Study Guide

Ars Poetica

Ars Poetica Introduction

How many Archibalds do you know? We're guessing none. In the world of modern poetry, Archibald MacLeish is equally unparalleled in his poetry, blending the ideal with the real, the classical with the modern, and meaning with "being." If you're scratching your head over all these paradoxical pairings, then you're on the right track, headed for a poem that pretty much defines (without definition) modern poetry.

"Ars Poetica," first published in 1926, is MacLeish's spin on Horace's treatise (translated as "Art of Poetry"), which was written in the first century A.D. as kind of a how-to guide to writing poetry. Way before MacLeish and his modernist pals, Horace was writing about the timelessness of poetry and that poems ought to be "brief and lasting." In other words, poems shouldn't be about big "aha" moments and neat little meanings wrapped delicately in the poet's words. They should just be, rather than mean.

So, MacLeish takes some of these classical ideas about poetry and makes them his own in his version of "Ars Poetica." But since he's a modern poet, you can expect plenty of paradoxes. One minute we're hearing the speaker compare poetry to a "globed fruit" and the next he's telling us that a poem ought to be "wordless." Huh? How can you write a poem without words?

It seems the point the speaker is trying to make for us is that poetry should exist in a more metaphysical (other worldly) realm that transcends trite definitions and meanings. Poems should be allowed to move us freely through this world without holding us to concrete ideas and truths. In fact, poems should avoid so-called truths all together and bring us beyond the physical world. So, instead of relying on truths and meanings, MacLeish relies on images that help to heighten our senses and emotions without caging us in the finite world.

What we end up with is a smorgasbord of imagery that gets us thinking and feeling things without being tied to that pesky physical world. Just like the poem itself, we're allowed simply to exist, without all that bother of meaning. So relax, grab a glass of lemonade, and enjoy MacLeish's take on the ever-elusive nature of poetry.

What is Ars Poetica About and Why Should I Care?

Looking for a natural high? How about a way out of the pesky physical world without all of the deadly side effects of narcotics? Now that we have your attention, we'd like to recommend Archibald MacLeish's "Ars Poetica," sure to make you feel as if you're in a different world. The poem provides a "flight of birds" and a moon climbing in the sky that'll put you way beyond all of the boring humdrum of feet shuffling to from home to work and back again.

Plus, MacLeish's speaker isn't looking to drum a bunch of truth into your head. We know you get enough of that in school, so here's a chance to break free from all of the algebraic headaches and get to know poetry in a much more personal way. "Ars Poetica" is like a breath of fresh air in the world of poetry and life. Since all poetry is about life in one way or another, you'll notice that, even though the speaker is talking about poetry as an art form, he's also speaking from a metaphysical kind of world that is an essential part of our humanity. So we might even learn something about the ways we can escape the silly day-to-day stuff and get back in touch with the bigger-picture, metaphysical aspects of life.

Most days, it's kind of tough getting in touch with that metaphysical part of us, right? We're too busy with homework, and television, and updates on social media, thank you very much. But sometimes it's refreshing to imagine "leaning grasses and two lights above the sea" instead of worrying about the next smart phone we don't have. Sometimes it's nice to feel a bit out of ourselves in order to just experience—and appreciate—the world. Instead of checking the latest updates on our smartphones, this poem reminds us of the importance of looking around, and just enjoying the simple thrill of existence.

Sound worthwhile? It will be. So let's un-stuff ourselves for a moment and get all fourth-dimensional in MacLeish's "wordless" poem.

Ars Poetica Resources

Websites

Letter from MacLeish to Henry Morgenthau (former Secretary of the Treasury)
MacLeish gets mighty emotional but grateful over salvaging the nation's most precious documents following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

One-Stop MacLeish Shop
Here's all you could ever want to know about the poet and his most famous poems.

Video

The Moon and a Deep Voice
Check out this video interpretation of our favorite poem, sounding all deep and dreamy.

Mini Movie for "Ars Poetica"
Here's a cool interpretation made by students.

More On Imagism from Yale
Here's some background about modern poetry and the movement of Imagism that helped to inspire MacLeish's work.

Audio

Night-entangled Trees
Here's an earnest reading against a black and white photo.

Images

Bookish MacLeish
Here he is, nestled between some books from the Library of Congress.

Winter Moon Climbing
Here's a good idea of what that moon might have looked like climbing in the sky.

Articles and Interviews

The Paris Review and MacLeish
This is probably the most thorough interview with our man that you'll ever find.

Papers, Letters, and Drafts, Oh My!
The Library of Congress has it all, including some insight into our man's personal relationships.

Books

Archibald MacLeish
Grover Smith breaks it down for us and gives us some ideas about that final line in "Ars Poetica."

To the Moon: An Anthology of Lunar Poems
Like the moon? Carol Ann Duffy gives you more poems about the moon than you can handle (including our favorite, of course).

Deconstruction: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies
Don't be scared by the title. We promise there's some interesting stuff in there about all the "muteness" in poetry, particularly in "Ars Poetica."