Poetry Review: The Poet as a Poet in Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s “Through the Looking Glass “

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“The world is not something static, irredeemably given by a natural language. When language is re-imagined the world expands with it.”

Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Poetic Artifice: A Theory of Twentieth-century Poetry

Link to the poem: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/143680/through-the-looking-glass

Writing this review seems to be inviting a direct admonition from the poet since in her own words in the ‘Introduction to Richard II’ she says, ‘Third, and most important, I believe that at the present time poetry must progress by deliberately trying to defeat the expectations of its readers…, especially… that they will be able to extract meaning from a poem.’ To Veronica Forrest-Thomson, poet and critical theorist, author of Poetic Artifice: A Theory of Twentieth-Century Poetry, poetry was meant to represent an expansion and an expression of language rather than meaning to be at the forefront of a work.

“Through the Looking Glass” is usually considered among her earlier works; an exact date of publication is unavailable, but sources indicate that it was written in early 1967 and included in the reading sessions for April and December 1967 at Essex and Bristol, respectively. She is renowned today for her insistence that ‘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.’ She firmly believed that poetry should ‘give us new ways to use our imaginations’ rather than ‘simply show us how we already think.’ It is in this vein that I will attempt to review this poem.

The poem starts with one of Forrest-Thomson’s usual trait, that is to quote from past literary works. In this case, “Mirror, mirror on the wall” hearkens to the fairy tale of Snow White, wherein the mirror is an object that reveals facts and its purpose is to depict a true depiction of its observer. In this poem, the observer wants to be shown all the facades instead of the true picture, defying the purpose of a mirror. Magda Stronska argues that the mirror is, in fact, a hypothetical one that represents language, which is being regarded as ‘as a mirror of the internal world of the speaker/author and thus of their self-reflection’. To ‘view and choose which I would like as true’ may point to the act of choosing the words to a verse or a sentence that would represent the poet’s true intent at work. If we do view the mirror in the first verse as language itself and ‘all my faces’ as its facets, then the poem may be thought of as a description of the act of writing a poem where the poet would like to reveal or even conceal her true feelings or emotions. It may even be a ruse to conceal meaning from the poem altogether.

As the poet implores language (mirror) to ‘teach [her] skill to disguise’ the unpleasant, it becomes apparent that Forrest-Thomson regards this to expressions that would be lethargic in a poem. Yet, she questions faith whether ‘life obeys the rules.’ She valued the nuances and forms of the English language as critical to exploring the imagination through words. In the last line of this verse “football pools” strikes as an oddity after man and God. Not only does this act as a device for rhyming to form, but it also serves to portray another trait of Forrest-Thomson. She would use these nonsense words to break any meaning that would begin to build and to curve the message inward into the poem. Here “football pools” may be representational of the theme of seeing one of “all my faces” and she chooses ‘football pools’ as the true depiction of her intent as a poet.

In the next two verses, Forrest-Thomson presents metaphors, dispels them with one word, then asserts herself as a poet on the poem, and presents the dilemma of a poet. ‘Content to decorate attitude and event’ refers to the act of writing itself as she asks the mirror to arm her with all devices so that she can write as it pleases her. Peter Riley writes, “Veronica Forrest-Thomson believed in using the full forces available in order to isolate the poem from the world as a privileged area of free play.” Here, she certainly summons all the forces to represent herself as the poet and herself as the subject of the poet, thereby removing the need for discerning any subverted meaning in the verses.

Adrienne Raphel writes in her essay, ‘Veronica Forrest-Thomson is both Veronica Forrest-Thomson and “Veronica Forrest-Thomson,” the person and the thing that language creates.’ The purpose of the lines ‘so that somehow behind the scene // I may believe my actions mean’ is to depict the poet in the act of writing poetry, searching for the words that she wishes to choose and in the process find out if she ‘can exercise control // in playing out a chosen role’. In this case, going with the motif of mirror as language, the chosen role may be considered as that of the poet. If the poet can successfully exercise control, then she can ‘rub clouded glass’ and ‘write self on it again.’ This process of doubt is characteristic of writing poetry and one can only escape this loop with absolute control on the depiction of one’s truth.

In Poetic Artifice, Forrest-Thomson writes, ‘what we can know of experience always lies within language.’ As she writes the final verse, she tells the mirror that if ‘in some unlucky glance’, she is shown ‘naked circumstance’ that renders her motionless, it should ‘crack before [she does]’. This reference to circumstance may be considered as a situation where imagination fades away and the writer begins to write what one already thinks or knows. This intent of the poet resounds loudly in later years when she attacks Philip Larkin’s work in Poetic Artifice, wherein she writes, ‘His technique 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.’ Forrest-Thomson in her closing lines addresses this ‘naked circumstance’ and begs Language to crack and disperse rather than drown in unimaginative poetry where she may ‘crack’ or cease to exist as a poet herself.

1. Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s use of verbal and textual irony in developing a new language of self-hood, Elizabeth Ford.. Link: https://www.academia.edu/11331146/Veronica_Forrest-Thomson_s_use_of_verbal_and_textual_irony_in_developing_a_new_language_of_selfhood
2. Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s supra-theoretical poetry, Peter Riley. Link: https://fortnightlyreview.co.uk/2014/05/veronica-forrest-thomson/
3. The Rise of Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Adrienne Raphel. Link: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/142033/the-rise-of-veronica-forrest-thomson
4. Poetic Artifice: A Theory of Twentieth-century Poetry, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Manchester University Press, 1978. Accessed via Google Books.
5. Veronica Forrest-Thomson: Poet on the Periphery, Gareth Farmer, Springer, 11-Oct-2017. Accessed via Google Books.
6. Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Language Poetry, Alison Mark, Oxford University Press, 2001. Accessed via Google Books.

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