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Brian Kim Stefans

Veronica Forrest-Thomson and High Artifice

NOTE: More material on Veronica Forrest-Thomson in Jacket 20

One of the misfortunes of the lack of attention being paid to English poetry of this century is the obscurity of Veronica Forrest-Thomson, a poet who died in 1975 at the age of 27. Forrest-Thomson is the author of Poetic Artifice, a book that outlined a theory of poetry from a critical perspective — i.e. a tool to determine the success or failure of a poem rather then merely a vocabulary for describing the phenomenon of a "poem" — but one which, rather than confirming or resisting a "tradition," concentrated on those elements of the poem that resist quick interpretation or, in her terms, "naturalization" by the reader or critic.
    Though Poetic Artifice adheres to the conventions of a text that can be re-used by members of the academy, there are moments when Forrest-Thomson’s skill as an experimental poet, along with her occasional wit, lift the writing and theory itself beyond the level of disinterested speculation, engaging the reader — should the reader be a poet — in what is serious shop-talk.
    Written in the early seventies, at a time when the avant-garde poetry scene in England was still on the defensive against the Movement writers and was, it appears, lacking unity, the book has an wide range of characters; Shakespeare, Swinburne, Pound, Eliot, William Empson, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, John Ashbery, J.H. Prynne, and the critic/poet Stephen Bann (representing the "concrete" poets), among others, come under consideration. This is a mix that one would not find in any American book of theory by a poet, probably because the United States has not had a mainstream poet who has dominated the scene in the way that Ted Hughes or Philip Larkin, at that time, did. When there was one, like Robert Lowell, experimental poets either ignored him or ridiculed the premises of his or her work with little specific analysis of their poems, as if they weren’t poems at all.
    Forrest-Thomson doesn’t demonstrate this partisanship which often turns thoughtful considerations of poetry into declarations of independence; consequently, her theory is given cogency by a very apparent love of "traditional" poetry and her own positioning of herself as critic and latecomer, despite the urgencies she felt as a poet.
    Forrest-Thomson’s analysis of the poem "Rites of Hysteria," by the English poet David Gascoyne, serves as a good example of how her theory works. The poem begins:

A cluster of insane massacres turns green upon the highroad
Green as the nadir of a mystery in the closet of a dream
And wild growth of lascivious pamphlets became a beehive
The afternoon scrambles like an asylum out of its hovel
The afternoon swallows a bucketful of chemical sorrows...

For Forrest-Thomson, the poem serves as an example of "irrational obscurity ...[one that] can only be rationalized as an example of irrationality."  The poem is weak, she asserts, because though one can agree that it is intended — in the poet’s rationale — to be an expression of the "disorder" and "social and moral dislocation" of the world, such an interpretation can only be made on "other levels of poetic discourse" — i.e. with the intervention of a second party, a critic who describes the poem. The poem does not offer, by itself, a way to order its "chaos," for there is no point of entry through which the reader can begin to assemble its separate images — "an asylum out of its hovel," for example — either in the sounds, syntax or line breaks, nor do the conventional levels of its meaning help, for it does not point to specific instances of this "chaos" in society.
    The poem, of course, is what it is, a bunch of lines containing cartoonish, Surrealist-inspired imagery that don’t appear to have much meaning beyond themselves, but one assumes that the poet had a higher intention; Forrest-Thomson’s theory helps explain why a reader would probably be discouraged in a search for it. (Gascoyne, in fact, was the major proponent of Surrealism in England when he wrote this poem, and it could be understood as an example of automatic writing, which in the hard-core, Bretonian sense should not be judged as a poetic artifact at all but merely the byproduct of an experiment in writing while in a semi-conscious state. However, that might be too generous, and simply inaccurate considering the regularity of Gascoyne’s stanzas in this poem, not to mention his overly-regular meter.)
    Conscious of the unfairness of pitting two poems of such different stature and quality against each other (a tactic reminiscent of Zukofsky in A Test of Poetry), she offers as a contrast to "Rites of Hysteria" the section of Eliot’s "Waste Land" beginning "Unreal City,/ Under the brown fog of a winter dawn..."  She writes of the latter:

The above passage... also uses ’bizarre and near-nonsensical imagery’ but it takes a good care that this be related to the other levels of Artifice and that the image-complexes move through these in a newly alive and potent verse line which progresses inexorably through citadel after citadel of social and literary heritage, leaving each in crumbling ruin, only to shore them... by its technical reshaping.

