Archibald MacLeish 1928
“Ars Poetica” is one of the most famous and most quoted poems of twentieth-century American literature, possibly because it addresses a subject that all poets and poetry teachers hold dear—poetry itself. The title is Latin and can be translated as “The Art of Poetry.” In addition, the life of the poem’s author, Archibald MacLeish, showed the sort of commitment and received the sort of recognition that supporters of the art like to think of when examining the artist.
MacLeish was born into a well-to-do, but not extremely wealthy, family in 1892, in Glencoe, Illinois. He went to private school, prep school, and then Yale University, where he was active in writing and had work published in The Yale Review. After his graduation, he married, and then served in France during World War I. Like many who were to become that generation’s greatest literary figures, MacLeish had his belief in the world’s basic goodness and logic smashed by the inhuman scale of destruction that modern warfare reached. Upon returning to the United States, he earned his law degree and successfully practiced law for four years.
In 1923 MacLeish gave up his law career to write poetry, moving with his wife and two children to Paris, where he associated with some of the most innovative writers America has ever produced, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Dos Passos, as well as artists from other countries and disciplines. He later said that, like practicing law, the poet’s job was to
“make sense of our lives. To create an order which a bewildered, angry heart can recognize. To imagine man.” It was in Paris that he wrote “Ars Poetica,” published in the 1928 volume Streets in the Moon.
MacLeish was born in 1892 in Glencoe, Illinois, a wealthy suburb of Chicago. He attended Yale University, where he was a successful scholar and athlete. In his junior year, he was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa Society. At Yale MacLeish began writing poetry and short stories for the Yale Literary Magazine, and he won the Yale University Prize for Poetry in 1915. After graduation, MacLeish entered Harvard Law School, where, he claimed, his education really began. MacLeish temporarily suspended his studies to serve as an ambulance driver in France during World War I; he transferred to active duty shortly thereafter and rose to the rank of field artillery captain. MacLeish’s first full-length volume of poetry was published by one of his English instructors at Yale while MacLeish was in the army. In 1918 the poet’s younger brother Kenneth, a Navy flyer, died when his plane was shot down. This event inspired several of MacLeish’s poems. Following the war, MacLeish returned to Yale and completed his law degree as class valedictorian. After teaching constitutional and international law at Harvard for a year, MacLeish worked with a New England law firm until 1923, when he decided to pursue a full-time career as a poet.
Moving to Paris with his wife, Ada, and their two sons, MacLeish associated with many of the writers who were to revolutionize twentieth-century literature, including Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound, whose poetry greatly influenced MacLeish. Devoting himself to perfecting his writing, MacLeish published several volumes that distinguished him as one of his generation’s most promising poets. MacLeish received his first Pulitzer Prize in 1932, four years after he and his family had returned to the United States. After briefly attempting a turkey-farming venture in Conway, Massachusetts, MacLeish accepted an editorial position with Henry R. Luce’s Fortune magazine, where he wrote essays on a wide variety of topics and developed his political and social consciousness. During the 1930s MacLeish chaired the League of American Writers, an anti-fascist organization that also included Hemingway and John Dos Passos. In 1939 President Franklin Roosevelt appointed MacLeish to the position of Librarian of the Congress, an office he held until 1944, when he became Assistant Secretary of State. While in office, MacLeish was a member of the committee that drafted the constitution for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). After retiring from public life in 1945, he taught literature and creative writing at Harvard from 1949 to 1962. MacLeish received two additional Pulitzer Prizes as well as such honors as the National Book Award, a Tony Award, and the Bollingen Prize for Poetry; he also won an Acadamy Award for one of his screenplays. After his retirement from Harvard, MacLeish returned to his farm in Conway, where he continued to write poetry, essays, and verse plays until his death in 1982.
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The first four stanzas of “Ars Poetica” say that a poem should communicate with its reader without words, nonverbally, a concept that contradicts reality, since poems are made of nothing but words. Instead of expressing ideas, this section says that a poem should give its reader actual, tangible items that can be experienced with the senses. Since words are themselves marks on paper or, if spoken, patterns of vibration and not the actual objects and actions they represent, this description appears to ask poetry to do the impossible. Contradicting our normal expectations about the scope of its subject is what “Ars Poetica” is all about.
The word “palpable” in the first line means that a poem should be tangible—something that can be touched—, but the word also refers to something that is obvious or immediately evident. Students who have spent hours in English classes laboring to determine what a poem “means” may be surprised to find it said that a poem should be understood at first glance. MacLeish uses “mute” in the same line to contradict the traditional idea that a poem “speaks” to its reader with a unique, identifiable “voice.” Writers concentrating on these aspects are too self-conscious. He says instead that a poem should be like a piece of fruit, suggesting qualities that a piece of fruit has: it is recognized across cultures, is alive, sweet, and grown to ripeness. The adjective “globed” emphasizes this idea without making the reader look for a meaning that is separate from the imagery used: a globe, or sphere, is a universal shape that is constant, regardless of what angle it is viewed from, and it therefore holds no secrets.
- Archibald MacLeish Reads His Poetry was released on audio cassette in 1972 by Caedmon.
- A web page featuring three of MacLeish’s poems and a brief overview of his career can be found at http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Delphi/7086/0508.htm.
