Archibald MacLeish never truly set out to be a poet. At Yale, MacLeish was a very scholared student as well as an athlete. In his junior year, he was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa Society where he began writing poetry and short stories. This is when MacLeish knew he had the abilities for poetry. He published his works in the Yale Literary Magazine, and he won the Yale University Prize for Poetry in 1915 (MacLeish 2).
After graduation, MacLeish enrolled at Harvard Law School. According to MacLeish this is where his education truly began. While at Harvard, MacLeish went through intensive study of law. He was exposed to a lot more hard work and diversity while in law school. However, MacLeish would spend a short time at Harvard.
Due to WWI MacLeish temporarily suspended his studies and left to serve as an ambulance driver. MacLeish did not enjoy the role as an ambulance driver, so he soon transferred to active duty and became an artillery captain. While serving, his old English professors at Yale published his first volume of poetry (2). Still serving in the war MacLeish learned of his brother s death. This event inspired many of his poems (2). After the war he returned to Yale, not Harvard, to finish his law degree. He graduated class valedictorian. He taught institutional and constitutional law at Harvard for a year and then made a final decision concerning his future.
In 1923 he decided to pursue a full-time career as a poet. MacLeish associated with many of the writers who were to revolutionize twentieth-century-literature (2). People including Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound all greatly influenced MacLeish. MacLeish was a perfectionist. All of his pieces had to be perfect. MacLeish is one of his generation s most promising poets, (2). He received his first Pulitzer Prize in 1932. In 1939 MacLeish was appointed the position of the Librarian of the Congress, by President Franklin Roosevelt. He drafted the constitution for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (2).
In 1945 MacLeish retired and became a professor at Harvard and taught creative writing and literature. He then received two more Pulitzer Prizes, a Tony Award, the Bollongen Prize for Poetry, as well as an Acadamy award. MacLeish continued to write his poetry on his farm until his death in 1982.
Ars Poetica is a very unique poem to literally interrupt. The choice of metaphors and symbolism used is a unique characteristic MacLeish carries through all of his poems. Ars Poetica translates to the art of poetry. In this poem MacLeish suggests his art of poetry and how a poem should be constructed.
A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,
This meaning a poem should be able to communicate with a reader mutely (nonverbally). Literally a poem cannot communicate nonverbally because it consists of words. Contradicting our normal expectations about the scope of its subject is what Ars Poetica is all about (3). Palpable in the first line means a poem should be actual or real. You should not have to spend countless hours figuring out what this poem means. MacLeish uses mute to contradict the idea that a poem should be able to speak to its reader. A fruit is recognized globally, this is why MacLeish uses it. A poem should be able to be understood by everyone.
As old medallions on the thumb,
Onomatopoeia is the use of words to mimic their sound. Dumb and thumb do this.
Silent as the Sleeve-worn stone 5
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown-
This implies that someone, presumably the poet, has been looking in for a long time at a situation that has been there for an even longer time. MacLeish s suggestion that poems be silent is good advice to any outside observer (3).
A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds
A poem cannot be wordless. MacLeish touches this again. A poem does not have to concentrate on its own words. The same way the bird can fly.
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs, 10
Line 9 says a poem should be motionless. When the moon climbs at night it moves. So MacLeish describes as motionless but he uses a non-motionless event to describe it. Why does he do this?
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 15
As the moon climbs,
The syntax is very confusing. The moon leaves the winter behind but the location of the moon is behind the winter. In line 14 there is no verb. It is more impossible to know whether it is the memories or the mind that is leaving. In lines 15 and 16 MacLeish repeats the idea that a poem should be motionless, they also seem less confusing the second time.
A poem should be equal to:
Poetry for Students compares this to one of John Keats writings, Beauty is truth, truth beauty. Ars Poetica declared that a poem should be motionless; it would be natural for a reader familiar with the Keats poem to assume that this is MacLeish s way, like Keats, of showing how a poem can be truer. But truth is exactly the sort of intangible concept that MacLeish says that a poem should not be true (4).
For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf. 20
MacLeish uses grief as the ideas of all problems: love and death. He then expands grief to include all of history. You see the empty doorway as emptiness or lost opportunities, and the maple leaf as hope or strength.
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea-
A poem should not mean
In line 22 the idea of muteness is carried through the poem. The relationships between the concepts and their ideas are inexact (5). MacLeish lets the reader interpret this for themselves; it has a meaning but no true one.
Many critics have trouble with MacLeish. You either agree with what he tries to do or you wonder why I guy would waste his time writing useless poems. MacLeish was able to stretch the understanding of literature, by inventing new ways. Also, his style was to describe life on the basic levels of interest so everyone would understand. Intellectualism is less important because of this (David 10-11). Marissa Anne Pagattaro writes, a writer s poems should go there own way, (13). How are we able to admire a poem with dumb and mute words? But we should because this is what Ars Poetica tells us to do (David 11). Marissa speaks of how well written and thought out Ars Poetica is. She says, to use good metaphors in a poem is the key to good poetry.
MacLeish used his poetry to comment on current world events, mainly the problems. Many of his poems made people rethink situations and analyze them a lot more specifically. Ars Poetica was written because of Eliot s poems. MacLeish disagreed with the way Eliot was writing. MacLeish was a very complex but simple writer. He took human interactions turned them around and still said they were human interactions. The man was an amazing scholar, poet and athlete. Ars Poetica is truly beauty. And, Beauty is truth, truth beauty.
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