| On "Ars Poetica" || Nov 12, 2002 |
In the code language of criticism when a poem is said to be about poetry
the word \"poetry\" is often used to mean: how people construct an
intelligibility out of the randomness they experience; how people choose
what they love; how people integrate loss and gain; how they distort
experience by wish and dream; how they perceive and consolidate flashes of
harmony; how they (to end a list otherwise endless) achieve what Keats
called a \"Soul or Intelligence destined to possess the sense of Identity.\"
-- Helen Vendler, poetry critic
Rather unsurprisingly, if you think about it, a number of poets have taken a
break from mirroring reality, and turned their gaze inwards, whether upon
other poets, other poems, the nature and role of the Poet, or, most
reflexively, the nature and role of Poetry.
Today\'s poem is a beautiful example. Titled Ars Poetica - \'the Art of
Poetry\' - it attempts to prescribe the nature of poetry, and - in a move
Hofstadter would have loved - does so in the form of a poem. Furthermore, it
does not seek to sidestep the possible pitfalls and inconsistencies this
approach leaves it open to - rather it meets them head on, using words like
\'mute\', \'dumb\' and \'wordless\' to set up a paradox culminating in the
wonderful last stanza, \'a poem should not mean / but be\'.
En route, the main thread is woven through with several exquisite images,
speaking to the reader even as it advocates silence, progressing even as it
advocates motionlessness. And yet, at the end, it does resolve itself into a
seamless, integrated whole, as perfectly self-contained as the globed fruit,
or the timeless, frozen stillness of a winter\'s night. The reader is free to
pick it apart, to tease meaning from the tapestry of contradictions and
images. As for the poem, it simply is.
Signi Lenea Falk
\"Ars Poetica\" has been called MacLeish\'s ultimate expression of the art-for-art\'s-sake tenet. Taken as one statement of his theory, the poem does defy the \"hair splitting analysis of modern criticism.\" Written in three units of double-line stanzas and in rhyme, it makes the point that a poem is an intimation rather than a full statement, that it should \"be motionless in time\"; that it has no relation to generalities of truth, historical fact, or love-variations, perhaps, of truth, beauty, and goodness.
Victor H. Jones
The poem, as \"Ars Poetica\" makes clear, captures a human experience, an experience of grief, or of love, or of loneliness, or of memory. Thus a poem becomes a way of knowing, of seeing, albeit through the senses, the emotions, and the imagination. MacLeish often said that the function of a poem is to trap \"Heaven and Earth in the cage of form.\"
Archibald MacLeish, who like Cummings arrived on the poetic scene after the first imagists had created the new movement, nevertheless can be credited with the poetic summing up of imagism in his \"Ars Poetica\" in 1926, written well after the imagist decade had ended. It is inconceivable that such a poem could have been written without imagism, because the technique as well as the philosophy of MacLeish\'s most famous poem is imagist. It consists of a sequence of images that are discrete but that at the same time express and exemplify the imagist principles and practice of poetry.
The Latin title is borrowed from Horace, who wrote a prose treatise in the first century A.D., the Silver Age of Rome, called \"Art of Poetry,\" advising poets among other things to be brief and to make their poems lasting. MacLeish wanted to link the classical with the modern in his poetic \"treatise\" as a way of implying that the standards of good poetry are timeless, that they do not change in essence though actual poems change from age to age and language to language. His succession of opening images are all about the enduring of poetry through time, as concrete as \"globed fruit\" or ancient coins or stone ledges, and as inspiring to see as a flight of birds or the moon rising in the sky. The statements are not only concrete but paradoxical, for it is impossible that poems should be \"mute\" or \"Dumb\" or \"Silent\" or \"wordless,\" which would mean that there was no communication in them at all; rather, what MacLeish is stating in his succession of paradoxical images is that the substance of poetry may be physical but the meaning of poetry is metaphysical: poems are not about the world of sensible objects as much as they are about invisible realities, and so the universal emotions of grief and love can be expressed in words that convey the experience in all its concreteness, yet the words reach into the visionary realm beyond experience, toward which all true images point. The final paradox, that \"A poem should not mean but be,\" is pure impossibility, but the poet insists it is nevertheless valid, because beyond the meaning of any poem is the being that it points to, which is ageless and permanent, a divine essence or spiritual reality behind all appearances. MacLeish\'s modern \"Art of Poetry\" is a fulfillment of the three rules of imagism (be direct, be brief, and use free verse), of Pound\'s definition of the image, and at the same time of Horace\'s Latin statement on poetry, that good poetry is one proof that there is a permanence in human experience that does not change but endures through time.
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