A Work of Artifice

by Marge Piercy

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Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated October 23, 2023.

“A Work of Artifice,” by the American poet Marge Piercy, is a small poem about a large subject. The poem describes how a bonsai tree, which in nature has the potential to grow to an enormous height, is instead carefully pruned so that it becomes something miniature—a mere, tiny glimpse of its potential self. Some bonsai trees, for instance, are actually miniature versions of giant redwoods, and it is clearly the latter kind of tree that the speaker has in mind when she mentions a tree that “could have grown eighty feet tall” (3).

Rather than celebrating the careful “artifice” involved in producing a finely crafted tiny tree (as one might have expected at first), the poem laments the ways in which the potential of people in general—and of women in particular—can be stifled by the ways they are raised.

The satirical tone of the poem is already implied by its title: “A Work of Artifice” (emphasis added). If Piercy had titled the poem “A Work of Art,” the tone would have been much more unambiguously positive. By using the word “artifice,” however, she already begins to imply something deceptive, crafty, subtle, and cunning.

Whereas we normally consider bonsai trees admirable, impressive examples of human skill, this poem finally suggests that miniaturization involves diminution and distortion: something that might have been grand and unfettered is turned into something neatly shaped and carefully controlled but also puny. This process, the poem suggests, more often happens to humans than to trees.

The first four lines of the poem celebrate the latent potential of the tree, which might have grown to an enormous height. But then line 5 appears and reminds us that the giant tree would probably someday have been “split by lightning.” This reminder is crucial, because it prevents the poem from seeming naïve, sentimental, and romantic.

A bonsai tree can be carefully protected from harm and may even live far longer than a tree exposed to the dangers of nature, of which lightning is only one. Yet the poem implies that existence in nature, and the development of one’s natural potential, are both more valuable than a life that is safe, controlled, and limited. Line 5 is crucial because it acknowledges the potential dangers of a life without limits, but the poem accepts and even welcomes those dangers as the risks inherent in a life of freedom.

Later the poem suggests that the gardener not only limits the freedom of the tree he prunes but that he also insists (falsely) that it is the tree’s “nature / to be small and cozy” (12-13). Is the gardener a deliberate liar, or is he merely deceiving himself? In either case, he is not expressing the truth: the “nature” of the tree is in fact to be anything but “small.” The gardener takes pride in shaping the tree to his own purposes, imposing his own will on it so that it conforms to his wishes. Of course, the fact that the gardener is identified as male is no accident since it becomes plain by the end of the poem that the work’s “message” is strongly feminist. Thus, when the speaker mentions the ways humans (like trees) can be limited, she writes:

the bound feet, 
the crippled brain,
the hair in curlers . . .

The first and third of these three lines apply obviously to women; line 20 alludes to the pre-revolutionary Chinese practice of binding the feet of women, while line 22 alludes to the more recent practice by women in Western countries (such as the United States) of curling their...

(This entire section contains 1210 words.)

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naturally straight hair. Both practices were designed to make women appealing to men, and in the first case, the practice was imposed upon women by men in ways that were especially painful and brutal.

Of course, foot-binding and hair-curling might be considered hardly equivalent as forms of oppression, but perhaps part of the point of this linkage is to suggest that oppression can take a wide variety of forms, from the most severe to the fairly trivial. In any case, the poem implies that women are victimized by men. Indeed, in the last two lines of the text, the speaker may be addressing men directly when she refers to "the hands you / love to touch" (23-24).

Men, presumably, love to touch the hands of the very women they oppress, just as the gardeners who fashion bonsai trees love to touch the branches and leaves they prune. Thinking that they are creating something beautiful by their efforts to shape and mold women, men in fact, restrict the potential of women and thereby stunt their growth.

Presumably, the poem is intended not only to protest oppression but to provoke thought and repentance in male oppressors. If a man does truly “love” a woman, should he restrict her growth? Or is the word “love” here merely a euphemism for sexual desire? Read in the latter sense, the ending may be more cynical and critical than it might first appear.

Stylistically, the poem is simple, clear, and highly accessible. It begins with a long, five-line sentence that is more complex than it might at first appear. The first two lines seem to offer conventional praise; the next two lines implicitly undermine that praise; and then line 5 complicates the message implied by lines 3 and 4. Appropriately enough, lines 6 and 7, which deal with pruning, constitute a sentence fragment. The first sentence of the poem is long; the second sentence is much shorter; the third is the shortest in the entire poem. It is as if the poet is herself pruning back the opening sentences of her work, creating a work of art, rather than of mere artifice.

Line 8, which abruptly describes the tiny bonsai tree (“It is nine inches high”) contrasts strikingly with the earlier reference to the tree before it was pruned, when it had the potential to grow “eighty feet tall.” The precision of these two references to height make the difference between the tree as it is and the tree as it might have been seem all the more arresting.

Suddenly we are no longer admiring the minute beauty of the bonsai but are imagining all of its lost potential. Of course, the differences between a tree and a person work to the poet’s and the poem’s advantage: a tree has no consciousness, no feelings; a human does. It is one thing to trim a tree; it is something entirely else to deliberately stunt the growth of a person.

By the time the word “pot” appears for the second time in the poem (in line 16), its significance has changed entirely. When that word first appeared (in line 2), the pot had seemed—and had been described as—“attractive” (2). By line 16, however, the pot seems a symbol of confinement; it represents the patronizing attitude of the gardener, who treats the tree as a mere possession that he can literally manipulate rather than treating it as an independent life. Lines 17-24 constitute a reply—a rebuke—to the gardener from the speaker of the poem.

Yet the rebuke seems effectively restrained rather than strident, and the poem ends on what can almost seem a paradox: that often we damage the very things we love.