The Scale of Artifice:
Critical theory and the poetry of
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The British poet and literary theorist Veronica Forrest-Thomson died tragically in 1975 at the age of 27. Her reputation rests largely on work published posthumously — the poetry collection, On the Periphery, and her major theoretical work, Poetic Artifice. Her poetry and critical writings have been, and continue to be, a stimulus to poets, particularly those concerned with post-modern innovations in poetry.
Much of the critical writing on Forrest-Thomson has focused on the influence of Structuralist and post-modern writers such as the French cultural critics Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, and Julia Kristeva.[See Note 1] Forrest-Thomson’s theoretical formulations were used as a starting point in Charles Bernstein’s influential poem / essay ‘Artifice of Absorption’ first published in 1987, which functioned as a kind of manifesto for the linguistically innovative poetry which became known as ‘Language poetry’. The embracing of Forrest-Thomson by such an influential figure inevitably suggests an affinity between her ideas and those of later avant garde writers.
In a recent interview published in the online journal Blackbox Manifold, the British poet Keston Sutherland argues for a revaluing of Forrest-Thomson’s poetry, the reading of which he believes has been overly influenced by the concepts advanced in her critical works. Her theory, he says, ‘doesn’t capture what happens in her poetry. If we had first read her poetry we might even say that her theory had been virtually made redundant by the poems it had been used to incubate, because at its best the poetry militates, pushes back against the theory.’[See Note 2]
These remarks are made in the context of a discussion about Language poetry and the tendency of such poetry, in Sutherland’s view, to be overly dominated by theory. Sutherland complains of ‘a kind of displacement of literature by theory, of the great poetic project by the great theoretical project.’ He goes on to argue that when poets theorize about their work: ‘the poetry written by those poets should be powerful enough in some way or another to resist simply being captured by whatever theoretical account may be used to prop it up. Poetry should escape definition in terms imposed from outside its own interior development.’
So what is the relationship of Forrest-Thomson’s theory to her poetry, and what connection does this have with post-modernism and Language poetry?
Before we consider the poetry we need first to understand what Forrest-Thomson’s ideas about poetry were. Poetic Artifice presents itself as attempting a comprehensive theory of twentieth-century poetry, which Forrest-Thomson believed was needed to ‘understand the condition of poetry and its present possibilities.’ She is particularly concerned with the devices of artifice, i.e. ‘all the rhythmic, phonetic, verbal and logical devices which make poetry different from prose.’[See Note 3] These ‘non-semantic’ elements of a text are critical to the way a poem generates ‘meaning’ as she seeks to demonstrate time and time again in the book. Her model of how the semantic and non-semantic aspects of a poem interact to create what she calls an ‘image-complex’ are set out in schematic form in the preface to the book.[See Note 4] A failure to attend to the functioning of these levels of language and how they inter-relate, she argues, can lead the reader to interpret a poem in ways which are alien to its identity and function as poetry.
She uses the concept of ‘naturalisation,’ taken from French critical theorists, to describe this process, defining it as the ‘attempt to reduce the strangeness of poetic language and poetic organisation by making it intelligible, by translating it into a statement about the non-verbal external world, by making artifice appear natural.’
She argues against approaches to literary criticism which sought to explain a poem’s ‘meaning’ with reference to an assumed external context, a process she calls ‘bad naturalisation’. In the Introduction to Poetic Artifice, for example, she engages in a detailed analysis of Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 94’ in which she chides the critic William Empson for his speculations about the possible events in Shakespeare’s life which might have given rise to the poem. We do not need information about a ‘real life’ context to understand the poem, she argues. Everything the reader needs is in the text.
