The death of Veronica Forrest-Thomson in 1975, aged just 27, is among the most galling and tragic losses to modern British poetry. Born in Malaya and raised in Glasgow, she published a first poetry collection at 20 and gravitated to Cambridge, where she was taught by JH Prynne. Heavily influenced by the close reading tradition of IA Richards and William Empson, her criticism also drew on French structuralist and poststructuralist theory, then much in the air.
Published posthumously in 1978 and now reprinted for the first time, her classic study Poetic Artifice marked a provocative intervention. There is a widespread and mistaken assumption, Forrest-Thomson argues, that poetry is important for what it tells us about the external world. Not so: poetry is important for its vindication of “all the rhythmic, phonetic, verbal and logical devices” that make it what it is, and the production of “alternative imaginary orders”. Anything else is flim-flam. It is not the job of poetry to deliver states of “inarticulate rapture”, but to be the articulation of that rapture.
Contemporary poetry is full of writers convinced they have access to “reality in its unmediated state”, under a process Forrest-Thomas calls “naturalisation”. Philip Larkin’s “Mr Bleaney” is “almost embarrassingly lucid”, and the thought that it represents the work of an “important poet” is “without foundation”. Ted Hughes fares no better, desiring to be mysterious “without letting it affect his technique”. We have naturalisation to thank for Larkin and Hughes being famous, and for Prynne and Andrew Crozier languishing where they do. / David Wheatley, The Guardian
Poetic Artifice is published by Shearsman (£16.95).