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This item is taken from PN Review 188, Volume 35 Number 6, July - August 2009.

Letters from James Sutherland-Smith, Tony Frazer, William Wooten and Fenella Copplestone
Language Games

Readers may be interested to know that Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s Language Games, mentioned in John Muckle’s review in PNR 187, was a collection that won the second New Poets Award in 1971 (the first being Snakes and Girls by Christopher Pilling) sponsored by the School of English at Leeds University. I have the austere white slim volume, priced originally at 75p, signed by ‘V. Forrest-Thomson / 12/5/71’, in front of me now. The purity of the cover is, alas, marred by an ancient ring from a coffee mug, the present writer being an avid reader, but having neither the virtues nor the vices of the book collector.

The judges of the award were Edwin Morgan and Peter Porter and I recall Peter Porter saying at the awards party on the same date of her signature that the judges had been dissatisfied with the shortlist they had been given and had asked to see all the entries. The result was that Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s work was rescued from the dustbin to which the conventional taste of the 1970s had consigned it. The judges’ exemplary actions contrast starkly with current poetry competition practice where it seems that judges see a longlist and ask no questions after an anonymous panel has sifted through the entries. An honourable exception to this lack of transparency was the recently discontinued Peterloo competition as Harry Chambers selected the long list and indicated this on the entry form.

John Muckle’s review does not include ‘Cordelia’ among Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s major works, although the pamphlet is substantial and shows an advance in technique from Language Games. It was published by Omens magazine, which flourished in Leicester in the 1970s under the editorship of John Martin and Sam Brown. The magazine gave substantial room to poems by Matthew Sweeney, Keith Howden and myself among others and was the victim of a beneficial ‘deception’ when it published ‘The Lambchop Poems’ both in the magazine and in pamphlet form by one Paul St Vincent, who was actually the late and protean Archie Markham.

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Open Verdict

The last issue of PNR contained a review of Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s Collected Poems, in which it was asserted that the author had committed suicide. This is not true, and the facts are as follows:

1) The coroner recorded an open verdict.
2) There was no suicide note.
3) Death was caused, as I understand it, by choking on vomit following the consumption of alcohol and prescription drugs.

One may of course speculate on the basis of these facts, but it is also a fact that Ms Forrest-Thomson was due to read the following day at an event that was of interest to her, and which she knew her parents were to attend.

None of the facts permit one to make a safe assumption, but I would suggest that such evidence as we do have does not point towards suicide; rather, it surely points towards a tragic accident. Indeed, I recall at least two individuals from the pop/rock scene who died in similar fashion a few years previously and whose deaths are widely accepted to have been accidents, perhaps because the drugs in those cases were not of the prescription variety.

Publisher, Shearsman Books


I am grateful to Brian Turner for his very polite letter in PNR 187 correcting my misapprehension of his and his poetry’s view of the justness of the Iraq War. I offer him my full apologies for the error and for the offence caused.

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Bardomachia at Oxford

When I read that Derek Walcott had removed himself from the contest to become Professor of Poetry at Oxford, I felt enraged that the poet who had invented ‘Shabine’ should have ended his combat so ignominiously. Having entered the lists, he could not dismount with honour. Like all those excited by his nomination, I was anxious to read what he felt he had to say about poetry. A man of 79 must have thought hard about the difficulties of a post that demanded sustained physical energy before allowing his name to go forward. He should have pulled down his visor and allowed the stout jousting-pole of his poetry to do its work.

When Ruth Padel was elected, that seemed to be the end of the story. But Walcott almost seems to have played out a ruse to expose his enemies. The British press never gives up on scandal: Ruth Padel’s past was excavated, and more sensationally, she was found to have helped revive the scandal surrounding Walcott’s alleged harrassment.

Spurned by her supporters, Ms Padel had to give up the Chair and go on to Hay where she explained herself. She had wished to protect ‘her’ Oxford. Her wincing performance was painful to watch. This was a poet who had written about a tigress glimpsed lapping water in moonlight as a ‘treasure’ that bestowed a ‘Haven, in the mind/to anyone hurt by littleness’. Walcott’s poetry is full of the hurt caused by littleness. Even if he has not openly addressed the deeds which caused his censure, his poetry is as hard on himself as his enemies would wish. Ms Padel’s littleness was exposed in her treatment of a poet who might well have beaten her in open offer contest, simply on the strength and seriousness of his poetry.

As I write, the professorship is open to all comers. If Oxford wants a clever classicist, they need look no further than Anne Carson, an almost impossibly elegant poet whose Irish ancestry has provided her with the psychic wounds that make a true poet. She is one of those ‘who have to look’, as she says. Like those of Les Murray, Anne Carson’s best poems leave one lonely for her when she ceases to speak. Her ‘experiments’ would delight the girls Ruth Padel
saw fit to protect from the unlikely designs of Derek Walcott.

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This item is taken from PN Review 188, Volume 35 Number 6, July - August 2009.

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