"Ars Poetica" spares no expense when it comes to blending the more classical conventions of poetry with the more modern. In the beginning it sounds mighty conventional with perfect couplets and poignant similes all about the art of poetry. Check out the first three stanzas for a refresher. But then we notice that the speaker is really doing something that's quite modern with all those paradoxes that make our heads spin: "A poem should be wordless." Does it sound as if the speaker is having a poetic identity crisis? Maybe. But then again, isn't all good poetry evidence of a perpetual identity crisis throughout mankind?
If you're nodding your head yes (or rolling your eyes no), then you've got a good handle on the sound of "Ars Poetica." It's lyrical and effortless while still managing to say something about the topic at hand. The speaker's airy and omniscient voice makes it all sound otherworldly, but he also reminds us of the need for poetry to "be" rather than "mean." And because the speaker avoids didactic allegories and "truths," we get the feeling that the poem as a whole sounds effortless and free.
The slant rhymes lend to the poem's effortless sound. Sure we've got plenty of perfect couplets, but the speaker balances the conventional stuff with the more experimental exercises in assonance ("releases" and "trees") and consonance ("wordless" and "birds"). So it's not all about sing-song rhymes and perfectly timed meters. It's more so about the speaker sounding as if he's playing with his own poem while also telling us some plain "truth" about the art of poetry. But even the truth doesn't sound so "truthful" in any textbook sense. It sounds open and free just like that "flight of birds" that lifts us out of the humdrum physical world of "words" and meanings.
We know MacLeish was responding to Horace's "Ars Poetica", written in the first century A.D. So the title we get here isn't exactly original, kind of like the countless remakes and remixes of songs and movies we have nowadays. So the title very simply relates to us the "Art of Poetry" in all its elusiveness and mystery. And since it's a topic that's been contested and written about for so many years, MacLeish makes it a point to maintain Horace's original idea of poetry being "lasting," but he also keeps things fresh for us with those modern paradoxes and slant rhymes.
So, the title pays homage to Horace while also simply stating what the poem is "about." The irony of course is that MacLeish avoids telling us what a poem should be about. Instead, he lets us know that a poem should "be" rather than "mean." So the title that points to the general art of poetry sounds just as open-ended as the poem itself. We're not meant to cage the poem in any particular meaning. And likewise the title isn't limiting us to any one meaning.
So poetry is indeed an art form that, according to MacLeish's speaker, should be open and freed from the concrete world of meanings. And that's why poetry is an "art" and not a math equation. If art tried to define the world for us, leaving no room for adjustment or change, it wouldn't really be art. It'd be a math equation instead, which would make this poem's title translate more practically into "Art of Math." And call us crazy, but that doesn't sound quite right, does it?
Where are we in "Ars Poetica"? Who knows? Suffice it to say we're in a metaphysical world of poetry, art, and the quintessential essence of what it means to "be" rather than mean. But don't get too confused that we can't really pin MacLeish's poem down to a specific time or place, and that's kind of the point.
If good poetry is timeless, then of course our speaker wouldn't look to give us any specifics. We've got a moon, a globed fruit, some birds, and a few lights above the sea, so really we could be anywhere.
Hey, so can poetry. Since the moon is visible everywhere on earth and it usually looks all groovy and otherworldly floating in the sky, we kind of feel like all of these images reflect the mystery of poetry and life. If anything, we're in the sort of poetic atmosphere that hovers over all of us and in effect unifies all of mankind, no matter a person's time or place. And good poetry should seek to do the same, according to our speaker.
So if the setting sounds as if it's all over the place, it's for a reason. And that reason is to help support the speaker's idea of poetry being motionless and timeless because it touches a part of us that can never be affected by time or space—hence the metaphysical vibe we get in "Ars Poetica."
Our speaker definitely sounds a bit otherworldly with his metaphysical vibe and unusual imagery. We can't really say much about the speaker as a person because his voice sounds deliberately impersonal with his omniscient point of view. So the details as to who he is or what he's all about don't really matter. What does matter is that he sounds like a fairy godfather of modern poetry, and we say that with the utmost respect, of course.