Critical readings of poems which foster ‘bad naturalisation’ of this kind also encouraged, in Forrest-Thomson’s view, a practice in contemporary poetry which privileged ‘meaning’ over artifice. Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes in particular are singled out as writers whose poems invite interpretation in terms of an assumed external context. ‘We do not want more poems about everyday life, there are enough and more than enough poems that do that,’ she declares.[See Note 5]
She also rejects the ‘irrational discontinuity’ of poetry such as the surrealism of David Gascoigne and the work of ‘Concrete’ poets like Robert Lax. The latter, she argues, invite ‘bad naturalisation’ by leaving the reader with no option other than to import a ‘meaning’ from outside the text as the only way to ‘make sense’ of the poem. J.H. Prynne and John Ashbery were for her the flag bearers of contemporary, imaginative and vital poetry. She also approved of Sylvia Plath. She believed that a poem should be more than a surrogate for an empirical experience. Indeed, following Wittgenstein she did not believe it was possible for a poem to be anything other than a work of language, and she thought poetry should challenge ‘our ordinary linguistic orderings of the world,’ and make the reader ‘question the way in which we make sense of things.’[See Note 6]
Wittgenstein was enormously important to Forrest-Thomson’s thought. Having first tried to outline a basis for logical reasoning, Wittgenstein concluded that logical thought was not possible because of the nature of language. In his later writings he analyses how words are used in practice, how the meaning of a word is generated by its use in a given context, and how the employment of abstract words like ‘understanding’ or ‘meaning’ can mislead us into thinking they refer to an event or process which does not in fact exist. The roots of philosophical confusion lie, Wittgenstein argues, in a failure to attend to the ways we use language.
Forrest-Thomson, like Wittgenstein, believed that our experience of the external world is mediated through language: ‘the world comes to us through words, and may very well be created by them.’[See Note 7] The corollary of this is her belief that through language we can change the world: ‘When we get behind the surface of a poem we encounter not another kind of meaning nor a different non-poetic world, but another organisation of the levels of language that produce meaning. Through the relation between these levels, language and the world may be changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty is born.’[See Note 8]
The proper function of poetry, in her view, is to effect this kind of transformation in the reader, a concept closely associated in her work with the idea of the poet as ‘tribal outcast’ whose role is, in T. S. Eliot’s phrase, ‘to purify the language of the tribe.’[See Note 9] Forrest-Thomson returns a number of times in Poetic Artifice to the idea of the poet as an outcast who mediates between language and the tribe.[See Note 10] The concept of ‘purifying language,’ like that of the poet-outcast, has a long pedigree and has assumed various meanings at different times.
For Forrest-Thomson the poet’s role was to challenge the reader’s preconceived ideas of ‘reality’, freeing him or her to imagine new possibilities. ‘When language is reimagined the world expands with it,’ she wrote.[See Note 11]
Forrest-Thomson was married to the literary critic Jonathan Culler between 1971 and 1973. He was at that time a young academic working on his own first book, Structuralist Poetics, which became something of a primer for students of the new currents of critical thought. That the couple read and discussed authors in common is evident to anyone reading the two texts. Compare for example Culler’s discussion of John Ashbery’s poem ‘They dream only of America’ with Forrest-Thomson’s analysis of the same poem.[See Note 12] Both Culler and Forrest-Thomson were widely read in the writings of key Structuralist thinkers, people like Roman Jakobson and Roland Barthes, and the Post-Structuralists, many of whom were associated with the French journal Tel Quel. Culler devotes a chapter of Structuralist Poetics to this latter group.
Structuralism sought to apply insights from linguistics to explain cultural phenomena as systems of ‘signs’ operating in a manner similar to the way language operates. Claude Levy-Strauss attempted in his work to articulate a general theory of mythology, while Roland Barthes applied techniques derived from linguistics to cultural phenomena such as fashion and advertising.[See Note 13] Barthes’ later work anticipated the development of ‘Post-Structuralist’ ideas in writers such as Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva. These thinkers challenged totalising theories, arguing instead, as the British academic Gareth Farmer succinctly puts it ‘that texts have no origin and no clear centre of organisation.’[See Note 14]
These ideas found expression not only in works of critical theory but also in the literary work of writers such as Philipe Sollers, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute. Forrest-Thomson translated a significant number of poems by the French poet Denis Roche who was on the editorial board of Tel Quel. Film makers of the ‘nouvelle vague’ (new wave) such as Jean Luc-Goddard and Alain Renais were part of the same intellectual movement. In the early 1970s, the work of these cultural theorists influenced young British academics, who began challenging the way English literature was taught.
As we have seen, Forrest-Thomson appropriated the concept of ‘naturalisation’ from Post-Structuralism. Her search for ‘a theory of twentieth century poetry’ was also influenced by Structuralist and Post-Structuralist ambitions to identify the mechanisms by which a text produces its effects, though she included few explicit references to these writers in Poetic Artifice, and did not make use of linguistic models in her work.
