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Ars Poetica
Archibald MacLeish
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.

This poem by Archibald MacLeish has always been a favorite. MacLeish was born in 1892, and died in 1992 at the age of 99. He had a distinguished career as a lawyer, a poet, a playwright, and a librarian. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize three times, and I am pretty sure he is the only poet we have looked at in this series who also received a Tony award!
His poem “Ars Poetica” (“The Art of Poetry”) was first published in 1926. The title is borrowed from a classical poem by Horace. Horace’s “Ars Poetica” is not a treatise, but a poem—a letter, in verse, about the craft of poetry. It is full of famous phrases and bits of advice, like the instruction to begin the story “in medias res,” “in the middle of things.” MacLeish is using the title partly seriously, partly tongue-in-cheek: in his ars poetica, he does not tell us about the art of poetry; he shows us.
The poem is divided into three sections. Each of the three sections is like a short poem, and each begins with the words “A poem should be.”
The first section is full of paradoxes. A poem is, obviously, an art form that needs words; it is made of words. But MacLeish says a poem should be “mute,” “dumb,” “silent,” and “wordless.” He compares poetry to things – a globed fruit, an old medallion, a stone window ledge, a flight of birds. The images are not logical or obvious—and yet, they capture the sense we have that poems are more than words, that they are movement, space, feeling. A poem is made of words, but the words take us to images, and the images to things.
The second section of the poem focuses in on one image: “a poem should be motionless in time / As the moon climbs.” The imagery describes the moon rising through the bare branches of a tree. The poem moves through our memories the way the moon moves through the branches, “leaving, as the moon releases, / Twig by twig the night-entangled trees.” And yet, even as it describes the motion of the moon, the poet tells us the moon is “motionless in time.” In a poem, there is an element of time—and timelessness.
The third section begins “A poem should be equal to: / Not true.” These lines can be interpreted in various ways. Is MacLeish saying a poem is “not true”? That could be, of course—MacLeish has been showing us that poems are paradox!—but I think what MacLeish is doing is rejecting the notion that a poem should be “equal to” anything. A poem is itself. He says much the same thing, in different words, at the end of the poem: “A poem should not mean / But be.” A poem doesn’t need to talk about grief. Instead, a poem shows us “an empty doorway and a maple leaf.” A poem doesn’t need to discourse on love: instead it gives us “the leaning grasses and two lights above the sea.” A great poem is not “trying” to say something; a great poem is itself the clearest and best expression of what it is. It is not “equal to” anything else; no explanation can satisfy as much as the simple experience of the poem. That’s how MacLeish can arrive at the end of the poem and give us the most daring paradox of all: “A poem should not mean / But be.”
I love this poem because of the way it reminds us, when we are seeking understanding of a poem, to go back to the poem itself. There is much to understand in poetry, but a poem is not an idea, but an event, an experience.
For me, MacLeish’s vision of poetry relates, in an interesting way, to liturgy. Liturgy—like poetry—is full of meanings, but no explanation can be “equal to” the experience of liturgy. No talk about the sacraments can substitute for the experience of them. That is when earth and heaven meet, that is when time and eternity intersect. The sacraments are like poetry in that regard: they are not ideas, but experiences. No wonder the Catechism calls them “God’s masterpieces” (CCC, 1091). I recently came across a wonderful quotation from a liturgical theologian—“feed upon things themselves, rather than upon the explanations of things.” I think Archibald MacLeish would approve.





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