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Multiple Registers, Intertextuality and Boundaries of Interpretation in Veronica Forrest-Thompson

 

by

 

Jeffrey Side

 

 

 (First published in 2007 in Shadowtrain)

   

 

In the ‘The Death of the Author’ Roland Barthes says that a text is, ‘not a line of words releasing a single [...] meaning but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash’.1 ‘The reader’, he says, ‘is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination’.2 In light of this, the use of multiple registers and intertextuality in poetry can be seen as the systematic outworking of this more general observation about language and texts.

 

We can see something of this in the poetry of Veronica Forrest-Thomson, were we find copious instances of her use of multiple registers and intertextuality. In her poem, ‘The Garden of Proserpine’ the use of multiple registers, particularly in close juxtaposition, can bee seen in the following stanza:

 

And, O, many-toned, immortal Aphrodite,

Lend me thy girdle.

You can spare it for an hour or so

Until Zeus has got back his erection.3

 

We see here the use of the rhetorical device of apostrophe, which is now considered archaic but was frequently used in elegiac and epic poetry to invoke the presence of the dead or that of a muse. Here it serves a similar function, as the goddess of love, Aphrodite, is summoned to assist the speaker in matters of love. The syntax of the first two lines is noticeably archaic, containing words such as, ‘many-toned’, ‘immortal’, ‘thy’, ‘girdle’ and the single capitalised letter ‘O’. This is in sharp contrast with the second two lines with their twentieth-century colloquial register and comic bathos.

 

The juxtaposition of these two discordant registers draws attention to the artifice involved in their construction, and connects the Elizabethan concept of courtly love to its modern equivalent of unrequited love, which is being alluded to by the use of the girdle, with its associations of sexuality, seduction and denial. The speaker (who I will imagine as a female) is calling upon Aphrodite to rectify her loveless situation by conferring upon her the power of sexual attraction. Other juxtapositions of discordant registers in the poem are:

 

I lie alone. I am aweary, aweary,

I would that I were dead.

Be my partner and you’ll never regret it.4

 

In lines one and two we have the archaism, and in line three the colloquialism. Interestingly, the register of the first line is redolent of lines written by Elizabethan male poets. Such lines as ‘Come, Sleep!, O Sleep!, the certain knot of peace’, and ‘Weep no more, nor sigh, nor groan’ by Philip Sidney and John Fletcher, respectively, have the same jaded response to life that is discernable  in ‘I lie  alone. I am aweary, aweary’. The colloquial third line with its modern contraction (‘you’ll’) produces more bathos. As well as mixed registers in the poem, there is a mixture of archaic and non-archaic vocabulary and phraseology. Among the archaic are: ‘the moon is sinking’, ‘Pleiades’, ‘gods’, ‘Aphrodite is also Persephone’, ‘queen of love and death’. The non‑archaic include: ‘time runs on she said’, ‘stick together’, they make a strong combination’, ‘so just make him love me again’, ‘you good old triple goddess of tight corners’, ‘and leave me to deal with gloomy Dis’, ‘we all know better’, ‘love kills people and the police can’t do anything to stop it’.

 

With regard to her intertextuality in ‘The Garden of Proserpine’, mythical and literary figures are mentioned. Aphrodite, Zeus, Pleiades, Dis, Sappho, Shakespeare, Swinburne, Tennyson, Eliot, Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus are all brought into play. However, it is unimportant whether the reader knows who they are. It is enough that they appear. They function as intertextual metonymic ciphers to be appropriated by the reader for his or her own personal exegesis. If the reader is aware that Aphrodite is the goddess given by Zeus in marriage to Hephaestus, or that Dis is the Roman name for Hades, the god of the underworld, all well and good. However, it is not essential information.

 

A perhaps overlooked paradox in Forrest-Thompson’s poetic is that although the above devices facilitate the “extra-textual” possibilities of a text, her views on poetic interpretation are surprisingly conservative. Despite her interest in “non-meaningful” elements of language,5 she still regards the text as the ultimate arbiter of meaning, hence her criticism of David Gascoyne’s ‘The Rites of Hysteria’ as being meaningless because, ‘the formal levels exercise no control, so that one cannot tell how the external world is filtered through the language of the poem’.6 Moreover, whilst accepting the fact that readers will inevitably use their imaginations with regard to their appreciation of the text, in the following statement she qualifies the degree to which imagination is to be used:

 

The reader must, of course, use his imagination; that is what poetry is for. But he must use it to free himself from the fixed forms of thought which ordinary language imposes on our minds, not to deny the strangeness of poetry by inserting it in some non-poetic area: his own mind, the poet’s mind, or any non-fictional situations.7

 

By setting up a dubious opposition between poetry and a so-called ‘non-poetic area’ she is redefining poetry as that which can only operate textually. In this sense, her poetic has similarities to that of New Criticism.

