In "A Work of Artifice," the bonsai tree that is the subject of the poem is basically a metaphor for women. The poem laments the way strict gender roles limit women's potential. This focus on the way gender norms oppress women (and men, too, really) is what connects the poem...
In "A Work of Artifice," the bonsai tree that is the subject of the poem is basically a metaphor for women. The poem laments the way strict gender roles limit women's potential. This focus on the way gender norms oppress women (and men, too, really) is what connects the poem to feminist literary criticism. Feminist critics emphasize the sometimes obvious and sometimes subtle ways that gender politics affect, often negatively, the lives of women and men.
The poem's title refers to the artificial way in which the bonsai tree is trimmed and controlled, which is similar to the way women are limited by expectations that they should perform traditional "female roles." The poem begins with a description of the tree, which is in an "attractive pot." The pot and the gardener's work to tame the tree prevent the tree from reaching its potential: the tree "could have grown eighty feet tall / on the side of a mountain / till split by lightning." The reference to the mountain and the lightning introduce the conflict between nature and society. The tree would maybe be struck by lightning at some point, but its downfall would be a result of nature, not of man. The bonsai tree, though, is artificially deadened by the work of the gardener.
As the gardener trims the tree to its supposed perfect height and shape, he "croons / It is your nature / to be small and cozy, / domestic and weak." This is where the underlying symbolism becomes most clear. The word "domestic" is the word that most obviously makes us think of traditional gender roles. The gardener believes that what he is doing is for the tree's own good. He declares that this is all according to the tree's "nature." However, what he is actually doing is imposing his own construct, his own expectations onto a natural form. The poet implies that men do the same when they attempt to limit women to "domestic" roles or define them as "weak" or "small" or "cozy."
The gardener continues to tell the tree that it is "lucky ... / to have a pot to grow in." This could be interpreted to mean that women should be grateful to be limited to their domestic lives because they are provided for by their husbands, the breadwinners, who give them that shelter in which to dwell.
The final section of the poem is particularly profound. The poet writes,
With living creatures
one must begin very early
to dwarf their growth:
the bound feet,
the crippled brain,
the hair in curlers,
the hands you
love to touch.
As though directing people who are like the gardener, the poet says that "living creatures" must be trained to behave like the bonsai tree, like women. It's important to start "very early" so that one can "dwarf their growth." The poet then moves on to images more explicitly associated with women: "bound feet," "hair in curlers." The final image of "the hands you / love to touch" brings in the idea that the "caretaker" could be doing harm to the "product" without really knowing he is doing so. The implication of the poem as a whole is that gender roles limit women, keeping them in a metaphorical "pot" that restrains them from reaching their true, natural potential.