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Sunday, June 3, 2012

Ars Poetica by Archibald Macleish summary and analysis

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.


“Ars Poetica” has been called MacLeish’s ultimate expression of the art-for-art’s-sake
tenet. Taken as one statement of his theory, the poem does defy the “hair splitting
analysis of modern criticism.” Written in three units of double-line stanzas and in
rhyme, it makes the point that a poem is an intimation rather than a full statement, that
it should “be motionless in time”; that it has no relation to generalities of truth,
historical fact, or love-variations, perhaps, of truth, beauty, and goodness.
Signi Lenea Falk. From Archibald MacLeish
The poem, as “Ars Poetica” makes clear, captures a human experience, an experience
of grief, or of love, or of loneliness, or of memory. Thus a poem becomes a way of
knowing, of seeing, albeit through the senses, the emotions, and the imagination.
MacLeish often said that the function of a poem is to trap “Heaven and Earth in the
cage of form.”
Victor H. Jones. From Dictionary of Literary Biography
Archibald MacLeish, who like Cummings arrived on the poetic scene after the first
imagists had created the new movement, nevertheless can be credited with the poetic
summing up of imagism in his “Ars Poetica” in 1926, written well after the imagist
decade had ended. It is inconceivable that such a poem could have been written
without imagism, because the technique as well as the philosophy of MacLeish’s most
famous poem is imagist. It consists of a sequence of images that are discrete but that at
the same time express and exemplify the imagist principles and practice of poetry.
The Latin title is borrowed from Horace, who wrote a prose treatise in the first
century A.D., the Silver Age of Rome, called “Art of Poetry,” advising poets among
other things to be brief and to make their poems lasting. MacLeish wanted to link the
classical with the modern in his poetic “treatise” as a way of implying that the
standards of good poetry are timeless, that they do not change in essence though actual
poems change from age to age and language to language. His succession of opening
images are all about the enduring of poetry through time, as concrete as “globed fruit”
or ancient coins or stone ledges, and as inspiring to see as a flight of birds or the moon
rising in the sky. The statements are not only concrete but paradoxical, for it is
impossible that poems should be “mute” or “Dumb” or “Silent” or “wordless,” which
would mean that there was no communication in them at all; rather, what MacLeish is
stating in his succession of paradoxical images is that the substance of poetry may be
physical but the meaning of poetry is metaphysical: poems are not about the world of
sensible objects as much as they are about invisible realities, and so the universal
emotions of grief and love can be expressed in words that convey the experience in all
its concreteness, yet the words reach into the visionary realm beyond experience,
toward which all true images point. The final paradox, that “A poem should not mean
but be,” is pure impossibility, but the poet insists it is nevertheless valid, because
beyond the meaning of any poem is the being that it points to, which is ageless and
permanent, a divine essence or spiritual reality behind all appearances. MacLeish’s
modern “Art of Poetry” is a fulfillment of the three rules of imagism (be direct, be brief,
and use free verse), of Pound’s definition of the image, and at the same time of
Horace’s Latin statement on poetry, that good poetry is one proof that there is a
permanence in human experience that does not change but endures through time.
William Pratt. From Singing the Chaos: Madness and Wisdom in Modern Poetry

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 art. 

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:

A..PO..|..em SHOULD..| PAL..||..and..MUTE


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. 

.Ars Poetica 
By Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982)
A poem should be palpable and mute1 
Like a globed2 fruit,
As old medallions3 to 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: 
Not true.8

For all the history of grief 
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.9

For love 
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 suggest.
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? 
2....Write a 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 particular meaning?  
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.

Something More Analysis

The post says that a poem should not vanish; if fact, it should be like the moon that is shown all the time and never disappear.And a good poem should not be understood in all parts. Just like moon above the twigs of a tree can not be completely visible below a tree. Beside, the a good poem should be unforgettable for the reader; that is. it must be mixer melt inside the mind like memories. THAT IS MY SUPPOSITION; 

| Posted on 2011-12-30 | by a guest

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Khelellaine Mohammed: The stanza in this poem, means that a poem should be alive throughout time. The poet uses motionless in time as the moon climbes, if we carefully analayse this verse, we are going to detect a sort of paradox, for he resembels a the poem, as a fixed and firmed thing to another thing moving, which the moon. that is to say, the moon always exists and climbes in the sky when it shows up.all in all, he insinuates that a poem should be immotal if i may say so

| Posted on 2011-03-30 | by a guest

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\"Ars poetica\" by MacLeish is somewhat describing a poem and love.trying to connect the two into one meaning.

| Posted on 2010-09-02 | by a guest

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\"Ars poetica\" by MacLeish is somewhat describing a poem and love.trying to connect the two into one meaning.

| Posted on 2010-09-02 | by a guest

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I personally feel like this poem embodies the free spirt of peotry, and that it is much more simple to write a peom, than most people think.

| Posted on 2010-08-24 | by a guest

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What Macleish is trying to apply in the first stanza a poem should be palpable and mute like a globed fruit it means that a poem should be universal.

| Posted on 2010-06-30 | by a guest

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MacLeish suggests that the existence of a poem is prior to the meaning that may be ascribed to it. Cliches are just well-worn metaphors that become images of thought: Poetry injects life into stale metaphors as a disruption to reveal the extraordinary in the ordinary. 

| Posted on 2010-05-20 | by a guest

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MacLeish suggests, through this poem, that poetry is much more simple than it's thought to be. He explains how a poem should be just as "palpable and mute" as fruit. He also says poetry should be wordless, and that the "ars poetica," or, nature of poetry, is dumb and silent.
MacLeish also posits that poetry is something no more interesting than a regular object of reality, and that it is more of an image to be witnessed than an object of interpretation for a project. During the entire second and first stanzas, he compares what poetry should be to regular objects and actions, also implying that poetry stands as more of a modification of reality, not an extravagant distortion of it.

| Posted on 2010-03-21 | by a guest

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MacLeish says that the poem should express its meaning implicitly rather than putting it in explicit sentences. The essence of the poem lies in the imagery it uses. For instance, he says, "grief" can be depicted by images of 'empty doorway' or 'maple leaf'.
Also the essence should not fade away with the passage of time i.e. the central idea of the poem should be relevant forever. 
The beauty of the poem is that all what is described as 'the art of poetry' is very effectively implemented in the poem itself.
Ars poetica contains many similes and images that contribute to its essence.

| Posted on 2008-04-20 | by a guest

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