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Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s supra-theoretical poetry.


By PETER RILEY.

Collected Poems: Veronica Forrest-Thomson
edited with notes & variants by Anthony Barnett.
Shearsman Books in association with Allardyce Book, 2008. | 188pp (paper) | £12.95 | $19.56

Veronica Forrest-Thomson (Northcote House)I’VE KNOWN VERONICA Forrest-Thomson’s poetry for a long time, and never felt that I fully understood it, while recognising a great deal of talent in it — mostly in the virtuosity of the writing in a highly wrought formal structure. But I’ve never fully grasped, I think, the purpose of most of her poems, or what was the reason for all the leaps and pitfalls with which her work is crowded. This is strange because she herself stated exactly what it was all about, and she did this in poems, in introductory statements which are included in this volume, and much more fully in her book Poetic Artifice1 The trouble is that I find the exposition in the book more subtle and extensive than the same exposition in poems and short statements. Veronica Forrest-Thomson was very much an academic poet with a programme for poetry which was worked out in her study, but, unusually, here the academic seems to be rather more imaginative than the poet, though in later poems in which the programme is less dominant or is interfered with by authorial need, the poet is more fully in charge.

Her work raises acutCollected Poems, by Veronica Forrest-Thomson (Shearsman)ely the question of the place of the academy in poetry. We are never allowed to forget it: the poems not only vaunt the learning and the knowledge, but the very scene of the poetry is the academy: study, lectures, syllabuses, courses, examinations, terms, the company of poets and students, libraries, lawns, cups of coffee… that whole society is where the poems take place, unashamedly. The reader is often addressed as if an academic in the same field who will recognise all the local terms. The poets and philosophers involved in her study are repeatedly named and quoted, sometimes by short-hand or unidentified. Everybody knows who “EP” and “LW” are. There is very little intrusion from any other cultural phenomena, as if an English student never goes to the cinema or a concert. There are reasons for this constriction (for surely nobody actually lives such a monastic mental existence) in Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s theory of poetry, but it was this context which first troubled me about her work, rather than the thesis itself. It was either a bold and defiant realism, or a wilful disregard for the unknown reader beyond the pale.

It is hardly necessary to know when faced with Veronica Forrest-Thompson’s poetry what her theory is. But…at least sometimes the poem gathers its own strength together to the extent that all thought of a thesis is dismissed.

It is hardly necessary to know when faced with Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s poetry what her theory is; it is enough to know that there is a thesis which to a greater or lesser extent determines the course of the poem and that the poems were conceived in accordance with the thesis and in some cases as a demonstration of it. Faced with the strangely contorted saying of her poems it is either a comfort or an irritation to know that there is a reason for it, even if you don’t know what the reason is. But it is also a relief to find that at least sometimes the poem gathers its own strength to the extent that all thought of a thesis is dismissed.

The title of her book, Poetic Artifice, is enough — the insistence that a poem is an artifice, a formal enactment, a constructed thing occupying its own linguistic theatre, rather than any kind of authorial effusion or discourse on the world. There is no doubt that traditionally poems are the product of artifice, that they are artefacts, made things, and as such exist at a certain distance from reportage or confessional, and her insistence on this remains a necessary lesson for any poets and their readers. What does not necessarily follow is that the creation of the poem must be a conscious artifice, the poem deliberately put together to satisfy a formal or philosophical demand, but this is the way her practice tends, especially at first. What has always distinguished a poem in this way has been its formal and decorative properties: rhyme, metre, rhythm, stanzaic regularity, refined vocabulary, etc. These are all things whose purpose is to make the poem attractive and within that condition distinct from casual language. But for the sake of modernity it evidently also became necessary to render the poem unattractive, with damaged language, impossible disjunction, non-sense, various forms of ugliness… which again separate the poem from normal usage. I’m not convinced about how necessary this was, but Veronica Forrest-Thomson believed in using the full forces available in order to isolate the poem from the world as a privileged area of free play. Ugliness and beauty are made to engage with each other within the poem’s field of action, the latter mainly by the incorporation of quotations from the canon of English poetry.

