Study Guide

Ars Poetica

Ars Poetica Summary

The poem opens with the speaker comparing a poem to a "globed fruit" that's mute and silent. He then goes on to stress the idea of a poem being "wordless as a flight of birds." It should also be motionless in time, leaving all memories of the mind behind. A poem should also avoid so-called truths. It should be without the histories and grief of mankind, but also for it. In addition, it should be "for love" and "two lights above the sea." Above all, a poem should not mean but be.

  • Section 1

    Lines 1-2

    A poem should be palpable and mute
    As a globed fruit,

    • Ah, our speaker wastes no time creating the perfect paradox of what a poem "should be." A paradox, by the way, is a device that makes words appear as if they lack sense because the idea is contradictory. But if we put the idea in context with the subject, we can kind of make sense of it. 
    • Here, since we're talking about the ever-elusive nature of poetry, we can sense what the speaker is driving at. A poem should be palpable (able to be felt), but it should also be "mute," meaning it shouldn't shout ideas and truths at us. But wait. Isn't a poem made out of words? If so, how can a poem be mute? Hmm. Therein lies the paradox… 
    • The speaker seems to be saying that we should sense the poem but we shouldn't feel as if the words are yelling at us and throwing a bunch of "meaningful" ideas at us. 
    • The simile the speaker includes in these lines compares a poem to a "globed fruit." What do we make of that? Let's start by working with the imagery of a "globed fruit." 
    • A fruit is palpable since we can hold it in our hands, right? At the same time, since it's encased in a globe, or perhaps just spherical, we can't really get inside of it either. So we're sensing the fruit without feeling bombarded by its insides. And according to the speaker, that's how a poem should read as well. 
    • So the simile here is quite poignant without being overly cliché. From the very beginning we sense the speaker not only telling us what a poem "should be," but also demonstrating his beliefs predominately through the imagery of the poem itself. 
    • And of course, the little couplet we have here that rhymes "mute" with "fruit" adds to the poem's treatise on poetry. Poems are known to rhyme, so the speaker is kind of playing with his own words and ideas here, blending the conventions of rhyme with the more modern practice of predominately relying on images rather than "truths." (For more on rhyme, check out "Form and Meter.")

    Lines 3-4

    Dumb
    As old medallions to the thumb,

    • A poem should be dumb? Huh? Aren't poems supposed to demonstrate the fancy pants of a true intellectual? 
    • Perhaps "dumb" here doesn't mean dumb in the sense of "duh." Rather the speaker appears to be pointing to the idea of a poem being mute and without any conscious effort to mean something. It shouldn't try to be smarter than the reader, or aim to deliver some higher "truth" about the world. 
    • Line 4 highlights the feeling of timelessness that a poem should also carry. The simile here that compares a poem to "old medallions" gives us a sense of the enduring quality of poetry. Long after our bones are dried up, those "old medallions" remind us of our history, where we've been, and how humanity has progressed over the years. 
    • But those medallions are also "dumb" in the sense that they're not trying to prove anything. They just exist as a relic of man's history and a reminder of others that have come before us. 
    • So we also sense a connection that all men share with the history of mankind. Hence the subsequent timelessness that a poem should also have that doesn't limit man to any one place or time. 
    • Notice too the perfect couplet we have here (rhyming "dumb" and "thumb"), just like the previous lines. Check out "Form and Meter" for more on that technique.