If anything, Forrest-Thomson tends to be critical in her references to Post-Structuralists. She was particularly hostile to the psychoanalytic work of Lacan and she questioned ‘the ability of the psychopathological and political emphases of French literary theory’to explain the special effects of poetry.[See Note 15] It is important therefore not to overstate the importance of Post-Structuralist theories in Poetic Artifice.
Alongside the borrowings from French theory, there is a huge debt to the traditions of criticism which the new theories sought to overturn. These traditions were built on the ‘empirical’ approach to criticism adopted by the British academic I. A. Richards in the 1920s, for example in his book Practical Criticism. These critical perspectives and readings were a reaction to earlier traditions of literary criticism which emphasised biography and authorial intent as means to explicate a text, or which focused comment on the moral or philosophical lessons to be drawn from a text.[See Note 16]
Equally influential were the critical essays of T. S. Eliot, whose opinions redefined the historical canon, including the revaluing of the Metaphysical poets. Eliot, both as critic and poet, is a central figure in Poetic Artifice, and his ideas about tradition, and his views on the impersonality of the poet, were major influences on Forrest-Thomson’s practice. Eliot was a dominant figure in the teaching of literature both in the UK and the USA, where these approaches became known as the ‘New Criticism’. Forrest-Thomson’s idea of the text as a work of artifice, sufficient in itself and requiring no external context to ‘explain’ it, capable of being discovered through close reading, owes as much to Eliot and New Criticism as it does to Tel Quel.
William Empson was another significant influence on Forrest-Thomson. He was a precocious scholar, publishing his first book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, when he was 24. He was a student of I. A. Richards at Cambridge, and became an influential advocate of practical criticism. He later taught for a period in the USA. Empson was a brilliant maverick who ridiculed what he considered the more nonsensical New Criticism theories such as the idea that an author’s intentions tell us nothing about a text. He was equally dismissive of the Structuralist and Post-Structuralist theories of writers like Barthes and Derrida.[See Note 17]
It is easy to see why Forrest-Thomson responded to Empson. He was clever, opinionated, funny — a perfect foil for her own ‘fierce and wayward intellectual energy’to quote the academic Graham Hough who took over the supervision of her PhD from Prynne. Her own writing style in Poetic Artifice is combative and witty, characteristics she shared with Empson, who she admired despite her differences with him.
In his preface to the second edition of Seven Types of Ambiguity, Emspon responds to some of the criticism levelled at his book after its initial publication, including a complaint by one critic that much of the analysis involved implicit judgements about the literary value of the texts under consideration. Emspon acknowledges that this was the case, but goes on to explain that the judgement of value for him came ‘before or after’the process of analysis: ‘You think the poem is worth the trouble before you go into it carefully, and you know more about what it is worth when you have done so.’
In other words, his starting point is the experience of being engaged and moved by a given poem, which then prompts him to seek to understand how the poem achieves this effect. His thesis that ‘ambiguity’ is intrinsic to poetry, and his development of a typology of seven ‘types’ of ambiguity, whose function he illustrates through close reading of selected texts, is in some ways a model for Poetic Artifice.
Forrest-Thomson also starts from judgements of which poems have value and which do not. But rather than make this explicit she presents the reader, as Empson did, with a theory which ‘explained’ these value judgements.
There is a sense, therefore, in which Poetic Artifice might be read, not so much as a theory of poetry, but as a justification for a style of writing Forrest-Thomson believed was the only viable way forward for anyone with serious ambitions for poetry in 1970s Britain. It was a style which involved a precarious balancing act between meaning and non-meaning, foregrounding the non-semantic elements (form, sound, rhythm, etc.) while frustrating the reader’s attempts to ‘naturalise’ the text. The external associations evoked by individual images and phrases, whether empirical or referring to other texts, were to be drawn into the poem and its artifice.