Selected Poems (Invisible Books, 2000)Much of her aesthetic rests on Wittgenstein’s linguistic philosophy and especially his theory of “language-games” (which is the title of her second book, 1971). Whether that was or was not a largely successful attempt to lead the whole of Western intellectual discourse into a condition where nothing can be talked about except the language with which we talk about it, is not for me to say. Many poets of the “advanced” kind have seized on Wittgenstein to the point of lionisation because, as I understand it, language is then placed at the centre, it is what you work with. It always is, but in this case exclusively, and the poet is released from responsibilities involving truth or authenticity, and is free to manipulate tokens within a bounded play zone, with the assumption that in shifting items of language around self-consciously you engage with reality in the only possible way. Such tactics particularly inform Concrete or Letterist poetry, which Veronica Forrest-Thomson has herself indulged, than which there is no surer way of banishing passion from the page. Wittgenstein has to some extent served as a badge of respectability for minimalist or playground poets, but the general sense of the language-game enfolds a wide range of contemporary poetry which is hermetic in a mild sense, of inward play. Forrest-Thomson’s own statements of her purpose are quite extremist, as in her Afterword to Language-Games: “…the poems’ underlying theme: the impossibility of expressing some non-linguistic reality…” which is a contentious but debatable proposition, if only it were not followed by the disastrous sequel: “…or even of experiencing such a reality.” This is so blatantly untrue as not to be worth refuting.2  Fortunately she seems to have changed her mind about this later, and her best poems themselves belie it.

I think Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s achievement resides in about thirty substantial poems and some lyrics, almost all in her posthumous book On the Periphery (1976) (she died in 1975 at the age of 27). They are confused and awkward poems which spend a lot of time fending off the drift into generality, or keeping the world out of it, which she does by a whole armoury of devices designed to constrict the arena of the poem and to block the production of sense. The opening of “In Memoriam Ezra Pound”—

Transpontine Ovid made his ovoid obsequies
unto the only emperor, the emperor of ice-cream.
In his elegies Teddy Bear is having picnics,
Can you find four ice-cream cornets hidden
in this elegiac picture?

Ezra Pound's Passport Photograph (Wikimedia Foundation)When you ask what the word “ovoid” is doing there it becomes obvious that the alliteration rather than strengthening the poetic discourse, determines it. It makes nonsense, of course3, but there is a purpose behind such writing. The second line, after the first word, is a well known nonsense formulation by Wallace Stevens and the theme here must be that poetry is addressed to itself, that its message curves back into itself and the quest for the poet’s inner portrait (which she called “bad naturalism”) leads only to a nonsense line from a dead poet. Every move made to “say” something with or about Ovid or his elegies turns to poetical nonsense, every attempt to relate to a naturalistic world founders. Any potential seriousness is broken into frivolity, word-patterning, silly songs and games for infants. It is thus an extreme and grotesque demonstration of a language-game in action, especially in the inability to escape from meaningless ice-cream when you are supposed to be writing an elegy. The only relevance to Pound I can suggest is that it might stand as an admonition to him for thinking he was able through poetry to address major declarations to the world. The ice-cream episode is, though, only preludial, an initial establishment of poetry’s distance from sense, and later in the poem an actual homage takes place, fragmented but dignified, turning finally back to infantile irrelevance. It ends–

These books are radiant as time
against the shadow of our night where no
shadow falls. He is not dead.      Instead

Give back my wing. O Ferris wheel.

Irrelevance, she says, “betrays a formal anguish” (rather than a formal failure). She says this shortly before one of her best poems, “Conversation on a Benin Head”, which is distracted almost completely from its declared subject into half-concealed syllabuses and love problems.

