Themes and Meanings

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Although MacLeish was originally strongly influenced by Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, he later came to believe their scholastic poetry was not relevant to society. He turned to the poets of the past, such as Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, and John Milton, as examples of how modern poets should make it their duty to participate in the social and political issues of the day.

“Ars Poetica,” however, seems more clearly influenced by MacLeish’s reverence for Chinese poetry. In Poetry and Experience, he quotes extensively from the third century Chinese poet Lu Chi and his famous poem, the Wên Fu (Essay on Literature). He asserts that “Far more than either Aristotle or Horace, Lu Chi speaks to our condition as contemporary men.” In Chinese poetry, relationship is left to be inferred from the context, from the logic of the situation. MacLeish believed that the skill of the Chinese as imagemakers in paint, ink, or words has never been equaled.

In “Ars Poetica” he tries to capture an uncomplicated and direct path to the heart. Each of the couplets can almost be seen as a separate Chinese painting, drawn quickly and masterfully with the sparest of strokes. In particular, the quirky fourth couplet stands out. Its arrhythmic, atonal lines (“A poem should be wordless/ As the flight of birds”) not only shows MacLeish’s belief that a poem transcends the words of which it is composed but also includes the image of birds in flight, one that is seen repeatedly in Chinese art and poetry. It is a strong archetypal symbol for freedom, including freedom from the common words and meanings that bind all of humankind. The fourth couplet’s break in rhythm from the previous three seems to echo this freedom.

In every word of this poem, MacLeish strives for such simplicity and passion, almost as if he were creating an extended haiku. Lu Chi writes “We poets struggle with Non-being to force it to yield Being;/ We knock upon silence for an answering music.” MacLeish elaborates on this in the following passage: “The poet’s labor is to struggle with the meaningless and silence of the world until he can force it to mean: until he can make the silence answer and the non-Being BE. It is a labor which undertakes to know the world not by exegesis or demonstration or proofs but directly, as a man knows apple in the mouth.”

It is futile to spend too much time attempting to extract meaning from a poem which has as its basic tenet the idea that a poem does not mean, but simply exists. MacLeish maintains that the art of poetry is a magic one and that the poet is a magician who extracts substance from nonsubstance. He cites often Lu Chi’s belief that the poet is one who “traps Heaven and Earth in the cage form.”

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