At the same time Forrest-Thomson believed that it was important to maintain elements of continuity with tradition so that the reader might have some purchase on the text. Familiar stanza forms, metre, and the use of rhyme had an important role to play, she believed, in reigniting the power of artifice. The absence of traditional prosodic devices in the poetry of the Tel Quel group, she believed, vitiated their poetry.[See Note 18]
Poetic Artifice can also be read as instruction for her ideal reader. The reception of a poet’s work depends upon competent readers. Culler discusses the concept of ‘literary competence’ at some length in Structuralist Poetics. A literary work has structure and meaning ‘because it is read in a particular way.’ The reader brings to the text ‘an implicit understanding of the operations of literary discourse which tells one what to look for.’[See Note 19] The way poetic conventions influence our reading of a text can be demonstrated, he says, by laying out a piece of journalistic prose as a poem, thereby placing emphasis on words at the beginning and end of lines, and exploiting properties in the language which were not previously utilised. Forrest-Thomson engages in exactly this exercise in chapter one of Poetic Artifice, using a Times editorial about a leadership change at the BBC. An examination of these conventions, of how ‘formal devices of poetry direct the assimilation of external contexts and produce the discontinuity which gives poetry its power’ was also, she argued, ‘an account of the kind of mastery which is required of the reader of poetry.’[See Note 20]
What then of the poetry? How does it relate to the theory, and in what sense might it be said to ‘militate or push back’ against the theory? In a paper presented at a conference on Forrest-Thomson held in 2008, Sutherland made the same argument that he makes in the Blackbox Manifold interview, analysing the poem ‘A Fortiori’ in order to make his point.[See Note 21]
Sutherland begins his essay with a brief summary of Forrest-Thomson’s theory which he describes, with some justification, as ‘an unstable mixture of insistences from New Criticism, from Pound’s most bullying aesthetic prose, from Wittgenstein on language games and from numerous currents of Structuralism.’ He then goes on to focus specifically on her insistence on the centrality of artifice and its role in freeing the reader from ‘the fixed forms of thought which ordinary language imposes on our minds.’ Sutherland says: ‘If Forrest-Thomson had written nothing that contradicted or undermined this, there would be little to distinguish her from a Language poet…’[See Note 22]
Sutherland’s characterisation of Forrest-Thomson’s theory is somewhat narrow, despite his acknowledgement of the complexity and contradictions in her writing. His ‘reading’ of ‘A Fortiori’ is, as a result, quixotic. Here is the poem:
their fractured grace: the wind
disintegrates raindrops: the raindrops
dissolve, a metal grid, that falls.
If all meaning is diacritical, one
will see dualism in anything intelligible.
The eye is like Aprile, that falleth, a priori,
on the flower, the grass, the bird,
the fire-escape — its frame shifted by drops
that glance, with their bright eye-balls
fractured in the wind: the blank world
which its whiteness defends.
All dualisms are not equivalent
nor do they imply one another.
Whiteness defends the grass, the bird, the
raindrops, a light that falls refracts
our fractured grace: our glance: the wind.
Sutherland interprets Forrest-Thomson’s comment about the importance of artifice as denying any relationship between the text and an external world. But he discovers in the text various external associations, therefore ‘disproving’ this theory. He is struck by the lines ‘the blank world / which its whiteness defends’, seeing in this a possible ‘political comment’ about ‘the blank world of spectacular relations and bourgeois coldness…defended not just by capital but by white racism.’ Later in the argument he recognise the phrase ‘which its whiteness defends’ as possibly a translation of a line in Malarmé’s poem ‘Brise Marine.’ This leads him to hunt for echoes of other texts. All of this is intended to demonstrate that the text can be ‘naturalised’, whatever the theories of its author.
But as discussed earlier, this was not her position. According to the schema set out in the preface to Poetic Artifice, a text engages in what she calls ‘external expansion’ as well as ‘internal expansion,’ in other words at a semantic level the poem connects with discourses outside itself as well as drawing on its non-semantic features to create the ‘image complex’.[See Note 23] The artifice guides the reader in how to interpret the text, and ‘bad naturalisation’ results from a failure to attend closely enough to the text. Forrest-Thomson rejected irrationality, and in her poetry walked a tightrope between artifice and semantic discoverability. ‘A Fortiori’ is an example of just such a high-wire act and is wholly consistent with her theory.
If we attend to what is happening within the poem, rather than relying on subjectivity to explain its meaning, we observe that the text makes use of a number of philosophical terms. The title ‘a fortiori,’ meaning ‘with greater reason,’ is a phrase normally used to introduce the conclusion to an argument, and here it is clearly part of the poem, the first stanza starting with a lower case letter. Elsewhere the normal convention of capitalising the word at the beginning of a sentence is observed. The poem launches itself, as it were, in mid-argument or at the summing up of an argument. But the opening phrase ‘their fractured grace’ is hardly a ‘conclusion’, and immediately frustrates our expectations.
