New & Collected Poems, 1917-1976
With his New & Collected Poems, Archibald MacLeish has capped a long career as one of America’s finest poets and shown that he continues to address himself both to the world at large and to the inner man. This work, spanning fifty-nine years from 1917 to 1976, is a record of history-making events, of the purpose and function of poetry, and of the personal, intimate search for meaning which occurs in everyone’s life, but which the poet alone is capable of expressing.
MacLeish, onetime lawyer, editor of Fortune, executive director of the Library of Congress, and Harvard professor, has made a significant contribution to the world of letters and influenced the shape and direction of poetry. Three times he has won the Pulitzer Prize. Conquistador (1932), which traces the journeys of Cortés, based on Bernál Díaz’ True History of the Conquest of Spain, earned him the Prize, and is included in this book. For his Collected Poems, 1917-1952 he won not only the Pulitzer Prize, but also the Bollingen Prize and the National Book Award. Finally, at the age of sixty-six, he captured the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for his highly successful play, J.B., a modernization of the story of Job.
But what distinguishes MacLeish perhaps more than this succession of honors is his boldness, his willingness to defy even his own notions of what poetry should be. Readers of this work will detect the stunning about-face the poet underwent from the philosophy expressed in his 1926 Streets in the Moon to the outward-turning, socially aware poetic voice in Public Speech, which was published in 1936 and which marked a change in the poet’s approach. “Ars Poetica,” probably the most anthologized of MacLeish’s poems, reflects the early influence of the Imagists, of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. MacLeish met many of the criteria of the Imagist poets in those early years. The first of these, that a poem is primarily a work of art with no relation to anything but itself, is best expressed in those frequently quoted lines from “Ars poetica,” that “A poem should not mean / But be.” MacLeish took, and still takes, special care with intricate rhythms; he seems, too, to be trying to create a specific image and to be aiming for variety in subject matter. Some of the poems from New Found Land, which appear in this work and were first published in 1930, seem best to illustrate the immediacy, the clear recording by the poet’s careful eye. “Cinema of a Man” is precisely what its name implies, a series of pictures, full of photographic detail, which move from place to place and yet, paradoxically, stay inexorably the same. The man is filmed in “the rue St. Jacques at the iron table,” “by the canal,” “in the light of the full moon,” “with Ernest in the streets of Saragossa.” The poem, lovely for its description, ultimately goes nowhere in the sense of a climax or a change. And yet its conclusion rises to symbol, juxtaposed as it is against a vision of Chicago:
Those are the cranes above the Karun RiverThey fly across the night their wings go overThey cross Orion and the south star of the WainA wave has broken in the sea beyond the coast of Spain.
Suddenly it seems that these separate moments in time fuse into a solidified and impenetrable unity. “You, Andrew Marvell,” another frequently anthologized poem, is equally as inscrutable, as hard and gleaming as “Cinema of a Man.” Such poems concern themselves with capturing a moment and shaping it into an object made for Art’s sake alone.
Hints of the change in MacLeish’s view of poetry begin to emerge in poems from Frescoes for Mr....
(The entire section is 1583 words.)