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.

The Variety Theatre Audience in Mikhail Bulgakov’s ‘The Master and Margarita’

‘The city folk have changed greatly… externally, … have [they] changed inwardly?’

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Maragrita (Penguin Books, 2007), pp. 122–123

The question posed by Maestro Woland as he is called in this scene resounds solidly even today as our society moves from one technological acquisition to another so fast that while we are acclimatizing our lives to one, another is clawing at our feet craving for our attention. In this renowned scene from Mikhael Bulgakov’s ‘The Master and Margarita’, through the séance that Woland’s (Satan) entourage performs at the Variety Theatre in Moscow, Bulgakov provides valuable commentary on the times and lives of Moscow citizen. Written at the time of Stalin’s regime, the novel presents the contemporary world setting as that of 1930s Russia. Contextually, it is relevant to note that Russia’s years under the rule of Stalin carry not only infamy, but also great struggles for its citizens.

As Woland entered the stage with his retinue he began the séance by remarking on Moscow’s technological advances, bemusing the audience who took it as a prelude to the show that would follow. At this point, the master of ceremonies, Bengalsky interjected to comment on Woland’s remark and uses the word “admiration” to summarize it. This jerked the troupe’s ire. Bengalsky, in this scene, may be the one bearing the brunt of speaking against his turn, but his voice is perhaps the doubt that is creeping into every audience member. While every moment of the séance, right from Woland summoning his chair from thin air, were beyond belief, voices in the theatre, attributed to various characters take turns to find comfort in the confines of their own capacities to believe. If Bengalsky’s reaction to a simple remark was that of perplexity, it was a sign of the night ahead of him.

Whether Woland’s question was a rhetorical one to Koroviev or it is a heads-up to the reader, well, devil only knows, it certainly sets the stage for the actual magic to start. Koroviev (Fagott) summoned a deck of cards and passed it to Behemoth (the anthropomorphic cat), who sent it back and Fagott swallowed them up, card by card. Fagott, then ‘jabbed his finger at the stalls’ and announced that Parchevsky, a citizen had the cards. Upon discovery, Fagott revealed to the audience that Parchevsky had remarked at dinner that “if it weren’t for poker [my] life in Moscow would be utterly unbearable”. Without context, this seems like a joke on the general lack of purpose in a working man’s life except for survival. In fact, gambling and all forms of card games had been banned in Russia from 1928 by a resolution of the USSR SPC. Koroviev’s comment and his offer to keep the deck of cards as a souvenir perhaps was intended to embarrass the man of his legal wrongdoings for pleasure. This is the first instance where the inward disposition of the citizens (the audience) is exposed.

An unnamed man was next to speak the mind of the bemused audience with a theory to justify the strange tricks. Instead, he received the cards in his pockets and his neighbor found something else in his own: a bank-wrapped packet with “one thousand roubles” written on it. The man remarks, “Wait! It’s ten-rouble bills!” The English translation of the text mentions it as a ten-rouble bill however, the Russian text differs here, which says “They’re chervontsy,” which was a note introduced in 1928 worth ten roubles. This currency was only temporarily used in Russia and never gained much prominence. In between the gold-backed currency and roubles, chervontsy represented an era of economic instability. In the face of inflation and struggles, history bore little semblance as Faggot rained money into the theater. ‘White strips of paper’ fell and people snatched at it. It is possible that Bulgakov intentionally uses this phrase to satirically hint at the worthlessness of the trick’s seemingly free gifts to the people. Chaos reigned until Koroviev stopped it with a mere blow of the air.

Once again, Bengalsky, in a refusal to believe and dismiss it as a scientific theory steps in and calls the act a case of mass hypnosis. By now, even the crowd was delirious enough to suggest to Koroviev to ‘tear his head off’. As evil can only be perpetrated by the intention of man, and not the devil himself, the unnamed man who had deemed to speak provided the next trick: the great beheading of Bengalsky. Once Behemoth had performed the deed in all its vivid viciousness, Koroviev held the head aloft for all to see; the crowd chanted “Forgive him, forgive him!”

“Well, they’re light-minded… mercy sometimes knocks at their hearts … ordinary people … In general, reminiscent of the former ones … only the housing problem has corrupted them.”

