Poetic Artifice: A Theory of Twentieth-Century Poetry

Peter Howarth writes:

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’.

(LRB 6 October 2016)