Snap Me

Peter Howarth

The last sentence of Poetic Artifice reads: ‘But like all true artificers “I” remains enigmatical, presenting only the words on the page.’ Veronica Forrest-Thomson has been trying to rescue Sylvia Plath’s ‘Purdah’ from the critics who think the poem is a straightforward confession of her desire to avenge herself on Ted Hughes. ‘Why she should have bothered to write poems if this was what she wanted to say is of course not explained,’ Forrest-Thomson remarks tartly. ‘It is taken to be enough that she was a poet.’ What Plath is really doing, she explains, is writing a poem in which phrases that look like self-descriptions (‘I/smile, cross-legged,/Enigmatical’) generate patterns of sound and form that ‘feed into’ new images. Plath notices she is constructing her poem in this way and inserts phrases like ‘shifting my clarities’ that let the reader know that her meaning has become material for the poem to play with (a ‘sheath of impossibles’). The chilling final phrase of ‘Purdah’, ‘the cloak of holes’, is not, then, a symbol of vengeance following ‘the shriek in the bath’, it is the poet’s ‘fictionalised “I” … clothed in its negation’.

This cool handling of a poem that appears to radiate destructiveness is typical of the book. Poems, Poetic Artifice protests, can’t be ‘naturalised’ into descriptions of the non-poetic world. ‘If one attempts to give an external meaning … outside the structure of the poem, outside the standards of truth created by poetic lying, the strands of ideas lose any validity.’ She targets William Empson’s habit of bluffly summarising a poem’s underlying message without really discussing the form, as well as the contextual critics who write as if poems are ‘engaged in the language-game of giving information’. But Poetic Artifice is also a manifesto against the poets who encourage them – Ted Hughes, naturally, followed by ‘Messrs Lowell, Berryman, Gunn, Davie, Larkin, Alvarez, Hobsbaum and Mrs Sexton’ – whose ‘form and content refer us back to the already known world’. It doesn’t matter if that world is the eco-suicidal mythology of Hughes’s Crow, or the dreary bedsit of Larkin’s ‘Mr Bleaney’, or Lowell’s unhappy childhood: they all write as if poems described a reality outside themselves. Poetic artifice, on the other hand, allows the poet to shift ‘the meaning away from direct reference to a state of affairs’ and make it part of a ‘thematic synthesis, where the external contexts are evoked only to be made fictional’. In 1978, when the book was first published, this brisk anti-realism was both counterintuitive and prophetic. It was one of the first works of criticism to incorporate post-structuralist theory about the fictionality of the written ‘I’, and to weld it onto an account of how poets ought to write. It also announced a change in literary-critical taste, from Ginsberg to Prynne and Ashbery, from loosely confessional free verse to the Language poets. Above all, it was an attack on the ‘confessional’ poetry of uncensored lives and raw emotions: it taught Anglo-American readers to understand, like French chefs and French post-structuralists, that the ‘raw’ is already a subcategory of the cooked.

Still, using Plath as the clinching example of the poet who dissolves herself into ‘the words on the page’ is a marvellous piece of cheek. It makes the book’s death-of-the-author thesis look like a wink at the reader: the stone Buddha in Plath’s poem is smiling, after all. Artifice, for Forrest-Thomson, is less a way to disappear than to maintain one’s poise, holding life safely apart for a moment and stylising it. Midway through the final chapter, a discussion of Dadaist poetics suddenly turns into a guide for irony-spotters:

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