Having made the point in the first stanza that the words of a poem should have direct, not abstract, influence on the reader, MacLeish uses onomatopoeia to support this point. Onomatopoeia is the use of words that mimic their meaning in their sound. In this case, “dumb” and “thumb” both have blunt, dull sounds, and they are used to discuss words that have no secrets below the surface.
Line 4 uses the phrase “to the thumb” where it could have said “to the touch,” precisely because the point of this piece is that poetry should be a physical, not an intellectual, experience, and one way to accomplish this is to use a solid object (“thumb”) in place of a concept (“touch”). Medallions are generally given to people for their symbolic meaning—to recognize bravery, achievements, etc.—and not for the actual monetary value of the metal of which they are made. In using the image of a thumb reading old medallions, MacLeish implies that the poet cannot count on readers to understand abstract significance because meanings fade, just like an imprint pressed into metal wears down, and readers are often as insensitive as a thumb. This, he says, is how it “should be” (line 1).
The image given in these two lines is of a window frame, or casement, that has overgrown with moss but has been buffed, even “worn,” by the sleeves of someone looking in and leaning on the ledge. This implies that someone, presumably the poet, has been looking in for a long time at a situation that has been there for an even longer time (which is, in fact, how poets do involve themselves in life). MacLeish’s suggestion that poems be silent is good advice to any outside observer.
The first section of the poem ends with an image from nature in line 8. As mentioned before, a poem cannot be “wordless” because it is made of words: a person might just as easily try to be “cellless.” A poem can, however, not concentrate on its own words, in the same way that a bird can accomplish something as miraculous as flight without being aware of the individual actions that make it possible.
The second section of the poem, from line 9 to line 16, starts and ends with the same couplet, and the two stanzas in the middle begin with the same four words. The main image in this section is the moon, which, like the globed fruit of line 2, is a universal figure familiar to all people at all times in the world’s history. Central to this section is the idea that a poem should be “leaving”—not carrying new ideas to the reader, but displaying ideas that the reader already knows.
Line 9 says that a poem should be motionless, but then line 10 explains this point by comparing it to the climbing of the moon, which actually does move, but imperceptibly so to the naked eye. It is redundant for MacLeish to say “motionless in time,” since motion takes place in time and could not take place without it, but putting it this way allows him to stress two ideas: that a poem does not need to build up from one stanza to the next (an idea based on poems as concepts, not images), and that poetry should have the same meaning to all generations of mankind.
The syntax of these lines is confusing. By arranging his words in the way he has, the poet is able to imply that “behind the winter” is the location of the moon, while at the same time retaining the idea that the moon leaves the winter behind. Either of these readings is right: the moon is behind the winter if the winter is embodied by the trees that it shone through in line 12, and it leaves the winter behind by climbing up into the sky. Line 14 is even more problematic because the poet does not use a verb in this clause. It is impossible to know whether it is the memories or the mind that is leaving.
By repeating lines 9 and 10 in lines 15 and 16, MacLeish reiterates his idea of a poem motionless in time in several ways. Most obvious is the emphasis given to anything that is said twice. Also, by having these lines return, he shows defiance against the passage of time, as the poem ends up back at the same place again, as if it had never left. Having put the reader through the twisted logic of lines 11 through 14 makes the contradiction of “motionless” with “climbing” seem less strange when encountered a second time.
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” John Keats wrote these words in “Ode On a Grecian Urn,” which, like “Ars Poetica,” is a meditation on the timelessness and mystery of art. In that poem, the figures painted on an urn in ancient Greece are considered to be models of truth and beauty because they will not change, so they can never be untrue. Since the second section of “Ars Poetica” declared that a poem should be motionless, it would be natural for a reader familiar with the Keats poem to assume that this is MacLeish’s way, like Keats, of showing how a poem can be truer. But “truth” is exactly the sort of intangible concept that MacLeish says poems should not concern themselves with. He does not say that a poem should not be true, just that poems should “be equal to: / not true.” Seekers of abstract truth—philosophers, for example—too often fail to make their writing have an effect on their readers.
“Grief” is a huge subject, combining two basic concepts that are the core ideas behind a majority of poems: love and death. MacLeish expands the subject of grief to include “all” of history, including practically everybody who ever lived. The way to convey this idea, he suggests, is with “An empty doorway and a maple leaf.” These images cannot be intellectualized—this is the point of the poem. We can say that the empty doorway symbolizes emptiness, opportunities lost, or a gaping hole, or that the maple leaf is strength, coursing veins, or a reminder of autumnal death and rebirth, but the images do not clearly fit any of these ideas with a one-to-one correspondence. These are personal images, and the best that a reader can do is to know approximately how the poet relates them to grief.
These lines offer the same type of evasive images that were offered for grief in the preceding couplet. There is something about blades of grass, being touched by the wind and bowing to it, that is like the experience of love, just as the two parties in love are like lights, and the sea is like the world that reflects their love, but these relationships between the concepts and the objects are inexact. “Ars Poetica” explains to the poet and to the reader that the principle that poems cannot convey both experience and ideas is not to be regretted, but is the nature of things. If poems can only cover one of these tasks, MacLeish says it should be experience, and let the ideas, which are the abstract functions of words, “remain mute” (line 1).
By cutting these two lines short and by offering no direct object after “mean” and “be,” MacLeish draws the vast distinction between the two verbs more clearly than even if he had said “should not mean anything” and “be anything,” because the specific object provided by the reader to fill in these lines will be more striking than the general concept of “anything.” Specificity is the goal of this poem.
