I have never known what to do with it. I have never known what to say about it. I once said to someone (who was my academic advisor at the time) that it is one thing that is different for everyone.

When I’ve made the most sense, I have usually said something about how it is frequently hidden. It is also (as I might, too, have said to my former academic advisor) something that, if or while we are living for it, we may go to elaborate lengths to conceal from ourselves.

For me, at the most basic level at which I am able to articulate something about it, pleasure has to do with animation, with responsiveness. (I think of a word that is also the title of an interesting collection by the fiction writer Diane Williams, “excitability.”) However, it is difficult to say with certainty how a written text, which is an object, it must be admitted, could possess literal capacity for either animation or response—although it is a commonplace of literary reading (and criticism) to maintain that both are inherent, canonical qualities of writing.

I think of my own ordinary, nonprofessional reading. This is what is known as “reading for pleasure.” And yet: This is not at all what I have in mind when I turn now to describe the pleasure of reading, which is absolutely distinct from distraction and which occurs at the level of the very word (less than of the book). It is not so strange that pleasure is often associated with lostness or escape, with a forgetting of self. (If you want to get dramatic about it, you can consider Susan Howe’s portrayal of Emily Dickinson’s style of composition as being a state of being “wrapped in the mirror of the word.”) Pleasure is characterized by a perhaps paradoxical dynamic, in which a delighting vacancy or vacation—or, an evacuation—is achieved by means of fixed and absorbed attentiveness. This will usually be an attentiveness that’s given without effort, in the sway of which one is immune to temporal stresses like anxiety or boredom. Which is not to say that anxiety and boredom do not contain, along their edges, pleasures of their own. And though pleasure does not occur outside of time, it seems, at times, not to adhere to many of the rules we associate with time. Pleasure is fundamentally adverbial (and somehow descriptive in this sense). It confers—like the clicks of a metronome, though usually less predictably—a remarkable specificity upon a given duration. This is the (well-known) pleasure of anticipation. This is also the pleasure of excess, immersion, absorption; and the pleasure of relief. Like a look that is “touching,” pleasure appears somewhere in the midst of a passage of description; it rests inside a grouping of several deftly meant, exact terms. It can possess balance, aplomb. It is not even unusual to discover it floating in the waxy sheen of some vague, indefinite series of words.

Here I could easily get lost in what appears to be the beginning of a typology but is in fact the start of an interminable list. Pleasure has a lot of types. Anyway, as far as I can tell, all my own pleasure in reading, or the lion’s share of it, comes of encountering description. This is not, please bear in mind, a pleasure of knowing. It’s not the pleasure of certainty. When I attempt to characterize it, this desire for and joy in the reception of description, I understand it as a kind of constraint, which is to say, a physical—or nearly physical—encounter or presence. I am propelled, compressed, compelled to think of, running a sort of interior gaze over some (literary) surface or view, a thing that has no real presence, a thing or gesture only “mentioned” in written words.

I either suffer at this something’s nonexistence or I do not. I barely know what this may be. (Anyhow, it’s only the chimerical meaning of a word, of a series of words.)

I think, too, that this is somehow fairly social. Or: if not social, then somehow collective. It’s not purely solitary, onanistic. The book or verse or phrase was not written for one person merely/alone. And, if indeed written expressly for one person, then it may still be read. Here we may begin to better appreciate the benefits of publication…

Having written this much, I find myself considering how infrequently I hear, with any kind of precision, which is to say, believability, about the pleasures of poetry. Could it be that the pleasure I have in mind is not strictly generic? That it is most locatable elsewhere than in genre? (Maybe I am unusually into technical pleasures!) I think, for example, of Raymond Roussel—the original John Ashbery—who was not even a writer in the lyric mode and therefore unable, strictly speaking, to provide us with lyric “transport.” The very limited work words are made to do in his verse and plays and novels is in naming. Roussel’s words name precisely what they refer to; they do this limited work over and over again. They do very little else. Any text by Raymond Roussel is a detailed site of pleasure. It is perilously useless writing, especially in that it makes only the most perfunctory gestures toward achieving the status of any conventional genre whither it might potentially aspire: A novel by Raymond Roussel is a list of weird objects and exotic individuals. A poem by Raymond Roussel is a list of superficial notes on landscape or references to photographs and picture postcards. A play by Roussel is another list of unusual objects, devices, and persons moving, more or less tragically or joyously, among the former. I have to say that I believe that I bring Roussel up here because his writing could serve as a kind of figure for what I think the most contemporary form of “poetic” pleasure is. (Note that I say “contemporary” in spite of the fact that Roussel has been dead for something like 80 years—since the contemporary, like pleasure, is a notion none too easily pinned down.) This gets a bit more polemic and yet is hard to articulate. I think of Roussel as doing something that should be impossible. In his work he both says a million multifarious unconnected things, names a million multifarious unconnected things—he talks about everything in the world and then plenty of things that aren’t in it and could never be—and, at the same time, he manages to say the same thing over and over again. I don’t know what to call this contradiction, and yet it has a product: pleasure.

(As I once said to my former academic advisor, pleasure is one thing and also it is different.)

Thus, a proposal or formula: Pleasure is produced for me as a reader in the demonstration of concerted choice on the part of an author, that an author makes an attempt, chooses, intervenes in the idea of writing—genre be damned. I will only say further that very few authors do actually choose. I think every century there are probably something like <25 authors making choices, though that figure is painfully (and perhaps to some therefore intriguingly) inexact.

Originally Published: February 13th, 2014

Lucy Ives was born in New York City and earned a BA from Harvard University, an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and a PhD in comparative literature from New York University. Her first collection, the book-length poem Anamnesis (2009), won the Slope Editions Book Prize. Ives is also the author of...