The Rise of Veronica Forrest-Thomson

A literary cult figure who died decades ago is more relevant than ever.
Image of Veronica Forrest-Thomson.

“My name is Veronica Forrest-Thomson,” writes Veronica Forrest-Thomson in one of her final poems, “Cordelia: or ‘A Poem Should not Mean but Be.’” But who is Veronica Forrest-Thomson?

For the uninitiated: she’s a literary cult figure, a rising star of British post-World War II poetry and criticism whose career came to an abrupt halt when she died suddenly in 1975, at age 27. Though she wrote only one volume of criticism, she established a legacy essential to post-modern poetry. For decades, Forrest-Thomson was almost entirely unread, except among small cadres of avant-garde writers. But over the past few years, with university symposia dedicated to her work, special journal issues featuring Forrest-Thomson, and the republication of her heretofore nearly impossible to find books, this has changed. Finally, Forrest-Thomson is having her moment.

Forrest-Thomson is perhaps best known through her influence on Charles Bernstein’s verse essay “Artifice of Absorption,” a seminal defense of poetry that emphasizes the essential connection between form and content. Language, Bernstein argues, isn’t an invisible vessel delivering substance to readers: language itself is the substance. Bernstein uses Forrest-Thomson’s sole critical book, Poetic Artifice: A Theory of Twentieth-Century Poetry, as the springboard for his polemic against the “official verse culture” that prizes clarity and sincerity as the ultimate goals of a poem. Forrest-Thomson eschewed naturalistic poets and what she deemed the “suicide” poets. “All that artifice requires is that unmeaningful levels be taken into account,” writes Forrest-Thomson, and Bernstein agrees: “Content never equals meaning.” To be conventional in form is to be conventional in thought.

Until recently, the primary way most readers read Forrest-Thomson’s writing was through Bernstein’s excerpts. Like Ennius, the Roman author whose writing survives only in Cicero’s quotations, Forrest-Thomson’s own work has largely been inaccessible: both her poetry collections and Poetic Artifice went out of print in the 1970s, and although publications such as Jacket occasionally reprinted her work, finding Forrest-Thomson was an arduous quest.

Over the past decade, there has been a Forrest-Thomson revival. In 2008, the British publishing house Shearsman Books reprinted Forrest-Thomson’s collected poems in a single volume, printing both her published and unpublished work. A symposium at the University of Cambridge followed this republication. In 2010 and 2011, the Kenyon Review and Chicago Review published special issues devoted to Forrest-Thomson’s writing and to critical appraisals of her work and legacy. In 2016, Shearsman Books re-released Poetic Artifice for the first time in nearly 40 years.

Today, Forrest-Thomson is more relevant than ever. Although her voice might have gone underground for decades, the questions she raises go straight to the core of problems that plague poets today: How can you create a genuine experience in a poem? What can a poem do that other artistic media can’t? What is the purpose of writing a poem?
Ironically, Forrest-Thomson’s innovations make her largely responsible for being able to forget her. Poetry isn’t about the subject, and poetry isn’t supposed to point us directly back into our everyday lives; rather, the poem itself is the subject. She is, to borrow T.S. Eliot’s term, her own catalyst: her ideas about artifice have become so embedded in the philosophy of Language poetry and the purpose of a particular poem that we have lost sight of the writer herself. Before Forrest-Thomson, an I in a poem was usually interpreted as having some sort of specific value. The I could be the author or a fictional creation. Forrest-Thomson illuminates that I is just another word in a poem: an expression created out of language that negotiates between the external world and the imagination. Veronica Forrest-Thomson is both Veronica Forrest-Thomson and “Veronica Forrest-Thomson,” the person and the thing that language creates. Near the end of “Cordelia: or ‘A Poem Should not Mean, but Be,’” after she states her full name, Forrest-Thomson describes the poetic process:

I, Veronica did it, truth-finding, truth-seeking
Muck-raking, bringing victory.
It was a horse, of course, in which the warriors hid
Pretending to bring peace

As soon as Forrest-Thomson appears to identify I as the actual, physical poet herself, she reveals that identity is a Trojan horse: she becomes Clytemnestra, Helen, Agamemnon, Dante, Beatrice, T.S. Eliot, Cordelia, and myriad more. The I is none of these and all at once: I is both I and not-I. And yet, at its best, this contradiction is not destabilizing but empowering.

