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Selection Restrictions, Individuals, Acorns and Oaks

Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Analytical Linguistics

. . . when we think of some of the more awe-inspiring performatives such as “I promise to . . . ” [s]urely the words must be spoken “seriously” and so as to be taken “seriously”? This is, though vague, true enough in general—it is an important commonplace in discussing the purport of any utterance whatsoever. I must not be joking, for example, nor writing a poem. (Austin 2001 9)

The title of Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s poem, “Fêtes Nationales & Zazie in the London Underground” (61-2)[1] refers to a 1959 novel by Raymond Queneau entitled Zazie dans le métro which was adapted in 1960 into a bizarre film by the director Louis Malle. The anglicising of “le metro” to the “London Underground” of the title is a comic illustration of Forrest-Thomson’s absorption and adaptation of French culture and thought in her poetry. Forrest-Thomson undertook her PhD at Cambridge from 1968-71 when French critical theory, published in journals such as Tel Quel, was beginning to have an impact on literary studies.[2] An edition of translated selections from these essays was published as Signs of the Times in Cambridge in 1971 and it served to introduce much of this critical thinking to an English audience. Forrest-Thomson would become a champion of this work, particularly the essays of Roland Barthes and Julia Kristeva and their insights would exert a great influence on her understanding of poetic language. She also translated a selection of poems and critical apercus by the two staples of the Tel Quel ranks—Denis Roche and Marcelin Pleynet—only a few of which were published in her lifetime.[3] With all this evidence, it is unsurprising that much of the critical work on Forrest-Thomson has focussed in large part on ideas such as “intertextuality” and Jacques Derrida (Gregson), Jacques Lacan (Raitt), psychoanalysis and poststructuralism (Mark) and her “postmodernism” (McHale). Whilst most critics also attend to the obvious influence of Wittgenstein on Forrest-Thomson’s work, there is, as yet, no commentary on the way in which she engaged with other proponents of analytical linguistics.

This analytical tradition is evoked by the reprieve of the poem, “Fêtes Nationales”: “The present king of France is bald.” In her note to the poem, Forrest-Thomson glosses the use of the sentence as “from philosophical discussions on “referring,” on the connection between thing and sign” (62). The sentence, used by Bertrand Russell in 1905 (and probably the Gottlob Frege’s invention), is used to define the status of both proper names and definite descriptions. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Philosophical Investigations modify Russell’s theory of definite descriptions, as Anthony Kenny (1973) explains, “to fit descriptions which described complex objects by enumerating their parts (38).”[4] The sentence is used as a kind of academic short-hand, a marker of a linguistic philosophical history which is taken up and translated in the poem’s triumphal line: “LE ROI PRESENT DE LA FRANCE EST CHAUVE” (62). This sentence is one among many 7 inch singles in what Forrest-Thomson describes as the poem’s “intellectual jukebox” (61). The poet’s posthumous collection, On the Periphery and critical book Poetic Artifice: A Theory of Twentieth-Century Poetry testify to her engagement with, among others, J. L. Austin’s influential theory of the “performative utterance,” discussions of “Transformational Grammar” and “Deep Structures” of language and F. H. Strawson’s “descriptive metaphysics.” In this article I will examine in some detail three poems—“A Plea for Excuses,” “Selection Restrictions on Peanuts for Dinner,”and“Individuals”—to trace the ways in which Forrest-Thomson puts these theories into practice.


I “A Plea for Excuses”
The title of Forrest-Thomson’s poem is that of a paper by Austin (1957) originally published in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, a reference flagged by the poem’s dedication which reads, “i.m. J. L Austin.” The late composition of the poem suggests the consistent influence of certain linguistic theories throughout ForrestThomson’s career and not least that she kept up to date with developments in such theory.[5] Austin’s essay attempts to define the nature of the “excuse” as opposed to, for example, “justification,” and to free the word from historical philosophical discussions of ethics. As he writes in the piece:

words are our tools, and, as a minimum, we should use clean tools: we should know what we mean and what we do not, and we must forearm ourselves against the traps that language sets us. Secondly, words are not (except in their own little corner) facts or things: we need therefore to prise them [from] the world, to hold them apart from and against it, so that we can realise their inadequacies and arbitrariness, and can relook at the world without blinkers. (5)

The spirit of Austin’s endeavours to refine and hone the meaning of particular words and to “hold them apart from and against” the world for scrutiny, is translated into Forrest-Thomson’s emphasis on the importance of precision and technique in poetry. Forrest-Thomson was clearly inspired by the philosopher’s attempt to “relook at the world without blinkers” through a vigorous analysis of linguistic usage, as this idea informed her desire to, as she puts it in Poetic Artifice, create a “new order of imagination within the language of society” (63). Whilst the poem “A Plea For Excuses” does address Austin’s essay in part, it also imports language and associated ideas from the philosopher’s entire oeuvre, including, of course, his theory of the performative utterance. In How to Do Things with Words (2001), Austin argues that in saying certain things we are in fact doing or performing the action. But, as with a declaration of marriage, the “I do” of the ceremony must be accompanied by all the legal trappings, it must take place in an appropriate environment and be the product of mutual consent; in short, the conditions must be correct in order for the performance to be fulfilled. Austin doesn’t consider a declaration of “I do” out of context to be false, but rather infelicitous (or unhappy) with a successful completion of the performative being contingent on felicitous (or happy) conditions. These terms are important to Forrest-Thomson as we’ll see.

