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.

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.