Veronica Forrest-Thomson

by Alison Mark

Veronica Forrest-Thomson: Poetry and Science [1]

It is no coincidence that the title of Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s doctoral thesis is Poetry as Knowledge: The Use of Science by Twentieth-Century Poets [2]. Her entire oeuvre is concerned with the exploration of what we can and cannot know through language, and what we can and cannot find representation for in poetry. Poetry and science are perhaps most intimately linked through the mathematics of metre, and one of her processes was what she called smashing and rebuilding the forms of thought through technical experimentation with poetic form:

There is the opportunity to turn theoretical debate and abstract statement into a means of technical experiment in the actual medium of poetry, to explore new formal possibilities while extending the range of material dealt with. This involves an assimilation, not merely of the ideas but of the speech-forms of the relevant areas of dicourse and even their methods of typographical layout... It will be seen that this leads to a new stress on the importance of “subject” in a poem; but because it is not the ideas merely but the actual linguistic forms that are to be the object of attention, the new kind of subject will be one that can be approached and even defined in terms of formal experimentation. The process is one of smashing and rebuilding the forms of thought. (CP 262-3) [3]

Her aesthetic was founded on her engagement with a range of different discourses, including those of science, of philosophy, and of literary studies. The ideas and formulations of all her formative influences bear on the three main themes of Forrest-Thomson’s work:  subjectivity, experience, and the representation of both in language.

A revolution in the conditions of knowledge in the human sciences took place during the 1960s and through the 1970s. It began in France with the ideas that informed structuralism, matching the political and social unrest of a period that culminated in Paris with the evênements of May 1968. Though not notably politically inclined, Forrest-Thomson gestures towards these events at the end of her "Note" to the collection Language-Games. When discussing the necessity for ‘smashing and rebuilding the forms of thought’ in the medium of poetry, she remarks that ‘one might be permitted to feel a certain affinity with those who see the role of the University as a subversion of accepted social reality.’ (CP 263) The idea that what were previously known as ‘fields of knowledge’, such as science, philosophy, medicine, and aesthetics, are constructed by the systems of language which purport to analyse them, became increasingly a focus of interest in the attempt to interrogate and subvert not just ‘accepted social reality’ but the notion of ‘reality’ itself. These discourses, which in their simpler forms Wittgenstein would have called different language-games, create apparently objective self-ratifying descriptions of reality, descriptions which both define the object of their enquiry (their subject), and construct the modes of thought by which a conceptual analysis of that object may be made. Forrest-Thomson was becoming increasingly interested in the possibilities of such language-systems for poetry, and by 1971, at a time when most British and American theorists were just beginning to get to grips with structuralism, while in France its moment was passing, she was already declaring herself to be a post-structuralist, thus placing herself in the vanguard of what has come to be known as ‘theory’ [4]. In her writings of this period we can see the gradual inauguration of new ways of thinking about, analysing, and writing poetry and poetics, informed by post-structuralist insights into discursive practices, the condition of the subject, and her or his possibilities of experience.

During her time at Cambridge Forrest-Thomson completed her PhD thesis Poetry as Knowledge, which was submitted in the June of 1971, the year of publication of Language-Games. Wittgenstein’s theory of the language-game also explains the connection between her theoretical work and her contemporary poetry. In both cases at least one other language-game is united with that of poetry: in the former science, and in the latter philosophy. Her thesis investigates the way material from the discourse of science is taken up and reinflected in the field of poetry by, in particular, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and William Empson. Her choice of research project already demonstrates Forrest-Thomson’s concern with the power of discourse to construct, not simply analyse, a field of knowledge. And with the central implication of another post-structuralist concept, intertextuality, that no text stands in isolation.

The way the relationship between the cognitive and emotional aspects of knowledge (a subject inherited from I.A. Richards, like her interest in the relationship between science and poetry) appears in different forms of discourse is explored in her thesis. Her own resolution of Richards’s problematic split between them is through the structure of the poem, as in her "Ducks & Rabbits" (CP 22),[5] rather than by reference to an external context. That these are more than ‘academic questions’ (the title of one of her collections isTwelve Academic Questions (1970)) is evident in the extraordinary emotional impact of her apparently cerebral poems, though in the thesis the issues are analysed in academic language. This is appropriate enough, but one has to wonder about the considerable defensive potential of the academic register of language.  And we might, on the same grounds, question the intellectualism of this poetry, which plays for such high emotional stakes.