The term ‘a priori’ appears in the second triplet where the context again raises questions about how seriously these terms are being used. In the line ‘The eye is like Aprile, that falleth, a priori,’ there is a clear sonic association between ‘Aprile’ (as Chaucer would have pronounced it) and ‘a priori’. The alliteration of ‘eye’ and the letter ‘i’, which appears several times in the line, also suggests that wordplay is more important here than reasoning.
The undermining of conventional logic is further evident in the two couplets. The first of these contains the word ‘diacritical’, another technical term. I read ‘if all meaning is diacritical’ as using the word in the sense of ‘to distinguish or discriminate’ (not as a reference to the ‘diacritical principle’ of Saussure, as Sutherland has it.) The emphasis is on the use of language to distinguish between things — in a philosophical / logical sense. The poem was published in a collection called Language Games, and Wittgenstein is never far away. The segue into ’dualism’ is a typical Forrest-Thomson piece of humour — a pun on diacritical / making distinctions / dualism. A process of false deduction of the kind Wittgenstein challenges in his later work. The second couplet turns the first one on its head, rejecting classical logic in favour of ’poetic logic.’ This is consistent with her aesthetic theories, as expounded in Poetic Artifice.
These philosophical reflections are related in the poem to observations about April showers and raindrops on a fire escape disintegrating in the wind. The shifting and broken glance of the drops — which are referred to as ‘eye-balls’ — is an extended metaphor for the experience of the subjective ‘eye / I’. As Forrest-Thomson says in another poem, ‘Zettel’ (she is quoting Wittgenstein): ‘The concept of a living being / has the same indeterminacy / as that of a language.’ Her poems abound with unacknowledged references to other texts and the line ‘which its whiteness defends’ may well be citing Malarmé. But the phrase and its associations has to be drawn into the poem and related to other elements of the text, so that the blank page of Malarmé’s poem becomes the ‘blank world’, which is mediated by language.
We should also note the poem’s formal structure — the first and last lines almost echo each other, so that the poem seems to circle back on itself. Forrest-Thomson aspired to write poems which were not simply theory put into verse. A manoeuvre she used to avoid this trap is what she termed ‘tendentious obscurity,’ where the poem consciously resists interpretation. The use of formal structuring is here deployed to compensate for the lack of obvious semantic coherence. The poem invites a number of possible readings, but clearly excludes others. By challenging the reader’s assumptions about ‘reality’ the poet seeks to create new possibilities of thought.
Although I would argue that Sutherland’s reading of ‘A Fortiori’ is less than convincing, perhaps some of her other poems do depart from her theory and perhaps a case can be made that at its best the poetry ‘pushes back against the theory’. Critics generally agree that the strongest of Forrest-Thomson’s work is to be found in the posthumously published collection On the Periphery, poems composed at the time she was writing Poetic Artifice. These might therefore be expected to most obviously resist the influence of her theorising, if such resistance is present. I will examine three very different poems in that volume to test whether this is the case: ‘Pfarr-Schmerz (Village-Anguish),’ ‘Pastoral,’ and ‘Sonnet’.
In the preface she prepared for On the Periphery, Forrest-Thomson describes a trajectory through the collection, from the ‘aleatory poems’ at the start, to ‘simple lyricism’, then poems of an increasing ‘technical and thematic complexity’, to an eventual ‘recapturing of the right’ to speak through traditional rhymed stanza forms. The poems, she says, are ‘a series of strategies’ which engage with ‘a stylistic situation on the periphery of traditional poetry.’
