The poem, Puppets, is about love and it draws on the puppets to make a comparison between them and how humans react to love. I think, at its core, it speaks of the simplicity of love. The puppets are hardly described but their descriptions are deliberately basic, this is so they can represent an “every man” and an “every woman” making their characters easily relatable. The offshoot of this is that the puppets don’t just mirror the people that control them but they mirror society. The use of a puppet as a metaphor is clever as it suggests that we don’t actually have any control over these feelings.
The puppets are in love
and so are the puppeteers.
I find this to be a really striking way to begin the poem, which can be read in full here. I love it when a poet uses a hook to get you invested. The opening lines suggests that there will be a comparison between the puppets and the people that control them. It is a great way of creating a sense of intrigue.
You can spot this easily in puppets,
in the clumsy grace with which
The first line of this stanza is very clever. It starts to break down the opening statement by first addressing the puppets that are supposedly in love. When the narrator states that you can spot love easily in puppets the implication is that it isn’t easy to spot in humans, although later it would appear that isn’t the case, so maybe this is the narrator postulating. I think the narrator is referring to himself here in any case. Perhaps they struggle to see the signs of love?
one removes his hat, bows
for the happiness of an audience.
The enjambment line is used very cleverly here and could be considered to blur the meaning of this line. If said as one sentence “the clumsy grace with which one removes his hat” sounds like it is just in reference to the puppet. But because it is broken up by the start of a new stanza “one removes his hat” almost adds ambiguity to whether the narrator is referencing the puppet or its master. This helps to blur the line between the two. The second line of this stanza suggests performance and when a guy is trying to impress a girl (which is what this is suggesting) in many ways it is like putting on a show.
The stitched on smile is no less
sincere: he’s in love with the rag
Once again we know that this line is referencing the puppet but it could easily be referencing the puppeteer. The idea of a stitched on a smile makes sense if taken literally but also could be a suggestion that when the puppeteer (Or indeed anybody who is in love) cannot help but smile. The suggestion being that the feeling takes control. Despite being involuntary the happiness is real according to the narrator. The fact that it is out of control makes it no less real.
of a girl dancing to the music box,
twirling as she does each night,
This description of either the female puppet or possibly the person controlling the puppet is endearing. Interestingly the same device has been used here as was used in the second and third stanzas, the cleverly placed enjambment line which makes you question who or what is being described. She is not labeled as clumsy like her male counterpart. Instead, despite being referenced as a “rag” the narrator almost creates a sense of grace around this character. The act of dancing is one that you’d associate with happiness. Perhaps then the insinuation here is that women feel that same elation but just seem to handle it with a lot more grace?
bead eyes reflecting the light
of love. But look more closely
I think there is something quite beautiful about the wording in this stanza. Of course, light and love are two words with a common association, but I think that this is just phrased really eloquently. I think the word “reflecting” is particularly relevant here. It is as if that the love that she feels is such that it “bounces off” her. Much in the way that the moon reflects light from the sun. The process lights her up for all to see. If this is the case then it is clear from the description in the second stanza about being easy to spot a puppet’s love is entirely accurate!
at the puppeteers, for the true art
lies in them: their hand-gestures,
The focus now turns solely to the puppeteers. Although this suggests that the previous descriptions had in fact been solely about the puppets I don’t believe this is the case. That ambiguity is very deliberate in my opinion. I love the idea that showing that you love a person is considered an “art form” by the narrator. In the second line of this stanza, it references hand gestures and I think that this might be a euphemism for body language in general, which we all know is an important factor in displaying attraction.
that look that says: I’m yours if you’ll have me
Sometimes in poetry, it is lovely to decode symbolism. Sometimes it can be equally rewarding just to read something that is very literal and a truism. Such is the case here. This line seems very much “from the heart” I think that is why it is given its own line. I also think the inherent shyness of this comment endears a reader to the poem’s characters.
I’ll take off my hat as you dance
to the music box, I’ll smile
Perhaps I was right in my assertion that the narrator is in fact one of the characters. Not the use of “I statements”. Also, note how the actions of the narrator mirror exactly the actions of his puppet.
my stupid stitched on smile
as light reflects your dilated eyes.
Here we the suggestion is that like the narrator himself, the female that he is in love with mirrors one of the puppets. That is why the reflection of light is mentioned to help the reader draw the two together. Going back to the second stanza I think it is clear that it is actually pretty easy to spot love in humans, it is exactly the same as it is in puppets.
Love everywhere, and so much of it;
so much you can hardly see the strings.
This is a really interesting way to end the poem. It is clear from what has passed that the narrator has stated that love is easy to see in puppets. He has then compared himself to a puppet with the suggestion being then that it is fairly clear to spot love in humans too. However here he uses the phrase that there is “so much you can hardly see the strings.” Is the suggestion here that the abundance of love makes those “easy to spot” signs easy to miss? Or rather is the suggestion that you don’t always know you’re in love yourself. That a person can’t always tell that love is dictating their actions, or pulling their strings as it were.
Form and Tone
Puppets is written in free verse. It’s divided into 11 stanzas. Most of these are couplets, although the eighth stanza is just a single line. Rhyme does not feature in the poem and the rhythm is uneven. The poem has many enjambment lines which give it a somewhat stilted feel. I think this coupled with the rhythm is used to mirror the motions of a puppet. When reading aloud it is if the poem “jerks” from line to line much in the way that a puppet might move. The poem is about love but it isn’t a classical romantic poem, therefore the tone is fairly neutral, almost observational save for the final few stanzas which seem more personal.
About the David Tait
David is a contemporary poet currently residing in China. His journey towards becoming a poet begun during his degree study where he took a module on creative writing led by Amanda Dalton. This ignited his passion and he ended up doing a three-year stint as the poet in residency at the Manchester Royal Exchange. In his fledgling career, he’s already had some real success, picking up an Eric Gregory Award and in 2010 he won the Poetry Business pamphlet competition which was judged by brilliant British poet, Simon Armitage. Since moving to China he has been using his poetry to help him to learn the language.