaningless; they’re just not what we might focus on in a message from a friend or when reading an article—in those situations, we glean a text for information. In a poem, the language of information is being put to a different use. It gleans us: We find scraps of words, memories, and desires that collect and connect in unknown ways in our preverbal imagination.
This is why Forrest-Thomson reacts against what she calls “the tendency to make the already-known or already-thought the point of arrival, to make poetry an obscure and figured statement which one understands by translating it into the already-known.” One of the things that put me off poetry for a long time was the idea that poems were really saying something simple, but using “obscure and figured” language to do it. So the reader’s job was to “translate” the poem into normal, “already-known” sense, in the process showing off their supposed intelligence.
Forrest-Thomson writes about a line by the French surrealist Max Jacob, “Dahlia! dahlia! que Dalila lia” (Dahlia! Dahlia! that Delilah tied together), which joyfully defies translation into “the already-known.” In her words, “Our pleasure in the line comes from a realization that what seems, at first, a complete surrender of the conscious mind to an impersonal network of meaningless verbal resemblances, in fact reveals the latent intentionality of poetic language.” We surrender to the poem, but not passively. Instead, we become part of the meaning-making process, plugged into the poem’s play of connotations and “verbal resemblances.” For example, Jacob draws our attention the pun and resemblance between the French verb “lia” and “dahlia.” Lia (or lier) means “to tie up,” or figuratively “to bind.” The poet’s role, by extension, is to bind and loosen the threads between sound and sense.
Forrest-Thomson’s thinking on the pleasure (or joy) of reading led me back to her own poems, tracing the point at which her theories blur into her writing. I’ve thought a lot about two lines, in particular, from her poem “Cordelia, or ‘A Poem Should Not Mean, But Be’”:
Waste not and want not while you’re here
The possibles of joy.
I love the way Forrest-Thomson repurposes the sanctimony of “waste not and want not,” raising the stakes by adding “while you’re here” (which brings out the morbidity of “waste”), and then complicating it with that incredible phrase: “The possibles of joy.” It feels like an anti-homiletic homily. And, as in much of Forrest-Thomson’s work, it’s a parable about how to read poems.
On the one hand, “waste not and want not” suggests a certain frugality (save up your pennies, make every moment count). On the other hand, “possibles” indicates profusion, both as a casual synonym for alternatives and as a philosophical term referring to possible worlds. Forrest-Thomson seems to argue that we shouldn’t waste joy. Which is to say, we shouldn’t deny the “latent intentionality” of the poem—its “possibles”—by reducing it to joyless paraphrase. Even as it might prove impossible to discuss a poem without curtailing it through description, it’s still crucial to recognize that the poem’s “I” is a voice licensed to perform numerous, contradictory statements.
I connect those lines in “Cordelia” with these from Sylvia Plath’s “Purdah,” which is the last poem Forrest-Thomson discusses in Poetic Artifice, part of a final, passionate argument in favor of poems where “the ‘I’ is clothed in its negation,” not asserting its “already-known” self on the reader.
Revolve in my
Sheath of impossibles,
Priceless and quiet
Plath’s speaker—like the one in “Cordelia”—takes pleasure in being “enigmatical”, constantly deflecting and undermining her self-image. The jagged line breaks after “I” and “my” draw out this sense of the self coming briefly into view before disappearing again. Elsewhere in the poem, she writes, “My visibilities hide. / I gleam like a mirror.”
I can’t help but read Forrest-Thomson’s “possibles of joy” and Plath’s “sheath of impossibles” as two ways of saying something similar: The “I” is at once a series of open “possibles,” capable of being read and reread, and a series of “impossibles,” incapable of being finally understood. Maybe this gets at what makes reading poems so frustrating sometimes. They’re plural and profuse, possible and impossible. But acknowledging this frustration—the fact that poems often fill me with a sense of failure—also affirms why I go back to them. Uncertainty and frustration aren’t opposed to pleasure; they’re bound up in it.
Will Harris is the author of the poetry collection RENDANG (Wesleyan University Press, 2020), which was selected as a Poetry Book Society Choice and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. He has worked in schools and led workshops at the Southbank Centre and currently teaches for the Poetry School. A contributing editor at the Rialto, he lives in London.