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Veronica Forrest-Thomson for Readers

No poet associated with the Cambridge School has written theoretical prose as objectionable as Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s. But none, either, has made a study of objectionableness as interesting as hers. Poetic Artifice is a book that nominates objectionable types of reading and tries to abolish them. Its question is “how we ourselves should behave . . . as readers,”[1] and its answer is that we should not objectionably turn poems into stories about life, history, and the world; if we do that, we are occluding poetic artifice, an objectionable habit that Forrest-Thomson calls “bad naturalisation.” We might think that this question, “how we ourselves should behave . . . as readers,” must be a moral question, belonging to the same speculative context as Forrest-Thomson’s 1975 poem “Pfarr-Schmerz (Village Anguish)” and its disjointed inquiry into the relation between “is” and “ought”; but her emphatically restricted interest, in Poetic Artifice, in our behaviour only “as readers,” suggests that Forrest-Thomson may intend, if not an outright dismissal of moral questions, then at least a specimen question whose moral meaning is subversively isolated. Subversively because her question tells us that how we behave “as readers” has, radically at least, nothing to do with any other way we might behave in what she was satisfied to call the external world, and indeed that the confusion of the two is objectionable; and if that is true then what we call morality must itself be radically discontinuous in order to exist in both separate contexts, that is, both in the context of reading and in the context of living. How we behave in the context of reading is not just an instance of how we behave in general. If there is a morality of the text, it may be structurally homologous with, but will not be simply the same thing as, nor simply capable of influencing or being influenced by, other moralities.

The theory is not original to Forrest-Thomson. It’s an unstable mixture of insistences from New Criticism, from Pound’s most bullyingly aestheticist prose, from Wittgenstein on language games and from numerous currents of structuralism, notably Barthes’s work on language and myth. But her account of the theory is, I think, distinguished, in two ways.

First, it is distinguished by how exuberantly forensic she is with it. She uses it to prove, as she thinks, that there is a “distinctively poetic artifice” and that this artifice will be more prominent in our experience the more we focus on “the fact that we are reading a poem.”[2] The fact that we are reading a poem is I think interchangeable in her theory with what she elsewhere, in an essay on William Empson, calls “our knowledge that we are reading a poem.”[3] Our knowledge that we are reading a poem must not be just that easy and implicit knowledge we have of everything we do as we do it, it must be knowledge continually recollected, named and owned as such. I am reading, I must think as I read, and the fact is I’m reading a poem; and if I don’t stress enough that my knowledge of this fact is itself the primary context of my activity, I don’t just show myself up as a blunderer and ingénue, I risk hastening the “complete breakdown of continuity between poetry and its interpreters.”[4] Bad reading leads, typically and disastrously, not just to a stupid paraphrase or misinterpretation, but to the specific occlusion of poetic artifice. Bad reading is a deeply objectionable and not merely an irrelevant thing to do, because it is pre-eminently through the study and enjoyment of poetic artifice and by keeping in the primary context of stressed and recollected knowledge that a reader may “free himself from the fixed forms of thought which ordinary language imposes on our minds.”[5] If Forrest-Thomson had written nothing that contradicted or undermined this, there would be little to distinguish her from a Language poet except that she was allowed to be friends with J.H. Prynne.

But the second thing that distinguishes her structuralist theory of reading is that it is written by Veronica Forrest-Thomson, the same poet, or nearly, whose poem “Cordelia” includes the line “My name is Veronica Forrest-Thomson”[6]—though that use of her own name as text is of course a species of ruse and of reflection that Roland Barthes revelled in likewise and more protractedly in his book Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes—and her poetry which includes her name as text is, not only in that name, but everywhere else, too, struggling to reduplicate and to demonstrate the validity of her theory of reading, and it is struggling because like any and all poetry Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s poetry is intractable to that theory of reading. When I say that her poetry is struggling to reduplicate her theory and to demonstrate its validity, I don’t mean that it contains a drama of conscious struggle and desire played out in confessions of incapacity, such as we find in Wordsworth’s autobiographical poetry on his own loss of youth, or in John Wieners’s compulsorily tragedizing lyrics on his own loss of sanity and sexual intimacy, or in Andrea Brady’s ethically argumentative poetry about the anguishes of being a contributor to a violent consumer economy. I mean simply that her poems try but fail to reduplicate her theory of reading and to demonstrate that it is valid.

That comparison makes their failure sound uninteresting, but I don’t think it is. Her poetry is intractable to her theory not because she finds the theory difficult to demonstrate but because her poetry at its best is better than her theory, and the pleasures of her poetry are not accounted for by her theory; and though her poems don’t themselves dramatise that unaccountability as a conflict of conscience, making a moral or psychological theme out of their own incapacity, it is nonetheless interesting to see how the pleasures in them overrun the strict limits of the theory they are meant to demonstrate. That’s an indirect way of saying that the theory may be wrong and yet not redundant: the theory won’t explain why her poems are any good, as she means it to, but her repeated attempts to reduplicate it in poetry sometimes lead to original sorts of poems that would not likely have been written otherwise.

