The Benefit of the Doubt

Joey Connolly on the poems – and ways of reading – that inspire trust

‘It is more shameful to distrust your friends than be deceived by them’ – François de La Rochefoucauld, although really I’m quoting from the Denise Riley poem ‘Lines starting with La Rochefoucauld

Reading is the important part of literature, not writing. New kinds of writing develop as a result of new reading practices. To understand a historical moment in poetry, we need to understand how readers of that moment behaved in their reading. We talk as if individual poems or books define an era because it’s easier to point at an object than a process – a tangle of propensities and inclinations – but we need to recognise this as a useful shorthand.

We’re in a moment of change for poetry, and to understand this moment of change we need to look closely at how we’re reading, and especially at potentially unacknowledged features of our reading practice. I’ll start by talking about something completely different.

The first track on Joanna Newsom’s album Ys is called ‘Emily’. The song’s twelve minutes cover a lot of ground, but they centre on the narrator’s sister, the eponymous Emily, who’s absent, or leaving, or grown- apart-from, or dead; the narrator of the song misses her, badly. She remembers their childhood, dreams of her, and examines the circumstances of their division and its aftermath. At one point, the narrator remembers Emily teaching her the names of the stars (Newsom’s real-life sister Emily is an astrophysicist), and the ‘chorus’ of the song runs like this:

I promised you I’d set them to verse so I’d always remember

that the meteorite is the source of the light
and the meteor’s just what we see
and the meteoroid is a stone that’s devoid
of the fire that propelled it to thee.

And the meteorite’s just what causes the light
and the meteor’s how it’s perceived
and the meteoroid’s a bone thrown from the void
that lies quiet and offering to thee.

Out loud, the first thing you notice is its flawless rhythmic patterning, its relentless plosive clatter towards the amen cadence at the end-rhyme of each stanza. It’s one of those rare passages for which the technical metrical terminology doesn’t seem an imposition. Usually if you say ‘this is anapaestic common metre, alternating lines of tetrameter and trimeter’ (which this is), you’re doing a disservice to the text, by pointing away from it. But here you feel this as that kind of technical construction job. Add to that the end-rhymes, and the internal rhyme between the sixth and final syllables of the first and third lines of each stanza. Plus the extra effects: the ‘bone thrown’ sprung rhyme; the repetition of the ‘meteor’ syllables; the gentle chime between the last word of the first line and the third syllable of the last; the anaphoric ‘that the/and the/and the’; the wealth of and and sounds. Altogether it’s like one of those centuries-old golden astrolabes, a little scientific contraption of incredible delicacy and complexity.

Further, set against the meandering, irregular vocal patterns of the rest of the song, the effect you get is of a beautiful but highly synthetic passage. The archaic grammar and vocabulary – thee, seriously? – is carefully designed to foreground the sense of artifice. It’s a bravura piece of lyricism, and with such scientific matter it almost thrusts forward its bravura-ness: isn’t it incredible I can build poetry about such dry sciency stuff!

And isn’t the subtle variation of the two verses – practically identical in metre and content, but articulated differently – a beautiful way to think about two sisters, identical in parentage but grown differently? Grown apart, even? And doesn’t this relationship build on the triply different descriptions of the same object in meteorite/ meteor/meteoroid? Even ignoring the pun you get in Newsom’s rendition, in which ‘meteor’ is pronounced indistinguishably from ‘media’, even ignoring the music here (and it’s very beautiful, go listen to it now), this is a spectacular piece of craft.

Which brings us to the second thing to note: factually speaking, it’s wrong. Actually the meteoroid is the source of the light, and the meteorite is the stone landed on the earth’s surface. Ah, what a let down. Either she’s just ballsed it up or, worse, she’s intentionally mangled the sense so that her lyricism can shine: flub or betrayal. It all seemed so brilliant until then.

But wait! This is a passage about someone trying to find a highly crafted, intellectual solution to an essentially emotional problem. And don’t we all know the dread, desperate feeling: you’re losing someone, and wishing there was something – anything – you could do to avoid the loss? And trying to logic up a solution to your hurt, and knowing you’ll fail? The whole song’s enormously more moving if we can believe that the error here is intentional. The very device which the narrator’s hit upon to keep her sister’s memory close is only pushing it further away. The song’s narrator’s earnest attempt to capture her beloved in words isn’t ever going to be sufficient to bring that sister back to her. The whole project suddenly gets this added layer of pathos over it, the desperate and beautiful but doomed stretch-out for a hand that isn’t there. This doomed attempt is one of the most beautiful things in literature: think Romeo and Juliet, think the tragic arc of The Portrait of a Lady, think the persistent effort of Kafka’s humans to stay human. Think the title

sequence from Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead, which puts all this incredible craft into the creation of a world in which the murdered black boys of America can live again, all the while scarred by the agonised traces of the knowledge that, no matter how good the poetry, it cannot bring them back.

