By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Ars Poetica’ is one of the most famous poems by the American poet-librarian, Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982). A self-referential reflection on the nature of poetry, ‘Ars Poetica’ (1926) is provocative, suggestive, and – as is often the case with twentieth-century modernist poems – a piece of writing which raises as many questions as it settles. You can read ‘Ars Poetica’ here before proceeding to our analysis below.
‘Ars Poetica’ (the title is the Latin for ‘the art of poetry’) is famous for MacLeish’s concluding statement that a poem ‘should not mean / But be’. But before we reach that point, MacLeish makes a series of statements about poetry, about what else a poem should be. Let’s run through these, taking each couplet (the poem is written in couplets of irregular lengths) in turn…
MacLeish begins ‘Ars Poetica’ by stating that a poem should be palpable, something we feel we can touch. Of course, he’s speaking figuratively here, but the point is that poetry should physically leave its mark, and should affect us. But a poem should also be ‘mute’. This is paradoxical: a poem, after all, is made up of words! But what MacLeish is suggesting is that a poem should go to work on us unobtrusively: it shouldn’t shout about what it has to say. A piece of fruit doesn’t shout about its existence.
Picking up on this idea of a poem being ‘mute’, MacLeish next says that a poem should be dumb (again, wordless, silent): as dumb or voiceless as old medallions are when we touch them. Old medallions are, again, palpable, tangible, solid; but they do not speak. They don’t need to.
Again picking up on this idea of muteness/dumbness, MacLeish argues that a poem should be silent – as silent as the stone on ‘casement ledges’ (the sill of a window, but the windowsill on the outside rather than the inside of the house) where the moss has grown. Note that both the old medallions and the moss-covered casement ledges suggests something old, something that has been around for a while.
Mute, dumb, silent … now we get wordless. This is MacLeish being provocatively paradoxical! A poem comprises words, yet it should be ‘wordless’? A wordless as a flight of birds: natural, elegant, beautiful, organised. Note the internal rhyming of ‘word’ with ‘birds’ here.
Unlike the flight of birds (conveying motion), MacLeish thinks a poem should be ‘motionless in time’ as the evening comes on and the moon ascends the sky. A poem should be timeless? While the world continues on its axis, and the moon continues to rise (and set), the poem should remain as it always was.
The poem should leave the mind, one memory at a time: the poet’s mind? The poem should just fall out of the poet’s mind as they tap into their memories, the way the moon climbs and illuminates the twigs on the trees, releasing them from the night-dark they have been plunged into.
MacLeish asserts that a poem should be ‘equal to:’ (like a mathematical equation) rather than ‘true’. There’s a rejection here of vague talks of ‘truth’ (philosophical truth, moral truth?), in favour of more precise expression, which the imagists, and poets like William Carlos Williams, would probably agree with.
In the final three stanzas of ‘Ars Poetica’, MacLeish’s language becomes more and more elliptical and syncopated – more poetic, if you will, given his earlier comment about a poem being ‘palpable’ (direct, concrete). [A poem should be] an empty doorway into the history of grief throughout all of human existence, and a maple leaf (suggesting the sweetness obtained from the maple?) to make that grief more bearable.
As for describing (and helping us to understand and cope with) love, a poem should be the ‘leaning grasses’ and ‘two lights above the sea’: cryptic symbols, but ‘two lights’ suggests the two lovers and is a positive image, while the ‘leaning grasses’ suggest the swaying of grass in the wind and, by extension, the ever-changing nature of love.
We then come to MacLeish’s concluding statement that a poem ‘should not mean / But be’. A poem should enact what it wants to say, rather than merely talking about it. This obviously ties in with what MacLeish says about a poem being mute, dumb, silent, and even ‘wordless’.
But it’s worth concluding by saying that this kind of analysis – marked if not marred by speculation as it is – seems like exactly the sort of interpretation that a poem like ‘Ars Poetica’ invites us to resist. Trust the poem, trust the words on the page: forget about needing anything else.
But the limitation of such a position is that many of us read literature in order to discuss it, to ponder it, to think out loud about it. A poem can ‘be’, but no poem is an island – as another of MacLeish’s most popular and most widely discussed poems, ‘You, Andrew Marvell’ – acknowledges. But that’s a poem to be analysed (not merely to be) on another day.