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Maragrita (Penguin Books, 2007), p. 126

Woland’s assessment of the people must be taken with a grain of salt. While he may be suggesting that the essentially, the people have not changed and they are the way they always were, it is only one side of the coin. The actions of people cannot always be seen with only point of view. While the madness that ensued during the rain of money hearkens to the madness within us, the famish cannot be neglected. The audience needed the money, but the government were not giving them what they deserved. This scene marks Bulgakov’s intention to burst the bubble of Russian utopia. The people of Moscow had the same needs as their former ones but corrupted by starvation.

The final act of the séance was a display of the people’s greed and pride. As Koroviev conjured a ladies’ shop with Parisian garments, silk, shoes, and perfumes, women piled the stage. They threw aside their old garments behind the curtain and came out in gorgeous new dresses. Alien to such a variety of attire, they were overwhelmed and succumbed to their wants. Once the frenzy was over, Koroviev brought an end to the act. Once again, one of the audience members, decided to speak the rational minds of the people. This time it was Arkady Appollonovich Sempleyarov. He demanded that the troupe must perform an expose of its tricks.

“You should never ask anyone for anything. Never-and especially from those who are more powerful than yourself.”

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Maragrita (Penguin Books, 2007), p. 282

If this was a scene in a Dostoevsky work, it would not be surprising to find a detailed passage on the mental disposition of Arkady that would make him ask such a question after witnessing the events of the séance. But since he asked for an expose, Koroviev gave one: he exposed his affair with an actress to his wife. In Bulgakov’s work, this points to the differential treatment that was a common phenomenon in Russian society. It is all the more relevant in today’s society as well with corrupt law systems and privacy breaches as the order of the day.

Chapter 12 of The Master and Margarita, Black Magic and Its Exposure, remains to this day one of the most iconic scenes in literature. Not only does it display the full power of Satan’s retinue to expose mankind’s frailties, but also it depicts Bulgakov’s portrait of the common folk of Moscow. Russia saw a great famine in 1932–33 that caused the death of more than five million people. Stalin’s focus of industrialization and state control on grain sowing and livestock greatly affected rural lives as well as the quality of living in urban areas as shortage of food grew. It is in this era of disgruntlement that Bulgakov thrived. His political voice in his plays greatly offended the Russian hierarchy. Even though his works and plays were banned, Stalin is said to have liked his works and granted him immunity from arrests and imprisonment. Stalin arranged for him to keep working at the Art Theater. It was at this time that he worked on ‘The Master and Margarita’ through falling health and depression. He died in 1940 and his magnum opus did not see the light of day until 1967 when it was published in Paris. The first full uncensored version of the novel was published in 1969 in Frankfurt.

“Manuscripts don’t burn.”

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Maragrita (Penguin Books, 2007), p. 287

1. Karen Lynne McCulloch Chilstrom, The Variety Theater in The Master and Margarita:A Portrait of Soviet Life in 1930s Moscow, pp. 16-22, https://www.masterandmargarita.eu/estore/pdf/emen050_lynne.pdf
2. https://www.masterandmargarita.eu/en/index.html

Poetry Summary: John Keats – When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be

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“When I have fears that I may cease to be”

John Keats’ sonnet written in 1818, was published posthumously in 1848. Keats’ fear of death was no romantic fancy. Of course, we have all wondered about death. It is the most inevitable of all of nature’s various devices. It has many devices, and among love, fame, happiness, and wealth that we all yearn for, the final inevitable end comes as death regardless of what one has achieved in life. Immortality is only an ideology that is granted by the living to the dead by virtue of their deeds or misdeeds. The works of a person live beyond the dark veil of the reaper, yet for the one who crosses that veil, the world of the living ceases to be in all sense. Fear of death is a poetic recognition of the beauty and frailty of life. Just three years after Keats wrote this poem, he was taken by tuberculosis, the same ailment that had claimed his mother and brother.

The poet’s background is essential to appreciating this poem, since even though it may be widely accepted that the speaker of this poem is anonymous, to assume that Keats himself is the speaker lends a far more resounding voice to the sonnet. As a poet, this sonnet suggests that not only was poetry Keats’ primary form of expression, he saw the purpose of his life in poetry. He draws an extended metaphor comparing himself to a farmer who would harvest his ‘teeming brain… in charactery’ with words into books that would fill a barn like ‘full ripened grain’. In our present world, it is mostly regarded as fulfilling our dreams, which often translates to our professions, passions, or often both. However, the intensity of the metaphor would amount to our ultimate goal in life. As a reader, one would pause to consider as to what does one consider her/his ultimate goal in life that death would come in the way of. It may be purely materialistic or it may even be considered that life is a pilgrimage towards ascending from the material into the spiritual sense of life.