What I call a turning inward of the poem, by which you are made more aware of the poetical nature of the product than anything else, is of course commonplace in modern poetry. With Veronica Forrest-Thomson this turn repeatedly takes the form of reversion to the medium — language — quite deliberately, as in her persistent habit of using grammatical terms or other direct references to language in place of what might have been substantive terms —

The gentle foal linguistically wounded
Squeals like a car’s brakes
Like our twisted words.

which of course in spite of the second of these lines makes the foal’s wound less real, muffles it and turns it inwards to the human. There is a Wittgensteinian poem, “Zettel”, which treats a fraught love relationship mainly in terms of a grammatical relationship, including these defiant lines:

The concept of a living being
has the same indeterminacy
as that of a language.
Love is not a feeling.
Love is put to the test
— the grammatical test.

A poetry informed by this kind of equation will naturally tend to turn away from feeling (“facts do not need emotion”, she says in an early poem) or inhabit only a narrow band of feeling, as do most of the poems in Language-Games.

"Proserpine" by Dante Gabriel Rosetti, taken from Wikimedia FoundationA much commoner feature of her style is the incorporation of quotations from past poetry, in many different guises. In fact some poems seem almost to consist of them: passages, lines, fragments, echoes, half- and mis-quotations, and sections which read like quotation but may or may not be. Sometimes there are far more possible quotations than any reader could possibly recognise. She is very good at working these extracts into her own discourse and extracting from them what she wants: a sense of affinity with the past of English poetry which will circumscribe the poem and act as a paradigm case for the whole, as long as its influence can bridge the stylistic gap in front of modern poetical usage. The long poem “The Garden of Proserpine” plunges into a mass of quotation–

Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action and, till action, lust
Until my last lost taper’s end be spent
My sick taper does begin to wink
And, O, many-toned, immortal Aphrodite,
Lend my thy girdle.
You can spare it for an hour or so
Until Zeus has got back his erection.

Here we get through Shakespeare, Donne (as quoted by Swinburne), Swinburne, Shakespeare (as quoted by Tennyson), possibly Sappho, and the poem then crashes into a resounding bathos, which is unusual for her and is, I think one of the perils of this method,4 though here it does underline the implied eroticism of the old texts. The return to the present tense, as it were, from the old masters such as these, will often carry a bathetic effect, if only rhythmically. The poem goes on from here through more Victorian poets skilfully worked into a more even discourse which evolves into a love-lament with literary exclamations, in a distinctly prosaic mode (“So here we go for another trip and hold onto your seat-belt, Persephone”) before ending with a conventional love song which is meant to resolve the conflicting modes, and does. By then she has taken on all the ancestral tropes as her own responsibility.

When you begin a poem with three lines from a Shakespeare sonnet you introduce meaning, which Forrest-Thomson said she specifically wished to avoid, renouncing even obscurity of meaning in favour of refusal of meaning — i.e., there actually is none, clear or clouded. She said several other things along similar lines, which in the Note to Language-Games tend to be programmatic: how in the language-world of the poem “…questions of knowledge become questions of technique” and identifying the “subject” of the poem as “formal experimentation”.5  But in the Preface to On the Periphery the statements, while remaining provocative, are fighting for a more secure place in the world and approach claims of moral strength, though there is still the refusal of “non-linguistic constituents of experience” and “…it is precisely those non-meaningful aspects of language […]which are poetry’s strength and its defence.” In much of her practice that strength seems to be incompatible with any value attached to perception of the real, but her position seems to shift. In speaking of a poem which seems to me to transcend all her programmes she speaks of being at last “freed from sterile self-absorption” and of the imaginative freedom which “will move on to create new artifices of eternity.” It is in fact unclear whether she is speaking here of freedom from modern subjective modes of poetry which she has combated for many years, or freedom from language-games.

In her later poems awfulness is clearly represented by a loneliness and despair in connection with the failure of love.

