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On "Ars Poetica"

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.

From Archibald MacLeish. New York: Twayne, 1965. Copyright 1965 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.

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."

From Dictionary of Literary Biography, Copyright 1986 by the Gale Group.

William Pratt

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.

from Singing the Chaos: Madness and Wisdom in Modern Poetry. Copyright 1996 by the Curators of the University of Missouri

John Haislip

And so at the beginning of the twentieth century, English poetry was dominated by a highly rhetorical, very popular poetry exemplified by such writers as Sir Henry Newbolt, William Watson, and Alfred Noyes. The subsequent revolt against their poetry and especially the implications of its popularity led directly to a search for an antidote to the horrors of the popular poem. The antidote was the image and imagist poetry. In terms of Stead's metaphor, the imagist poet sought to distance himself from the audience and shorten the line between himself and reality with the goal of creating pure poetry.

MacLeish' s attempt at an "imagist" poem, "Ars Poetica," was written March 14, 1925, at the beginning of his serious commitment to poetry.


"Ars Poetica" has been a part of our "literary lives" for so long that it has blurred in our memory, vaguely associated with other "imagist" poems and modernist manifestos. Yet in spite of the fact that we have encountered it innumerable times in innumerable anthologies, essays, textbooks, that telling last couplet remains fresh and enigmatic: "A poem should not mean / But be." But what can one say about its particulars? And what is its significance?

"Ars Poetica," John Cage suggests, is the best piece of propaganda the imagist movement ever had. It is not an imagist poem, he says, because, first, it is almost impossible to write one, and second, it is too didactic; there is too strong a message. To this insightful remark I would add another: Scott Donaldson writes in his biography of MacLeish that "in severely compressed form," "Ars Poetica" conveys "some of the modernist aesthetic" (150). This remark comes about after Donaldson has pointed to a gloss on the poem that MacLeish wrote to Norman Holes Pearson in 1937, in which MacLeish used his notebooks to refresh his memory on his thinking at the time of the writing of the poem. Donaldson writes:

There he [MacLeish] found Fenellosa's observation that "metaphor was the very essence of poetry," but not as exegesis or demonstration. Metaphor itself was "experience." In his notebooks, too, was his reworking of Eliot's doctrine of the "objective correlative," a concrete representation that would convey emotion without involving the abstract slither of the merely personal. It would not do to gush on the page. The object of a poem was "not to recreate" the poet's emotion in someone else. . . . The poem itself is finality, an end, a creation." (150)

Outlined here are four important aspects of the modernist aesthetic. Donaldson' s astute statement of the importance of metaphor identifies this trope not as exegesis or demonstration, but experience itself. Second, he isolates the concrete as a representation of the emotion, that is, the objective correlative. Third, he insists upon the avoidance of the merely personal, the escape into the impersonal. And fourth, he understands the poem as a creation that is an end to itself. Perhaps what was buried in "Ars Poetica" in 1925, but uncovered by MacLeish himself in the letter of 1937 is what has drawn us to the poem all these years: metaphor, concretion, non-intervention, the concept of impersonality, and autotelism.

In a discussion of Williams's theory of "no ideas but in things" and MacLeish's "Ars Poetica," Howard Nemerov observed that

One of the hardest things about studying Modern Poetry is that you can write a far more coherent and plausible account from what the poets said they were doing than from their poems. This difficulty is compounded when the poems keep talking about themselves and their intentions for poetry as a whole. (154-55)

"Ars Poetica" does not do what it says should be done in the composition of a poem—largely because it is impossible to write a poem that is and only is an object to behold as a static object without meaning, without message. This is the central paradox of "Ars Poetica."

from "Archibald MacLeish: 'Ars Poetica' and other Observations." In Poetries in the Poem. Ed. Dorothy Z. Baker. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1997.

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