- Poetic Artifice: A Theory of 20th-Century Poetry by Veronica Forrest-Thomson, edited by Gareth Farmer
Shearsman, 238 pp, £16.95, April 2016, ISBN 978 1 84861 445 1
The last sentence of Poetic Artifice reads: ‘But like all true artificers “I” remains enigmatical, presenting only the words on the page.’ Veronica Forrest-Thomson has been trying to rescue Sylvia Plath’s ‘Purdah’ from the critics who think the poem is a straightforward confession of her desire to avenge herself on Ted Hughes. ‘Why she should have bothered to write poems if this was what she wanted to say is of course not explained,’ Forrest-Thomson remarks tartly. ‘It is taken to be enough that she was a poet.’ What Plath is really doing, she explains, is writing a poem in which phrases that look like self-descriptions (‘I/smile, cross-legged,/Enigmatical’) generate patterns of sound and form that ‘feed into’ new images. Plath notices she is constructing her poem in this way and inserts phrases like ‘shifting my clarities’ that let the reader know that her meaning has become material for the poem to play with (a ‘sheath of impossibles’). The chilling final phrase of ‘Purdah’, ‘the cloak of holes’, is not, then, a symbol of vengeance following ‘the shriek in the bath’, it is the poet’s ‘fictionalised “I” … clothed in its negation’.
This cool handling of a poem that appears to radiate destructiveness is typical of the book. Poems, Poetic Artifice protests, can’t be ‘naturalised’ into descriptions of the non-poetic world. ‘If one attempts to give an external meaning … outside the structure of the poem, outside the standards of truth created by poetic lying, the strands of ideas lose any validity.’ She targets William Empson’s habit of bluffly summarising a poem’s underlying message without really discussing the form, as well as the contextual critics who write as if poems are ‘engaged in the language-game of giving information’. But Poetic Artifice is also a manifesto against the poets who encourage them – Ted Hughes, naturally, followed by ‘Messrs Lowell, Berryman, Gunn, Davie, Larkin, Alvarez, Hobsbaum and Mrs Sexton’ – whose ‘form and content refer us back to the already known world’. It doesn’t matter if that world is the eco-suicidal mythology of Hughes’s Crow, or the dreary bedsit of Larkin’s ‘Mr Bleaney’, or Lowell’s unhappy childhood: they all write as if poems described a reality outside themselves. Poetic artifice, on the other hand, allows the poet to shift ‘the meaning away from direct reference to a state of affairs’ and make it part of a ‘thematic synthesis, where the external contexts are evoked only to be made fictional’. In 1978, when the book was first published, this brisk anti-realism was both counterintuitive and prophetic. It was one of the first works of criticism to incorporate post-structuralist theory about the fictionality of the written ‘I’, and to weld it onto an account of how poets ought to write. It also announced a change in literary-critical taste, from Ginsberg to Prynne and Ashbery, from loosely confessional free verse to the Language poets. Above all, it was an attack on the ‘confessional’ poetry of uncensored lives and raw emotions: it taught Anglo-American readers to understand, like French chefs and French post-structuralists, that the ‘raw’ is already a subcategory of the cooked.
Still, using Plath as the clinching example of the poet who dissolves herself into ‘the words on the page’ is a marvellous piece of cheek. It makes the book’s death-of-the-author thesis look like a wink at the reader: the stone Buddha in Plath’s poem is smiling, after all. Artifice, for Forrest-Thomson, is less a way to disappear than to maintain one’s poise, holding life safely apart for a moment and stylising it. Midway through the final chapter, a discussion of Dadaist poetics suddenly turns into a guide for irony-spotters:
Some instances. One: in September 1972 an exhibition of The Surrealist Revolution is held, under the auspices of the French government, in the Musée de l’Art Décoratif in Paris. Two: the proprietor of L’Hôtel de France tells me that in order to enter my room I must insert the key upside down and turn it counter-clockwise.
If you can appreciate the unintentional joke, then you are on the side of ‘artificial detachment and aesthetic distance’, and so ‘better fitted to appreciate Artifice as readers of poetry’. Yet living as though one’s life were a film directed by an absurdist director doesn’t mean blithely disregarding pain. ‘There is nothing funny about the lives of Rimbaud or Lautréamont,’ she adds, but ‘how else could we bear them; how else could we risk the same?’