There is only one hint given as to the basic felt motivation for her enterprise: “A difficulty which must confront any poet at this time who can take and make the art a new and serious opponent — perhaps even a successful alternative — to the awfulness of the modern world.” We are not told what constitutes this awfulness, but in her later poems it is clearly represented by a loneliness and despair in connection with the failure of love. And there is no reason to believe, whatever she herself said, that this is not founded on the experience of the author herself in a real world, or that the “I” which declares it is, by being in a poem, dispersed and vanished. 6

She also said, at the end of the poem “Pfarr-Schmertz”, “To seek mysteries in the obscure, poking into magic and committing eccentricities to be talked about later — This I do not.” This is a welcome disclaimer, but I’m not sure that she can entirely get away with it, for her pursuit of the poem as artifice brought her to employ, as well as her particular ways with language-terms and quotations, a great deal of the regular obstructive tactics of Modernism, including the Surrealistic, practices which had from the start been steeped in the occult. And if you are refusing, at least sometimes, to articulate your words by acknowledging the existence of any realm of experience in which your reader could participate, you surely propose alternative acts of subliminal transfer, which remain hidden, “occult”. Terms of unrecognisable sense attract ritualistic associations .7 There is a sense of alchemy in her transfer of things and events from experience into a poem where they become “poetic fictions”.

WHEN WE FORGET about the theory and about as much of the academy as we are allowed to forget, what have we left? We have about thirty unusual, intense poems, which shift constantly among different modes of address across the range of possibilities of a modernistic poetry, from blocked transmission to clamorous declaration, sometimes theoretically self-justifying, sometimes throwing all caution to the wind. There is or is not a conflict between the sense which she seems more and more urgently to reach for, and all the literary business of poetical autonomy. Sometimes this sense peers shyly through the literary undergrowth, sometimes takes over the poem. At least twice a poem develops a substantial and open poetical discourse which is deflected at the last moment by a tag which casts the poem back into the game of non-meaning. One is “O Ferris wheel” at the end of “In Memoriam Ezra Pound”. The other is at the end of what may have been her last poem, “Richard II”, which approaches obliquely (through accounts of a house badly in need of structural repair) some kind of identification of the authorial image and the Shakespearean character (and their respective contexts) in powerful long lines crowded with imagery on the edge of the surreal—

And I turned back to my smashed self and the few looks pierced my own doll
From the back-lash of the time brick and the last wall of an old love.

to reach a varied refrain (“Before forever after again and always.”) which is clearly the end of the poem. But then two words are added, floating unpunctuated (the poem has been normally punctuated throughout) beyond the last line—

limpid eyelid

It is interesting, and quite strange, that the poem’s true ending is not allowed, as if it were too realistic, too theatrical, or simply too satisfying, and this enigmatic tag (which was added as an afterthought to an earlier complete draft) has to be hung from it as if to remind us that we cannot “have” the poem or take a meaning away from it. Not that either of these tags cannot be explained and no doubt will be,8 but it is impossible to be definitive. The tight phonetic structure of “limpid eyelid” is also noted, but whether or not, these tags seem to represent an authorial uncertainty as to the necessary tone of the poem and the whole campaign.

‘I think she gradually came to admit that it may be all the more resonant and revealing if [the poem] is not forbidden to get involved in a tussle with the author’s psychology.’

The invasion of meaning (which is usually but not exclusively personal) in these poems is not always a success. Sometimes meaning emerges through the sophisticated webs only to be revealed as banal, unserious, self-deflating, coy, or, in reaction with the poetical atmosphere it is brought into, it may seem strangely tentative, a suspended utterance waiting for something to relate to it. But the process is enacted with such virtuosity that it rarely fails to be at least interesting. It is, after all, important, to assert, in poem or in theory, that the poem has a right to exist in itself as a thing of beauty (though I don’t think she uses that word). I think she gradually came to admit that it may be all the more resonant and revealing if it is not forbidden to get involved in a tussle with the author’s psychology. Forrest-Thompson’s approach to experience is analytical, and the deployment of grammatical concepts, ancestral poetical tropes, and irrational metaphor can very effectively serve to analyse an interpersonal condition once that condition is clearly made known, rather than being “the minimum [of meaning] needed to create verbal form at all” as she advocated in the Preface to On the Periphery.

