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J.H. Prynne

Veronica Forrest-Thomson

A Personal Memoir

First published in On the Periphery, Street Editions, Cambridge England, 1976

This piece is 1,035 or about three printed pages long.

I first met Veronica sometime in 1968 or 69 and we at once disagreed about almost everything. The things we had in common were poems and ways of producing and talking about them, which of course brought in all the rest of human linguistic and other behaviour. We disagreed about the linguistic and about the other, initially in quite violent and protracted ways. Veronica would prowl round to see me, in a manner one might once have termed outré; she wore outfits of bright green or uncompromising purple, and hurled arguments about like brickbats. Here reasoning habits were very intense and she locked herself into questions like the conditions for intelligibility of poetic convention as if getting a right answer, or even a workable one, were a condition for all the details of ordinary life. She would come up against contradictions with a vivid local clarity of insight, quite without that pragmatic relativism of ‘keeping things in perspective’ which allows ordinary life to be merely ordinary. She wore perfume which would give the most hardened logician the staggers. She was theatrically short-sighted in ways of which she seemed entirely unaware. Her commitment to the writing of poetry was absolute and intrepid, and this commitment was in a vehemently dialectical and changing relation to her writing of poems.

Tree and daffodils in hail, Jesus College Chapel Court      She would not give up either of these purposes, though to have at least subordinated either one to the other would have made her situation easier. Such ease, she saw, would be uninteresting and indeed ignoble. She wanted the empirical matter of poems to stand in working relation to the theoretical matter of poetry and all her work was directed to working out the implications of such a dual purpose.
In the period of our earliest meetings she was anxious to maintain that poetry was a use of language and that its intelligibility could be a special case of rationality in accordance with the grammar of usage. She read Wittgenstein intently and also showed an understandable envy of strictly positivistic models for discourse. Poems, of course, were quite brazenly arbitrary in respect of their surface features, and these features seemed if anything more crucial to their nature as poems than the thematic constructions of sense. She was writing poems at this time which to a certain degree she even resented; she forced on them certain ungainly aspects, to test their capacity for survival as poems. Much of this writing appeared in her twelve academic questions (Cambridge, privately printed, 1970) and, with some additions, in Language-Games (Leeds, 1971.)
      But already she had also developed a deep admiration for William Empson’s work, which she saw to combine its own determined adherence to rational intelligibility with an extremely formal recourse to poetic convention. We argued about this many times, and especially about rhyme. Mostly we disagreed. The idea of rhyme seemed to Veronica, as I understood her position, to lie either above or below the level on which other ideas subsisted in the world of experience: above, in the sense that it was an arbitrary surface feature of poetic expression; below, in the sense that it was a feature intrinsic to language at a phonetic, pre-ideational stage. She wanted to get these two aspects into a relation that would properly (that is, coherently and rationally) contain the space by which they were separated. She would seize up on this space as the precondition for metaphor, as the arena for inventive fiction itself. But the physical properties of speech always bothered her, and the powerful feelings which forced their way through the lines of her own poems seemed often excessive within her idea of poetry. Irony and irrelevance welled up, and she folded into her writing a deeper and deeper retrospect to the literary tradition of English ‘poetry’; an area where poems and their place in a literature seemed at least a determined historical fact.
      By this time she had removed to the University of Leicester and we met less often; but the last collection she saw into print marked an extraordinary breakthrough. Or so I thought at the time, and still do now. This was Cordelia; or, ‘A poem should not mean, but be’ (Leicester, 1974.) Here with an intense force of self-realisation Veronica brought the range of her deepest experience right into the arena of speech. Irony and abandon compete for the final control, which eludes both and comes to uncertain rest in the fullest (i.e. formal) acceptance of passion. The poems muster their resources against this invasion; they suffer and endure it; Swinburne and Tennyson supplant the Tel Quel theorists, but the strongest presence is Sappho: Venus attached to her prey.
      The intensity of those poems in the very focused context of that short book is referred more largely to the world in the present collection, On the Periphery. All the poems of Cordelia are here, some in altered versions, but interspersed with other poems of the same period and some later ones. In consequence of Veronica’s death in April 1975 this must comprise the last stage in a short and incomplete but deeply shaped poetic development. Apart from her doctoral dissertation for the University of Cambridge there remains chiefly her as yet unpublished book Poetic Artifice: A Theory of Twentieth Century Poetry, which can be expected to develop and extend the final phase of her theoretical understanding already present in nucleus in her ‘Irrationality and Artifice: A Problem in Recent Poetics,’ British Journal of Aesthetics, 11 (1971), 123–133 and in her concluding ‘Note’ to Language-Games.
      My personal view is that the poems within this final collection work through this formal notion of artifice to allow into realization forces she had tacitly been preparing to meet; a new invasion of subject. With great brilliance and courage she set fear against irony and intelligible feeling against the formal irony of its literary anticipations. The theoretic and practical upshot of this achievement could have been profound, and despite her untimely death perhaps it will not be without some consequences in the history of what lies in the future.

Cambridge, April 1976

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