Romance has been a driving force of expression in art. Existing in various forms, the appreciation of natural beauty is a key element of a romantic work. To see the manifestation of the most beautiful creation of Earth on the most eternal objects in the universe has been a fascination and a recipe for personification. Keats, as he is conjuring images of immortal romance or chivalrous love, looks upon the ‘night’s starred face’. As he is gazing at the ‘huge cloudy symbols’ upon the night sky, he turns to his primary device of expression and once again, wonder if he would live long enough to ‘trace their shadows with the magic hand of chance’. The magic hand of chance offers a glimpse into a deeper layer of the poem. On one hand, the poet claims that he wishes to write everything that he experiences and has experienced, even alluding to his work as a harvest of his life, on the other he admits the uncertainty that is fate. He wishes to live long enough to be a part of or witness fate’s whimsical choice of actions and events through poetry. Through these lines, the poet also appreciates that life is forever changing and never standstill. ‘Trace [cloudy symbol’s] shadows with the magic hand of chance’ acts to portray that not only is Chance (personified) omnipotent and we as humans can only see its shadows as it casts them for us, but also its choices to draw our lives is so uncertain that it may as well be magic.

To understand the relation between the poet’s fear of death, acceptance of whimsical chance, and his sadness for his ‘fair creature of an hour’, it is helpful to turn to Keats’ sonnet “Bright Star, would I were stedfast as thou art”. In the sonnet, he wishes that his life were as unchanging and constant as the star so that he could spend his life eternally with his beloved, and if not, he would rather ‘swoon to death.’ In our present sonnet, he fears the same. Besides poetry, he would love to ‘look upon thee more’, perhaps forever as he suggests in “Bright Star”. Life’s transient nature is recognized by Keats in both sonnets. It is this realization that drives the poet to an isolated sadness whereupon he gives us an imagery of the poet standing alone on the shore ‘of the wide world’.

The final part of the sonnet is a couplet and before diving into the verse itself, a brief aspect of the sonnet’s form needs to be visited. This sonnet is primarily in the Shakespearean form, following the ABABCDCDEFEFGG rhyme scheme, wherein the volta (the turn) occurs after the twelfth line to present a resolution of the sonnet’s feeling. The first three verses in “When I Have Fears” express the poet’s fears regarding death and his wishes that would be left unfulfilled were he to die. As the poet is now standing alone on the shore of the world, a realization dawns upon him.

‘Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.’

Drowned by thoughts of his fears, he had wished of love and fame as a writer, yet when he looks upon the ocean, that is the world, his wishes are overcome with a feeling of futility. No matter how much one fears death or appreciates it, it is the final inevitability and in the face of death, nothing matters. This is the strongest part of the sonnet where the poet admits a sinking defeat to life’s end. The feeling of mortality is expressed as one that isolates every human being from not only others but also from one’s own dreams and passions. Keats’ admission of this feeling of isolation as one considers life’s greatest truth lends this poem a melancholic ending.

As readers, we might draw a sense of urgency and appreciation of all that is around us. While it is true that death can isolate us, it is a testament to the fact that life is a celebration of companionship and purpose. Through this poem, we can resolve to be virtuous to our loved ones in life and to pursue our passions as long as life permits us. After all, the ‘magic hand of chance’ can draw us our own clouds according to its whims, but as humans we possess the ability to make the most out of them.

Unpredictability in Haruki Murakami’s ‘Kafka on the Shore’

Knowingly and unknowingly we have trudged into each other’s paths. That is the order of events in life. One on hand, Satoru Nakata has the eerie ability to predict the strangest of occurrences yet has no bearing where each event leads him. On the other hand, Kafka Tamura is driven by his quest to escape a prophecy but constantly allows himself to be overcome by unpredictability. Time and time again, the world that is being dictated by pure whim will take us off our planned course and we must stand up and face it. A prophecy is not to be taken lightly neither is the clear sky, which appears oddly friendly.