ONE OF THE best signs of where she might have been heading in her last works is the poem “The Lady of Shallott”, which she herself mentions in the Preface as “the end of this quest for a lost imaginative freedom” (and continues into “new artifices of eternity” as quoted above). Perhaps this relief represents her discovery that she is after all something like a “normal poet” and as such has great possibilities of imaginative play before her, opened up by her intense study of poetical form. The uncluttered line she can now master is well shown at beginning and end—

The child in the snow has found her mouth,
And estate-agents must beware;
For if what we are seeking is not the truth
And we’ve only a lie to share,
The modern conveniences won’t last out,
Bear tear flair dare,
And the old ones just don’t care.

Back and forth she moves her arms;
Forth and back, her legs.
No one would care to say:
Her lips are red, her looks are free,
Her locks are yellow as gold,
Whether she’s very young or old,
The nightmare life-in-death is she,
Who thicks men’s blood with cold.

[…]

Why should we think of knowledge as light;
There is enough to see her.
And, having seen, the message is plain
To those who wish to know
(They are not many):
Run quickly back to darkness again;
We have seen the child in the snow.

Lady of Shallot, Waterhouse (1888)The almost symbolic clarity here emerges through the seamless incorporation of Tennyson (and, surely, Waterhouse’s painting) and the adaptation of the lines from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, conveying an ambiguous attraction to and dread of the woman/child figure through five stanzas rhyming in variant patterns, and reaching a final decisive gesture which is allowed to stand. I take line 6 to be either a joke concerning the need for a rhyme here or four possible courses of action at this point. But it is the insertion of the word and concept “child” which so completely upsets any singular attitude which we could interpret back to a biography (enemy woman as rival, for instance) and what we are left with is an extraordinary blend of compassion and dread. We witness what the world holds, learn our lesson, and run away. And the whole action is caught in ballad-like (but not entirely) rhyming patterns which contribute to lifting the poem into artifice without needing to sacrifice the story.

Looking back at Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s poems, now fully gathered together and meticulously edited by Anthony Barnett, it occurs to me that she could have done much if she had paid more attention to the cultivation of lyric, or even plain song. For lyric is in her favour — through it you can reach “language-games”, “folk-surrealism” or whatever you want along those lines, and in song structures readily realise the sheer distinction of the poem as its own purpose, while it may at the same time be all the more available as a record of earthly histories and personal quests. It has an inhering calm to it which bypasses the conflict between poetical form and non-linguistic experience. She did several rhyming poems dealing in general or abstract reflection within a literary framework. There is an Empsonian villanelle expertly crafted; there is the ‘Sonnet’ which she described as “…the love poem I have tried to write straight and have been held back from by these technical and sociological difficulties.” There is ‘In Memoriam’, a poem in eight rhymed quatrains, a work of impassioned pleading–

Such is my dream but what am I
An infant crying in the night
An infant crying for the light
And with no language but a cry

And there is page 148, which I’ll quote entire (I’m not sure if it is one poem or two). It doesn’t much look like a future for any ambitious poet, but it does show what she could do when she let go of quite a lot of intellectual luggage–

I have a little hour-glass

I have a little hour-glass
Nothing will it give
But the trickling sound of
Water through a sieve.

All the bright neuroses
Sparkle as they go
Depression and obsession
Back and forth they flow.

Mingled at the bottom
One and one make two
Waiting the reverse, dear,
Quite like me and you.

wa

I have a little nut-tree

I have a little nut-tree
Nothing will it bear
But a silver anguish
And a golden tear.

Now in return for the kiss
You gave to me
I hand you the fruit of
My little nut-tree

Obviously, to say that you “don’t understand” this would be entirely beside the point. These may be no more than exercises (I think they are a lot more) but her obsession with the nursery rhyme also informed one of her “real” poems —

FACSIMILE OF A WASTE LAND

And if Another knows I have a little nut-tree cultivated indoors
I know that in this climate nothing will it bear
despite much watering with sighs and tears.