The opening few sections of “A Plea for Excuses” read:

The clue discovered in a performative
verb promises completion to the poem;
it defines “the indirect free style”
by which narrators indicate these thoughts
are not of them, but of their creatures.

Free, that is, to impute our contingencies
to words, our creatures; indirect that
“is”, since the object in parenthesis
is only “to be” experienced; and style?
well, this subject is to many a nominal

unhappiness, especially, articulate insincerity;
which let us avoid, creating for an object
the parenthetical excuse, and for a subject,
logical form: (145)

The italicising of “performative / verb” and “nominal // unhappiness” registers the importation into the poem of technical linguistic terms, but the forced enjambments assert the poem’s formal control. The form is quite rigid in these opening lines, with an average syllable count of ten arranged in (initially) two five line stanzas. The first stanza is a complete sentence whilst the second and third are part of the same sentence, elegantly joined by semicolons. The poem features literary critical and linguistic technical jargon, situating itself on the continuum of a tradition of critique and argumentation. Hence the arrangement of connectives (“that is” and “since”), the rhetorical question and the discursive tone. However, the form asserts the poem’s discontinuity from such “realist” and modernist conventions as the ostensible clarifications of the phrase “indirect free style” in stanza two are marked by the ironic mis-deployment of the quotation marks. Instead of referring to the “indirect free style,” they contain the ontological verbs “is” and “to be.” Further, the repeated separation of “object” and “subject” and the description of formal procedures —“parenthesis” and “logical form”— suggest Forrest-Thomson’s exploration of the way in which language figures the subject, or at least mediates experience.

Forrest-Thomson’s ongoing examination of the separation between “word” and “world,” or between language and what she calls in Poetic Artifice (1978) the “non-verbal world” (28), is signalled by the line “to words, our creatures”. A reader is invited to recognise the allusion to Forrest-Thomson’s own poem “Pastoral” (also printed in On the Periphery) in which she writes: “They are our creatures, clover, and they love us” and “jagged are names and not our creatures” (123). Forrest-Thomson’s own analysis of the poem in Poetic Artifice results in an oft-cited slip or typo: “the poet is saying [ . . . ] preoccupation with linguistic problems prevents contact with the physical word”(125—emphasis added).[6] This theme of the relation between word and world is foregrounded in “A Plea for Excuses” in the lines of “logical form”:

        if . . . (the cat is on the mat)
and if . . . (it is not the case that the cat is on the mat)
   then . . . (all possible worlds exist)

        if . . . (world is language)
and if . . . (it is not the case that world is language)
   then . . . (all possible words are true)

Thus: all possible words exist and we are true
to none, unless the poem be performative
and promises that we exist (We promise
that it is.) (145)

The “logical form” is part propositional calculus, part dialectical reasoning and a parody of both. The affirmative statements in parenthesis collapse into one another, producing a reductio ad absurdum argument that is also just absurd. Forrest-Thomson proposes a synthesis of the propositions which become a grey area where “all possible worlds exist” and “all possible words are true.” This, in turn, gives the conclusive statement: “all possible words exist and we are true / to none.” The performative is set up as a resolution to this contradictory state, as if the poem performs the statement, “we exist” then to all intents and purposes this is “true”: existence is affirmed, at least in the present context of the utterance. But the poet knows (as the entreating parenthetical comment, “We promise,” acknowledges) that the felicitous conditions for the completion of the speech act won’t be reached as the reader is yet to discover the “clue” to “complete” the poem, and the language used and the artifice employed pull in the opposite direction from “the world” and experience towards mediation and artificiality; any resolution will be artificial. Just as “to be” is contained in quotation marks, when the poet writes a poem the artifice mediating the language perpetuates the gap between words and that which they describe. Austin himself reformulated the “truth” or “falsity” of a performative with the terms “happy” or “unhappy”. “There may,” the poet concedes, “be pleasure equally / In deploying the ambiguous richness / of unhappy words,” but this results in the final separation which is illustrated by the activity of parenthesis:

in                       (placing
the                      delicate wrist
against the          formica table-edge
and                     watching
the                                      fingers
                                                      tremble.) (145)

Writing of lines with similar form from Forrest-Thomson’s poem, “The Dying Gladiator,” Perril (1996) observes that they “characteristically emphasise poetic discontinuity between the linguistic and the empirical realms” (104). Similarly, he describes the form at the end of “A Plea For Excuses” as a “dramatic display of anti-synthesis”(105) between the formal logic of language and the realm of experience whose antithesis is heightened by the contrast between sparse mono-syllabic connectives and the “delicate” and tentative description in parenthesis. The reader’s eye must cross the gap in order to connect the sentence, darting in and out of the parenthetical in order to build sense. This is a dramatic illustration of the way in which what Forrest-Thomson calls, in Poetic Artifice, “non-meaningful” (a passim) aspects of the poem (here form) are used to contribute to a possible thematic synthesis. For Forrest-Thomson, writing is always an “articulate insincerity.” It is little surprise, therefore, that she turned to the work of philosophers like Austin to outline just why and how this is the case.


