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.

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.”