I know little of horticulture but a silver anguish
supplemented by sundry domestic details not Christmas tinselled
and a golden fear of succumbing to the violet typing-ribbon,

Who only know that in return for the kiss you gave to me,
not here, O, Adeimantus, but in another world,
there is no more noise now I hand you the fruit of

More than a year struggling with the violet and the orange peel
which is so alien to my little nut-tree embedded
in the present context of its final version.

She reworks her little rhymes into a different textuality, reintroducing awkwardness and creating a literary allegory — three of the lines were omitted by Eliot from The Waste Land, and, she tells us, Pound was fond of using a violet typewriter ribbon, — the failed poetry (rejected lines) and the failed love (rejected person) become duettists in a discursive drama, which most of her poems are, but fuelled by lyric and so gaining a welcoming relationship with the reader.

The downside lies in the gap between theory and practice, or between what should be done and what is, for in her latest statement she is still saying, “Third, and most important, I believe that at the present time poetry must progress by deliberately trying to defeat the expectations of its readers or hearers, especially the expectation that they will be able to extract meaning from a poem.” (Introduction to ‘Richard II). This long repeated insistence begins to look like a marginal or irrelevant factor of the finished product, which offers, in its indolence, an excess of meaning rather than a refusal of it.


Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry – and some of prose. His latest book is The Glacial Stairway (Carcanet, 2011). He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry. His collection of essays on poetry, The Fortnightly Reviews, will soon be published by Odd Volumes, our imprint, for our subscribers.

Edited to correct editing errors (including “Thompson” for “Thomson” in several places). Thanks to readers (see below.)

NOTES:

  1. Manchester University Press 1978. The book is out of print but there is a plan for a new edition to be issued by Shearsman Books in 2015, edited by Gareth Farmer. I think it is a valuable book as a form of corrective to popular and idle understanding of modern poetry as self-expression, and as an exposition of what is distinctive about it — why poetry is not prose and should not be read as prose. It is also a stubbornly dogmatic book, especially in her constant dread of the idea that the poet might inadvertently say something about the world. I shall not refer to it again in this review because as far as possible I want to consider her poetry apart from her theory. In relation to the poet the academic is inevitably an advocate, in this case persuasively.
  2. It also transgresses Wittgenstein’s definition of the “language-game”, if I understand it correctly, which all language use is obliged to be, by appealing directly to an exterior sense of the world, whether accessible or not. The word “expressing” seems particularly intrusive. I gather that it is a perennial problem of linguistic philosophy that the language needed to expound the prioritisation of language bears a difficult relation to the proposed linguistic condition.
  3. “Ovoid” means egg-shaped rather than oval, and this may admit a faint glimmer of sense.
  4. The fact that two out of these four quotations are themselves quotations, fetching the words and their sense from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth, is of course important, and typically adroit.
  5. I think the word “experiment” is badly misused in talking about poetry. An actual scientific experiment is surely nothing like some enthusiast alone in a mountain-top castle doing things with test-tubes. A real experiment is proposed publically, announces its procedures, and arrives at a conclusion which must be contextualised. It also has to be checked, verified and its results guaranteed by a qualified second person, usually a peer.
  6. In the academic and institutional discourses which dominate thinking about modern poetry Forrest-Thomson is of course a feminist poet. She may well have been a feminist personally, but I can only find that the factor of complaint in her poetry, which is powerful, has a persistent tone of the personal and the singular, as well as attaching a very old poetical tradition of love-complaint, as compared, for example, with the tone of Denise Riley’s poems of complaint with their ideological overtones.
  7. Compare: “… its {linguistic philosophy’s} inherent ambiguity between being a dogmatic naturalism and a mysticism {…}. In essence, it is a naturalism propagated as a mystical revelation.” Ernest Gellner, Words and Things (1959) p.53.
  8. You could start from: limpid eyelid: seeing with closed eyes; Ferris wheel: that which takes us up and lets us down, a good epithet for Pound.

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