The poem ‘Pfarr-Schmerz (Village-Anguish)’ is a good example of the increased level of sophistication and complexity the poetry achieves part way into the collection. The poem is in two, staggered columns, the right-hand column operating as a commentary on the text to its left. The poem begins:
Making love and omelettes
For every poem ought to contain
at least one zeugma
we may discern a very
palpable corner of a
sheet. Like love it
It ought to; and since ‘is’
maybe derived from ‘ought’
the sheet, the situation and
ourselves exist (see, Proc. Arist. Soc.,
supp. vol. XCCCI)
From the outset the poem is telling us that linguistic and poetic conventions are more important than reference to any external event. A zeugma is a figure of speech in which one word refers to two others but with a different sense in each case — here ‘make’ has a different sense when applied to ‘love’ as opposed to ‘an omelette’. Empson in Seven Types of Ambiguity said that all poetry exploits ambiguity in language, zeugma being one example of this. Hence, the ‘ought’ in line two of ‘Pfarr-Schmerz’ — as this is a poem it ought to utilise ambiguity. Drawing attention to the different uses of ‘make’ also echoes the way Wittgenstein in his later writings analyses the use of words. The reference to making omelettes evokes the proverb ‘You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.’ The reader’s expectations are challenged by the unusual typography and the self-reflexivity of the text, rearranging his or her sense of ‘reality’. Eggs are broken.
The destabilisation of meaning continues with the lines which follow. Why a ‘palpable’ — i.e. able to be touched or felt — corner of a sheet? Is this the bedsheet we might associate with ‘making love’ or perhaps the sheet of the page? The poem starts in the top left corner of the page, printed on paper which the reader is touching while holding the book. The right-hand column then picks up on ‘ought’, providing a witty parody of Aristotelian logic which purports to prove the existence of an external reality — the lovers in bed. But of course such a deduction is spurious, though apparently given authority by a reference to the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society.
This play of meanings continues with ‘palpable light’ in a framed tapestry, ‘palpable’ here meaning so intense as to be almost tangible. ‘Palpable light’ is said to be ‘like love’ — the body of the beloved being touchable but love itself intangible, but also intense. The lines ‘Interlocking rings / of glazed perception / turn in our eyes’ in the left-hand column suggests the intense gaze of lovers. ‘Chinese puzzles’ are evoked, and the right column quotes from Pound’s translation of Confucius’the Wobbling Pivot. By concentrating, we are told, the student (i.e. reader) can discover ‘the process between the lines’ without the aid of a commentary. The process of the poem pivots between left and right-hand columns as it advances.
Ironies abound and later the commentary in the right-hand column tells us: ‘Irony as an acceptance of limitation / is our natural approach to the divine’. This is attributed to Elizabeth David, French Provincial Cooking. Is this really a quotation from a cookery book, or is the text playing with the reader? Either way, Elizabeth David takes us back to omelettes.
‘Ought’ returns towards the end with:
If we are going
to get up we
ought to get up
Thus we are derived from ‘ought’
The ‘glazed perceptions’ take on ‘the form of croissants’ and the lovers are compelled to re-engage with a world beyond themselves, leaving ‘the palpable corner / to the sheet.’ The poem ends with two lines of prose, serving as a disclaimer: ‘To seek mysteries in the obscure, poking into magic and committing eccentricities in order to be talked about later — This I do not.’ The poem then is serious, despite its ludic address. It is about lovers, their mutual infatuation viewed both ironically and affectionately.
The turning point of On the Periphery comes, according to the preface, with ‘Pastoral’, a poem in which Forrest-Thomson says she realised in practice what she had long known in theory: ‘that it is precisely those non-meaningful aspects of language — rhyme, rhythm and stanzaic metre are only the most obvious — which are poetry’s strength and it’s defence.’ From this point on the poems make more use of regular metre, and rhyming is introduced. ‘Pastoral’ employs both a basic iambic metre and a rhyme scheme. The emphasis shifts from the semantic to the non-semantic, the ‘meaning’ tendentiously obscure. The poem begins: ‘They are our creatures clover and they love us’. Forrest-Thomson provides her own analysis of the poem in Poetic Artifice, where she says of this opening line: ‘If one writes a line like the first line of this poem one is obviously alerting the reader to the fact sound resemblance — ‘clover’ / ’ love — is more important than meaning.’
We know from a handwritten annotation to the typescript of the poem that Forrest-Thomson draws on the experience of her ‘first near miss’ while driving.[See Note 24] But in ‘Pastoral’the foal she narrowly avoided hitting is ‘linguistically wounded’, and the poem becomes a commentary on language and its relationship to the non-verbal world, rather than a description of a motoring incident. Forrest-Thomson considered this poem to be a significant development in her writing, but I find the writing awkward and less convincing than other poems in the volume. Like Alison Mark I’m not persuaded by the poet’s claim that the sounds “entle oal” are ‘taken up in “linguistically wounded”.’ The balance between internal and external expansion is achieved more successfully, in my view, in ‘Pfarr-Schmerz.’ In ‘Pastoral’ we have, perhaps, an example of theoretical preoccupations overriding creative judgement.