II “Selection Restrictions on Peanuts for Dinner”
In Poetic Artifice, Forrest-Thomson characterises an experienced and skilful use of the conventions of poetry as a “mastery” which results in “an ability to exclude and to include and grasp imaginative relations which are implicit in the words of the poem”; “mastery of technique” enables a writer and reader to reconstruct the world in numerous ways (21). Linguistic theory informs Forrest-Thomson’s understanding and mastery of the activity of the poem by rigorously delineating the function of words in given grammatical contexts. “Selection Restrictions on Peanuts for Dinner” contains one such skill.

“Selection restrictions” are described by David Crystal (1999) as: “in generative grammar, a syntactic feature which specifies restrictions on the permitted combinations of lexical items within a given grammatical context” (300). John Reichert, in his useful and pragmatically titled book, Making Sense of Literature (1977),explains that the term“selection restrictions”is used extensively in Chomsky’s seminal Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965) and Jerrold J. Katz’s Semantic Theory (1972) to define “another set of rules or regularities [ . . . ] which describes the way words and expressions are defined in a sentence” (40). He continues:

The connotations of a word will place certain constraints on the words to which it may be grammatically related in the sentence. We know that a sentence beginning“I saw a big red . . . ”will ordinarily be completed by a count noun designating a concrete object, not by an abstract noun (like “democracy”) [for example] [ . . . ] for red connotes a quality that only objects can possess, and “a” connotes singularity. (40)

So a word’s connotations restrict its usage within certain grammatical constructions. Reichert further elucidates:

Speakers of English will recognise sentences like “He water-proofed that idea” or “prepositions smell loud” as irregular because they violate selection restrictions [ . . . ] the connotations of these sentences fail to match up properly, and the result is what is sometimes called “sort crossing,” sometimes a “category mistake.” (40)

“Selection restrictions” were a useful concept for Forrest-Thomson as a poet’s knowledge of their function leads to greater control of the way in which meaning operates in the poem.

The title of Forrest-Thomson’s poem involves some “sort crossing.” An implied “there are” before it (“There are selection restrictions on peanuts for dinner”) somehow brings it into focus. But placing “selection restrictions” on peanuts is unclear: it is either to provide only peanuts or to restrict or ration their consumption. Forrest-Thomson plays the plural implied by “restrictions” against the singular of the peanut (any food as long as it’s a peanut). Knowing that “selection restrictions” is a technical grammatical term perhaps leads a reader to surmise that the poem will be an exploration of some of the selection restrictions—the constraints on the words which are grammatically relatable—to the words in the phrase “peanuts for dinner.” “Peanuts,” of course, has various connotations, not least the metaphorical usage as “very little.” Perhaps we are to witness the extension of the words’ connotations throughout the poem and “the difficulty,” as the poem states later on, “is to recognise” which category of understanding to apply to the words’ status in each “case” of use.

Here is the poem in full:

Selection Restrictions on Peanuts for Dinner

Tenacity was sticking to the topic
                                                        of blankets
and walnuts, French: noix
                                              noisette: a hazel nut.
One word can include two unities;
                                                            the difficulty
is to recognise when this is the case:
                                                             a little nut; or take
blankets: the weave of two senses
                                                       under them
makes nothing of a six-term dinner
                                                            table textures
but do they, even securely tucked
                                                       at the corners,
comprehend a unity?
                                    Sweat is not more impure
than tears;
                    and indeed it is often followed by them.
The words
                 were too hot for blankets
or unity.
               An acorn developed into every oak.(108)

The step-down form is similar to that used by Charles Olson, particularly in his poem “The Distances,” though the measured and consistent use of the long and the short lines implies a rhetorical control evident in J H Prynne’s poetry of the time, particularly in A Night Squared (1971) or Into the Day (1972). A sonnet form is also suggested as there is a very deliberate volta at “Sweat is not more impure” two thirds of the way through. The volta is further implied by the way in which the teetering noun phrases move from the left to the right at “than tears” and the eye is drawn in an arc towards the left margin as the poem develops. I’d like to suggest that Forrest-Thomson is using such a form to slow down and emphasise the way in which selection restrictions operate or transform noun phrases—they dangle for a while before being claimed by grammatical sense. The “difficulty,” for example, could be a general one before it’s qualified by the clause, “is to recognise.” Similarly, “table textures” is fleetingly independent entity before the operation of “tucked” combined with “dinner” imply, perhaps, a table cloth. The foregrounding of noun phrases is marked by the insistent rhythm of the lines: “of blankets,” “the difficulty,” “under them,” “table textures,” and “than tears,” “the words” which wait to be parsed within grammatical constructions.