    Lines 5-6

    Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
    Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—

    • Ever seen a "casement ledge"? Here's one, just in case. 
    • So, just like that painting, the "sleeve-worn stone of casement ledges" means exactly that. Folks, especially before the days of Netflix, would often look out of their windows with their elbows upon the window ledge. All of the elbow action over time made the casement ledge look worn. 
    • But don't forget, the series of images we've been seeing are also part of the extended metaphor of what poems "should be." A poem should be just as "silent" as the casement ledge that's been worn over time. It shouldn't shout, "Hey, get your elbows off of me!" or anything like that. 
    • Also, if we think about a casement ledge on a window, we might also imagine a poem being a window through which to see the world. Can't really look out the window without that casement ledge, can you? By the same token, you can't really see the world without the transcendental power of art and poetry. 
    • And since we have the added image of moss in line 6, we sense the continuation of time even more. The moss grows, the ledges become worn, and a poem should likewise be just as natural and effortless as both things. 
    • We have another couplet too, rhyming "stone" and "grown." So by now we're noticing the kind of form that the speaker is sticking with. We've got three sections with two couplets in each stanza, most being in perfect rhyme. Again, don't forget to check out "Form and Meter" for more.

    Lines 7-8

    A poem should be wordless
    As the flight of birds.

    • Ah, here's that famous head scratching line. How can a poem be "wordless"? Going by what we've already seen, we understand the speaker's idea of a poem being silent in the sense of never shouting truths and meanings into our ears. In that way too, it should be "wordless" without making us feel tied to concrete ideas. 
    • So the simile we see here adds another layer to the speaker's ideas about poetry. The "flight of birds" gives the added bonus of freedom and lightness. With that image alone, we sense the speaker's emphasis in the necessity for poems to sound free and above the concrete physical world of noise and words. Check out our "Symbols, Imagery, and Wordplay" section for more. 
    • The couplet we see here isn't perfect but is rather written in slant rhyme. The ending consonance joins the S sounds in "wordless" and "birds" without sticking to the exactly rhyming patterns we've seen. There's even some internal rhyme in "word" and "bird" that jives pretty nicely. 
    • So the speaker, through the poem itself, is reminding us of the modern influence he's working with. There are the classical/perfect parts and the more modern/imperfect parts. And just like poetry is a combination of the past and present, so is the speaker's exercise in rhyme.
  • Section 2

    Lines 9-10

    A poem should be motionless in time
    As the moon climbs, 

    • Here's some more of that metaphysical vibe with all the talk of being "motionless in time." In the physical world, things are always moving and working with time. But here, the speaker is pointing to a different kind of existence that's beyond all the physical stuff. So it's metaphysical, otherworldly, and therefore more transformative in a sense. 
    • It's also timeless in a sense, considering that, if a poem is "motionless in time," we can't restrict it to a particular period or time. According to the speaker, a good poem is beyond qualification because it works in this metaphysical kind of realm that can't be held to any one place or time. It endures the passing of time. 
    • So again, we sense the necessity for a poem to be without all of the concrete physical stuff. It has to tap into those parts of our humanity that we can't really explain with concrete words but can only sense and feel. And those parts of our humanity tend to carry on from generation to generation, no matter a person's time or place. 
    • The added imagery and simile of a moon climbing in the sky also gives a sense of endurance beyond the stipulations of time. The moon has always been the moon and people have more or less always been people. And yet if we imagine a moon climbing in the sky, we might sense another paradox here since the moon can't exactly be "motionless" if it's climbing, right? 
    • If we imagine the moon climbing we also get the speaker's sense of an existence beyond the earthly physical stuff. There's a kind of magical connotation of the moon's climb as it floats effortlessly above us. And again, that's also how a poem should feel. 
    • And of course we have another perfect couplet with "time" and "climb." So the speaker is flipping back to the older conventions of perfect rhyme for us once more, keeping things balanced.

    Lines 11-12

    Leaving, as the moon releases
    Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

    • Here the speaker is elaborating on the magical/metaphysical movement of the moon. As the moon rises, it appears to move away from the earth and all of its trees, just as a poem should release the physical world too. A poem must "leave" the concrete world and climb like the moon climbs in the sky. 
    • The imagery of "night-entangled trees" also has the connotation of the earth being tangled up in itself. So the need for a poem to move beyond all the tangles is underscored even more here. 
    • And of course we have another couplet in slant rhyme again, with "releases" and "trees." Hear those E and S sounds? Don't forget to check out "Sound Check" for more on this kind of assonance and consonance.

