The Poem

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“Ars Poetica” is a short poem in free verse, its twenty-four lines divided into three stanzas of four couplets each. The Latin title may be translated as “art of poetry,” “art of poetics,” or “poetic art.” Using the poetic form, the author attempts to portray his concept of the “art of poetry.” For this reason, “Ars Poetica” is often used as an example of what (and how) a poem “should be.”

The poem uses loosely rhymed couplets to project the author’s powerful images. A dash follows every third couplet, emphasizing the importance of the fourth couplet in summing up the stanza. In the beginning, MacLeish draws the reader in with three couplets that compare a poem to various physical objects and which seem perfect in both word and cadence. These similes appear to illustrate the author’s belief that a poem must be silent in its clarity, transcending words themselves. In the final couplet of the first stanza, he repeats the phrase “A poem should be.” While the first six lines describe objects in repose, the last couplet both ties together and climaxes the building images by sending the reader upward in the rush of birds taking to the sky.

In the second stanza, the poem becomes more specific, using the stark image of branches silhouetted against a moon to denote the eternal quality of a poem. MacLeish repeats the first couplet in the last two lines: “A poem should be motionless in time/ As the moon climbs.” Though the juxtaposition of a climbing moon with the assertion of motionlessness seems contradictory, the middle two couplets explain his thinking. The second couplet likens the hypothetical poem to the twigs that, once impressed on the mind in their vision of black “night-entangled trees” against the bright moon, remain fixed there as the moon moves. In the third couplet MacLeish becomes even more specific, asking the reader to recall the memories brought to mind by such an image and to compare them to a poem that is as firmly anchored in time as those memories.

The poem’s third stanza departs from the previous two in its tone as MacLeish becomes bolder in his assertion of what a poem “should be.” In the middle two couplets, he takes the reader on a journey through all of humankind’s strife and love with only a few strokes of his metaphorical pen. Yet in his first and last couplets, he abandons image and states precisely his feelings about the art of poetry. The final two lines, “A poem should not mean/ But be,” are brief and to the point, having an almost Zenlike quality to them. The words bring the reader to a place of simple rest after an emotive passage through the more esoteric images of the poem. These last two lines of “Ars Poetica” are famous and are often quoted in books on poetry.

Forms and Devices

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In a sense, “Ars Poetica” must be in its entirety a metaphor for poetry itself; when it is pulled apart piece by piece, one can see the clever construction that pushes the reader along to an inevitable conclusion. As MacLeish wrote in his Poetry and Experience (1960), “If the fragments of experience are in truth parts of a whole, and if the relation of the parts to each other and thus to the whole can in truth be seen, sensed, felt in the fragments themselves, then there is meaning in that seeing, in that sensing, in that feeling—extraordinary meaning.”

The best poetry needs only a few words to engage readers’ imaginations and to make them participants in...

(This entire section contains 437 words.)

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the poem’s creation. In “Ars Poetica” MacLeish employs similes to evoke the reader’s senses. The couplet “A poem should be palpable and mute/ As a globed fruit” allows the reader to imagine the fruit—perhaps an apple lying on a bench in the late afternoon sun. It is beautiful yet silent. The next two lines employ the sense of touch. It is easy to conjure up the feeling of rubbing a metal medallion, noting its worn ridges and wondering about its history. Again, in the third couplet, the reader relates to the person suggested by “the sleeve-worn stone.” Someone (or perhaps generations of people) has leaned for long hours on the window ledge, waiting, perhaps hoping for a lover or watching anxiously for a child. With similes such as this, the reader is able to fill in the spaces, to embroider the words with his or her own experiences, thus creating a poem unique with each reading.

Note, too, the careful placing of words to make rolling, alliterative sounds: “palpable,” “mute,” “globed,” “fruit.” In the second couplet, the words “dumb,” “old,” “medallions,” and “thumb” carry the reader along, as do the phrases in the third couplet. In the second stanza, the similes employ repetitive sounds. The first and last couplets seem almost to murmur with their preponderance of soft words using the letter m. In the second couplet, the line “Twig by twig the night-entangled trees” uses the harsher t sound to portray a certain amount of conflict.

In the last stanza metaphor takes center stage. An empty doorway and a maple leaf symbolize “all the history of grief.” More obscure, perhaps, is the line “The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea,” denoting love. Again, the reader must fill in his or her own experience. As Robert Frost said, “Poetry begins in metaphor, in trivial metaphors, and goes on to the profoundest thinking that we have.”