To be clear, we're not saying he sounds like he's straight out of a fairy tale. Far from it. But he does sound, as we mentioned, not of this world. After all, he takes us from one series of images to another in a rather fluid way that doesn't sound as if it's tied at all to our pesky physical world. His voice lifts us out of those "entangled trees" and gets us closer to that moon climbing in the sky, just like the good poetry he speaks of. So we get why he's not supposed to sound all emotional and human. He's climbing with the moon, for crying out loud!
All the "motionless in time" talk only adds to his otherworldly metaphysical voice. We're not supposed to sense what time it really is or where the speaker is. Since he emphasizes the timelessness of good poetry, we understand that the speaker himself shouldn't be limited to a time or place. Instead, he kind of floats above us while managing to (hopefully) lift us up with him into the "art of poetry."
When poets talk about poetry, you know we can't expect a leisurely walk in the park. When you've got a poet like MacLeish who's known to rely on images rather than explanations, things can get a bit tricky. But once we give it some thought, "Ars Poetica" isn't impossible to decode, especially when we're given a green light to "be" rather than "mean."
If you come across another MacLeish poem, chances are you'll feel as if you've got both feet in two separate worlds of old and new. Our man did a lot of his best writing during the first World War, and in his work you often get the sense of MacLeish trying to blend the ideal with the real. In other words, things back then looked awfully confusing and disconcerting, but MacLeish still had a drive to at least imagine a more ideal world in his poetry. And how did he often depict and talk about the ideal? In the form of art, of course.
His poems therefore tend to sound mighty metaphysical and rely on imagery more than anything else, like that in "Ars Poetica." His speakers often lift us out of the physical world and bring us into something more symbolic and transformative through those images. You might also hear a lot of talk about the soul and spirit, again sounding mighty metaphysical. Check out these MacLeish gems for a better idea: "Charity," "Soul-Sight," and "An Eternity."
Yes, it looks mighty concise with only three sections divided into four couplets for each stanza. And since most of the couplets are in perfect rhyme, we might feel compelled to dig deeper for a particular meter. After all, classical poetry was all about form and meter. Since "Ars Poetica" is a sort of homage to Horace's take on classical poetry, maybe we'd expect some dactylic hexameter or some other funky, complex metrical form.
But the assumptions stop there. In fact, we notice a few lines that may look like couplets but don't have any sort of rhyme, like lines 21-22. So MacLeish has managed to create a poem that is a kind of paradox of itself, appearing to go one way, but then juking out the reader and veering off in another direction. And since MacLeish was a modern poet, we had to expect that the guy was digging the whole free verse trend. After all, if he had written the poem with a particular form and meter in mind, how can we really take the words, "a poem should not mean but be," very seriously?
"Ars Poetica" tends to "be," really, whatever it wants to be. One minute we have perfect couplets like, "dumb" and "thumb" (3-4) and the next we have slant rhymes like "releases" and "trees" (11-12). Those slightly more imperfect rhymes remind us that this is indeed a modern poem that's not looking to drum a bunch of sing-song rhymes into our heads. Still, the more perfect rhymes appear as a sort of nod to MacLeish's predecessors who were kind of sticklers for rhyme and meter.
Then by the very end, our speaker throws in another kind of alternating rhyme between lines 21-24, rhyming "sea" in line 22 with "be" in line 24. So it's all free, doing what it wants without even abiding by the perfect couplet form the poem opens with. Overall, we get the balance of the more classical conventions of poetry with the more imperfect and freer innovations of modern poetry. And in the end, none of it really matters once we understand that a poem, no matter what, must "be" instead of "mean."
At first, the whole idea of a poem being silent and "wordless" may not make sense to us. But once we think a little more about the notion of a poem "being" without "meaning," the whole silence motif makes a bit more sense. So even though it's a kind of paradox, a poem being wordless and all, it's also kind of the big point of "Ars Poetica."
Our speaker tends to get a bit metaphysical and otherworldly on us when he talks about time. Time, as we know, is a big part of our physical/earthly lives, or temporal lives, if you will. So to be "motionless in time" gives us the impression of being above and beyond all the physical stuff. We're not slaves to the clock anymore in "Ars Poetica."
Yes, we know all of the paradoxes in "Ars Poetica" can make a guy feel like a hamster on a wheel. But we promise there's some "truth" to it all. And that truth rests not in math equations of "equaling" something, but rather it rests on forgetting about all that "meaning" stuff, and instead focusing on "being."
Poetry can be sexy, but not in "Ars Poetica." We get to climb a moon instead.