Language and Meaning
In “Ars Poetica” MacLeish suggests that readers should not analyze a poem to determine its meaning, because, ideally, a poem should not have hidden meanings beneath its surface. However, this suggestion introduces a dilemma that concerns the interaction between poets, their text, and readers. On one hand, it is easy for the poet to write with the faith that “A poem should not mean / But be,” because the poet is free then to write in a rush of instinct or inspiration, ignoring the obligation to careful language and form, which serve to convey meaning. The reader, however, has come to expect meaning in a poem, for it is often thought of as the poem’s purpose of existence. Any written work can be considered as just a collection of words on a page until a reader is able to determine its meaning. In “Ars Poetica” MacLeish may be asserting that a poet should not construct his poem to be a vehicle for conveying an already-decided meaning. Outdated standards, such as ones that demand that a poem should be “about beauty” or that it should be for the benefit of humanity, can be debated by artists, and “Ars Poetica” is MacLeish’s countering of those who would impose such generalized rules. It is possible, however, that he states his case
Topics for Further Study
- Write a poem that expresses what you think a poem should not be. Use specific imagery, the way MacLeish uses “globed fruit” and “an empty doorway and a maple leaf,” to get your point across.
- Many people have said that poetry should express the writer’s feelings. Is it possible to express feelings and at the same time be mute and dumb and motionless? Explain why you think it is or is not.
- Do you think poets in general follow MacLeish’s advice? Do you think they should?
a little too strongly: poets who concern themselves only with writing that is “not true” are more likely to produce gibberish than art.
Any language must have figures with meanings assigned to them. For instance, the letter “c” attached to the letters “a” and “t” indicate to English-speakers a small, carnivorous mammal. In this poem, MacLeish seems to propose a type of language that uses birds, trees, the moon, doorways, and so on, in place of letters and punctuation. These objects have meaning in a poem, he tells us, while abstract ideas such as “meaning” and “truth” do not. On the one hand, he rejects language as we know it, saying that a poem should be “wordless,” but at the same time, he suggests a new set of natural objects that would communicate to readers as a language would. The irony here is that MacLeish must necessarily use words to represent his natural objects.
Search for Self
In this poem’s rejection of intellectual concepts and its embrace of actual, physical things, readers can see a hint of what MacLeish thinks the search for self should be. After covering the methods that a poem should use, the work’s final four couplets get down to replacing the ideas that we use to express our feelings with images that MacLeish believes will be more effective than words. For example, the poet proposes that mankind does not need the word “love,” as long as we have leaning grasses and lights above the sea. Likewise, it is not only the current dictionary definition of “grief,” but all grief felt throughout all of history, that can be replaced by “an empty doorway and a maple leaf.” In spite of the popular notion that poetry is a very intellectual matter, in “Ars Poetica” MacLeish wants to show that poetry is actually very physical. He tells readers that self-recognition takes place in the world at large—in doorways, in fields, in tree branches, and in the sky, not in the mind. The three concepts that he looks at—truth, grief, and love—can be seen as covering just about all questions humans have about their identities: a person who understands these three mysteries would have a thorough understanding of herself or himself. MacLeish, however, suggests that there can be no understanding of them, just experience of them. If poetry speaks about life, then anything that is said about how a poem should work also applies to how life should work, and understanding the true nature of a poem can lead to understanding oneself.
Art and Experience
The world that we experience is what art represents with paint on a canvas or music or words. “Ars Poetica” calls a poem “wordless,” which makes as little sense as calling a song “soundless.” Traditionally, the thing that distinguishes one’s experience of a poem from one’s experience of reality is that a poem represents a shared reality plus a poet’s own ideas. Taking the ideas expressed in “Ars Poetica” too literally would completely eliminate the job of the poet: when the poem’s intention is only to reflect reality without expressing a poet’s perception of it, then who needs the poet to come between reality and the reader? This question about the purpose of art is increasingly relevant today, as technological advances in the fields of sound and graphics can create virtual realities that are becoming increasingly successful in replicating actual experience.
Readers would better benefit by looking for MacLeish’s intentions for writing “Ars Poetica.” He proposes that poets should refrain from preaching, or adapting a superior moral pose, and that they are more likely to touch readers’ emotions with specific, tangible images than with vague concepts. MacLeish implies that poets should rein in their ambitions to keep poetry in touch with reality. Writers who learn these lessons from “Ars Poetica” are more likely to create meaning than those who deliberately try to create something “meaningful.”
“Ars Poetica” is written in twelve stanzas, which are the poetic equivalent to paragraphs in prose. Each stanza consists of a rhyming couplet. While the two lines in couplets usually match in length and meter, MacLeish very specifically varies the lengths of the lines here: although he is willing to follow traditional poetic form by rhyming the ends of the lines of each pair, it would be contrary to the idea that he is expressing about poetry if his poem were trapped in a constricting pattern, rather than being free to explore its subject through imagery. Imagery is the poet’s use of tangible, describable things to evoke the feeling he or she has in mind.
The stanzas in this poem divide into three equal sections. The first section asserts that a poem should be “mute,” “dumb,” “wordless”—unusual concepts, given that poems are made up of words and have always been used by poets to “speak” of their subjects. The second four stanzas say that a poem should be “motionless,” which again contradicts the average reader’s training that a poem should be “moving” and that poems should be active, as well as incite action. In the final third, the poem tells us that a poem should be meaningless or not true.