To look at some other features: the poem is “structured” around the “topic / of blankets / and walnuts,” but it is the nuts, inaugurated by the title, which get most of the initial attention. “Noix” is the French for walnut, whilst “noisette” means hazelnut, but it also means “little nut” with the prefix taking on the generative “nut” and the suffix “-ette” suggesting the diminutive status. Perril (1996) has argued that the demonstration of the sound similarities and confusion between “noix” and “noisette” complicates the structuralist conception of differential identity by showing a link between sound and sense unaccounted for by structuralism (92). This is certainly true, but Forrest-Thomson is equally concerned with demonstrating the way in which selection restrictions (along with artifice) operate to delimit or refine such sense. She does this by exploring the tension between the repeated limitation “two unities” and the words being “too hot for blankets,” as they struggle to get out from under their structural restrictions. This tension between endless sense and restriction is also illustrated in the ingenious lines: “Sweat is not more impure / than tears.” “Sweat” and “tears” are related graphically via the vowels “e/a.” They are also brought together by the rhythm of the line, but the grammar holds them as far apart as it can, which suggests the tension and mutual dependency of sweat and tears. Such tension is also demonstrated semantically, as “sweat” and “tears” signify both pleasure and pain which can, of course, exist simultaneously. The slight “sort crossing” of the line represented in double negative of “no more impure” enhances the uneasiness of the description. So we see how selection restrictions and artifice work with and against each other so that the reader experiences the tensions and contradictions that the poet describes.

We struggle to “comprehend a unity” or to naturalise the poem. Certainly the closing line, like the cryptic “limpid eyelid” which ends Forrest-Thomson’s poem, “Richard II” (159), doesn’t give us any clue. Perhaps “An acorn developed into every oak” has the status of a reflective metaphor of the way in which words have common etymological roots and “develop” out of each other. The metaphorical figure of the oak and the acorn can be found scattered far afield in literary texts; I shall examine two possible references here, starting with the least obvious.

A search in some linguistic textbooks yielded a possible source of the sentence, “An acorn developed into every oak.” Just like “the present king of France is bald,” this sentence has become an example used to test the operations of transformational grammar. Forrest-Thomson could have taken it from a paper given at the “Cambridge Colloquium on Formal Semantics of Natural Language” which took place in April 1973 (the year of the composition of On the Periphery in which this poem appears). The paper, by Petr Sgall (1975) was entitled “Conditions of the use of sentences and a semantic representation of topic and focus” and contains a discussion of, as Sgall explains, “the correspondence between the semantic structure of sentences and a structuring of the universe of discourse in a given time-point of the discourse” (297).[7] Sgall closes his article with some examples of how, as he describes, “a semantically-based generative description can be formulated in which neither global constraints nor semantically relevant transformations are needed” which is a revision of Chomsky’s conception of the “preoccupation” of a sentence (297). This is example 38 from his conclusion:

a.   Every oak developed out of an ACORN [ . . . ]
b.   Every acorn developed into an OAK [ . . . ]
c.   An OAK developed out of every acorn (310)

None of these correspond exactly to Forrest-Thomson’s line, “An acorn developed into every oak,” but they are very similar. Perhaps Forrest-Thomson attended this paper and noted the line down incorrectly, or perhaps she was writing the sentence as a recondite linguistic joke and a revision of Sgall’s conclusions. Whilst there is no evidence that Forrest-Thomson attended this conference, I would argue that she was aware of the use of the “acorn” and “oak” sentence in linguistic theory, specifically transformational grammar and its attendant consequences for separately analysing the syntactic, phonological and semantic component and activities in grammar.[8] The similarity between Sgall’s and Forrest-Thomson’s sentences not only encourages us to pay close attention to the minutiae of Forrest-Thomson’s experimentation with language, but also indicates a whole other dimension to her practice.

There is broader possible explanation for the terminology of “selection restrictions” and the figures of the acorn and oak in this poem. One of the compelling characteristics of Forrest-Thomson’s critical thinking is the way in which she adopts and transforms technical terms and ideas and weaves them into an inimitable aesthetic. So, for example, she transforms the structuralist term “naturalization,” referring to the way in which texts are “recuperated” and interpreted into meaning (Culler 134-50), and makes it a linchpin of her theory of “Poetic Artifice.” A similar process can be viewed in her adoption and translation of Empson’s literary theory or her theoretical application of Dadaism to contemporary poets such as John Ashbery and Prynne.[9] One of Forrest-Thomson’s broad theoretical arguments is that poetry should be neither entirely rational—merely aping the logical structures of conversational and “normal” discourse—nor entirely “irrational,” where any number of interpretations are possible. The way in which the poet can mediate between these two poles and control meaning is by the heightened use of all the devices of poetic artifice.[10] Poetic artifice becomes, in Forrest-Thomson’s mind, the pre-eminent feature of poetry.