I’ll read a poem and try to explain what I mean.

A Fortiori

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.

The chief objectionable habit protested in Poetic Artifice is bad naturalisation. We behave in the wrong way as readers if we start in by talking about history and the world and not about artifice. Specifically, we need to avoid wondering about real persons and real objects, as though the poem referred us to them and not to itself. Forrest-Thomson is quite categorical about this. In her reading of the poetic artifice of Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius she states emphatically that the “fictionalized ‘we’ ” who keep our erasers in order “refers not to an external class of persons but to a shifting function within the poem,” and even, comically yet dismayingly, that “It is not important . . . whether anything in pre-war Britain corresponds to the ‘distentions of Empire’ in Roman times.”[7] Earlier on in the book, in her counter-analysis of Shakespeare’s sonnet 94, intended as a challenge to William Empson, whose “devaluation . . . of purely formal qualities” apparently “makes it impossible for him to recognize the true value of poetic conventions,”[8] she makes the point still more epigrammatically: “It does not matter whether real lilies fester.”[9] Immediately I want to say: That is like saying, in interpretation of the end of Beckett’s Molloy, that it does not matter if real bees can turn to ash, or in interpretation of Milton’s sonnet ‘When I consider how my light is spent, / Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,” that it doesn’t matter if real light can be spent. Aren’t these, surely, bathetic insistences, whatever may or may not be true in the external world? But her reply would presumably be that, no, indeed these things do not matter, and that by immediately arguing over the exclusions from the category of artifice I am really only avoiding talking about artifice itself.

But, I would reply, “the blank world / which its whiteness defends”: should I not think about whether there is a blank world? On instinct I want a political comment from this phrase. I expect it to tell me that the extinction of marks of quality and difference in my experience of the world is a literal damage caused by white people, the world’s domination by whiteness. Instantly I summon to mind corroboration from Guy Debord, from Adorno, and I think admiringly that the poem is right to further specify that the blank world of spectacular relations and bourgeois coldness which I know from their work is defended not just by capital but by racist white power. I admire how this is implied but not stated directly in Forrest-Thomson’s phrase, and probably I think how political comments in poetry can often be more effective as hints and reverberations than when made with confrontational bluntness. I hear the phrase echoed in another phrase of Forrest-Thomson’s, “the blank day of critical interpretation / staining the white radiance of eternity,” from her poem “In Memoriam Ezra Pound,” and so my interest in the phrase is pleasingly complicated by an additional interest in the repeated conjunction of “blank” and “white” across the two poems. I may even call to mind, or to Google books, Shelley’s line “To me this world’s a dreary blank,” or Christina Rossetti’s “A chill blank world,” or even Prynne’s “dark scouts / we walk blankly in the universe.” The plot of blankness thickens. And when I realise that “which its whiteness defends” is a direct translation of a line from Mallarmé’s poem “Brise Marine,” “Sur le vide papier que la blancheur défend,” I enjoy holding in fragile synthesis with the thoughts I’ve had already a number of new complications, such as that, whatever political comment I find in this phrase of Forrest-Thomson’s must be a détournement, not only of Mallarmé’s image of an empty page defended by whiteness, but also of the whole context of symbolic suggestion in his poem, and perhaps by extension a commentary on his theories of poetic language too. Do not name the object when you write a poem, he advises, but only suggest it: “le suggérer, voilà le rêve.” The real “jouissance du poëme” is in divining its sense little by little, in a “série de déchiffrements,” a series of decipherings.[10] That, I then think, must have both attracted Forrest-Thomson and repelled her, supposing she knew it. Attracted, first of all, because its stress on jouissance would have pleased Forrest-Thomson the admirer of Roland Barthes, and secondly because it implies that poetry is won through a patient decoding of artifice. Repelled because the whole atmosphere of Mallarmé’s comment makes writing sound like a striptease in the beyond, and if Forrest-Thomson had enjoyed a striptease everything in her writing suggests that she would surely have wanted to see more than a symbol at the end of it. I probably think this is a witty idea, and that I’m nearer to her witty writing for having had it. Encouraged by this discovery of Mallarmé in the poem I then look at its other disconnected phrases, and I speculate that “fractured grace,” a non-idiomatic conjunction in English, may be a translation of Arséne Houssaye’s idiomatic expression in French “grace brisée.” The two couplets I think must be generic enough comments on, possibly objections to, the structuralist idea that meaning must be diacritical or differential, and that if they respond to anyone in particular it is probably to Roman Jakobson or to Levi-Strauss. At that the Frenchness of the poem thickens along with the intertextual plot of blankness, and I think provisionally that the poem is beginning to argue that experience is constructed from citations, artificially redisposed, and from translated citations especially; and I quickly develop this intuition into a more general form, such as that private experience is constructed out of heterogenous and arbitrary language materials that must be originally alien to us. The title of the poem seems then to mean that we only acknowledge or know this fact about experience when we reflect on it more forcefully and intently, or with otherwise greater preparation to be convinced about it, than by habit we mostly do in ordinary life; and at that point the whole succession of intuitions emerges precariously into something like the shape of a theme. I am contented that it does, since the emergence of a theme feels like proof that my interpretation is working and that it has got somewhere; but I’ll probably not yet be satisfied with the theme itself, and I’ll next insist that there must be parts of the poem that are ungovernable by the theme or not capable of being subordinated to it. I will think that because it seems like a principle in all interpretation, which is to say that I expect that by denying that everything in the poem can be subordinated to its theme I will produce a more intelligent and more subtle account of it. Most importantly, the prospect of nominating moments of language as insubordinate to the theme of poem reassures me that I will be able to speak about language as material: fractious, objective, non-identical to its semantic function; and the prospect of nominating language as material seems likely to be enough to qualify my interpretation as “materialist.” This cheers me up exactly as I couldn’t fail to expect that it must. I have a complex theme, I have decoded citations, I have a field of intertextual reference, and I have a way of claiming that my interpretation is materialist. I can also say that I care that the poem is beautiful, since my interpretation of it began with the phrase and image complex which first arrested me: “the blank world / which its whiteness defends.” From that first contact with a stunning expression all the work of my interpretation followed, and each departure into philology or thematics was a sort of implicit homage to the beauty of it.

