Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1583
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. Rockefeller’s City (1933) and Poems, 1924-1933, reaching the culmination of such change in Public Speech (1936). MacLeish begins to speak to the essence of America and, increasingly, to her problems, both social and political. Injustice begins to matter to the poet, and when this occurs, the poems do, indeed, take on meaning. In “Burying Ground by the Ties,” the poet pays tribute to the builders of America’s railroads, the laborers poured thoughtlessly into our melting pot. His style and tone are livelier, more robust, in keeping with the pioneer heritage of a young, raw, heartless country.
It was we did it: hunkies of our kind.It was we dug the caved-in holes for the cold water:It was we built the gully spurs and the freight sidings:Who would do it but we and the Irishmen bossing us?It was all foreign-born men there were in this country:It was Scotsmen, Englishmen, Chinese, Squareheads, Austrians . . .
The poet is aware of the irony behind their labor, “the trains going over us here in the dry hollows. . . .”
In “Invocation to the Social Muse,” the poet is wavering between his earlier opinion of poetry’s function and his growing social consciousness. He says, “There is nothing worse for our trade than to be in style.” Wondering “Who recalls the address now of the Imagists?,” he seems now to wrestle with the question, “Is it just to demand of us [poets] also to bear arms?” Apparently, by the time Public Speeches appeared, MacLeish seemed to have resolved his dilemma, to have come out on the side of relevance, of the poet’s obligation “to mix in maneuvers” and thereby change the world. In “Speech to a Crowd,” the voice is strident, the message optimistic. He says, “Tell yourselves the earth is yours to take!” In America was Promises, the poet is openly critical of “The Aristocracy of Wealth and Talents.” They “bled” the people, “sold” them, and “lost” themselves in the process. In a polemical exhortation the poet says,
Listen! Brothers! Generation!Listen! You have heard these words. Believe it!Believe the promises are theirs who take them!Believe unless we take them for ourselvesOthers will take them for the use of others!
In other later poems, MacLeish continues to use poetry to change the world, maintains the public voice. In Colloquy for the States, “The Young Dead Soldiers,” “Brave New World,” “The Black Day,” “Acknowledgement,” and “Liberty,” the poet takes a position on history, on events timely and hardly universal. At times, the exhortation grows tiresome, the shocked dismay at the normal way of the world seems naïve. At times, too, MacLeish’s message seems preachy and prosaic. In Later Poems, the brief “Theory of Poetry” illustrates the poet’s flaw: he has come too far from Art and now openly scorns the contemplative intellect, the aesthetic standard which must be applied even to poetry which is very much of and in the world.
Know the world by heartOr never know it!Let the pedant stand apart—Nothing he can name will show it:Also him of intellectual art.None know itTill they know the world by heart.Take heart then, poet!
Such a poem ignores the fusion of “intellect and emotion” for which Eliot praised the metaphysical poets. It illustrates the danger of its own message, that pure feeling, the “heart” alone, will not suffice to make good poems.
But despite his public awareness, MacLeish is capable of composing exquisite and highly personal poems. This collection contains twenty-seven new poems, the most appealing of which are the lyrical, compelling “Voyage to the Moon,” and the poignant, utterly simple “The Old Gray Couple (1).” The impact of such a poem as “Hebrides” lies in its cadences, rhythms, and startling syntax. It is a deceptive poem, seeming so plain, yet reverberating endlessly in the reader’s mind along after it has been read. The old couple have seen their “children and all gone off/ over the water”; they “talk as the old will do / and they nod and they smile.” Finally, the poet’s voice intrudes, making the point, but so gently it cannot bring pain:
You can live too long in a lifewhere the sons go off and the daughteroff over sea and the wifewatches the water.
These new poems show the poet still concerned for the world. In “Long Hot Summer” he knows that “the cities are dying one by one / of the heat and the hate and the naked sun.” “Night Watch in the City of Boston” reveals a yearning for men like Emerson and Thoreau, for “New England’s prophets” who “answered thundering skies with their own thunder.” The poet is aware of death, saying in “Conway Burying Ground,” “Only the old know time. . . .” In a section entitled Three Photographs, the old man mourns the soldier brother dead in the war, reminisces about his daughter at age four with “white hair, black eyes, exquisite.”
Certain of these new poems are less successful either because substance is lacking or because the quality of the verses is uneven. One wonders what the poet has in mind in such poems as “Definitions of Old Age,” which veer perilously close to cliché and consist of infelicitous lines.
Or put it in contemporary terms: the timewhen men resign from their committees,cancel their memberships, declinethe chairmanship of the United Fund,buy a farm in Dorset or New Faneand still get up at seven every morningright on time for nothing left to do butsit and ageand look up “dying” in the yellow pages.
Such a verse disappoints, not because it is a bad poem, but because the writer of those lines is also capable, very often, of a poem “palpable and mute / As a globed fruit.”
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 25
Book World. June 20, 1976, p. L1.
Booklist. LXXIII, September 15, 1976, p. 119.
Choice. XIII, October, 1976, p. 982.
Library Journal. CI, September 15, 1976, p. 1862.
New York Times Book Review. October 3, 1976, p. 27.
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