In a recently unearthed manuscript consisting of half an unfinished book called “Obstinate Isles: Ezra Pound and the Late Nineteenth-Century,” Forrest-Thomson tentatively gives her first chapter the title, “Selection Restrictions on Verse.”[11] In this manuscript, the term “Selection Restrictions” is used to describe the way in which certain formal and thematic choices serve to control and restrict the operation of meaning in the poetry of A. C. Swinburne. What Forrest-Thomson calls poetry’s “power,” is, she argues, dependent on a “give and take between selection of patterns of meaning and selection of patterns of form.” The poet’s need to, as she puts it, “keep simultaneously to theme, metre, and rhyme-scheme restricts the available words very severely since theme limits the possible choices from the level of meaning and the other two limit the choices of sound.” This may appear to be a simple claim for the harmonious relation of form and content, but Forrest-Thomson is actually attempting an apology for Swinburne’s poetry against the charges from numerous twentieth-century critics (most notably Pound and Eliot) that his work used merely “excessive” formal features. To counter this reception of Swinburne, Forrest-Thomson’s broad aim in the chapter is to sketch the dialectical interactions between form and content in his verse in order to demonstrate a virtuoso poetic control. Other chapters examine the poetry of a few pre-Raphaelite poets in order to refine her theory of the persistence of aestheticism in twentieth-century poetry. Alas, the parts on Pound remain unwritten, but a chapter outline reveal her intentions to look at Rossetti’s influence on Pound’s verse and how his later cantos “revert” to this nineteenth-century influence. Forrest-Thomson’s writing on Swinburne provides evidence that what was once specifically linguistic nomenclature—“selection restrictions”— is now being used to describe the broad authorial activity of the “selection” of content and form and the ways in which these selections restrict the activity of each. In Forrest-Thomson’s view, the better the selection, the better the poet.

Forrest-Thomson’s stated aim in this manuscript is, simply, to examine how certain nineteenth-century poets created “alternative orders of imagination reached through elegance.” Whist the chapters on Pound are unwritten, there is good reason to suppose that she would have examined Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” (1958) as a great deal of her third chapter—provisionally entitled, “Lilies from the Acorn”—deals with the Rossettis’ construction of poetic personae which is a dominant aspect of Pound’s poem. “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” marks a point in Pound’s career where he explicitly rejects his youthful aestheticism. However, it is with this aestheticism that Forrest-Thomson is concerned and the line in the opening of Pound’s poem, “E.P. Ode Pour L’Election de son Sepulchre,” about “E.P.” being “Bent resolutely on wringing lilies from the acorn” (173), reveals another possible source for the final line of “Selection Restrictions.” The line forms part of the description of the number of ways in which “E.P.” is “out of key with his time.” The activity of “wringing lilies from the acorn” is an aestheticist gesture which Pound, by this stage in his life, parodies and ridicules. In his essay “The Serious Artist” (1974), originally published in the Egoist in 1913, Pound wrote that the “intellectual and Emotional Complex” of a poem “must be in harmony, they must form an organism, they must be an oak sprung from an acorn” (51—emphasis added). This view reflects Ernest Fenollosa’s account of the relationship between Chinese speech and ideograms and nature just as, he writes, “the forces which produce the branch-angles of an oak lay potent in the acorn” (Fenollosa 107— emphasis added). The phrase, “An acorn developed in every oak” clearly has a wider currency than exemplifying linguistic theory, but Forrest-Thomson’s use of it in the poem is, I would argue, double-facing. It is used to evoke the analytical linguistic discussions of context-dependent meaning and to, as it were, comment on the particular restrictions placed on interpretation by the operations of poetic form. But it also trades on discussions of poetic language’s relation to the world which is a key theme of aestheticism. The poem draws on the tensions between “unity”—between the world and the word (with each acorn producing its corresponding oak), and the “unity” of the aesthetic object—and the ambiguity of multiple interpretations and uses of words in different contexts. Forrest-Thomson uses both analytic linguistic and literary traditions to produce these tensions and both are pertinent to a proper understanding of this poem.


III “Individuals”
I’d like to close with an examination of the poem, “Individuals,” which has, so far, attracted no critical attention. Like “Selection Restrictions,” the poem draws on what so-called “ordinary language philosophy,” specifically the work of the philosopher P. F. Strawson. This time, Forrest-Thomson uses analytic philosophy to refine her understanding of what constitutes an individual. The poem reads:


are complex
                      not as a tangle of wire
but as a coiled spring
                      before it is stretched out
into simplicity.
                      Strawson’s cat slices
slip through your fingers
                      with a prickle of fur;
basic particulars:
and material bodies.
                      Pound’s cats at Rapallo
too hungry to bother
                      with their place in a conceptual scheme
appear nevertheless
                      in the Cantos
“some of them are so ungrateful”
said T.S. Eliot.
                      Practical Cats
can omit
                      “the exacerbating clause”:
“if all objectivity and all knowledge is relative . . . ”
                      Mr. Eliot
never returned to take his doctor’s degree.
(“Forty six years after my academic philosophizing
  came to an end, I find myself unable to think
  in the terminology of this essay. Indeed
  I do not claim to understand it.”)
  slips through your fingers
                      with a prickle of fur.
  But there is at least a case
                      that poetry should trace
  the double helix
  (those interlocking strands of DNA)
                      before it try
  to straighten the spring. (67)