The poems which follow ‘Pastoral’ continue to display the same formal variety and experimentation seen in the earlier poems. A villanelle follows, a direct response to Empson’s ‘Villanelle’ which begins: ‘It is the pain, it is the pain endures.’[See Note 25] Forrest-Thomson’s poem is a critique of Empson’s tendency to naturalise poems too quickly. Her villanelle starts: ‘It is the sense, it is the sense, controls, / landing every poem like a fish.’ Other poems in the second half of the collection look back to the kind of complexity we saw in ‘Pfarr-Schmerz.’
With ‘Sonnet,’the final poem in the collection as she originally prepared it[See Note 26], we have an extreme example of her use of conventional form. The poem follows the rhyming pattern of a Shakespearean sonnet ABAB CDCD EFEF GG — making four quatrains and a couplet. The lines are shorter than in a Shakespeare sonnet, varying typically between 3 and 4 stresses per line, and the metre is a mix of anapaestic and iambic. Unlike most of the poetry in On the Periphery the poem does not try to resist naturalisation, and is clearly about a failed relationship and about the inability of language to express love. In the preface she describes ‘Sonnet’ as ‘the love poem I have tried throughout to write straight.’ What she means by ‘straight’ here is, I think, ‘without irony’ rather than ‘in a naturalistic manner.’ She uses the term in this sense several times in Poetic Artifice, for example in relation to Four Quartets where she says Eliot’s technique: ‘is quite beyond irony and he can again speak straight in his capacity as poet…’ Generally in her poetry the agonies of love are treated with heavy irony, but not here. The line ‘If I say ‘I love you’ we can’t but laugh / since irony knows what we’ll say’ is a measure of how language becomes an obstacle to communication. The final line of the poem reads: ‘Words were made to prevent us near.’
In her discussion of Sylvia Plath’s work towards the end of Poetic Artifice Forrest-Thomson criticises Ted Hughes for failing to understand that a woman who suffers can relieve her suffering ‘by becoming the mind which creates.’[See Note 27] Language creates separation and can only ultimately relate to itself, not to an external reality. The act of writing in fact effaces the lover, as she writes in the opening lines: ‘My love, if I write a song for you / To that extent you are gone.’ ‘Sonnet’ is therefore artifice, not simply an autobiographical statement. It is the use of conventional form which tells us this.
The adoption of conventional form comes with a cost, in my view. The rhyme scheme creates some awkwardness of syntax, for example the phrase ‘prevent us near’ in the last line (‘near’ rhyming with ‘dear’ ), and ‘Never so separate trying to be two’ with its faltering rhythm. The poem has an archaic feel, and in terms of its form is reminiscent of the Victorian poetry Forrest-Thomson was reading at this time. As an experiment the poem in my view is not one of the high points of her work. But it is consistent with the theories she articulates in Poetic Artifice. The theory in the case though is not post-modernism, but something akin to Eliot’s views about the importance of tradition.
In ‘Richard II’, the last poem she composed before her death, Forrest-Thomson returns to the use of free verse form, and to ‘tendentious obscurity,’though the poem does employ elements of conventional prosody, for example the refrain ‘Forever again before after and always.’ In notes she prepared as an introduction to the poem, she says: ‘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… This is a more difficult undertaking from writing an ordinary poem as the balance of meaning and non-meaning should be set up.’ The opening, middle and final stanzas describe a building in a state of dilapidation, a metaphor for the condition of poetry. These free verse sections alternate with two pairs of quatrains, meditations on appearance and time in a style which parodies Swinburne. The poem ends with the enigmatic, free-standing ‘limpid eyelid,’ which breaks the sense of structure the pattern of stanzas and the refrain had previously established.