World War I
While international conflicts before World War I (1914-1918) destroyed lands and property and devastated populations, World War I brought destruction to a new level. The technological advances of the early part of the twentieth century brought terrible new methods of warfare. Long-range artillery sent bombs across greater distances, while airplanes, which were first widely used during the First World War, let a small flight crew rain explosives down on thousands of unsuspecting people. Chemical weapons, most notably mustard gas, caused their victims to die miserable, convulsive, choking deaths. The war was waged by the Triple Entente of Great Britain, France, and Russia against the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. As it continued, however, it involved most of Europe. Upon their return home, veterans who fought in this war had an even more difficult time than the veterans of previous wars in reconciling the horrors they had witnessed. The effects
Compare & Contrast
- 1928: Television station WGY, in Schenectady, New York, airs the country’s first regularly scheduled television broadcasts.
1948: One million homes in the United States have televisions, up from five thousand just three years earlier.
1952: Nearly 17 million homes in the United States had television sets.
1962: Ninety-eight percent of the households in the United States have at least one television.
Today: Television screens are seen frequently in public places, including grocery stores, airport terminals, stadiums, and classrooms.
- 1928: A year after the first commercial talking movie, The Jazz Singer, Disney releases the first cartoon with a voice track. Named Steamboat Willie, the cartoon introduces the popular character Mickey Mouse.
1938: Disney releases the world’s first full-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
1961: The Flintstones becomes the first animated television series to be broadcast during the prime-time evening hours.
Today: Computer artists use graphic simulations to design impressive visual effects for movies and television.
- 1928: Penicillin is first proven to have bacteria-fighting properties. In following years a number of antibiotics are developed, changing the face of medicine.
Today: Researchers are finding antibiotics to be less successful than they were a generation ago. Because of the extensive use of antibiotics, tougher bacteria strains that are resistant to antibiotics have evolved.
of World War I on Western society helped bring about the general atmosphere of change in the 1920s. Some of the new attitudes that emerged during this era formed the tenets of what became known as “Modernism.” Formerly accepted rules of art and society were no longer suitable. The past was viewed with irony, and conventions that had been accepted by previous generations were challenged or ignored.
In the United States, the younger generation’s alienation from their elders was intensified by the prosperity that the country enjoyed throughout the 1920s. World War I elevated the United States to the status of an economic superpower. Most of the European economies had suffered from the aftermath of four years of fighting and the destruction of their manufacturing abilities. America, safely across the Atlantic from the bombing, had entered the war late, participating only from April of 1917 to the war’s end in November of 1918. Before that, American factories had prospered by making products that European plants, busy making weapons and war supplies, could not produce. As one of the few world economies left intact after the war, the United States was prosperous throughout the 1920s, until the stock market crashed in November of 1929, starting the Great Depression.
The Jazz Age
Financially comfortable, America in the 1920s turned its attention toward less serious concerns. Luxury, recreation, and the pursuit of pleasures mark the memories we have of the decade. The relatively new presence of the automobile, which became common after Henry Ford developed assembly-line construction in 1914, helped make this recreational lifestyle viable and changed the American way of life. People were freed from their immediate surroundings, able to associate with others who shared common interests with them, and no longer restricted to their families and neighbors. Attendance at sporting events skyrocketed, giving rise to the sports hero, including people with whom we are familiar today, such as Babe Ruth, Knute Rockne, Bill Tilden, and Jack Dempsey. Those who lived too far from cities or colleges to attend sporting events could listen to them on radio broadcasts, which started in 1920.
The 1920s are referred to as “The Jazz Age” because jazz music, an original American musical form, was received enthusiastically by the nation’s young people. The music was part of the lifestyle that differentiated them from the older generations. They dressed in flashy new clothing styles and attended wild dances. In the wake of the war, many old customs were dead. Americans were more interested in having a good time and spending money than they were in tradition. In the 1920s millions of Americans, who otherwise would have been law-abiding citizens, associated with criminals to get liquor, because the sale and possession of alcohol was illegal from 1919 to 1933.
The word “expatriate” generally refers to a citizen of one country living in another, but often it pertains to the community of artists, mostly American, who lived in Paris during the 1920s. While many people in the United States enjoyed the flourishing economy, many artists went to reside in Paris, finding the attitudes of the French more in line with their artistic sensibilities. The French were more jaded about their political expectations, more casual about sex, and more serious about art—in short, they supported the values that might make an expatriate artist subject to criticism in her or his native country. Books that were banned in the United States, such as James Joyce’s Ulysses and D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, were celebrated in France. Another factor that was very important, because many artists considered creating art their full-time profession, was that an American could live cheaply in France with American currency. In 1919, one American dollar could buy eight French francs; by 1923 a dollar bought 16 francs; and in 1923 the dollar was worth 25 francs—a 300 percent growth in seven years.
A partial list of the expatriates living in Paris in the 1920s includes Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, John Dos Passos, Sherwood Anderson, and, of course, Archibald MacLeish, who moved there in 1923 and returned to the United States in 1928, the year “Ars Poetica” was published. These people all associated with each other and gathered to converse about weighty issues such as art, poetry, and responsibility. Many great artists alive at the time spent some time in Paris and joined in the discussion.