 

Furthermore, by including the reader’s ‘own mind’ in the latter category, she is placing unnecessary boundaries on the hermeneutical activities of readers. Something of this can be inferred from what Brian Kim Stefans writes in his article, ‘Veronica Forrest-Thomson and High Artifice’:

 

Forrest-Thomson writes that some sort of interpretive activity must occur on a conventional level, yet she writes that “bad Naturalization” occurs when critics or readers rush in to paste very specific narrative or emotional tags on every word-event (or “image-complex” in her terms) of a poem, as in the example of a critic who wrote that a line by Max Jacob—‘Dahlia! dahlia! que Dahlia lia’—leaves the reader ‘with an incongruous picture of Dalila tying up drooping dahlias.’  Anyone who has flipped through a mediocre book of criticism (or even frankly myopic one, such as The Last Avant-Garde) about a complex poet, whether Modernist or not, has been left with disappointing, overdetermined readings like this one.8

 

Nevertheless, it may be enquired in response to this: What is particularly wrong with critics and readers doing this? Who is the final arbiter of meaning in a poem anyway? For Forrest-Thompson to suggest a limit to poetic interpretation is something that is more in keeping with the poetic of I. A Richards.

 

In Richards’s Practical Criticism, among his list of ten “difficulties” of criticism, the third and fourth deal with imagery and mnemonic irrelevances respectively. With regard to the former he says:

 

But images are erratic things; lively images aroused in one mind need have no similarity to the equally lively images stirred by the same line of poetry in another, and neither set need have anything to do with any images which may have existed in the poet’s mind. Here is a troublesome source of critical deviations.9

 

Of mnemonic irrelevances he writes:

 

These are misleading effects of the reader’s being reminded of some personal scene or adventure, erratic associations, the interference of emotional reverberations from a past which may have nothing to do with the poem.10

 

The first half of Practical Criticism details the results of a survey Richards conducts with his students. His method was to hand out sheets of poems (withholding their authorship) to these students and to ask them to write detailed reports on what they thought of these poems. The poems are numbered 1 to 13. Of  poem 11, he received this response from one of its readers:

 

Outside of the mood, I felt no real personal connection, no personal emotion. If they had been my words winging on, or my closest friend’s—if  he had alluded to my death, or let me apply it so—I should have felt it more deeply (Richards’s emphasis).11

 

Whilst Richards acknowledges the validity of such a response he is cautious as to its universal applicability:

 

The dangers are that the recollected feelings may overwhelm and distort the poem and that the reader may forget that the evocation of somewhat similar feelings is probably only a part of the poem’s endeavour.12

 

Whilst I am not trying to draw a direct parallel between Richards’s poetic and Forrest-Thompson’s, I do see a common trajectory towards an attempt to stabilise poetic texts.                    

 

 

 

copyright © Jeffrey Side

 

Jeffrey Side has had poetry published in various magazines such as Poetry Salzburg Review, and on poetry websites such as Underground Window, A Little Poetry, Poethia, Nthposition, Eratio, Pirene’s Fountain, Fieralingue, Moria, Ancient Heart, Blazevox, Lily, Big Bridge, Jacket, Textimagepoem, Apochryphaltext, 9th St. Laboratories, P. F. S. Post, Great Works, Hutt, The Dande Review, Poetry Bay and Dusie.

 

He has reviewed poetry for Jacket, Eyewear, The Colorado Review, New Hope International, Stride, Acumen and Shearsman. From 1996 to 2000 he was the deputy editor of The Argotist magazine.

 

His publications include, Carrier of the Seed, Distorted Reflections, Slimvol, Collected Poetry Reviews 2004-2013, Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes (with Jake Berry) and Outside Voices: An Email Correspondence (with Jake Berry), available as a free ebook here.

 

 


 

 1. Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’, in Authorship: From Plato to the Postmodern, ed. by  S. Burke (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995), pp.125-30 (p.128). 

 

 2. Barthes, p.129.

 

 3. Veronica Forrest-Thompson, ‘The Garden of Prosperine’, in New British Poetries: The Scope of the Possible, ed. by R. Hampson and P. Barry (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), p.118.

 

 4. Forrest-Thompson, in New British Poetries, p.119. The line, ‘I lie alone. I am aweary, aweary’ alludes to the lines in Tennyson’s ‘Mariana’: ‘She said, “I am aweary, aweary,/I would that I were dead!”’.

 

 5. Suzanne Raitt, ‘The Possibles of Joy’: Alison Mark on Veronica Forrest-Thomson’, Jacket, 20, December 2002, (accessed 1st August 2007). http://jacketmagazine.com/20/raitt.html

 

 6. Forrest-Thompson, Poetic Artifice (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1978), p.41.

 

 7. Forrest-Thompson, Poetic Artifice, p.16.

 

 8. Brian Kim Stefans, 'Veronica Forrest-Thomson and High Artifice', Jacket, 14, July 2001, (accessed 1 August 2007). http://jacketmagazine.com/14/stefans-vft.html

 

 9. I. A. Richards, Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgement (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. Ltd, 1930), p.15.

 

10. Richards, Practical Criticism, p.15.


11. Richards, Practical Criticism, pp.147-48.


12. Richards, Practical Criticism, p.239.