The poem works through a central image of the complexity of a person as like a “coiled spring” and which can be “stretched out / into simplicity”. The “coiled spring” image is taken up at the end of the poem with the “double helix” of DNA and to “straighten the spring” perhaps means to break-down an individual to their most irreducible: their DNA. Such an image also encourages a reading of the typographic qualities of the poem—the step-down form—as an iconic representation of the double helix, whilst the phonetic and visual repetitions of “c” and “s” sounds (as in “complex,” “coiled spring,” “simplicity,” “Strawson’s cat slices”) perhaps imitate the nucleotide repeats in all DNA chains. This repeated pattern is taken up in the aspiration of the final lines, that “there is at least a case / that poetry should trace / the double helix [ . . . ] before it try / to straighten the spring.” In a way, the poem has already “traced” the double helix with its iconic structure and its “interlocking strands” of repeated visual and phonetic material. The poet is making the “case” that poetry should try and define the complex patterns that comprise an “individual.”

The poem features a number of other subjects, entwined like “a tangle of wire.”The main protagonist is the philosopher P.F.Strawson whose book, Individuals; An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics was published in 1959 and which draws on the analytic philosophical tradition. His book is an example of what he calls “descriptive metaphysics” which aims to describe “the actual structure of our thought about the world” (9). What Strawson means by this are “categories and concepts which, in their most fundamental character, change not at all” in the human mind and as well as “their interconnexions, and the structure that they form” (10). He aims to describe, in other words, what Forrest-Thomson calls the “conceptual schemes” which all humans share. The book is divided into two parts: “Particulars” and “Logical Subjects,” where the “first part aims at establishing the central position which material bodies and persons occupy among particulars in general,” while the second part aims to “establish and explain the connexion between the idea of particular in general and that of an object of reference or logical subject” (10-11).[12] Its chapters cover such subjects as “Basic Particulars,” “Persons” and “Material Bodies,” which gave the poet her terminology. It should be clear by now that this type of analytic schematising gave Forrest-Thomson a great deal of imaginative material and vocabulary and, in “Individuals,” she employs this to describe identity.

“Part of my concern,” Strawson writes in the opening chapter on “Bodies,” “is to exhibit some general and structural features of the conceptual scheme in terms of which we think about particular themes” (15). He defines “particulars” as “historical occurrences, material objects, people and their shadows” (15). Forrest-Thomson finds analogies for Strawson’s “historical particulars,” “people” and “shadows” in the poem. She describes and evokes Ezra Pound’s time spent in Rapallo, particularly his relationship with the cats which was most memorably described by W. B. Yeats.[13] She also evokes Pound’s Cantos (1998) thematically and formally. The cats do “appear nevertheless / in the Cantos” and Forrest-Thomson’s form also resembles some of Pound’s early cantos, particularly II where the poet describes the

Sniff and pad-foot of beasts,
                      fur brushing my knee-skin,
Rustle of airy sheaths,
                      dry forms in the æther. (8)

Other “historical occurrences” in “Individuals” are Eliot’s composition of his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and as well as his reflection on his long since forgotten thesis (1964) which appears in parenthesis in the poem. Other people or animals are implied in the third person pronouns in the lines “He / slips through your fingers / with a prickle of fur.” These are what Strawson would define as “particulars,” defining people against historical and poetic backdrop, patterns of identity sketched out in time.

In his chapter on “Persons,” Strawson tries to pinpoint precisely what we mean when we describe a “person.” One way of identifying this specificity is to understand how what he calls “P-predicates” operate. P-predicates are Strawson’s term for any predicate that can only be ascribed to persons and which imply what Nicholas Bunnin and Jiyuan Yu (2004) describe as “the possession of consciousness by that individual” (543). As Strawson explains, the predicate, “is smiling” implies consciousness, whilst the predicate “weighs 10 stone” does not and could be applied to any material body; these latter her calls “M-predicates” (124).[14] Defining a particular person would involve identifying predicates which, Strawson explains, “involve doing something, which clearly imply intention or a state of mind or at least consciousness in general, and which indicate a characteristic pattern, or range of patterns, of bodily movement” (111). Forrest-Thomson draws this distinction between conscious and “material bodies” in the poem. The phrases, “are complex” and “tangle of wire,” which relate to the “subject” of “individuals” of the title, are M-predicates which can be ascribed to all “material bodies.” Those relating to the cats, on the other hand, such as “too hungry” and to Eliot (who “never returned”), are P-predicates, implying consciousness. There are a number of other disembodied actions such as, “stretched out,” the repetition of “slip[s] through your fingers,” “try / to straighten” which establish “states of mind,” and a “range of patterns” which a relatable to actions but which are left conspicuously without subject. The disembodied nature of the “He” and the “your” as well as the personification of “poetry” (how can it stretch out?), heightens the tension in trying to wrestle a unique individual or define a body against the patterns of a universal.