And think about it: isn’t the point of Newsom’s lines kind of about the difference between the intention (the source of the light) and the effect (what’s perceived)? And what’s left afterwards, the cold, lifeless stone? Its lyric craft is so showy precisely because it wants us to think about the effect of showy craft: it’s a showy bauble, not a nourishing egg. As Newsom sings elsewhere:

Never get so attached to a poem 
you forget truth that lacks lyricism. 
Never draw so close to the heat 
that you forget that you must eat.

Despite this and all my clever arguing, though, I suspect most of you out there just won’t buy it. Surely there’s no way Newsom intentionally muddled her facts – thereby facilitating her perfect prosodic structure – in order to make some obscure point about emotion vs intellect which only a handful of people would ever notice. Truth be told, I wouldn’t blame you. The only reason that I’m able to believe this abstruse interpretation is that I love Joanna Newsom and already believe she’s a genius.

Which brings me, lengthily, to my point. That is: a work of art is better and means more if you trust the artist.

This might seem a banal motto to work so hard for: you like songs by the bands you like, paintings by your favourite painter. No shit. Taken seriously, though, and applied to actual practices of reading, it has all these important and sometimes bizarre outcomes. Like: for many people, winning a prize makes a book better, because it becomes easier to trust. Or, if you actively distrust prize culture, it might make the book worse. But the circumstances which determine the amount of trust we hold for an artwork have a direct bearing on how good it is.

I think that admitting considerations of trust into thinking about how we read poetry has profound implications across the artform, politically as well as aesthetically. Acting as if we respond to poetry with total comprehension, or that we don’t seek shortcuts in resolving our doubts in the face of a poem, will prevent us from analysing accurately how we’re reading. Worse, as we’ll come to shortly, it allows the old chauvinist gatekeepers to strengthen their skeletal grip on the canon.

But trust is also key to the beauty of all we love most in art. Honestly, who’d watch Love Island if there was no one to talk about it with afterwards? There’s only so long you can dance alone in your room to your own acapella renditions of Beyoncé; there are only so many essays you can write about this guy Adorno no one’s ever heard of. Shakespeare wouldn’t be Shakespeare without our collective faith in his genius, enriching his every line with the wildest stretches of conjecture as to what he might mean. It’s only the rose’s name that makes it

smell so sweet; the violet is perfumed by our appreciation of it; ‘tis mad idolatry to make the god higher than the service. As, I believe, Shakespeare intended us to understand.

All this might sound like a grand conclusion to draw from Newsom’s nomenclatural fuddle. But the ‘Emily’ instance above is an exaggeratedly striking one, chosen because it’s a crystal-clear example of a work-wide interpretation which is either flat right or wrong. But in an art form as persistently multivalent as poetry – more on this, too, in a moment – this process is happening on a micro-scale, continuously. Is this aversion to the straight- talk of the textbook a craven dodge or an unspeakable profundity? Suppose the process of ascribing your continually renewed sense of uncertainty either to the poet’s incompetence or to their mysterious genius took place in almost every phrase, every line of a poem? Nuar Alsadir: ‘When we are struck, there’s a brief pause during which the internal dust is kicked up – we lose our habitual bearings, and an opening is created for something unexpected to slip in’. Every step into the true poem throws up a dust of uncertainty, and in every moment we can understand that dust as the fog of confusion or the shimmering haze of beautiful mystery.

Is poetry really so mystifying as all that? Uh, yes. Just, obviously. One of the great barriers to a wider participation in poetry is the misapprehension that there’s some cadre of ‘insiders’ who read a poem and immediately understand exactly what’s happening, what’s going on, as if they speak some special language. But no matter how steeped in poetry you are, be honest: do you really feel like you get what’s going on in most poems you come across? Do you even spend long enough rereading to find out? And if you do, doesn’t the poem which decodes into plain rhetoric feel like a bad poem, someone dodging the difficult emotional labour of making something real and instead relying on the cheap tricks any of us could summon? Why’s it even poetry, if you could say the same thing in a simpler way? Like Robert Frost said when he was asked to explain what one of his poems was about: ‘You want me to say it worse?’ All good poetry is a bit confusing. That is, ‘confusing’ if you don’t like it; ‘mysterious’ if you do.