Although “Ars Poetica” is regarded as one of MacLeish’s finest accomplishments, he himself is remembered as only a minor poet, with few truly impressive artistic accomplishments in his long and prominent career. Some critics consider the post-World War I period, when MacLeish lived as an expatriate in France along with hundreds of other aspiring artists, to be the only period of his life when he produced poems worth critical analysis, even though he continued to write for more than forty years after returning to America. “Ars Poetica” was produced during his French period, and, in its narrow focus and philosophical rumination on how man can (and cannot) turn ideals into reality, it is thought to contain what is best in MacLeish’s work. Grover Smith, in a short book on MacLeish, lists these features as “conscious symbolism; witty, almost metaphorical strategies of argument; compressed and intense implications,” and these elements are all certainly present in “Ars Poetica.” While reviewing a play written late in the poet’s life, John Wain took time to give an overview of the works of MacLeish—the essays, books, dramas, and poems long and short— and observed that “the evidence of his shorter poems is there to remind us that he is, or has been, a poet of true sensibility and originality. One of these, ‘Ars Poetica,’ must be one of the most often quoted of all modern poems, partly no doubt because it has provided a slogan for the modern criticism of poetry, but also because it is genuinely impressive.”
Some critics have found fault with some of MacLeish’s poems, especially publicly responsible pieces that brought out the poet’s worst qualities. “The voice of civic rectitude in his verse is pious, stentorian, false, ... a poor surrogate for action or impotent rage,” noted critic Hilton Kramer. He goes on to note that MacLeish’s best-known poems, including “Ars Poetica,” “are eloquent warnings against precisely this sort of tendentious sermonizing.” Though he is much respected for a few sterling accomplishments such as “Ars Poetica,” Archibald MacLeish is not considered to be a poet of the first order.
What Do I Read Next?
- The accomplishments of MacLeish’s long career are beautifully presented in Archibald MacLeish: Collected Poems, 1917-1982, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1985.
- Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (1964), is one of the best-known books about Paris in the 1920s. Hemingway does not have anything to say directly about MacLeish, but his discussions of his own life at the time, and the lives of other prominent writers he and MacLeish associated with, give a good sense how serious this crowd was about art.
- In 1962, after almost forty years as a public figure, MacLeish sat down for several long, uninterrupted conversations with Mark Van Doren, who was a friend and an equally famous poet.
Their discussions were filmed, and a small portion was put together and broadcast on CBS in 1962. A longer transcript was compiled into a book titled The Dialogues of Archibald MacLeish and Mark Van Doren that was published in 1964. Although the conversations had no set topics, almost every subject mentioned reaches back to poetry in one way or another.
- The same spirit of reform that is present in “Ars Poetica” can be found throughout A Time To Act, a collection of Archibald MacLeish’s essays written in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The focus of the collection is politics, not poetry, but this book reveals the same attitude toward civic responsibility that the poem shows toward artistic responsibility.
David Kelly is an instructor of creative writing at several community colleges in Illinois, as well as a fiction writer and playwright. In the following essay, Kelly explores the idea of age—as both a personal and societal concept—and its influence on “Ars Poetica” and the later events in MacLeish’s life.
Late in his life, Archibald MacLeish became very political, but you would not guess it from reading his poem “Ars Poetica.” Political thought involves more than parties and campaigns; it is about how human beings interact with one another and how groups relate. It is about who will cooperate and who will take orders from the ones holding power over them. The poem purposefully and forcefully ignores human interaction. It does not want to deal with communication as we generally think of it, preferring to imagine a world where words can be “dumb” and “mute.” What accounts for the change in values during the course of the poet’s life? Age, I would guess, in both senses of the word: the poem reflects a young man’s thinking that he later outgrew, and it also reflects the sensibilities of the age, or period, in which he was writing.
The ideas expressed in “Ars Poetica” are ideas that appeal to young people. It is in youth’s interest to be anti-intellectual. This is not meant as an insult to young people, but it just describes life’s structure, on a basic level of comfort and fulfillment of immediate needs. Brain work is an acquired skill. Young people can think as well as older people, but it takes years of accumulated experience to stockpile a battery of ideas—both good and bad—with which the thinking mind can play. Since young people lack the inventory of experience to catch cultural references and points of common memory, this leaves them just a few options when dealing with a subject, such as poetry, that stresses a full background of one’s culture. Where do youth fit in, then?
The first option is to submit. Believing that it does take a certain amount of experience to fuel a worthwhile mind, youth could simply toss their hands up and admit that they will be second-class
“... the most obvious problem with connecting ‘Ars Poetica’ with youthful sensibilidties is that the poem’s author was in his mid-thirties when he wrote it.”
thinkers until they have lived a little longer, been around the block a few more times. Doing this would mean sitting back, keeping quiet, and letting older folks run things, with the faith that they know best. But this goes against the principles of democracy, which respects each person’s opinions and gives no preference to any group. I know that I myself wouldn’t relinquish authority to some other group simply because of something as inconclusive as age, height, wealth or ethnic origin, so I can’t find fault with young poets who are not willing to say of their elders, “They’re probably right, and I’m probably wrong.” In some societies age is revered, and Americans sometimes look jealously at such systems, but humility is not something that we can force—at least, we do not want to become the sort of society that would force intellectual humility.