Poetic Artifice teaches readers to engage with the artifice, not the content, of poems by Ashbery or Prynne by showing how, in their work, everyday phrases and the sympathies that usually accompany them are reassembled into unsettling combinations that surprise everyone, including the poet. Poems emerge from a process of composition, she argues, in which world and words constantly mediate each other, and ‘the poet … does not himself know what world he is in until the mediation has taken place (the poem is written).’ Her poem ‘Zettel’ closes with a thought from Wittgenstein:
One’s hand writes
it does not write because one wills
but one wills
what it writes.
But her insistence on wresting poetry away from non-poetic life also produces some of her more flamboyant misreadings. In a chapter on Pound’s ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius’ she borrows an idea from her then husband Jonathan Culler’s Structuralist Poetics: that the ‘orientational features of language which refer to the situation of utterance’ – words like ‘I’ and ‘now’ – are a ‘purely relational linguistic fiction with no referent in the external world’. So Pound was really writing about himself writing as Propertius, and ‘it is not important … whether anything in prewar Britain corresponds to the “distentions of Empire” in Roman times’ that Pound-as-Propertius was criticising. This would have been news to Pound. The poem’s ‘I’ may flit between Pound in 1919 and Propertius in 20 bc, but the point of the ventriloquism was to get the reader in 1919 or 2016 to recognise their own ‘now’: to see how empires – Roman, British, capitalist – corrupt public taste and shrink poets’ horizons.
Forrest-Thomson also scorns Larkin for writing poems that describe failure and disappointment so transparently that they can only leave ‘poetry stranded on the beach of the already-known world’. She quotes the final stanzas of ‘Mr Bleaney’, in which Larkin’s narrator shivers at the thought of being just one in a succession of room-renters, ‘at his age having no more to show/than one hired box’. Larkin is doggedly unexperimental, it’s true, but this is one of the lines in his work that does jump between theme and technique: the ‘hired box’ is the bedsit room, the waiting coffin, the conformist life, and the abab stanza in iambic pentameter in which he’s writing it all down.
But Poetic Artifice is a performance of its own. The specialist vocabulary (‘naturalisation’, ‘disconnected image-complex’), the obsessive concern for sound-patterns rather than content, gives way, now and again, to the image of the young poet-critic caught at an awkward moment in the argument:
So I must sit on my fence, feet on the bars of the scale of relevance, head in the air of Artifice, bottom perched – very hesitantly – on the disconnected image-complex … As Francis Ponge puts it, ‘le seul moyen d’agir est le moyen que j’ai choisi: d’écrire.’
In his introduction Gareth Farmer points out that what Ponge actually wrote was ‘le seul moyen d’agir et non d’être agi’: writing is the only way to act and not be acted upon. Drawing attention to the precariousness of her own critical balancing act makes Forrest-Thomson look vulnerable at one level, but it also reasserts her control of the essay by changing the game her critics might have thought she was playing. This is exactly what the poetic artifice of Ashbery or Plath does – present a situation, then represent it in the act of being presented – and it is what Forrest-Thomson does in her own best poems.
Artifice was her subject from the start, but her first collection, Identi-kit, published in 1967, when she was 20, sees it as a troubling lie. In ‘The Sentence’, a Caliban figure addresses its Prospero, complaining that ‘you taught me language,’ words whose ‘narcissistic joy defines a world deformed by form.’ The title poem at first sounds more positive:
Love is the oldest camera
Snap me with your eyes.
Wearied with myself I want
a picture that simplifies.
The photo promises a coherence the speaker does not feel she possesses, but it’s an unsettled kind of coherence. An identikit portrait is assembled from strips of different photos, and used by the police in a search for the accused. Forrest-Thomson’s discovery of Wittgenstein during her PhD, however, led her to think that it was only through the artifice of language that the world was available to us at all. If that was true then changing the rules of the ‘language game’ would change what we could experience, making artifice our best chance of ‘smashing and rebuilding the forms of thought’. From then on, her poems flaunted their construction. ‘Antiphrasis’ seems to extend a warm handshake to critics hunting for the next Plath, before thumbing its nose at them:
I went to the British Museum
I looked at the Egyptian Antiquities
neat syntax of ibis and scarab
sum up my several identities;
the stone face is dumb,
the mummy enclosed in its chattering sarcophagus.
I stared at the Rosetta Stone
I was irritated by a crowd of French schoolchildren
My feet hurt.
