Explanation for "Ars Poetica" by Archibald Macleish

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’s imagist idea of art for art's sake is expressed in the poem 'Ars Poetica'. The poem is about the art of poetry or what a poem should be. It is interesting to note that as MacLeish states what a poem should be, he illustrates it as well, in the poem by successfully using paradoxes/contradictions and images to convey the idea that good poetry uses powerful images. The poem is divided into three sections of eight lines each with four rhyming couplets.

In the first section, he insists that a poem should be 'silent', dumb' or wordless. This seems contradictory or paradoxical as a poem uses words and is not silent. However, what he intends is the imagist concept of art, namely being brief and being direct. This is achieved through using the right words and right images which appeal to the reader’s senses of touch, sight, smell, hearing and taste. To convey this he has used the image of fruit that can be tasted or directly felt without the need for words/explanations. Also 'globed fruit' indicates the universality of the senses indicating that sensual images transcend individual cultures and time. Medallions are dumb to the feel of the thumb yet the image of medallions that commemorate past events recalls to memory the emotive past. Similarly, the silent image of 'sleeve worn stone of casement ledges’ evokes the sense of touch and along with it nostalgic memories of someone waiting and looking out by the window. Finally, the image of the soundless flight of birds touches the sense of sight. There is action yet it is a silent action. So too should a poem be: it should speak silently, which means, a poem doesn’t brashly convey a message or meaning but should evoke emotion/experience and impel imagination through images/words.

In the second section, he uses the image of the moon to state that a poem should be 'motionless in time' like the moon. The moon moves but its movement can not be easily perceived. So should poetry be. This could mean that good poems transcend time since they speak of universal experience. Yet each poem is rooted in the concrete i.e. in real, particular experience. What make them universal are the images used and the emotions evoked. Again, the poet uses imagery to illustrate the point. A poem leave memories/emotions/feelings in our mind just like the rising moon. Its imperceptible, incremental movement releases with its light, twig by twig the trees entangled by darkness and with continuous rising leaves the winter behind.

The third section seems to refute the idea that art is a search for truth as echoed in Keats' line 'beauty is truth, truth beauty'. For the poet, 'a poem should be equal to: not true'. Poetry is not concerned with the generalities of truth, beauty, goodness or historical facts. On the contrary what it should do is to capture human experience like an experience of grief, or of love, or of loneliness through images. As in the other two sections he uses images to illustrate the point. He uses the images of an 'empty doorway' or 'a maple leaf' to suggest the universal experience and history of grief and the images of ‘the leaning grasses and two lights above the sea' to evoke the experience of love. The last couplet 'a poem should not mean but be' seems to re-echo the imagist principle of art for art’s sake and poetry as capturing life using precise images that achieve clarity of expression. Poetry should not try to take on great unanswerable philosophical questions or convey some meaning/message. Instead good poetry should use concrete images to capture and evoke a moment of personal experience to take in the richness of being.
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