And I’m not just talking about weird-ass postmodernist poetry here either; poetry’s unsettled nature is hardwired in, right from the off. A poem is essentially defined as the other type of language to the regular, everyday stuff (Wittgenstein: ‘a poem, even though it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information’), and it grows out of the old magics of song and spell. Fast-forward a bit to Keats writing in 1817 that the quality of a great poet was to be ‘capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. Poetry’s worth has always lain in its doubtfulness, the way it comes at us unawares. Alsadir again: ‘it’s when we’re off-guard that we’re least automatous, it’s then that we’re most likely to come up with spontaneous, uncurated responses.’

There’s a powerful political import to this which – although I don’t have space to address it fully here – even resolute no-bullshit Rachel Cusk recognises when she talks of ‘the mystique of the writing process and the degree to which that mystique is socially owned, an ownership that is part of the democratic ownership of language itself’.

The baseline explanation for this in our artform is, for me, that sound matters in a poem: a word’s noise complicates the neatness of its dictionary definition, and this effect multiplies exponentially across a line, a sentence, a verse. Sound and sense, in poetry, mutually unsettle one another, so that paraphrase – the great clarifying tool of conversation or textbook – is disallowed. Add in everything else that’s granted expressivity in a poem, like rhythm and line-breaks and metaphor and narrative irony and blank space and you’ve got a total clamour of overlapping and proliferating possibilities for interpretation.

And the thing that really makes poetry poetry is that these multiple possibilities team up, are allowed to coexist and complement each other. If you have several conflicting possibilities in your head at once, you’ve just got more possibility. Which is only possible as long as you don’t resolve the conflict. As Veronica Forrest-Thomson writes, discussion of the meaning of these formal devices is ‘a shadowy realm where no one speaks with confidence’. Well, great. A lot’s possible in the shadows that just isn’t in the harsh glare of certainty.

It’s just that with poetry, as well as each individual poem, we need to decide whether moving through the shadows is scary or liberating. Of course, the dark is a lot less scary if you’re not alone there.

Seamus Heaney writes that the poet has to ‘adjudicate among promptings variously ethical, aesthetical, moral, political, metrical, sceptical, cultural, topical, typical, post- colonial and, taken all together, simply impossible.’ Seen from the right (wrong) perspective, poetry is sheer chaos, myriad interpretations spinning away from each other like astronauts blasted from the ship into the gulf of undifferentiated meaninglessness, absolutely impossible. And yet… poems do somehow manage to mean stuff. It isn’t the case that anything can mean anything and everything means everything, no matter what the deconstructionists say. In fact, they’re precisely wrong because they ignore that, in flagrant dismissal of academic authority, people just do carry on agreeing about the specific meanings of bits of literature, and reading practices arise, with rules for limiting what a certain bit of poetry is allowed to mean. Possible meanings arise and are either accepted or dismissed according to whether we imagine that anyone else might find them, too.

For me, this mental effort of remaining in constant discourse with a community of other readers is one of the deeply humanising values of poetry. It goes: read a poem, get confused, use your empathic sense of communal meaning-making to reorient yourself within those confusions.

Alright. So far I’ve argued something like this: poetry is essentially mysterious, and as a result the extent to which we trust the poet becomes vital in deciding whether the mystery arises from profundity or nonsense. But that doesn’t quite add up, does it? Is it right to say I ‘trust’ Joanna Newsom? I’ve never met her; she might cheat at Monopoly or be in love with a white novelty hip-hop artist. More pertinently: suppose we were confronted by a poem by an author we’ve never heard of. How would you decide whether to ‘trust’ that author or not?

This is a really, really important question. I put it to you that there are two options, and one is good, and one is bad. The bad one is that you decide to trust because of the type of person they seem to be: whether they embody culturally prevalent ideas of wisdom or authority; whether they’re the kind of person your interpretive community rates as good. This option has been latent but operative for much of our history and has led to white men being systematically overpraised at the expense of women and people of colour, and it has led to many very boring poems being unduly lauded. As a system it malfunctions both politically and artistically. It’s imperative we move away from it.

The other alternative, of course, comes from looking closely at the poems for evidence that, in some sense, the hard work has been put in. In a strange land you might check to see whether a bridge looked well-constructed before you stepped out onto it. Well, before you trust your precious emotions to a poem, it might be good to see if it’s properly put together. Is this someone who’s spent five minutes jiggling a thesaurus, or is this the result of someone having dug their laborious way down to, in Anne Carson’s killer phrase, ‘the grit and dregs at the bottom of the psyche where pain has its kitchen’?

