“Do not forget that a poem, even though it is composed in the language of information is not used in the language-game of giving information”-Ludwig Wittgenstein, Zettel
It may seem odd to begin a biography of a Scottish poet with a quote from an Austrian philosopher, but that in itself should provide an indication of the territory VFT engages in, a territory where poetry per se is considered a language-game.
Veronica Elizabeth Marian Forrest Thomson was born in Malaya in 1947 to a Scottish family of rubber planters. Little has been put on record of her childhood, but she was brought to Scotland before the age of one, grew up in Glasgow after WWII and was already placing poems in the Glasgow Herald by her late teens, around the time she left for university in Liverpool, before going on to Leicester and Cambridge.
‘She wore perfume that would give the most hardened logician the staggers’, her tutor, the poet J.H. Prynne recalled, ‘she was theatrically short-sighted in ways of which she seemed entirely unaware’. ‘She had a fierce and wayward intellectual energy’, Graham Hough, another of her tutors at Cambridge recalled, ‘which drove her too hard’.
In the late 60’s, she took up and quickly abandoned (then later disparaged) Concrete Poetry, turning instead to a ‘densely allusive, ironic, and critically informed lyric verse’. Thomas Butler notes how VFT’s belief that “poetry must be understood at the level of its basic materiality before one can convert it into conceptual meaning” appealed to “the Cambridge poets who were deeply skeptical of new, late-1970s forms of capitalism”, which seems a roundabout reason to find such an idea appealing, especially from one who placed so little emphasis on political thought.
She added a hyphen to her name- the kind of strategized detail which she’d rather focus on- reminiscent of E.A. Robinson’s comment about his attempts at poetical revisionism- ‘This morning I removed the hyphen from hell-hound. This afternoon I put it back’.
i hyphen (Gk. together, in one)from Forrest-Thomson’s ‘The Hyphen’
a short dash or line used to connect
two words together as a compound
VFT wore her influences loudly in her daily life, if more subtly in her poetry. She seems to have been in a constant brown-study over one poem or another, and would task anyone with an interest to consider her thoughts. Thus, it’s not surprising she formed an engaged coterie around her and sought out poetically developed minds, living within a rarefied bubble. A number of those she confided in were of an older generation; men like G.S. Fraser and Terrance Tiller, who had been somewhat burned by the Movement poets of the latter 1950s and 60s. Her academic dismissals of the Movement’s kitchen sink poetry may be a partial loyalty to these by-then-neglected poets.
In 1971, she won The Leeds New Poets Award, resulting in the publication of her second book, Language-Games. The same year, she married Jonathan Culler, an American Rhodes scholar, from whom she had separated again, somewhat acrimoniously, by 1974; though as a noted critic, Culler would help foment her posthumous reputation, especially in America, where major poetry journals have devoted entire issues to her.
VFT took a PhD at the University of Cambridge and then worked at the Universities of Leicester and Birmingham. During this time she remodelled her Cambridge thesis, Poetry as Knowledge: The Use of Science by Twentieth-Century Poets, to form the basis of her best known work, Poetic Artifice, in which she interrogates various poems to consider how they match up to her concepts of poetry. In his introduction, Graham Hough, who oversaw her doctorate, describes Poetic Artifice as ‘a train of thought pushed to its limits’.
In her own words, Poetic Artifice is ‘an attempt to talk about what is generally taken for granted because people can find no way of speaking of it except as the inexplicable’. The book is run through with a quarrelsome and ironic sense of humour that keeps her erudition engaging; she puts any qualms aside with an assertion that ‘any theory is better than none because the disagreements it provokes will pave the way for a more adequate theory.’ -And on that she may well have proven herself correct. VFT is appreciated as much for her potential as her output- a very open-ended oeuvre, that invites interpretation and conjecture. Keston Sutherland considers her poems as ‘wonderful failures to prescriptively reduplicate her theory and to demonstrate its validity’.
In constructing the theory of Poetic Artifice, she quotes her husband’s affirmation that a poem does not evoke ‘an external context but forces us to construct a fictional situation’; she states-
‘All artifice requires is that unmeaningful levels be taken into account, and that meaning be used as a technical device which makes it impossible as well as wrong for critics to stand poems in the external world.’
The book would only be published posthumously in 1978, for after a heavy night’s drinking, on the eve of an important reading VFT was due to make on the Southbank in London, she seems to have inadvertently asphyxiated herself.
Behind her she left an outline with a further few draft chapters of a second critique- Obstinate Isles (a consideration of Ezra Pound and 19th Century poetry) and a third book of poems, published in 1976 as On the Periphery, something VFT rarely allowed herself to be.
Her youthful death left a litany of poets in her wake to draw from and write after her. Through the decades, Robert Sheppard, Isabel Armstrong, Andrew Crozier, Charles Bernstein, Callie Gardner and others would all converge around her name and the limits of her ideas. In 2017, Stuart Kelly argued that it is VFT Scotland should annually celebrate, not Robert Burns, though it may be hard to envision the public getting on board with a poet who took so little interest in quotidian strife and whose chief concerns were semiotics and semantics.
VFT’s reflections on poetry draw from an international angle- she translated a number of French Structuralist poets and her major critiques are almost entirely Anglo-American. Yet there were a couple of notable Scots who she was in touch with, and after her death, Edwin Morgan wrote his Unfinished Poems sequence to her memory, and G.S. Fraser, a poem titled ‘A Napkin with Veronica’s Face, not Christ’s’-
‘Leaving us only woe, which, like the moss,
Having compassion of unburied bones,
Cleaves to mischance and unrepaired loss’