A second way for youth to cope with the disadvantage inherent in intellectual pursuits would be to reverse the culture’s priorities, so that intellectualism becomes less important. Young people may lack experience, but older people lack the speed and strength and stamina that they had when they were young. To secure their own self-respect, young people could claim that knowledge is overrated by older people to justify their waning physical prowess. This attitude seems to work well for school bullies, who may not be able to keep up with assignments and so do their best to belittle intelligence. Muscle and beauty, the tools of youth (certainly not the tools of the aged), get a lot of attention in popular culture, especially in television and movies and the advertisements that support them. That should not be taken, however, to mean muscle and beauty ensure power. A culture that celebrates youth is run, at the top, by people who are clever, whether they are strong and good-looking or ugly weaklings. Societies that have only valued the things that youth have to offer have always been brief.
No, the best way for youth to level the playing field against people with more experience is to embrace values that stress the importance of instinct. Suppose the issue at hand is a bridge. If the important thing is the design of the bridge, then the experienced ones in a group hold the important tools, because they can draw off of knowledge of all the bridges they’ve seen and all the laws of physics they may know. If the important thing is its construction, then the healthier (generally younger) people have the advantage, because they’re better able to hoist I-beams and move sacks of concrete without sprains or ruptures. But... if we forget about function and agree that the important thing is to experience the bridge, then all can approach it with equal status, and no one has an advantage over anyone else. Meaning is irrelevant: all we want of the bridge is what MacLeish wants of a poem, which is, “to be.”
There are quite a few existing systems of thought, including Zen and Existentialism, that shift the emphasis of life away from the stored-up knowledge of humankind and the arts to the experience of the here and now. At the heart of them all is a distrust of intellectualism, a suspicion that anything, even lies, can be proved with enough fancy words. While the intellectual tradition scoffs at anti-intellectuals as having a primitive fear of what they cannot understand, the anti-intellectual trusts her or his own instinct over claims that, “This might not seem to make sense, but it does. Trust me.” Our culture produces a good deal of intellectual youths and an equal share of adults who reject the artificial limits of “meaning,” but the majority of youths will always be anti-intellectual, because doing otherwise confirms their own lack of complexity.
As some readers no doubt have already figured out, the most obvious problem with connecting “Ars Poetica” with youthful sensibilities is that the poem’s author was in his mid-thirties when he wrote it. Here is where the rise of Modernism in the postwar world of the 1920s comes in. At the time, tradition was rushed out, and almost everyone discussing art was talking from the fresh perspective that we associate with youth. The war destroyed a lot more than buildings and families; it destroyed the old way of seeing things, as wars always do. Every outbreak of violence shatters faith and leaves affected populations open to the question of whether or not we can handle things a little better in the future. When no new ideas arise, the old ones slip like sand back into the hole they left. When there are new ideas, as there were after the French Revolution, the First World War and Vietnam, the disruption caused by the war provides them with an opportunity. It is as if an old, established company—the literary establishment—lost its entire board of directors in a tragic elevator accident, and a new board had to be appointed from the company’s junior executives. They may not exactly be kids, but their new ideas, appearing so abruptly, would surely seem either childishly immature or youthfully innovative.
It helped that the writers of the 1920s had a place where they could congregate and assure each other that their devotion and their artistic theories were not only revolutionary, but also smart and inspired. In general, that gathering place was Paris, where living was cheap and where the culture apparently appreciated art—at least when compared to the crass commercialism of the United States (where the national government was run by the crooks in Harding’s administration and local politics were ruled by bootleggers). In particular, the young artists’ clubhouses were the apartment of Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas and Sylvia Beach’s bookstore, Shakespeare and Co. The writers who passed through both of these places— MacLeish, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, John Dos Passos, T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, and Andre Gide, to name a few—were able to stretch the understanding of what literature is by trying new forms, by inventing different things that art could be. With so many innovators around, it became a struggle to be unique. Following Pound’s precept, “Make it new!”— which was one of the few rules of Modern art—these writers had the comfort of being with a group of others who shared their goals. They also had the strain of making art that was newer than the ideas that were new yesterday and had already been made newer that morning.
This young person’s way of seeing the world, one that favors living for the present moment and gives no advantage to experience, is present in “Ars Poetica.” What could be newer than experiencing the natural world raw, with no intellectual interference from the poet? As an artistic stance, though, the immediacy called for in this poem is too limited to continue throughout a writing career. Saying that words should be “dumb” and “mute” is like saying that telephone lines should not be bothered with carrying current. What would they be good for, then? How could we admire or appreciate a phone line if we did not know whether it was doing its job well? Apparently, we would have to admire it for its own sake, and this is what “Ars Poetica” tells us we should do with poetry. Art for art’s sake. After a while, though, readers or viewers or listeners grow tired of experiencing or encountering artistic pieces, whether they are stone casements, telephone lines, or poems. After nodding and saying “uh-huh” a few times, the mind starts wandering, and in doing so, it starts kicking around the kinds of ideas the poem tells us not to burden poetry with.
In MacLeish’s case, he finished saying all he had to say about not saying things, and he started saying things about things. He started using art to address the concerns of people, not just art itself. After the stock market crash in 1929, like many artists of his time, he became concerned with the plight of the poor in America, having returned to his native land the year before. Unlike many artists, however, he joined the government and worked enthusiastically for Franklin Roosevelt. For the rest of his life, throughout the great changes that affected America—isolationism, World War II, the Communist scare, and the Civil Rights movement—MacLeish continued to inspect society in poems, essays, and that most social artistic form— dramas. The more MacLeish aged, the less he used art for its own sake, and the more he concentrated on the political world around him.