So do the poems militate against the theory? From the examples discussed above it is clear that there is a close relationship between the issues Forrest-Thomson wrestled with in her critical work and the creative solutions she sought in her poetry. Different aspects of her thought find expression in individual poems, and she deploys techniques from the highly experimental to the use of received form. She appropriates ideas from a wide variety of sources, ideas which often sit oddly together, the wider implications of these concepts often not fully explored or assimilated. But while placing an increasing emphasis on the non-semantic elements of a poem Forrest-Thomson was not ignoring the referential aspects language. She was interested in the relationship between language and the world, language and identity. The poetry does not need the ‘theory’to justify it, but knowledge of the theory makes us better readers of her work.
This text contains endnotes. If you click on the number that identifies the endnote, you will be taken back to the point in the text where the endnote anchor occurs; and vice versa.
[Endnote 1] See for example: Raitt, Suzanne , ‘Love in the Time of Lacan: The Poetry of Veronica Forrest-Thomson,’ Fragmente 8, pp. 16-25 (1998), Mark, Alison, Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Language Poetry, British Council Writers and their Work series, Tavistock: Northcote House (2001), and Patterson, Ian, ‘Containers, Pulses, Lentils: Tel Quel and Veronica Forrest Thomson,’ published in Kenyon Review (2008.)
[Endnote 3] Forrest-Thomson, Veronica, Poetic Artifice, (revised edition ed. Farmer, Gareth), Shearsman (2016), p.33. Poetic Artifice was originally published by Manchester University Press in 1978. I have used the recently republished version edited by Gareth Farmer which corrects a number of errors in the original.
[Endnote 4] Ibid., p.39
[Endnote 5] Poetic Artifice, p.186
[Endnote 6] Ibid., p.36
[Endnote 7] Ibid., p.113
[Endnote 8] Ibid., p.80. Forrest-Thomson appropriates W. B. Yeats’ lines ‘changed, changed utterly; / A terrible beauty is born’ (from the poem ‘Easter 1916’ ). Yeats was describing his reaction to the Irish uprising and the execution of its leaders.’ Forrest-Thomson’s use of the phrase suggests she believed poetry was capable of bringing about such change.
[Endnote 9] Eliot, T.S., Collected Poems, Faber (1936), p.218.
[Endnote 10] See for example Poetic Artifice p.130
[Endnote 11] Ibid., p.63
[Endnote 12] Cf. Culler, Jonathan, Structuralist Poetics, Routledge (1975) pp.197-198, and Poetic Artifice, pp. 215-219.
[Endnote 13] One of Forrest-Thomson’s last poems is called ‘S / Z’, the title of a work of literary theory by Barthes who undoubtedly influenced her. In S / Z Barthes moves away from the idea of universal structure arguing instead that meaning in a text is created by the interaction of a number of ‘codes’. This enables him to explain both how it is that each text is different from other texts, and how multiple readings of a single text can arise.’ He demonstrates this through the close analysis of a story by Balzac.
[Endnote 14] Farmer, Gareth, ‘‘The slightly hysterical style of University talk’ : Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Cambridge’, Cambridge Literary Review 1.1 (September, 2009), pp. 161-177.
[Endnote 15] Poetic Artifice, p. 193.
[Endnote 16] Practical criticism was a key element of the English syllabus at Cambridge, where Forrest-Thomson studied for her PhD. The recently published recollections of poets and scholars who studied with J.H. Prynne at Cambridge in the 1960s and 1970s give a sense of the atmosphere. John Hall, for instance, who studied at Cambridge from 1963 to 1967 recalled Prynne’s supervisions in practical criticism being ‘almost a sufficient education in themselves.’ Forrest-Thomson was initially supervised by Prynne, and would certainly have been exposed to Prynne’s teaching of canonical texts. (See Brinton, Ian [ed.], For the Future, Shearsman, 2016.)
[Endnote 17] See Empson, William, Using Biography, Chatto, (1984.)
[Endnote 18] Poetic Artifice, p.183
[Endnote 19] Culler, op. cit., p.132.
[Endnote 20] Poetic Artifice, p.64
[Endnote 22] Ibid., p. 3.
[Endnote 23] This schema in part derives from Barthes, see in particular S / Z, pp. 92-93.
[Endnote 24] See Mark, op. cit., p. 85.
[Endnote 25] Empson, William, Collected Poems, Chatto & Windus (1955).
[Endnote 26] See Anthony Barnett’s notes on this in Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Collected Poems, Shearsman (2008), p.176-7.
[Endnote 27] Poetic Artifice, p. 221.