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Ars Poetica -- Archibald MacLeish

Continuing what is fast becoming a joint theme...
(Poem #188) Ars Poetica
 A poem should be palpable and mute
 As a globed fruit

 As old medallions to the thumb

 Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
 Of casement ledges where the moss has grown -

 A poem should be wordless
 As the flight of birds

 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

 A poem should be equal to:
 Not true

 For all the history of grief
 An empty doorway and a maple leaf

 For love
 The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea -

 A poem should not mean
 But be
-- Archibald MacLeish
  In the code language of criticism when a poem is said to be about poetry
  the word "poetry" is often used to mean: how people construct an
  intelligibility out of the randomness they experience; how people choose
  what they love; how people integrate loss and gain; how they distort
  experience by wish and dream; how they perceive and consolidate flashes of
  harmony; how they (to end a list otherwise endless) achieve what Keats
  called a "Soul or Intelligence destined to possess the sense of Identity."

        -- Helen Vendler, poetry critic

Rather unsurprisingly, if you think about it, a number of poets have taken a
break from mirroring reality, and turned their gaze inwards, whether upon
other poets, other poems, the nature and role of the Poet, or, most
reflexively, the nature and role of Poetry.

Today's poem is a beautiful example. Titled Ars Poetica - 'the Art of
Poetry'[1] - it attempts to prescribe the nature of poetry, and - in a move
Hofstadter would have loved - does so in the form of a poem. Furthermore, it
does not seek to sidestep the possible pitfalls and inconsistencies this
approach leaves it open to - rather it meets them head on, using words like
'mute', 'dumb' and 'wordless' to set up a paradox culminating in the
wonderful last stanza, 'a poem should not mean / but be'.

En route, the main thread is woven through with several exquisite images,
speaking to the reader even as it advocates silence, progressing even as it
advocates motionlessness. And yet, at the end, it does resolve itself into a
seamless, integrated whole, as perfectly self-contained as the globed fruit,
or the timeless, frozen stillness of a winter's night. The reader is free to
pick it apart, to tease meaning from the tapestry of contradictions and
images. As for the poem, it simply is.

[1] and not, as several overingenious students have suggested, 'poetry my
a**e' <g>


A nice serial analysis of the poem can be found at
<> - I don't agree with every
one of his points, but overall he's done a nice job.

MacLeish, Archibald

 b. May 7, 1892, Glencoe, Ill., U.S.
 d. April 20, 1982, Boston

  U.S. poet, playwright, teacher, and public official, whose concern for
  liberal democracy figured in much of his work, although his most memorable
  lyrics are of a more private nature.

There's an online biography at <[broken link]>
and another at <[broken link]>


68 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Peter Rashkin said...

"For all the history of grief"

is one of my favorite all-time lines.

Peter Rashkin

McGillicuddy Colin said...

If this is too lengthy, or too esoteric for your liking, you might try X. J.
Kennedy's "Ars Poetica" ; )

Trish Sutherland said...

Hello, I am only a junior in high school, but that poem is "The End of
the World". Just happen to be doing work on MacLeish and am specifically
explicating these 2 poems. Thanks for the input, it is a great help.

Loretta Cobb said...

Just wanted to say I'm so impressed a junior high student is doing work on McLeish. I'm an ancient, retired junior high English teacher. Good for you and your teacher.

David Saliba said...

"The armless ambidextrian"

The poem is titled: "The End of the World"


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Doug said...


Stephen Schoene said...

On the next full moon - go out and watch the moon rise through the branches of a favorite tree - the poem makes us aware of what a magical experience that can be.

Aviva Rosensweig said...

The macleish poem you are looking for is called The End of the World

The End of the World

Quite unexpectedly, as Vasserot
The armless ambidextrian was lighting
A match between his great and second toe,
And Ralph the lion was engaged in biting
The neck of Madame Sossman while the drum
Pointed, and Teeny was about to cough
In waltz-time swinging Jocko by the thumb
Quite unexpectedly the top blew off:

And there, there overhead, there, there hung over
Those thousands of white faces, those dazed eyes,
There in the starless dark, the poise, the hover,
There with vast wings across the cancelled skies,
There in the sudden blackness the black pall
Of nothing, nothing, nothing -- nothing at all.

-- Archibald MacLeish
<[broken link]>

Michael Scallan said...

I think the poem you are describing is “Constantly Risking Absurdity” by
Lawrence Ferhunghetti (my spelling of his name may be off ). He was one of
the beat poets, contemporary of Alan Ginsburg and Jack Keroac.

I hope that helped. If it is correct, it is a wonderful poem, if not, well
it is still a wonderful poem.


Mike scallan

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Eagle said...

Mackleish has set a example of producing a good poem.What is the quality of a good poem he has shown in his poem.I think he is not absolutely perfect.Actually there is no limitation about a poem.Poem should be boundaryless.

Anonymous said...

This Is Bullshit..

Anonymous said...

how is it's ryhme scheme? perfect en ryhme masculine?

kustom said...

im also a junior in high school and im doing an essay on this is this an okk into:
The poem ‘Ars poetica’ written by Archibald McLeish is an extremely inspiring poem due to the imagination and wonder; also has a highly interesting title which has a tempting meaning to it. ‘Ars Poetica’ is a Latin word meaning ‘Art of poetry’ or ‘the nature of poetry’ Archibald McLeish attempts to prescribe poetry in an imaginative way, he displays the true and honest meaning to poetry his aim is to let readers know that imagination and passion is necessary in poetry.

Natural Candida Cures said...

I decided that it was not wisdom that enabled poets to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean.

Anonymous said...

Rules of poetry and imaginations of the poet here in Ars Poetica are beyond description

Anonymous said...

What does night and winter symbolize ?

Anonymous said...

Why does the poet compare a poem to the moon?

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"The LORD will not suffer the soul of the righteous to famish: but he casteth away the substance of the wicked."


“A poem should be equal to:…
For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf”

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