“Leeches don’t fall from the sky, do they now?”

Unpredictability is the nature of life. If we could know everything about our lives, we would still not be content. We would act to change things toward a direction that benefits us, derailing others in the wake of the events that would transpire. But why would the rest fall back without reply? The collision course is an inevitability and soon we will once again be plunged into unknown waters. That is the nature of life. Time and events play a strange game, yet some things are certain and those are commonly known as prophecies. Could Nakata have stopped leeches to rain from the sky? Or fish? All he could have done was protect himself while those unwary or unheeded would bask in shock.

Despite the unknowns, Murakami paints an idealistic world where every character pursues the goal that they have set themselves towards the very end. Okawa, the white cat, warns Nakata to veer off the path of his search for Goma. Having never abandoned a task unfinished, he does not relent and ends up in the house of the most sinister man he would ever encounter. The man, named Johnnie Walker claimed to have lived for so long that he could not even recount his age. A harvester of cat souls to make flutes out of them, he too was a methodical man. “Getting things in the correct order, step one to step ten, then back to one again.” Tired of the endless process and an unknown destination of his work, he is eager to end his life, but he needs Nakata’s help. Nakata must kill him in order to save Goma, the cat that he was looking for; it would be murdered with due procedure for the harvesting of another soul.

Nakata stabs Johhnie Walker. Sense of duty. Meanwhile, Koichi Tamura is dead from stab wounds and Kafka wakes up near a Shinto shrine with a bloodied t-shirt and unknown bearings. He took shelter in Sakura’s room, while Nakata walked over to a policeman and confessed of the murder that he had committed. In general, a murderer confessing to a policeman by himself is a dream come true for the man in uniform. In Nakata’s case, the bizarreness of his ordeal worked to the old man’s advantage. Fish rained from the sky the next day. Knowingly and unknowingly, once again we have come across the same eventualities. No one has any idea where we are headed towards, not even the one who leads us.

Human beings like to pretend that they know what they are doing. They would be confident of the outcomes of their actions, but the more they are sure, the more the world protests. Confidence drives the clueless, while wariness prepares the knowledgeable. Both characters in Kafka on the Shore exhibit a distinct humility when it comes to acting out their part. “When a war starts people are forced to become soldiers… Nobody cares whether you like killing other people or not.” Throughout the book, Kafka and Nakata flow towards their place of action like a waterfall down the hills. There is seldom anything unnatural in their movements or their intent; the only uncanny feelings are experienced by the readers who thrown into unknown territory every now and then.

It brings into perspective how each one of us individually squares up to our lives. To an outsider, it brings forth feelings always in relation to themselves. Intimidation, inspiration, and indifference are brought about as a comparison to their own lives. Pure happiness and joy though are born out of compassion and the ability to observe the world in detachment from one’s own self. That is the moment when a person is truly able to understand the world and empathize with its mechanisms. Reading this book requires such a sight. There is not much to be gained in trying to judge the actions of the characters as each is a soldier in a war that they are not aware that is brewing. Kafka, Nakata, Oshima, and Miss Saeki have been handed their guns and signaled to find and shoot their enemies. As readers, we have been plunged into the war too; not as soldiers, but as philosophers and poets.

“No, this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red.” Johhnie Walker recites a line from Macbeth after his procedure is completed on one of the cats. He says this quite dryly. It marks a departure from many of the gory incarnations of eerie characters we see in media. A desire for redemption follows visceral deeds, especially when the person knows that it is the sole purpose of his existence. It is the same when Kafka heads into the deep end of the forest whistling to Coltrane’s “My Favourite Things”. Drifting into the dream world, he fulfills the final part of his Oedipus’ prophecy. “War grows within war… [War] is a perfect self-contained being.” Crow reminds Kafka that he must stay strong and recover his true self. The void within him grows while Nakata fights a battle that he had never foreseen.

It is no wonder that Kafka on the Shore remains a book that poses more riddles than answers. In hindsight, it seems devious that the questions are posed more virulently to the readers than the characters themselves as through a surreal sense of purpose they find their place restored in the world that they inhabit. Perhaps going through the reps in the gym methodically while listening to Radiohead is the answer to deciphering this magnificent book.

“My role is to restore what’s here now to the way it should be.”