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Jacket 20 — December 2002   |   # 20  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

‘The possibles of joy’: Alison Mark on Veronica Forrest-Thomson

Suzanne Raitt reviews

Alison Mark, Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Language Poetry

British Council Writers and their Work series (Tavistock: Northcote House, 2001), xvii + 154 pp.

This piece is 1,200 words or about three printed pages long

As Brian Kim Stefans comments in a review in Jacket 14, ‘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.’ Given the remarkable complexity, even obscurity, of some of Forrest-Thomson’s poetry, it is perhaps not surprising that until the early 1990s, she was remembered mostly by a small and fairly specialized group of poets and writers who were involved in the avant-garde poetry scene in Cambridge in the 1970s. But with the publication of her Collected Poems and Translations by Allardyce Barnett in 1990, she has slowly but surely been attracting readers beyond that original audience, and Alison Mark’s graceful and sensitive book (the first book-length study of Forrest-Thomson’s work) is a sign that Forrest-Thomson is finally close to being recognized more widely as one of the significant poetic voices of late twentieth-century British poetry.
      The existence of careful critical studies such as Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Language Poetry will do much to increase the accessibility of Forrest-Thomson’s work. Many of her poems, such as the exquisite ‘Sonnet’ or the witty, ironic ‘Cordelia or “A poem should not mean but be”’, as Mark notes, have the ironic, deceptive simplicity of Wittgenstein’s early work. Take, for example, the following lines from ‘Cordelia’:

The motto of this poem heed
and do you it employ:
Waste not and want not while you’re here
The possibles of joy.

But at other times, Forrest-Thomson’s interest in what she called the ‘non-meaningful’ elements of language means that her poetry itself is extremely obscure (Mark comments that it often demands ‘considerable decoding’, p.53). It is the challenge of a book like Mark’s to guide the reader through that obscurity without falling into the trap that Forrest-Thomson herself identified as ‘bad naturalization’, defined by Mark as the search ‘in the world outside the text of the poem for an explanation or interpretation of what is within it’ (p.7).
      There is a tension in the poetry between the establishment of an autonomous art in which it is not meaning but being which is at stake, and a persistent nostalgia for an impossible relationship between the world and the word: the poetry derives much of its effect by catching the reader in that contradiction. In the same way love is seen in pseudo-Lacanian terms as both a linguistic conceit, and the inscription of an inescapable longing. In the words of the final stanzas of ‘Sonnet’:

If I say ‘I love you’ we can’t but laugh
Since irony knows what we’ll say.
If I try to free myself by my craft
You vary as night from day.

So, accept the wish for the deed my dear.
Words were made to prevent us near.

Mark notes that Forrest-Thomson saw poetry as a strategy of interruption, impeding the rush from words to world (p.10), and ‘Sonnet’ suggests that it is not just poetry, but also love that interrupts our thoughtless relationships with language and the world.
      Much of what Mark offers here is close critical contextualization of, and commentary on, specific poems. Heeding Forrest-Thomson’s admonishments, she confines herself to explication of the ways in which much of this poetry explores the immanence of poetic artifice (as Forrest-Thomson calls it) in the structures of language itself. Many of Forrest-Thomson’s poems read like a playful exposé of patterns and contradictions which are already there in familiar linguistic conventions and traditions. In a series of chapters which discuss each of Forrest-Thomson’s collections in chronological order, Mark invokes successive rhetorical contexts such as Lacan, Wittgenstein, Barthes, and poststructuralism to mark not just Forrest-Thomson’s poetic development, but her intellectual journey also.
      One of the great strengths of Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Language Poetry is its meticulous, imaginative close readings of many of Forrest-Thomson’s most important works. For example, a wonderful discussion (pp. 47–55) of the almost impenetrable ‘Drinks with a Mythologue’ from On the Periphery (1976) unpicks its origins in Barthes’ essay Mythologies and William Empson’s poem ‘Letter V’. The opening lines of the poem, ‘Le vin est objectivement bon mais la bonté du vin | est un mythe’, are a direct quotation from Barthes’ essay ‘Myth Today’, and Mark notes that an argument which in Barthes traces the relationship between semiotics and politics, is reinterpreted in Forrest-Thomson’s poem as an exploration of the semiotics of personal engagement. The violence that Barthes identifies as one of the subtexts of wine production under capitalism is expressed in this poem as patriarchal domination and condescension, marking a shift in the tone of Forrest-Thomson’s poetry which Mark describes as ‘the entry of violence, semantic and semiotic, into Forrest-Thomson’s work’ (p.50).
      The extraordinary ‘Cordelia: or, ‘A Poem Should Not Mean, But Be’’ receives the same kind of illuminating, patient attention in a lengthy discussion which beautifully reveals Forrest-Thomson’s tentative but growing interest in the concept of gender. Mark identifies Forrest-Thomson’s articulation of a drama of gendered self-construction in the poem, commenting that: ‘In ‘Cordelia’ we see the development of a more sophisticated negotiation of poetic gender as part of a complex articulation of poetic identity’ (p.98).
      The numerous allusions, quotations, and parodies of ‘Cordelia’ testify to Forrest-Thomson’s Eliotic interest in influence and intertextuality, but, as Mark shows, most of her quotations in this poem are the beginning of an ironic reinscription of the male canon and of the paradigms of Oedipal desire:

But rise again like John Donne
(read him too) I, Helen, I Iseult, I Guenevere,
I Clytemnestra and many more to come,
I did it, I myself, killing the King my father
Killing the King my mother, joining the King my brother.
It is the kick, my love, and not the nightingale
I like larking up kicks myself
But not kicking.

As Mark puts it, these lines are ‘a description of descent, of identification, which does not ignore the lethal implications of the process of inheritance, succession, and the Oedipal situation’ (p.102).
      Mark is at her best writing dense, focused critical commentaries on specific poems. The overall construction of the book is slightly less satisfying, however, and Mark has a puzzling tendency to write sentences which lack main verbs. There is no introduction (although there is a brief but useful prologue), and no conclusion, which means that the volume ends with a chapter on language poetry which includes very little discussion of Forrest-Thomson and seems strangely unmotivated, especially placed as it is at the conclusion, rather than the beginning, of the book. One cannot help but wonder if it is there at the insistence of a publisher who was nervous that a book on Forrest-Thomson alone would not attract a large enough audience.
      But Mark’s work on Forrest-Thomson is a moving tribute to the capacity of her poetry to engross and enchant readers even while it seems to resist their blandishments. Poems as witty, original and intense as these need no accompaniment.

Suzanne Raitt is a Professor of English at the College of William and Mary. Her books include Vita and Virginia (Oxford, 1993), May Sinclair: A Modern Victorian (Oxford, 2000), and Women’s Fiction and the Great War, co-edited with Trudi Tate. She is currently working on a book on the concept of waste in modernism.

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