Similarly, Forrest-Thomson’s line, “Strawson’s cat slices,” refers to the philosopher’s discussion of logical subjects and whether a “general concept of cat” is possible. Strawson speculates that “the idea of a cat-features [ . . . ] must include the idea of a characteristic shape, a characteristic pattern of occupation of space” (208). A “cat-slice” is a characteristic of a cat at a particular time and Strawson is examining the relation of this specific instance (or slice) of a cat to what he calls a “sortal universal.” As he puts it: “what are the temporal limits of a cat-slice” (209).[15] Strawson refers to philosophical discussions of identity which try to identify consistent characteristics of a person over time. Is the “I” to which I refer now, the same “I” to which I refer minutes later? There are repeated references to memory in the poem, for instance the implied image of Pound recalling his time at Rapallo in the Cantos; Yeats’s “Rapallo” in which he describes a friend as saying “ ‘some of them so ungrateful’ ” (372),[16] and the quotation from Eliot’s introduction to his thesis. Philosophers have long debated over the importance of memory in the definition of identity, with some proposing that, as John Campbell (2009) summarises, in order for personal identity to be affirmed, “quasimemory” must exist about past experience (572).[17] Forrest-Thomson alludes to such debates in her quotation from Eliot, inviting a reader to question whether, if memory of terminology has been erased, the “I” of the present in the Eliot quotation is the same person as the one who wrote the thesis. Furthermore, the “knowledge” embodied in the thesis has become “relative” by virtue of Eliot forgetting it. Strawson himself dismisses the concept of a “pure individual consciousness” or the “ego” as it cannot be, as he puts it, “explained, analysed in terms of the concept of the person” (102-3). Forrest-Thomson is aligning herself with an analytical philosophy which seeks to define the individual in terms of its composite parts set up in relation to various conceptual patterns, rather than as something private and immutable.

Strawson presents an integrated nature of identity and of the structural functioning of persons within conceptual frameworks and patterns rather than of the independently functioning ego. It is clear that these ideas made an impression on Forrest-Thomson’s understanding of the patterns constituting identity. This grounding in “ordinary language” philosophy tempers the sense presented by other critics that Forrest-Thomson was primarily a “post-structuralist” whose interest in Wittgenstein was primarily to do with the way in which his ideas complement those of Barthes, Derrida and Kristeva. The “constructed” subject, I would argue, suggested itself to Forrest-Thomson by logic and grammar before the influence of French critical theory.


These three poems suggest a much deeper engagement with formal linguistics than has hitherto been acknowledged. It is possible that along with Wittgenstein and other linguistic theorists, Forrest-Thomson conceived of the poem as a complex equation of sorts and that such mathematical linguistic theories contributed to this conceptual understanding of the workings of artifice. In her brilliant essay, “Irrationality and Artifice: A Problem in Recent Poetics” (1971), Forrest-Thomson “pleas” for poetic convention, and for an explicit attempt to “bring to conscious formulation the systems of organization that are inescapably present in our reading and writing of poetry” (123). The opening section of the essay argues that, just as the relationship between context and use of language is not arbitrary, and that research into deep structures have revealed that the rules underlying the linguistic system are not random (depending as they do on certain innate properties of the mind), neither is artifice “arbitrary,” but is, rather, highly motivated. Forrest-Thomson then concludes:

We may take [then] that artifice differs from irrationality in being based on systematic procedures, and from rationality in the fact that these procedures are an attempt to articulate a structure that is more fundamental, and in many ways destroys the normal procedures of rational discourse. Once we have accepted the notion of language as arbitrary, we are free to rearrange it according to a new system of conventions. This constitutes an opposition to irrationality as well as to rationality; for it implicitly asserts that we may make some things more meaningful, more ordered, than others, if we can construct a system to justify this ascription of order and meaning. This is why problems of technique are the most important problems in the arts. (127)

The ideas of performative utterances, transformational grammar and its attendant theory and revisions, as well as “descriptive metaphysics,” offered useful models and “systematic procedures” for Forrest-Thomson, informing her construction of “a system to justify the ascription of order and meaning.” These, I would contend, fed into her formulation of the theory of artifice and belief in the poem as a thing of rigorous “order” and arrangement. It is little wonder that she had this view if we consider her description of poetry a little later in the article as being based on “structures of intelligibility which it has created for itself in the same way that a physicist refers his work to a mathematical system” (128). The rigorous delineation of language use and character undertaken by analytic linguistics exerted a great influence on Forrest-Thomson’s understanding of the way in which poetry builds up these “structures of intelligibility.” The insights of Austin, Chomsky and Strawson were as important to her work as those of the commonly discussed French critical thinkers.