Veronica Elizabeth Marian Forrest Thomson was born in what is now Malaysia in 1947 to rubber planters John and Jean Forrest Thomson and grew up in Glasgow, Scotland. She quickly proved to be a poetic prodigy. She earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Liverpool and then went to Girton College, Cambridge, where she earned her Ph.D. in 1971. While still an undergraduate, she wrote her first poetry collection, Identi-kit, published in 1967. A few years later, she published her second full-length book of poetry, Language-Games. Forrest-Thomson blossomed as a poet and a critic at Cambridge under the tutelage of J.H. Prynne and Graham Hough, champions of a revival of complex imagery and formal aestheticism. As a doctoral student, Forrest-Thomson also became deeply invested in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language. Before publishing Language-Games, Forrest-Thomson inserted a hyphen into her surname—like a tattoo—probably in honor of Wittgenstein’s concept of the “language-game,” or the idea that language consists of both words and the actions in which words are woven. (If Emily Dickinson owns the dash, Veronica Forrest-Thomson owns the hyphen.)

Forrest-Thomson’s “The Hyphen,” from Language-Games, is an occasional poem for the centenary of Girton College that takes as its subject a carved hyphen between 1869-1969. The poem begins with one definition of its title character:

i hyphen (Gk. together, in one)
a short dash or line used to connect
two words together as a compound
to connect Chapel Wing and Library.

Immediately, however, Forrest-Thomson turns the hyphen on its head, showing how it means not only connection but also division: “A gap in stone makes actual / the paradox of a centenary.” The hyphen both separates and links, calling attention to the space between elements at the very instant it creates a bridge between them. A hyphen forces readers to gauge meaning from what is around it: it is “the ‘context in which we occur’ / that teaches us our meaning,” writes Forrest-Thomson (quoting herself, from her earlier poem “The Blue Book.”) The second half of the poem plays visually with the simultaneous separation and distance: each line has white space alternating before or after the center of the poem, creating visual hyphen-like lines.

While at Cambridge, Forrest-Thomson met and married literary critic Jonathan Culler, who became famous for his theories tying linguistics into the study of literature. But her rising trajectory was cut abruptly short: on April 26, 1975, Veronica Forrest-Thomson died in what seems to have been an alcohol- and drug-fueled accident. (She was known to rely on sleeping pills, and, according to her editor, she had been drinking heavily. The immediate cause was asphyxiation. There’s little evidence that this death was intentional; indeed, she was looking forward to performing in a reading that same weekend.) On the Periphery, her third full-length poetry collection, was printed posthumously in 1976, and Poetic Artifice, her first and only full-length book of criticism, was published in 1978.

Poetic Artifice presents a prescient intervention between two types of poetry, the confessional and the nonsensical. In the 1970s, contemporary British poetry was divided. On one end of the spectrum were naturalist poets such as Philip Larkin, Thom Gunn, and Ted Hughes, who published intelligible, sincere poems with the goal of holding mirrors to real experiences. Forrest-Thomson aims her vitriol with full force at Larkin, perhaps the most beloved of the bunch, dismissing poems such as “Mr Bleaney” as “embarrassingly lucid.” A poem should do more work than simply show us how we already think: it should give us new ways of using our imaginations. She disdainfully proclaims, “If Mr Larkin really does consider these reflections his most profound thoughts—and there is every reason to suppose that he does—and if this is a specimen of his best poetic style, as it would seem, then the notion that he is an important poet, which has been bedeviling English poetry for the past twenty years, is without foundation.” With prodigal bravura, she continues to take Larkin to task: “His technique,” she writes, “is exact if unexciting; it fulfills the reader’s expectations, leading him out towards the world and inviting him to think of it once more. But it does no more than that. It leaves poetry stranded on the beach of the already-known world, to expand and limit itself there.”

At the other extreme from the overly simple naturalists were surrealists and concrete poets—David Gascoyne, Robert Lax, Edwin Morgan—who used words as three-dimensional objects and avoided any possible mediation between content and form. Robert Lax’s “ik ok,” for example, presents ik and ok in columns on the page, essentially turning the poem into metronome, leaping backward and forward between sounds but never giving them any meaning. “Concrete poetry is a regression rather than a liberation,” Forrest-Thomson declares. “Neither the conventional level or the formal level can rise above the level of mere noise.”

Forrest-Thomson censures both the naturalists and the experimentalists for neither trying hard enough themselves nor making readers bring enough to the table. Poetry shouldn’t be as legible as prose—after all, if poetry just mirrors the world, why bother writing it? Poetry has the opportunity to do something different, to create a space that, like the hyphen, both connects and separates readers from their own reality.