Source: David Kelly, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1999.
Marisa Anne Pagnattaro
Marisa Anne Pagnattaro, who holds a J.D. and Ph.D. in English, is a freelance writer and a Robert E. West Teaching Fellow in the English Department at the University of Georgia. In the following essay, Pagnattaro explores MacLeish’s philosophy that poetry should use concrete images to capture a moment of personal experience and the richness of being.
Archibald MacLeish was a man of great courage who dedicated himself to his art: on the very day that he was offered the coveted position of partner at the prestigious Boston law firm of Choate, Hall and Stewart, he announced “I’m giving up the law.” In his biography of MacLeish titled Archibald MacLeish: An American Life, Scott Donaldson detailed how this successful attorney decided to leave behind a lucrative law career to join American expatriates on the Left Bank in Paris in the early 1920s. MacLeish studied the poetic
“... MacLeish maintains that poetry should capture a moment of human experience—for example grief or love—through concrete images.”
philosophies of his contemporaries and was a frequent visitor to Sylvia Beach’s bookstore, Shakespeare and Company. Among other writers, he was fascinated by T. S. Eliot’s intellectualized verse and Ezra Pound’s dedication to “make it new.”
It was Pound’s work that led MacLeish to Ernest Fenollosa’s essay on Chinese written characters. Fenollosa used the example of Chinese characters to argue that the “more concretely and vividly we express the interactions of things the better the poetry.” Fenollosa added that the best poetry must “appeal to emotions with the charm of direct impression, flashing through regions where the intellect can only grope”—it is not enough for poetry “to furnish a meaning to philosophers.” MacLeish described in a notebook in February of 1924 that he was quite taken with Fenollosa’s theory, which insisted on the concrete nature of images. MacLeish wrote, “This is one of the most important pieces of writing I have happened upon.”
Fenollosa’s ideas, thus, form an important aesthetic underpinning for MacLeish’s poem “Ars Poetica.” MacLeish began to look at the world anew. Just before writing his most famous poem, he commented in a letter, “To write one must take the world apart and reconstruct it.” Then, on March 14, 1925, MacLeish composed “Ars Poetica” in his notebook. This important poem reworked Eliot’s theory of the “objective correlative,” that the “only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’ ... a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion.” In espousing a critically different formulation, MacLeish acted upon Fenollosa’s observation that metaphor was “the very essence of poetry” and, accordingly, wrote in his notebooks that “Metaphor itself was experience.”
The title, “Ars Poetica,” is Latin for “Art of Poetry.” As in Horace’s Ars Poetica (19-18 B.C.), MacLeish expresses principles of poetic composition with great authority. Using twelve rhyming two-line stanzas, MacLeish works in a formal style, yet by varying the line length, he also refuses the constraints of symmetry. The poem is further divided into three eight-line sections. Contrary to most poetic theory, the first section asserts that a poem should be “silent.” Continuing in this same vein of thought, the second section asserts that a poem be “motionless.” In the final section, MacLeish insists that a poem should just “be.” Unlike some of his poetic predecessors, MacLeish did not believe that a poem should speak to readers and urge them to action by revealing “truth.” Instead, MacLeish maintains that poetry should capture a moment of human experience—for example grief or love—through concrete images.
The first lines of “Ars Poetica” are designed to prompt readers to rethink their expectations about poetry. They should not look to poems to “speak” to them, but rather should be able to experience a poem as they as they do objects in the world. To this end, MacLeish maintains that “A poem should be palpable and mute / as a globed fruit.” The words should have a direct effect on the reader; they should be able to feel the images in the poem. Moreover, it shall be “Dumb / As old medallions to the thumb, / Silent as the sleeve-worn stone / Of casement ledges where moss has grown.” These metaphors suggest that the poem should be imbued with great experience, of having lived in the world and seen much in life. Medallions are generally associated with commemorating an event, recognizing achievement, or rewarding merit. As such, this image is infused with greatness in life. Yet, inasmuch as the relief on the medal is worn, there is just a subtle lingering sense of the triumph that once was acknowledged. Likewise, the mossy ledge where someone spent much time looking out the window, wearing down the casement with his or her sleeves, suggests a contemplating place where there has been a good bit of history. These first six lines of the poem are an appeal to universality, the passage of time and knowledge that cuts across the barriers of language. The final couplet in this section sets the poem free from the heavy weight of artifice:
A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.
Obviously, a poem cannot literally be “wordless,” but it can have the appearance of great fluid spontaneity and the ease of the natural world. MacLeish is suggesting that the art of poetry should present itself with sprezzatura, or subtle ease of manner, unfettered by the individual words that create the whole.
According to MacLeish’s philosophy, a poem should not only be silent; it should be “motionless in time.” The second section of the poem develops his notion that an effective poem is timeless. Such a poem is not rooted in any time or place. To express this concept, MacLeish uses the image of the moon:
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,
Leaving as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,
Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.
