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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings..© 2008
Type of Work and Year Written
"Ars Poetica" (Latin for "The Art of Poetry") is a lyric poem of twenty-four lines. It describes the qualities a poem should have if it is to stand as a work of art. MacLeish wrote it in 1925 and published it in 1926.
The central theme of "Ars Poetica" is that a poem should captivate the reader with the same allure of a masterly painting or sculpture—that is, it should be so stunning in the subtlety and grace of its imagery that it should not have to explain itself or convey an obvious meaning. Oddly, though, in writing that a poem "should not mean / But be,"
Archibald MacLeish conveys naked meaning, namely: Here is how you should write a poem. In other words, in "Ars Poetica," we are privileged to behold the strange phenomenon of didacticism in the guise of ars gratia artis. Nevertheless, "Ars Poetica" is a wonderful poem that speaks
with the quiet eloquence of Rodin's Thinker and da Vinci's Mona Lisa.
Structure and Content
MacLeish divides the poem into three eight-line sections, each explaining what a
poem "should be." The first section compares a poem to familiar sights: a fruit, old medallions, the stone ledge of a casement window, and a flight of birds. The second section compares a poem to the moon. If a poem has universality, it can move from one moment to the next, or from one age to another, while its relevance remains fixed ("motionless," line 9). Thus, like the moon traveling across
the sky, a good poem seems to stand still at any given moment—as if it were meant for that moment. Its content remains fresh and alive to each reader down through the years, down through the centuries. The third section states that a poem should just "be," like a painting on a wall or a sculpture on a pedestal. It is not a disquisition or a puzzle, but a mood, a feeling, a sentiment—a work of
Figures of Speech
Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem:
Simile: Lines 1-8 use like or as to compare a poem to a globed fruit, old medallions, the stone of casement ledges, and a flight of birds.
Alliteration: Line 5 repeats the s sound.
(Silent as the sleeve-worn stone.)
Paradox: Lines 9-16 suggest that a poem should be motionless, like a climbing moon. Obviously, climbing indicates motion. However, the figure
of speech is apt: A climbing moon appears motionless when it is observed at any given moment.
Metaphor: Lines 9-16 compare the "motionless" poem by implication to universality, the property of a literary work that makes it relevant for people of all ages and cultures. (See
"Structure and Content" for further comment.
Metaphor: Line 12 compares night to an object that can snare or capture.
Repetend (Anaphora): The phrase a poem
should be occurs five times in the poem.
Rhyme and Meter
Couplets (rhyming pairs of lines) occur throughout the poem except in lines 7 and 8, 13 and 14, and 21 and 22. The feet are mostly iambic, and the meter varies. (An iambic foot consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, as in line 1:
MacLeish derived inspiration for "Ars Poetica" from a book of epistles by the ancient Roman poet Horace (65-8 B.C.). Originally entitled Epistle to the Pisos, the book later came to be known as Ars Poetica. It offers advice to young poets.
By Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982)
A poem should be palpable and mute1
Like a globed2fruit,
As old medallions3to the thumb,
Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown4—
A poem should be wordless
Like a flight of birds.5............................ 8
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,6
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.7............................ 16
A poem should be equal to:
For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.9
The leaning grasses and the two lights above the sea—10
A poem should not mean
But be........................................../...... 24
- Line 1—as well as lines 3, 5, and 7—focus on inarticulation: A poem should be . . . mute . . . dumb . . . silent . . . wordless. Here. MacLeish seems to be saying that a poem should not crassly announce what it is about. Rather, like the smell of spices wafting from a restaurant, it should merely
- Use of globed rather than round enhances euphony while also suggesting largeness. Perhaps the object is a melon or grapefruit
- Medallions are large medals. The adjective old suggests that the medallions have stories behind them—about war or athletic accomplishments, for example.
- One can imagine here a man or woman from a time past propping sleeved arms or elbows on a ledge while he or she looks out the window on a scene of interest. If the stone ledge could speak, what tale would it tell about the observer and the observed?
- The "wordless birds" can only suggest what occupies them by the direction of their flight or, in the case of vultures, their circular motion.
- If a poem has universality and timelessness, it can move from one moment to the next, or from one age to another, while its relevance remains fixed ("motionless"). Thus, like the moon traveling across the sky, a good poem seems to stand still at any given moment—as if it were meant for that moment. Its content remains fresh and alive to each reader
down through the years, down through the centuries.
- Lines 15 and 16 repeat lines 9 and 10, creating a frame for the imagery in lines 11-14.
- A poem is not a newspaper account, an essay, or a historical document. It is a work of the imagination; it discovers truth by presenting impressions and interpretations, not hard facts.
- A poem can concentrate an entire story into an image. Here, the empty doorway suggests the absence of a person who once stood in it—a mother, for example, as she greets a son or daughter. But now the mother is gone, and the gloom of autumn (suggested by the fallen leaf) has replaced the bright cheer of summer.
- Here is one interpretation: After death separated two lovers, the cemetery grass grew tall and now leans against a tombstone. Like the two lights in the sky, the sun and the moon, the two lovers will remain forever apart.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
1....Do you agree with MacLeish's views on what a poem should be?
short poem that follows the principles of MacLeish.
2....Should the language of good poetry be clear and direct, requiring no interpretation, or remain mostly ambiguous and merely suggestive of a
3....Most song genres today—rock, heavy metal, country, blues, etc.—use poetry to convey a message. Select a song with lyrics that you believe are good enough to stand
alone as a worthy poem. Explain what makes the lyrics good.
4....Write an essay that elaborates on the last two lines of MacLeish's poem.
5....Write an essay that interprets lines 9-12.
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