Saturday, February 02, 2019

Archibald MacLeish: "Ars Poetica" (Imagist, Modernist)

"Ars Poetica" was first published in the journal above, and this poem is probably the best known and most critically acclaimed of all his short poems.

MacLeish's early, short poems seem to have been written to support the Imagist and Modernist view that a poem should be distinct and separate from meaning anything. This is perhaps especially characteristic of his poem "Ars Poetica," particularly of its last two lines:
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.
(MacLeish, 1926)
Reflect on this: "A poem should not mean / But be." These famous final two lines of the poem, ironically, serve to express a manifesto for Imagism or Modernism and also serve to reveal those movements' intention to remain separate from the world of discourse and their intention to set a poem apart as a type of sacred object, a thing to wonder at, not a thing with meaning awaiting explication.

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At 2:42 PM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Modernism--early 20th century modernism--seems to want to place poems (or any variety of creative articles) in the position of some kind of sacred object that we should "mindlessly venerate" in the same way that Augustine would have us privilege faith over reason. In the case of Augustine, however, he has pretty good reasons for having us do so. In Modernism, the privileged article of veneration is rather something that occupies a place in our psychologies, a sort of daemonic "fixation" that compares to consumer products, screeching rock musicians, waving flags, dubious political shibboleths, and the opinions of "important" critics and scholars.

I remember saying something like this when, strolling through the Toledo Museum of Art with my father, I met Cleanth Brooks, back when I was doing my Masters. Professor Brooks was walking with the person who was to become my mentor and one of my closest friends, Wallace Martin. As we approached, my father encouraged me to pose the question. I told Prof. Brooks that I thought that great critics were an excuse for obscure professors to share in some of that "greatness" as they repeated "great" things in the classrooms of provincial universities. He agreed to my point, but added that maybe some critics had interesting things to say.

Reflecting on the matter, I think the most important thing about the meeting is the fond memories it stirs of talking things out with my father and with Wally, and perhaps this is more to the point when it comes to understanding the purpose of discussing poetry.

At 10:57 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I like the way rhyme and alliteration transform ordinary observations into extraordinary observations, regardless of their truth value.

In short, I like beautiful lies.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 2:50 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Well, there are values, and then there are virtues...

At 10:08 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

How am I to read the word "then":

"Well, there are values, and then there are virtues..."

Do I read it temporally (sequence)? Or logically (implication)? Or differentially (contrast)?

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 9:27 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Gosh! I don't know!

But back to this:

"I like the way rhyme and alliteration transform ordinary observations into extraordinary observations, regardless of their truth value."

I agree (though I am indifferent to "truth value", both as a concept as well as what ever it might mean.)

Meanwhile, I am using ,Perrine's Sound and Sense, this semester in Intro to Lit, which is an endorsement of what has been suggested here. Actually, "Ars Poetica" is in the first chapter. The students like it--somewhat, and fair enough--but they are not as impressed with it as they are with, say, Shakespeare or John Donne. More complex language--and maybe more *truth value*, too.


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