[1]Quotations from Forrest-Thomson’s poetry will always be from Collected Poems (2008).
[2]I am using the term “French critical theory” very broadly here to refer to the structuralist and post-structuralist writings of Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes among others, all of whom were associated with journal, Tel Quel. Tel Quel was founded in France in 1960 by Philippe Sollers and Jean-Edern Hallier and it ran until 1982 (Ffrench).
[3]Forrest-Thomson’s translations appeared in the first Collected Poems and Translations (1990). These translations included poetry by Marcelin Pleynet and Denis Roche as well as critical essays by Philippe Sollers and Pleynet. They were omitted from the subsequent Collected Poems (2008). A few of these were published in the journal Strange Faeces 16 (1974). See Ian Patterson’s article in this volume for an excellent insight into these translations.
[4]See Bertrand Russell (1956) “On Denoting”; Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1953) took up Russell’s conclusions (§79).
[5]The poem is included in the poet’s notebook entitled, “Poems” which was written during 1973-4. Many of poems in this notebook appeared in the posthumously published collection On the Periphery (1976) (thanks to Anthony Barnett for letting me look at this notebook). Other poems featuring linguistic references include, “Address to the Reader, from Pevensey Sluice,” “Antiphrasis” and “Criteria for Continuing a Series” as well as her group theory poems: “Group Theory,” “Three Proper” and “Two Other” which explicitly register an engagement with mathematical aspects of linguistic theory (116; 83-84; 94; 87; 90-2 & 93 respectively).
[6]Simon Perril (1996) calls this a fortuitous “misprint” (106). Alison Mark is less sure and writes that “It is tempting but not necessary to suggest (as Simon Perril does) that this may be the result of a typographical error [ . . . ] Jonathan Culler thinks Perril may be right, considering the messy state of the Poetic Artifice typescript. However, in his fine “Personal Memoir,” J. H. Prynne comes close to confirming the published text when he remarks that “the physical properties of speech always bothered her.” (137; Prynne 1976 43). Mark is implying that Prynne suggests that the “slip” indicates Forrest-Thomson’s interest in language’s physical properties and that, as such, it may not be an error; I am inclined to agree with this.
[7]This paper was published in Edward L. Keenan, ed. Formal Semantics of Natural Language; Papers from a colloquium sponsored by the King’s College Research Centre, Cambridge (1975), but it is highly unlikely that Forrest-Thomson would not have seen the paper in print as she died in April 1975. On the poems featured in On the Periphery, see endnote 5.
[8]See Chomsky’s Aspects of the Theory of Syntax.
[9]Empson’s mark is left on much of Forrest-Thomson’s poetry and critical work. See, for example, her discussion of “pastoral” in chapter five of Poetic Artifice. A discussion of Dada and the work of Max Jacob can be viewed in Poetic Artifice, but see, also, her articles written subsequent to this book such as, “Dada, Unrealism and Contemporary Poetry” (1974) and “Unrealism as the Poetic Mode for this Century” (1977).
[10]For the development of these ideas, see particularly “Irrationality and Artifice: A Problem in Recent Poetics” (1971), “Beyond Reality; Orders of Possibility in Modern English Poetry” (1972) and “Rational Artifice: Some Remarks on the Poetry and William Empson” (1974).
[11]Thanks to Jonathan Culler and the Estate of Veronica Forrest-Thomson for allowing me to quote from this manuscript (please note that it is entirely unpaginated, hence I do not include page references). Also, I refer to Forrest-Thomson’s “tentative” title as the chapter outline gives this title but Forrest-Thomson’s annotation in the typescript suggest that she intended to change it.
[12]The terminology here is very specialised and I provide a few of Strawson’s definitions in the following paragraphs of the article. One of the reasons for my drawing a reader’s attention to this terminology is to show that Forrest-Thomson was at least familiar with such terms and that they were a frequently evoked currency in her poetics.
[13]Yeats described his time with Pound in “Rapallo” in A Packet for Ezra Pound (1929). “Sometimes about ten o’clock at night I accompany him to a street where there are hotels upon one side, upon the other palm-trees and the sea, and there, taking out of his pocket bones and pieces of meat, he begins to call the cats. He knows all their histories—the brindled cat looked like a skeleton until he began to feed it; that fat grey cat is an hotel proprietor’s favourite, it never begs from the guests’ tables . . . ” (371).
[14]It should be mentioned that Strawson’s classification of basic particulars into the two types of “material bodies” and “persons” has been criticised, particularly because of what Peter Hacker (2002) calls its “Cartesian residue” (22). This, despite the fact that Strawson’s argument is primarily anti-Cartesian. He has also been taken to task for his argument’s lack of commitment to the moral aspects of a person.
[15]Alan Robert Lacey (1996) defines a Sortal as “A universal which provides a principle for distinguishing, counting and reidentifying particulars, i.e. for saying of what sort they are. If a sortal applies to an object at any time, then it applies to that object throughout its existence. Cat is a sortal. Thing, red thing, snow are not sortals” (325).
[16]Note that Forrest-Thomson writes “‘some of them are so ungrateful.’”
[17]Campbell writes: “Y quasi-remembers a past experience if (a) Y seems to remember having an experience (b) Someone did earlier have that experience (c) Y’s apparent memory is causally dependent [ . . . ] on that past experience.” Campbell is paraphrasing Derek Parfitt’s (1971) article “Personal Identity.”


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Gareth Farmer is currently completing a PhD at the University of Sussex, U.K. on the poetry and critical work of Veronica Forrest-Thomson. He has recently had articles published in Cambridge Literary Review (Sept. 2009) and Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry (Gylphi, Sept. 2009).