Archibald MacLeish: Ars Poetica

As with Robert Duncan’s poem, Often I Am Permitted To Return To A Meadow, we are exploring the idea of something that is but also isn’t. Duncan’s poem dealt with an ideal place, real enough for (and within) him, but possibly not a tangible, or to use MacLeish’s word in Ars Poetica, palpable (something we can touch in the universe of our senses) place. Here we shift not to the external object, but to the very form of poetry itself to show how a poem can – in fact should be. The poem is not meant to be a thing outside itself, it is the thing itself.

Our poem begins with the poet telling us what a poem should be, they are speaking with authority (we assume) to us so that we will understand what the craft of poetry (Ars Poetica) is by the end of the poem. And we do get a repetition, a framing (chiasmus) where we are told the poem is not supposed to mean the thing it describes, but rather it is the thing it describes.

How is this possible? How can something be something else? Isn’t all poetry just a way of describing some other thing? MacLeish tells us in the opening stanza a poem should be as (here’s our simile) a globed fruit. What immediately came to my mind was the image of a still-life painting, the old ones of bowls of fruit sitting on ornate tables. The painter captures what it is we desire about the fruit, but the painting is not something we can eat, it only approximates the reality while, in a way, being more real since it evokes what we desire about the fruit. Poetry, too does this by capturing the essence of the object (the fruit in this case) and letting us look at from all its possible meanings.

MacLeish takes us deeper along by appealing first to our sense of history with the old medallions image, what I took to be a connection to the epic poets of the past (think Homer) and all that those images imply. But we get another rhyme here (dumb, thumb) to remind us that it’s not necessarily the medallions that are important as dumb objects, but what they mean to us, what stories they tell, what their innate history is. This idea is strengthened with the next stanza of the casement worn down by years, or perhaps generations of people sitting at that window with their elbows wearing out the stone. We are literally shown time, shown a longing perhaps, shown a whole life watched out that window.

But time can be stopped, too. When we watch birds fly overhead we do not see a freeze-frame but rather the motion of the birds, yet here we see that snapshot in our mind’s eye of a fleeting moment which could not happen in reality but only in our imagination. We are reminded of migrations, of the seasons.

To reinforce this concept we are given the moon, motionless in time yet it still climbs. This is a paradox because how can something both move and not move? Here we have to leave (and we get a wordplay on leaves and leaving) behind the physical and explore what this means to us beyond the “dumb” literal definition of the moon and some winter trees. How does this make us feel? What is being evoked here? Coldness? Loneliness?

However, far from being just a how-to guide on poetry, we have been given poetry all along. Reinforcing our image of leaves is a single maple leaf rhymed with grief. What does this mean? Could this leaf have slipped from the pages of a book where it was to be pressed, a book owned by the woman sitting at the window where her arms rested on the casement as she watched the birds fly overhead and the moon rise up behind those bare, winter trees? Was she waiting for someone, a lover perhaps, her twin star in the sky she waited for eternally but was never united with except in poetry?

Perhaps, and yet it could mean something far different to you. But the poem does not mean, it just is.