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Friday, May 13, 2016

Robert Sheppard; poetic response to Veronica Forrest-Thomson

Poetic Artifice is at last back in print. (See here for my response to that event). Here is an account my creative interaction with the work (which underlines the impact her criticism had on my critical thinking AND poetics, which is not a necessary connection). My poem‘Parody and Pastoral’ is what I called at the time of writing my response (March 2002) a ‘text and commentary’ upon Forrest-Thomson’s poem ‘Pastoral’ (and a homage to her). By such designation I meant to suggest that the poem could be read in its own terms (as text) as well as being considered as intertextual correlative of ‘Pastoral’ (as commentary). (It's worth mentioning that Forrest-Thomsom uses 'Pastoral' as an exhibit in Poetic Artifice which is both an interesting but dangerous strategy.)Whether my conceit works in practice, I believe, is not for me to say. The poem embodies the conceit as best as I am able. I retreat from interpretation of my work just as much as Forrest-Thomson seems to advance towards her own, doomed to some degree of failure or blindness, as I have said. In its commenting aspect my poem may be seen as parodic, in the general sense of reaching out towards another text to assimilate and re-direct its meanings, and in its transformations (‘clover’ becomes ‘clever’ for example), though I would be happier to think of it as benign pastiche, but I am not sure that it directs its energies towards the conventional level, as Alison Mark would expect of parody. My prosody is quite different, for one. It alludes not only to her poem, and her critical (ab)use of it, but to Prynne’s comments about the poem (in the elegaic afterword to On the Periphery). It is perhaps only a version of pastoral in that it follows the contours of Forrest-Thomson’s poem of that title, though it swaps rural simplicities for urban ones to negotiate the complexities of the vocal but non-verbal world, at the thematic level. The ‘plot’ of my poem follows hers and deliberately invites a parallel reading:

They may not be clever
creatures but they leave us
to iron sensation melted                       
on a deadly breeze

Rough beasts and rough
boys both relieve us, unloved;
we pay up responsible
for what they call themselves

Invade another language
to be invaded by it:
the burglar alarm
perforates the morning’s shell

They stitch up our loves
our lives to a violation that
believes inviolate dwelling
open like all ears

Wails as a headache a
screen of pain that the
window flashes
in migraine streaks

Door slams then ignition coughs
up to voice our twinned words
where barbed wire bleeds

((Robert Sheppard, ‘Parody and Pastoral’, Hymns to the God in Which My Typewriter Believes  (Exeter: Stride, 2006), pp. 41-2. But it's also in the recent volume History or Sleep: Selected Poems Bristol: Shearsman: 2015.) The act of homage cannot, of course be divorced from one’s sense of regret, my act of elegy, at Forrest-Thomson’s early death at 27 in 1975.))

I wanted to question the dilemma posed by what she called her ‘intolerable theme’ – are words twinned with the non-verbal in some way or hopelessly entwined only with one another? – and also to echo the violent emotions hinted at in Forrest-Thomson’s poem. To say even this is to stray too far into interpretive terrain where I feel, creatively speaking, alien. I wanted to respond to her poem in the form of a poem, not because she had commented upon it herself (which I may have forgotten when I wrote it) but because I wished to pay homage to her through her finest poem and to field some ‘ideas’ about poetics in creative form. That she had attempted to deal with it in her own scholarship – her brazen ‘affrontery’ – did, of course, attract me to utilising it in the writing of this essay, since it spoke to me of the relationship of scholarship to its dark twin poetics.

A theory of poetry is not a poetics, perhaps, unless it is mediated through particular poems. If I mediate her vital and valuable theory through my own poetics and my poem its function becomes part of an ever-changing practice of reflection and speculation, creation and further creation. When Forrest-Thomson submits her own poems to her theory she risks the danger of forcing them to work in complicity with it, which keeps self-commentary rigid rather, than, as in the best poetics, conjectural and provocative, speculative or mercurial; it forces her to act as though unaware of creative excess. By attempting to cross the divide between poem and theory she paradoxically strengthens the negative hold of her intolerable theme, that we might be imprisoned within language. She is a brilliant scholar and a fine creative writer and her poetics actually lies between her two practices, in an elastic and dynamic tension between conceptual elaboration and the concentration of her own poetic artifice, and surfaces in occasional asides rather than in her self-analyses. The relationship between creativity and scholarship is exacting but eternally unstable, a theme I return to in The Meaning of Form.

Veronica Forrest-Thomson adjusts the artifice

A similar response appears in ‘Linguistically Wounded: The Poetical Scholarship of Veronica Forrest-Thomson’ in ed. Turley, Richard Margraf, The Writer in the Academy: Creative Interfrictions, Essays and Studies 2011. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, for the English Association. See details of the new edition of Poetic Artifice here.