The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.”...

(The entire section is 483 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 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...

(The entire section is 437 words.)