It comes down to saying that the epistemological status of a statement in poetry does not depend on its correspondence with non-linguistic reality; that the knowledge exhibited in a poem is knowledge of certain forms of language and ways in which they can be brought together. (T 6)

Knowledge, then, is always of language, in language, and this is how in her poems ‘questions of knowledge become questions of technique’, of how language is used. (CP 262) The new relations Forrest-Thomson engineers between the different areas of discourse juxtaposed in the poems are one of the ways she tries ‘to make sense of concrete experience’ (CP 262) in her work through forms of knowledge: poetic, scientific and philosophical. Knowledge, thus assimilated to experience, then becomes a question of the manipulation of meaning through the techniques of poetic artifice. If experience is constructed through forms of language, then a new articulation is isomorphic with a new experience.

In her contributor’s note to the magazine Solstice, issue 9, published in Cambridge in 1969, she gives further clues:

The poems attempt to set up a tension between the meaning of the statements which they steal from other contexts such as Pound’s letters, the later work of Wittgenstein, and conversations, and the structure of the poem itself. ... The process is a reflection of our constant attempt to integrate disparate levels of knowledge, such for instance of the experience of being in a particular place, Cambridge, or encountering particular ideas… (CP 261)

Trying to make sense of our location as human beings is surely part of the endeavour of science, in its broadest sense. Forrest-Thomson makes explorations of a specifically scientific nature in her "Subatomic Symphony" from Identi-kit (CP 222-3), and in an early uncollected poem in the Concrete mode, "Atomic Disintegration" (CP 240). Another such uncollected early poem, "At Work: / At Play:" (CP 241), uses visual distribution, sound, and the chemical symbols: ‘2Na + 2H2O’.  Here is another early indication of an interest in science, for which she recorded a ‘consuming passion’ (CP 260) in "An Impersonal Statement" (in 1967); and in particular for the ‘new universe of nuclear and astro-physics’.  This is reflected in the barely representable poem-cum-performance piece "Atomic Disintegration" (CP 240).

"Atomic Disintegration" (CP 240) - subtitled "3 variations on the “Smashed Atom” theme", has a visual component (1) - in manuscript, and a vocal (2), with instructions for performance (3); it employs the techniques of sound poetry as well as those of Concrete. For Forrest-Thomson, this was clearly first and foremost a practical exercise in experimentation with language forms and functions, with a strong mimetic component:

     a t o m
a - t -t-t-t -o - uh
   uh - t-o - uh
     uh - t - oo
          o   (diminuendo)

The exact typography is impossible to reproduce here, but the effect is clear, especially if we note the instruction that the third variation consists of:

(3 - for mass performance) any number of people (1) repeat in unison several times clearly the word ATOM (2) repeat ATOM at different times out of unison (like a part song) (3) out of synchronisation repeat in staccato way the individual letters A-T-O-M ending in an unintelligible babble.

This poem, whatever its degree of success as such, constitutes an early attempt to extend the boundaries of what could be expressed by poetry, testing that ‘impossibility of expressing some non-linguistic reality, or even of experiencing such a reality’ that is the ‘underlying theme’ of the poems in her collection, Language-Games, as expressed in the "Note" following the poetry text (CP 261-2).

Science is also employed in the more articulate "Subatomic Symphony" in Identi-kit (CP 222). Forrest-Thomson read this at Essex Arts Festival [6], calling it ‘a kind of experimental scientific thing about subatomic particles’:

Subatomic particles
revolve in supersonic whirls,
inaudible to the eye
for their frequency’s too high,
invisible to the ear
as light can make them disappear.

Given its unfortunate rhymes – and rhyme was something she also came to reject – we may feel grateful that her passionate engagement with forms of discourse moved on thereafter to that of philosophy, and in particular, a philosophy of language and mind which distinguished sharply between the languages and purposes of science and philosophy: the philosophy of Wittgenstein, which permeated Cambridge at the time.