I am working at the collation
of these parallel texts
‘the t’one in ye proper simple speech
and t’other by the fygure of irony’
(Thos. More, 1533)
But the constant allusions to the disjunction between life and art do nothing to disguise the poems’ subtext of disappointed love and misunderstood desire. ‘Antiphrasis’ continues:
Shall I compare you to Apollo (or Perithoös)
on the west pediment of The Temple of Zeus?
I dreamt you were made of stone
and struck your head off with a pen.
It rolled and lay still and bled
sawdust. There is a sawdust pit
below the sculptures to protect
them from earthquakes which are
frequent in the area. The attribution
of identity (Apollo or Perithoös)
to ‘you’ is disputed.
(‘Other Minds’ etc. vide supra)
Each figurative speech forms
‘a contradictory outcome of events
as if in mockery of the promise and fitness of things.’
The quotation from the OED on ‘irony’ isn’t just a warning that poems are made of figurative speech, but that love is; trying to name it has meant putting the lover on a pediment from which his idealised form can only tumble. The lines from ‘Zettel’ quoted earlier are preceded by a self-ironising moment:
I love you.
– the language game
with pronouns and
‘Confucius he say’:
The concept of a living being
has the same indeterminacy
as that of a language.
Desire itself is shaped by the pronouns we adopt and the language games we play. In the context of failing love, Wittgenstein’s thought that ‘one wills/what it writes’ now sounds like someone trying to persuade herself that desire will follow where the poem’s language leads. But the distracted line-breaks and the generally slack rhythms suggested the will may be looking elsewhere.
This doesn’t mean that artifice is really confession, just that artifice allows the poet to risk it. In the preface to her last volume of poems, On the Periphery (1976), Forrest-Thomson explained that her poems’ deliberate ‘refusal of meaning’ was a gesture against ‘the awfulness of the modern world’, before adding that ‘the last poem “Sonnet” is the love poem I have tried throughout to write straight.’ It couldn’t be straighter:
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.
If this is the poem written ‘throughout’, then its hopeless appeal to an ex-lover must underlie all those oblique, compulsively allusive poems that make it so difficult for the reader to map their language back onto the world. Style is the reconciliation of ‘love with knowledge’, she adds, for ‘the other person is the personification of the other, the unknown, the external world, and all one’s craft is necessary to catch him.’ But if he will not be caught, as the ‘Sonnet’ says he won’t, then artifice is the anticipation of endless failure. Thinking of form as a device for rejecting the external world becomes a way of internalising her own rejection.
Forrest-Thomson’s later poems read like witty performance monologues – made for the stage, but more attracted to the confessional’s self-inculpating theatre than she was able to admit in Poetic Artifice:
They that have power to hurt and do so
Should not be blamed by Shakespeare or anyone else
For hurting though such is the race of poets
That they will blame them anyway.
However it is a pretty productive process
Especially if one may be plumber as well as poet
And thus unstop the drain as well as writing
Poetic Artifice ‘Pain stopped play’ and
Several other books and poems including
1974 and All That (seriously though)
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.
(‘Cordelia, or, A Poem Should Not Mean, but Be’)
The poem switches between dredged-up confessions (‘I did it, I myself, killing the King my father’) and jokes faster than any audience could keep up with. The brackets around ‘(seriously though)’ epitomise the poem’s tone: that moment when the comedian draws the breathless audience together and they don’t know whether they’ve been softened up for something painful or wound up for the next gag. So the ‘truth-finding’ of Poetic Artifice is also ‘muck-raking’, emotional unblocking and journalistic self-trashing; it’s a Trojan Horse, sneaking in emotions under the cover of artifice. Formally, ‘Cordelia’ presents a breathless six-page monologue by a figure so anxious to be listened to that she, Veronica, creates the misunderstanding that she then reacts to. The rapid-fire impersonations guarantee the misunderstanding by bewildering and then moralising at the reader:
And work as much as you can
For you can’t do anything while you’re dead.
Playing with rejection was also a motif in her late modernist poetics. In an introduction she wrote for a reading of a late poem, ‘Richard II’, she declared: ‘I believe that at the present time poetry must progress by deliberately trying to defeat the expectations of its readers or hearers.’ But the gesture of making yourself unavailable to the people listening to you invites renewed attention – one reason, perhaps, that Language poetry remains as fascinated by live reading as the Confessionals ever were. Forrest-Thomson never got the chance to read ‘Richard II’, though. Having been made drowsy by alcohol and prescription drugs, she choked on her own vomit and died in her sleep the night before its first performance.