I hope you raised your eyebrows, by the way, at that phrase in the last paragraph, ‘properly put together’. It smacks of the kind of prescriptivist, elitist hack who’d go on to claim that Swinburne or someone was the only real poet since Marvell or whoever. You know the type; there’s probably someone on Twitter with an ink drawing of a quill as their profile picture who replies to half of your tweets with this opinion. Many people have taken that stance, and resultantly our generation is understandably hostile towards these limiting ideas of ‘craft’. To throw it out, though, is merely to once again empower the model of trust-ascription based on the identity of the poet, which caused the problem in the first place. This is precisely the mistake which has led to decades of acclaim for mediocre professorial poetry retelling stories about Greek women being turned into sexy trees. By relying on the apparent trustworthiness that having won a prize confers (for example), we lose sight of much truer and more democratic methods of recognising value.

Will Harris is right to point out, in his essay ‘Fortress Craft’, that ‘technique and intellect [which constitute craft] can’t be separated from their political and social contexts.’ This is key. To properly understand our moment in poetry, we need to identify the reading practices which allow for an idea of craft as variously emergent from a plurality of social contexts. By rethinking craft as the sum

of those textual signals which allow us to trust a poem, we make space for this variety of social contexts.

Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen is a masterpiece of formal invention, multiply redefining poetic craft entirely according to its specific needs. The book’s subtitle – An American Lyric – renders expressive in terms of national and racial identity all of the divergences we discover in the book from what ‘lyric’ has traditionally signified: a strongly voiced ‘I’ using flowery words and sweet chiming sounds to transcend whatever has ostensibly occasioned the poem. But even before this mode is challenged, Rankine’s already done a huge amount of work; Citizen is set entirely in a sans serif font, for example, in slightly bigger font than we’d expect in a poetry book. There are images here – in colour! – and as a result the book has been printed on thicker, glossier paper than we’re used to. As a result, the object is noticeably heavier in the hands than other poetry books of comparable length. Before you’ve even started reading, the density of the thought that’s gone into the work is literally palpable. This is writing we’re instructed to take seriously by virtue of its stark contravention of mainstream’s poetry’s rules for seriousness: small serif font, lots of white space, absolutely no pictures.

Reading the book, of course, your trust is richly rewarded. Of particular note is a passage which confronts the failure of lyric directly:

Shit, you are reading minds, but did you try?

Tried rhyme, tried truth, tried epistolary untruth, tried and tried.

The assonance of ‘minds’, ‘try’ and the repeated ‘tried’ summons the ghost of lyric here, of lyric reached for but departed – the spangle of lyric longed for, perhaps, but ultimately insufficient. Similarly that ‘lyric I’ is waveringly present here – ‘Your ill-spirited, cooked, hell on Main Street, nobody’s here, broken-down, first person’ – but it sure as hell isn’t transcending its social situation: ‘You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard.’ The lyric claim to transcendence is shattered, because this is an American lyric, and the book details the ways America will not allow its citizens to transcend their racial categories. The book therefore requires anti-lyric forms of poetic craft, and its finding or inventing of them is awe-inspiring.

So the trust-inspiring indicators of craft I’m arguing for are as likely to arise from the sapping work of finding a way to speak from outside of culturally predominant attitudes as they are to be Joanna Newsom–style contraptions of anapaests and plosives. It might be someone who’s braving unbearable living conditions and fighting to get that experience into words, or it might be someone who’s bothered to actually figure out how to put Heidegger in plain language. I’m not really interested in delimiting what exactly this hard work I’m calling craft has to be; that should change year to year, poet to poet, poem to poem.

A poem is like a sexual partner in that you need to work out how to do it differently with each one (this metaphor’s also useful for thinking about the difference between reading and writing). This is why those projects which aim to document human sexual behaviour, say – or theories of poetry – always start off descriptive and end up prescriptive, normalising and centralising certain tendencies and occluding or diminishing others. Any good theory will start by recognising that every poem proves itself differently. The thing all good poems have in common, though, is that they convince you to trust that when their interplay of sound and sense leaves you doubting and uncertain, it does so not out of dissimulation but in the desire to unsettle you enough to bring something new into the world.

Joey Connolly grew up in Sheffield, and now lives in London where his day job is being Head of Faber Academy. He received an Eric Gregory Award in 2012, and his first book Long Pass was published by Carcanet in 2017.