However, in another poem in Identi-kit, we see a more subtle and accomplished assimilation of the languages of science and poetry. In "In the Greenhouse", the perilous painful pleasures of the dissolution of self (also courted in her poem "Sagittarius" (CP 227)) are invoked as a kind of vegetable love, blurring definitions, banishing the capacity for thought which makes the distinction between ‘plant and primate’. Forrest-Thomson alliteratively images this as a consummation devoutly to be wished in the final stanza of a poem which Edwin Morgan in his review at the time rightly called ‘a sort of Marvellian meditation’ [7]:

The silent rhythm of pulsating pores
filling my lungs with filtered earth
is all I feel or know of alien shapes
that once were flowers.
I breathe their breath
until all definitions are dissolved,
and homo sapiens is nothing more to me. (CP 209)

Forrest-Thomson metaphysically invokes the discourse of science within that of poetry in a manner strongly reminiscent of Empson’s poetry.  She plays on the oxygen/carbon dioxide cycle of exchange between plant and human respiration systems, but a shade of ambiguity hovers over this particular ‘exchange’. This ‘I’ breathes the breath of the vegetation and dissolves its humanity: thanatos imagined as resolving the struggle of human consciousness and individuation. Only if ‘homo sapiens’ inhales carbon dioxide like plants, rather than the oxygen exhaled by plants, will dissolution or death result. These lines hold, as Morgan recognised, an echo of Marvell’s "The Garden", where the mind is imaged as: ‘Annihilating all that’s made/ To a green Thought in a green Shade.’ [8] Forrest-Thomson can be seen here slowly and subtly developing the technique of allusion which will later evolve into a complex and sophisticated parodic technique.

Forrest-Thomson’s interest in the language of science as employed in the service of poetry, in particular by Empson (who continued to be a major influence on her thinking in terms of both poetics and practice), was chiefly for the metaphorical potential of science as an epistemology, as a discursive practice. However it is also clear that the importation of a different discourse can illuminate the formal practices which are naturalised within the canonical discourse of poetry, and lost to sight and consciousness. That is, it can illuminate an enduring question for Forrest-Thomson – and perhaps for all of us who care about poetry and its persistence: what makes poetry different from other forms of language-use. As she said, ‘the question always is: how do poems work?’ (PA x)


[1] This draws on my own doctoral thesis Reading Between the Lines:  Language, Experience and Identity in the Work of Veronica Forrest-Thomson (London:  1996), and my Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Language Poetry (Northcote House, 2001).

[2] Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Poetry as Knowledge: The Use of Science by Twentieth-Century Poets (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Cambridge, 1971).  Henceforth, T.

[3] CP is my abbreviation for Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Collected Poems and Translations, ed. by Anthony Barnett (London: Allardyce, Barnett, 1990).

[4] My thanks to Isobel Armstrong for this information.

[5] I discuss this further in Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Language Poetry,  pp. 32-5.

[6] Reading at Essex Arts Festival, 27 April 1967: "Through the Looking Glass"; "According to the Script"; "Clown by Paul Klee"; "Subatomic Symphony"; National Sound Archive T7209WR.

[7] Edwin Morgan, review of Identi-kit, in Tlaloc 15, published 13 July 1967, from Box 1: Miscellaneous Documents, Publisher’s File of Record Copies, in the Cavan McCarthy "Tlaloc Archive", Poetry Library, University College London. The pages of Tlaloc were not numbered.

[8] Andrew Marvell, "The Garden", in The Poems and Letters of Andrew Marvell, vol. 1: Poems, ed. H.M. Margoliouth (Oxford: Clarendon, 1927), 48-50 (49).

Biographical Details

Alison Mark is the author of Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Language Poetry in the Writers and their Work series. After completing her PhD on the work of Forrest-Thomson, she did a psychoanalytic training, and teaches ‘Dreams’ for psychoanalytic psychotherapy trainings. She is an Honorary Fellow of Birkbeck College, University of London and currently teaches Modern Theatre and the London Stage, and the Twentieth-Century British Novel for the Birkbeck London Semester.