This description of Eliot’s verse avoids falling prey to the allurement of its various allusions, and merely posits that they are being made, seeming to focus, consequently, on the destruction that the lines themselves are carrying out, as if Eliot were an active agent in the dissolution he has been credited with diagnosing.
    This comparison of two poems, both of which engage to some degree in acts of anarchy and turn away from conventional forms of "informative writing," is especially compelling in the present time, when writing using methods of verbal dislocation have ceased to be a priori controversial (the syntax/society homology being mostly played out) and hence have practitioners among those who are not as careful in their rhythms and images, nor so sure in their intent.
    Forrest-Thomson writes that some sort of interpretive activity must occur on a conventional level, yet she writes that "bad Naturalization" occurs when critics or readers rush in to paste very specific narrative or emotional tags on every word-event (or "image-complex" in her terms) of a poem, as in the example of a critic who wrote that a line by Max Jacob — "Dahlia! dahlia! que Dahlia lia" — leaves the reader "with an incongruous picture of Dalila tying up drooping dahlias."  Anyone who has flipped through a mediocre book of criticism (or even frankly myopic one, such as The Last Avant-Garde) about a complex poet, whether Modernist or not, has been left with disappointing, overdetermined readings like this one.
    What is worse is when a poet — Ted Hughes is her example — embraces bad Naturalization purposefully, making a bid for prophet status regardless of the arrangement of sounds and images in the line or the lack of other sorts of complicating Artifice.

Photo of Veronica Forrest-Thomson, by Jonathan Culler, 1972

Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Cambridge, 1972, copyright © Jonathan Culler 1972, 2001

Photo courtesy Jonathan Culler

There aren’t many academic theories that can look at poems from Hughes, Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath (remember Harold Bloom’s crabby dismissal of the entire project), concrete poetry, William Empson and T. S. Eliot without apologies, while maintaining an attention to what poems may come in the future beyond its compass, or between the cracks. The beauty of the theory (which is only lightly sketched here) is that it allows one to cross the lines separating various "poetics" — these codes of literary identity that are more often a system of dislikes — and cross into that central element all poetry shares, the physis of its Artifice.
    While there are, in general, some flawed arguments in Poetic Artifice, it is remarkably flexible, especially in its anticipation of the sort of bad Naturalization that "postmodernism" itself has created, in which the marginal, the excessive, the fractured and the irrational have all found their way toward the clarity of general understanding, some of it actually as easily acquired as the "confessional" rubrics that the experimental branch of poets were once poised to attack (the "Ellipticist" writers, who are often seen as taking once "avant-garde" styles and utilizing them in rather comfortable verse are, perhaps, the result of such a lack of complex reading/writing practices in contemporary poetry).
    In the book, Forrest-Thomson uses one of her own poems as examples of Artifice, and even reconstructs a newspaper article, using such common tactics of Artifice as unusual capitalization (in a "Futurist" manner), jarring line breaks and random quotation marks, in the process of an argument. Her work collected in the Collected Poems and Translations are as technical and ambitious in their theoretical intentions, but many of the poems also involve process-oriented techniques, though rarely with the free-for-all quality of a Cage or Jackson Mac Low (her Dada is never so ebullient or tied to process).
    For example, her poem "Zettel" is based on quotes from Wittgenstein’s work of that name, and though it is difficult to quote from the poem without making it appear no different from many poems that use Wittgenstein’s language as its fundamental vocabulary, there is something more controlled, exacting and exciting in her short poem, perhaps because there were few writing like that in England at the time (she also shares some cultural assumptions with writers of the "Cambridge" variety, such as Prynne and Wilkinson, hence a certain grounded, quasi-conservative streak that keeps her apart from, say, her French peers).
    "Zettel," like many of Forrest-Thomson’s poems, can be reminiscent of some of the writings of Christine Brooke-Rose, the English novelist and Pound scholar, in that much of the crisis of meaning (of "love," for example) is linked specifically with crises of reading. It is worth mentioning that Forrest-Thomson was the only woman poet included in the anthology of English poetry A Various Art, and one of the few, along with J.H. Prynne and perhaps Iain Sinclair, who appeared to engage with the most difficult traditions of modernism, and had any use for line or imagery that wasn’t entirely "naturalistic," or at least easily traceable line back to the concerns of Romanticism.
    Collected Poems contains writing that ranges from the lyrics of her first collection "Identi-Kit," published when she was twenty, to ventures in concrete poetry, some translations from the TelQuel writers (she had a special appreciation for Denis Roche), and her later books "Language-Games" and the posthumous "On the Periphery."  One of her qualities — possibly to her detriment as a poet — is that she is very literal, with an almost Johnsonian sense of the established meanings for words, not unlike another poet who is also interested in the non-assimilable parts of poems, Charles Bernstein, who quoted Poetic Artifice in the establishment of his own theory in the seminal essay "Artifice of Absorption."
    This may sound like a strange comparison, but it is often true that the most literally-minded poets — the least prone to visionary trances and libidinous improvisations — are those for whom literary disruption is the most earnestly engaged of practices. Indeed, some of Forrest-Thomson’s assertions — that "The ’meaning’ of a poem may have more to do with the ’intention’ to write a poem with reference to particular variants in convention than with the utterance itself," for example — might have been written about Bernstein’s practice, especially in books such as Rough Trades and Dark City, and some of her work in Collected Poems, especially those which use prose-like sentences along with parody, anticipate or influence his techniques.
    The following, from "Le Signe (Cygne)," possibly a sound translation at heart, strikes with its sing-songy allusions to figures of intellectual culture in a way that resembles writing of Bernstein’s pseudo-movement, the "Nude Formalism":

