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Analyzing and Paraphrasing Archibald MacLeish's "Ars Poetica"


In Archibald MacLeish's "Ars Poetica," the poet uses similes and paradoxes to convey his beliefs about poetry. Similes make the poem appear "dumb," "motionless," and "equal," aligning with MacLeish’s idea that poetry should be simple and static. Paradoxes, such as a "mute" or "wordless" poem, suggest that poetry should communicate subtly and indirectly, focusing on implication rather than explicit meaning.

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How do the similes in Archibald MacLeish's "Ars Poetica" contribute to the poem's meaning?

A simile is a compassion between two supposedly unlike things, making an explicit comparison via the words “like” and “as.”

By including multiple similes in “Ars Poetica,” Archibald MacLeish is possibly putting his theories about poetry into practice. In the poem, MacLeish expresses his belief that a poem needn’t be a hyper intellectual creation that’s nearly impossible to grasp. According to “Ars Poetica,” a poem should be “dumb,” “motionless,” and “equal.”

The use of similes might reinforce the “dumb” quality that MacLeish want for his poems. Similes tend to be thought as more simplistic and elementary than other poetic devices, including the aforementioned metaphor.

Furthermore, similes could help convey the “motionless” meaning of MacLeish’s poem because similes can be thought of as stills. Unlike metaphors, similes tend to be less active. A simile typically provides a motionless picture of two things not a sequence of events.

Finally, similes support the “equal” meaning because similes have a way of making these two unlike things seem like one another—as if they’re on equal footing. For example, MacLeish writes: “A poem should be wordless / As the flight of birds.” With this couplet, the simile brings the poem and the birds together. It turns them into equals.

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How can the poem "Ars Poetica" by Archibald MacLeish be paraphrased?

In Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica,” the first of numerous paradoxes appears at once, when the speaker declares that

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit . . .

A poem, that is, should have an almost physical weight and presence. It should have an almost perfectly symmetrical shape and structure, seeming perfect when viewed from any perspective. Yet the idea of a "mute" poem seems paradoxical. Perhaps the speaker implies that a poem should be subtle and should communicate by showing rather than by telling. Rather than openly stating some simple, overt meaning, a poem should communicate indirectly, by suggesting.

Paradox continues in lines 3-4, where the speaker declares that a poem should be

As old medallions to the thumb . . .

Here again we are invited to wonder how a poem can be “Dumb” (that is, silent), but line 4 suggests once more that a poem should have an almost physical presence, so that it is not so much heard as felt.  The paradox is emphasized one more time in lines 5-6, which suggest that a poem should be

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone 
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown --  . . .

Again, the paradox of silent poetry is suggested, but once more the second line of the pair suggests that that poetry should be almost tactile in its effects: it should communicate almost as much through touch as through words.  By using image after image to suggest his meaning, the speaker in a sense exemplifies the very de-emphasis on bald, blatant statement that he seems to advocate. Rather than telling us precisely what a poem should be and how it should function, the speaker merely suggests meanings, merely implies them, encouraging readers to interpret his meanings rather than plainly and openly stating them himself.

The poem itself, therefore, conveys some of the mystery it celebrates.  Lines 7-8 complete the first section, leaving us with one more vivid image and one more paradox (the idea of a “wordless” poem).

Paradoxes again dominate the second section. If section 1 had extolled poetry that was somehow silent and wordless, section 2 celebrates poetry that is somehow motionless and yet still moving. Here, though, the paradox is less puzzling: everyone knows that the moon seems to move, yet everyone also knows that the moon seems stationary at any given moment. The moon seems to move so slowly that its apparent movement seems almost imperceptible. A poem, the speaker suggests, should likewise be so subtle, so understated, that its effects should be neither obvious nor overt. They should creep up on us, as the moon seems to do. Just as the moon seems to move, ever-so-slowly, behind a tree, so should a poem achieve its effects just as subtly, indirectly, and elusively.

Finally, in the third section, the speaker suggests once more that a poem should work through indirection and implication rather than through overt and blatant statement. It should communicate through symbolism, not through plain, simple declaration. Thus, the whole “history of grief” can be suggested and symbolized by “An empty doorway and a maple leaf” (19-20), just as love can also be suggested symbolically (21-22). A poem, the speaker finally (and somewhat paradoxically) declares,

should not mean
But be.  (23-24)

In other words, it should almost seem an object rather than a statement, almost a thing itself rather than a merely simple thought.

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How can the poem "Ars Poetica" by Archibald MacLeish be paraphrased?

Ars Poetica, or The Art of Poetry, was a book written by Homer in 18BC. This title has been used repeatedly, or referred to repeatedly, over time. Homer's book referred to many different ideas surrounding the writing of poetry. Outside of Homer's book of poetry, Archibald MacLeish wrote a poem named "Ars Poetica" in 1926 (many, many years after the original).

MacLeish's poem is not nearly as complicated as Homer's poetic ideology (naming of poetic methods such as "in media res" (later adapted by the writers of epic poems such as Beowulf), "bonus dormitat Homerus" (which refers to the fact that all poets, even the skilled ones, can err in their poetry), and "ut pictura poesis"(which described the careful attention to poetry--the same as great artists used in sculptures and paintings)).

That being said, MacLeish's poem is just as importantly a work of art. The poem begins "in media res," or "in the middle of things." It starts describing what a poem should be without leading up to what a poem is.

Secondly, the poem brings up the ugliness of a poem. By using words such as "dumb," "old," and "moss," the poem does not necessarily paint a beautiful picture of poetry. Here, MacLeish is noting the "bonus dormitat Homerus," or the errors in poetry.

Lastly, MacLeish details throughout the poem the images which can be associated with all poetry. By doing this, he is noting the "ut pictura poesis," or the detail with which poets need to pay attention to their works.

In the end, MacLeish uses Homer's idea of poetry (the nature of poetry) to create a poem in its own right.

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What is a good paraphrase for "Ars Poetica" by Archibald MacLeish?

“Ars Poetica” is a term that means the art of poetry or the nature of poetry. The art of poetry refers to what makes poetry different from other types of writing. The nature of poetry refers to the ways poetry is different from prose in its expression of meaning. Since Ars Poetica is about how poetry works, an Ars Poetica poem is a poem about poetry. This would be like writing a song about a song or writing a book about writing.

Archibald MacLeish’s poem, aptly titled “Ars Poetica,” is an example of an Ars Poetica poem because it is his poetic description of what a poem should be. He notes that a poem should transcend its words (“be wordless”). The poem ends with the often quoted:

A poem should not mean

But be.

In transcending words, and being silent and free as a flight of birds, MacLeish’s view is that a poem is equal to a natural, meaningful event or image; not just a representation of  words and phrase.

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What is the poem saying in "Ars Poetica" by Archibald MacLeish?

Archibald MacLeish's poem, "Ars Poetica" is about the art of poetry.  In it MacLeish leans heavily toward the idea of concrete imagery.  Each of the 12 couplets that comprise this poem give a simple, concrete definition of poetry that pit images against common things such as stone worn down by many people (sleeves) having rubbed against it or an open, abandoned doorway littered with fallen leaves.  The idea is that these images are clear in the mind of the reader, as clear as they were in the mind of the poet, thus the poetry has succeeded in giving the reader the same feelings the poet had when he wrote the poem.  MacLeish feels that a poem's job is to do just that - recreate in the mind of the reader the same image the poet had as he created the poem.  In that regard the poem could be viewed as an instruction on how to write a poem.

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