From the perspective of Poetic Artifice, this reading I’ve just described, or perhaps ventriloquised, is objectionable from start to finish. It immediately looks outside of poetic artifice, and whatever discussion of poetic artifice may yet follow if the reading were extended has been already sabotaged by the prejudicial and pre-emptive attempt to establish a context for interpretation through appeal to external coordinates. Forrest-Thomson wrote pastiches of what she considered bad naturalisation, and though the reading I’ve sketched out isn’t so demonstratively naturalising as her pastiches, it is categorically a pastiche of real interpretation nonetheless. This is the lesson of Poetic Artifice and all Forrest-Thomson’s theoretical writing, and though I don’t believe it, though I find its insistence that every attempt at lateral coordination is objectionable and an occlusion of the poem, I can’t just dismiss it either. Instead I think her poems at their best can be read as wonderful failures to prescriptively reduplicate her theory and to demonstrate its validity. The discipline involved in reading a poem like ‘A Fortiori’ is that of trying to experience interpretive intuitions as if they were illicit, and of trying actually to accept them as illicit. I should not be behaving as I am, as a reader, I must think; I instead must constrain interpretation to the primary context of the fact that I am reading a poem, and take as my legitimate material only “poetic artifice.” I must accept that my intuitions are illicit not just because the book Poetic Artifice says so but because the poem as I read it tries to reduplicate that theoretical injunction, and I try to keep faith with the attempt. The poems propose that I must accept that my intuitions are illicit. What this does is, it gives not to the emotional interruptions in Forrest-Thomson’s poetry, but precisely to the specimen instances of “artifice” in it a quality of frustrated and impotent appeal. Restrict your interpretation to me, they seem to say, to this string of vowels or to this shift in registers, keep within me, I am artifice, I am what matters. This shift, this work given to phonetics and semiology, is where the poem is, and another name for that is your own knowledge that you are reading a poem. Do not too quickly do anything else: this is enough, I am enough. But it isn’t. And the lyricism that wells up occasionally in her poems, and more and more frequently in her later work, then appears first and inescapably as contradiction, as what compels and orders transgression against the poem’s own reduplicative schedule of priorities. The new, unsuccessfully ersatz lyric poem tacked on to the end of ‘The Garden of Proserpine’ is the best and most obvious case in point. It compels you to do exactly what it tries to tell you is illicit. That’s what I mean by saying that it’s unsuccessfully ersatz lyric. It is, contradictorily, just lyric. The contradiction that lyric appears as may not itself tell us much about the world, but it does amount to a deep formal insistence, contrary to the poem’s own explicit theoretical insistences, that the world of everyday experience is irrepressibly announced in every act of interpretation, despite whatever the poem may do to establish artifice as a barrier against recourse to that world. I do think that this is a complexity of interpretation urged by the poems but not by the theory, and I value the poems for urging it, however indecisively.

[1]Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Poetic Artifice: A Theory of Twentieth-Century Poetry (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1978) 15. Shakespeare’s sonnet 94 “tells us nothing about how we ourselves should behave except as readers.”
[2]Poetic Artifice 34, 36.
[3]Veronica Forrest-Thomson, “Rational Artifice: Some Remarks on the Poetry of William Empson” The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 4 (1974) 225-238: 233.
[4]“Rational Artifice” 225.
[5]Poetic Artifice 16.
[6]Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Collected Poems, ed. Anthony Barnett (Exeter: Shearsman, 2008) 154.
[7]Poetic Artifice 35, 34.
[8]“Rational Artifice” 238.
[9]Poetic Artifice 15.
[10]Stéphane Mallarmé, Œuvres Complètes, ed. Henri Mondor and G. Jean-Aubry (Paris: Gallimard, 1945) 859.