Godard, the anthropological swan
floats on the Cam when day is done.
Levi-Strauss stands on a bridge and calls:
Birds love freedom; they build themselves homes;
They often engage in human relations.
Come, Godard, come, here, Godard, here. The halls
of Clare and Trinity, John’s and Queens’
echo the sounds with scraping of chairs
and cramming of maws.

This literalness in her thinking makes her appreciation of such phenomenon as Dadaism — at one points she equates her Artifice’s dependence on "aesthetic distance" and "content as form" with Dadaism — and her quest "for a subject other than the difficulty of writing" especially compelling, for she is aware how much she has to free herself from an intensely rational and positivistic mind. (Like a number of artists in her time, including Ian Hamilton Finlay, Robert Smithson and the Language Poets, she could be seen as part of a larger movement of "civilizing Dadaism," a project that operates distinctly from such phenomenon as post-structuralism in that the original spirit of Dadaism, its anti-discursivity that shatters a specific art/cultural context, is preserved, the only thing having changed being the frames in which Dadaism is intended to operate; in Finlay’s case, for example, the Duchampian ready-made becomes the neo-classical emblem.)  She has, consequently, written a yet-unpublished college thesis about the role the discipline and language of science plays in modernist poetics, and had a "consuming passion for science" that went along with her interest in poetry.
    Forrest-Thomson had an untheorized, perhaps naive, view of the "author function" in society, especially when she writes that the poet must give the reader not only a developed style and thematic but a "corresponding assurance," since the reader, she states, "too is interested in life, love and cookery; and... lacks the poet’s compensating and creative fascination with technical problems" (one senses she adopted the "cookery" from Auden).
    This doesn’t leave a lot of room for the play with avatars and cyber-alterity that has, in the past five years, become increasingly prevalent among poets and even critics (such as "Dirk Jefferson"). She notes, with an eye on the confessional poets but also to those who elevate craft, process and theory over more general "human concerns" and human levels of interest, that readers may very well "rebel... if all poets can tell readers is how agonising it is to write poems."  There is a self-consciousness on her part about the role technical language and the exactness of her intentions play in her poems, fearing not only a static product but one that alienates the reader from any enjoyable participation. Not all, or even most, of the poems in Collected Poems resolve these difficulties, but the exploration, terribly brief as it was, is interesting to anyone who has the need to learn how a highly gifted and original poet struggled with the techniques and ideas available to her.
    The following is from her first book "Language-Games":


Words are a monstrous excrescence.
Everything green is extended. It
is apricot, orange, lemon, olive and cherry,
and other snakes in the linguistic grass;
also a white touch of marble which evokes
no ghosts, the taste of squid, the...
Go away. I shall call a policeman.
Acrocorinth which evokes no
goats under the lemon blossom.

World is a monstrous excrescence;
he is following me everywhere, one
Nescafé and twenty Athenes, everything
green; I am not responsible for it.
I don’t want to speak to you.
Leave me alone. I shall stay here.
I refuse a green extension. Beware.
I have paid you. I have paid you
enough, sea, sun, and octopodi.
It is raining cats and allomorphs.

"Where" is the British Embassy.

Veronica Forrest-Thomson. Collected Poems and Translations
     (London: Allardyce Barnett, 1990)
Veronica Forrest-Thomson. Poetic Artifice 
     (New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1978)

NOTE: More material on Veronica Forrest-Thomson in Jacket 20

Photo of Brian Kim Stefans

Brian Kim Stefans lives in Brooklyn, New York. His book of poems, Angry Penguins, was published in 2000 by Harry Tankoos Books, along with a reprint of Gulf (Object Editions). Free Space Comix (Roof) appeared in 1998. His site, Arras, is at Recent published writing includes poems in Callaloo, reviews in Tripwire and Shark and the online journal how(2), and an essay on Asian American poetry in Telling It Slant, an anthology of criticism on the avant-garde in the nineties forthcoming from University of Alabama. His manifesto on cyberpoetry for the Canadian journal Open Letter can be read on line at, where you can also read his latest online work, "The Dreamlife of Letters".

Photo of Brian Kim Stefans with Deirdre Kovac, by Kristin Prevallet

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