In many ways, the experimentalists won. Throughout the 1970s, with the rise of writers such as Bernstein, poets increasingly turned to linguistics as the basis for poetic innovation in both the United Kingdom and the United States. But Forrest-Thomson advocates for a middle ground: use imagery from the real world but also put language itself front and center.

Forrest-Thomson champions a third strain of poetry, poetry that neither replicates the natural world nor abstracts itself to the point of gibberish. Rather, Forrest-Thomson advocates for poems that build “image-complex[es]” or images built in the tension between expressions created in language and the external world. Poetry shouldn’t mirror reality nor should it reject it cold turkey. Instead, poetry gets to build a space that lets us augment our understanding of language. “External contexts,” she writes, “are evoked only to be made fiction.” Poetry gains its power when it can “maintain continuity” with the real world “while achieving discontinuity.” What this means in practice is that Forrest-Thomson wants poems to sustain multilayered images that rely on both form and content to cohere. She traces this use of an “image-complex” from John Donne to J.H. Prynne and Sylvia Plath, explaining how these poets compel readers into a world adjacent to daily life: neither a one-to-one correspondence with the natural world nor a complete rejection of reality.

Plath seems like a counterintuitive choice for someone as professedly anti-confessional as Forrest-Thomson. Plath died in 1963, four years before Forrest-Thomson’s first book of poems was published; both her play with autobiography and her early death eerily foreshadow Forrest-Thomson’s work. As critic Peter Howarth recently observes in the London Review of Books, one irony of Poetic Artifice is that Forrest-Thomson concludes with rousing praise for a poet famous for her apparently “naturalized” speaker. Forrest-Thomson does not reject Plath’s content. Of “Daddy,” Forrest-Thomson declares, “I do not mean (and may I say this for the last time) that the ‘content’ is not important, that Miss Plath’s suffering, the invocation of concentration camps, the lack of telephonic connection, even the vampire myth, are of no importance.” Content still signifies, but that’s not the whole point. “The ‘message’ in the old sense is not what is important; message in the new sense is a product of the re-creation of the old orders, primarily through non-semantic levels,” Forrest-Thomson writes. In other words, the meaning is more than the message. Plath uses confession as another form of poetic convention. The last line of Poetic Artifice could be about Forrest-Thomson: “But like all true artificers ‘I’ remains enigmatical, presenting only the words on the page.”

Forrest-Thomson’s poems are often a petri dish for her theories about language. “Ducks & Rabbits,” from Language-Games, begins

Ducks & Rabbits

in the stream,
look, the duck-rabbits swim between.
The Mill Race
at Granta Place
tosses them from form to form,
dissolving bodies in the spume.

The opening line, which directly follows the title, has two realities: physical animals actually in a body of water and the idea of ducks and the idea of rabbits floating into the mind’s eye because they have appeared on the page. Forrest-Thomson’s mixture of lit-crit and poetry might be insufferable if it were done without irony. Luckily, Forrest-Thomson has no lack of dry wit: language is, after all, a game. A footnote after “in the stream” leads to the annotation “of consciousness.” Forrest-Thomson is insistently self-mocking, subverting theory-talk at the moment when she takes it the most seriously. This duality—the thing itself and the concept of the thing––does in the poem what the famous duck-rabbit optical illusion does in an image: we are presented with a doodle that, looked at horizontally, appears to be a rabbit; tilted 90 degrees, it becomes a duck. Wittgenstein used this optical illusion to describe two different ways of seeing that are simultaneously true.

According to “Ars Veronica,” every poem is an ars poetica by definition. A poem creates both the poem itself and the means by which it is created. Veronica Forrest-Thomson is a crucial link in the long evolution of the poet-critic. Poets from Sir Philip Sidney to T.S. Eliot to Charles Bernstein to Ben Lerner have long negotiated the balance between writing and analyzing poetry. Is the poet-critic a symbiotic hybrid or a split personality? Like a duck-rabbit, the poet-critic must use language two ways: creating effects with language and analyzing the effects of language. Forrest-Thomson adds the third dimension of poet-critic as mediator. The poet-critic is a poet, a critic, and the hyphen in between. She not only describes how poems work but also provides a diagnostic of why they work and an instruction guide for how to make poems work.

Originally Published: May 16th, 2017

Adrienne Raphel is the author of What Was It For (Rescue Press, 2017), winner of the Rescue Press Black Box Poetry Prize, and the chapbook But What Will We Do, winner of the Seattle Review Chapbook Contest. She writes for the New Yorker online, and her work has also appeared in the Paris Review Daily, the Atlantic online, and Lana Turner Journal, among other publicationsRaphel...