Like the imperceptible, incremental movement of the rising moon, so should a poem move readers. There have been several different interpretations of this section. The first, presented by Donald Stauffer in The Nature of Poetry, is consistent with the above reading that a good poem has the ability to transcend time. Stauffer, however, also presented a second reading in which he contends that this section asserts “that a poem wakens in the reader’s consciousness memory after memory, complex, minute, and exact, just as moonlight, against the motionless, durable, illimitable night, etches out twigs and leaves and innumerable silhouettes.” This less widely held reading has been advanced by Thomas E. Sanders in his critical anthology The Discovery of Poetry. A third interpretation by Edwin St. Vincent in The Explicator contends that these “lines set forth the doctrine that a good poem makes a lasting impression on the mind, suffering loss in the memory but only in imperceptibly slow degree.” In reaching this conclusion, St. Vincent “untangles” the syntax of the lines and construes the word “leaves” as a verb (instead of a noun). While he admits that the construction of the word is inherently ambiguous, St. Vincent advances his reading based on two factors: “first, because the poet in his recording of the poem in An Album of Modern Poetry ... clearly reads it as a verb; and second, because the idea of the moon (in contrast to its anthesis the diurnal sun) slowly measuring off seasonal change further enriches the effect of imperceptible release.”
The final section of “Ars Poetica” summons the poetics of Romantic poet John Keats only to dismiss this predecessor’s ideal for poetry. In the well-known last lines of “Ode On a Grecian Urn,” Keats states, “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Interpretations of these much-debated lines vary, but they are often cited as reflecting the search for truth in art. Disputing this function of art, MacLeish states:
A poem should be equal to:
In other words, a poem should not concern itself with the abstract, unknowable concept of truth. The role of the poet is to present images from which readers can reexperience emotion. For example, MacLeish offers the image of an “empty doorway and a maple leaf” as metaphors for grief. The first image evokes a sense of emptiness or uncertainty and the second the changes that come with autumn. Both, however, have the ability to evoke a highly personal resonance of loss. Similarly, “For love,” MacLeish uses “leaning grasses and two lights above the sea.” The Whitmanesque grass and the harmony of two lights suspended together summon readers to a place where they can grasp a moment of devotion. Neither example is intended to produce a neat correspondence to the emotion. Instead, each has multiple and different layers of meaning for all readers.
The last couplet of the poem provides a concluding statement about MacLeish’s poetics:
A poem should not mean
These deliberately short lines underscore MacLeish’s belief that poetry should use concrete images to capture and evoke a moment of personal experience. Poetry should not endeavor to take on great, unanswerable philosophical questions; it should merely be a means of taking in the richness of being. To that end, “Ars Poetica” echoes Fenollosa’s belief that “Metaphor, the revealer of nature, is the very substance of poetry.”
In 1961, nearly forty years after writing “Ars Poetica,” MacLeish’s insights about poetry were published in Poetry and Experience. In this collection, MacLeish reiterates his belief that “It is true enough that a poet, an artist, serves his art and not a cause. He goes his own way with his own will beside him and his own truth to find. But on the great issue, on the issue of man, his truth and the truth of history are one.” In other words, as paraphrased by MacLeish biographer Scott Donaldson, the “business of poetry was to communicate such truth, not the rational scientific knowledge of science but the intuited knowledge derived from one person’s particular experience, yet universally resonant.”
Source: Marisa Anne Pagnattaro, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1999.
Beach, Sylvia, Shakespeare and Company, New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1956.
Donaldson, Scott, Archibald MacLeish: An American Life, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992.
Eliot, T. S., “Hamlet and His Problems,” The Sacred Wood, London: Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1932.
Fenollosa, Ernest, “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry,” reprinted in Instigations by Ezra Pound, Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1967.
Forma, Warren, They Were Ragtime, New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1976.
Kramer, Hilton, New York Times Book Review October 3, 1976, p. 28.
MacLeish, Archibald, Poetry and Experience, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1961.
Perrett, Geoffrey, America In the Twenties: A History, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.
Smith, Grover, Archibald MacLeish, University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers Series, No. 99, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971.
St. Vincent, Edwin, “MacLeish’s Ars Poetica, 9-16,” The Explicator, Vol. 37, No. 3, Spring 1979, pp. 13-15.
Sanders, Thomas E., The Discovery of Poetry, Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Co., 1967.
Staffer, Donald, The Nature of Poetry, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1946.
Stein, Gertrude, Writings: 1903-1932, New York: Library of America/Penguin Putnam Inc., 1998.
Wain, John, “Mr. MacLeish’s New Play,” New Republic, July 22, 1967, p. 25.
Eberhart, Richard, “The Pattern of MacLeish’s Poetry,” New York Times Book Review, November 23, 1952.
Eberhart, himself an acclaimed poet of recent times, gives serious examination of and explanation about MacLeish’s works.
Faulk, Signi Lenea, Archibald MacLeish, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1965.
The poet’s career was far from over when this scholarly study was published, but he had been published enough for Faulk to get a sense of his influences. This book has plenty of comparisons of MacLeish’s works to those of great authors who came before him such as Wordsworth, Keats, and Yeats.
MacLeish, Archibald, A Continuing Journey, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1967.
This book is a collection of MacLeish’s personal essays. The focus of the pieces shifts between his three main concerns, which he identifies in the introduction as “politics, poetry, and teaching.”
Miller, Linda Patterson, ed., Letters from the Lost Generation: Gerald and Sara Murphy and Friends, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1991.
Centered on the couple in the title who were involved with the Paris expatriate scene of the 1920s Paris, this book features dozens of MacLeish’s letters and a great amount of background information about MacLeish and his family during that time.