    Lines 13-14

    Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
    Memory by memory the mind—

    • We get more of the motif of "leaving" here to emphasize the speaker's idea of poetry being beyond the physical. The repetition helps us as readers to also sense ourselves "leaving" the world of the physical for the world of the poetically metaphysical. 
    • Even memories are associated with the physical in line 14, but in this case the speaker appears to be pointing towards the idea of personal/subjective motivations. So a poem should also never be limited to personal memories. It's bigger than any one individual person. 
    • The imagery of the "moon behind winter" also adds to the sense of absence of the individual and his memories. A winter moon looks awfully bare and plain to see, as there aren't any leaves obstructing our view. Likewise a poem should be equally plain to see without any distractions of personal motivations. 
    • Notice too the parallelism we see here in line 14 compared to line 12. We have the same "thing by thing" clause recurring, which again tells us that the speaker is playing with the poem itself. He's not just talking about good poetry, he's also demonstrating the various ways in which to create a good poem through some of the devices we've seen thus far. Clever guy.

    Lines 15-16

    A poem should be motionless in time
    As the moon climbs.

    • We have a little refrain here that, just like before, is reminding us of the timelessness of good poetry. It's not moving in the present, past, or future. It resides in a place that's not subject to the limitations of time. 
    • Notice too that the speaker is playing with his poem again. The use of a refrain here gives us a sense of more conventional poetry (where refrains are pretty common) and yet the device is nestled in some freer modern stuff as well (slant rhymes, not so common imagery). 
    • So again, our clever speaker is speaking about good poetry while also demonstrating how it's done. He's also pointing out that the nature of poetry should also be about freedom and allowing it to do what it wants rather than forcing it to "mean" or "be" something. (Check out "Form and Meter" for more on refrains.)
  • Section 3

    Lines 17-18

    A poem should be equal to:
    Not true.

    • Section 3 opens with another puzzling assertion. How can something be "equal to" something that's "not true"?
    • The point the speaker seems to be making is that a poem shouldn't be about "truths" per se. A person shouldn't read it and think, "that's true!" Instead it should be beyond all of the truths we think we know in the physical world.
    • Then again, since it must be "equal to" something, we get the sense that there is a kind of truth here in the speaker's ideas. It's just not the kind of truth we can wrap up in neat little words and metaphors. Perhaps the truth is bigger (or smaller?) than all that, similar to the metaphysical kind of world the speaker has been driving at.
    • Notice too the kind of matter-of-fact/mathematical tone the speaker is using here in line 16. At first we think the speaker will indeed tell us something that a poem should be "equal to," in the sort of way we might hear in a math equation. But instead, in his awfully modern way, he tells us the opposite of what we're expecting to hear.
    • So the takeaway seems to be that a poem's truth rests in being "not true" and therefore not wrapped up in some prescribed formula. Poetry does not equal math, in other words.

    Lines 19-20

    For all the history of grief
    An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

    • The modern syntax here can be a bit confusing. But when in doubt, work with what you have. 
    • So a poem can either be "for all the history of grief" or the "for" here is being used as a conjunction in an incomplete thought. Let's get crazy and consider both. 
    • If a poem is meant to be "for all the history of grief," then we understand that a poem is indeed for the senses and emotions, since grief is a mighty common emotion. Perhaps a poem is therefore nothing more than a recording of humanity's shared histories and grievances that persist through time. 
    • Alternatively, perhaps "the history of grief" is equivalent to the imagery of "an empty doorway and a maple leaf." Whatever comes to mind in light of these images is your own understanding of "the history of grief." So maybe poetry's response to emotions and big abstract ideas is imagery and all the ideas that come along with it. 
    • Perhaps the empty doorway is a symbol that's meant to evoke ideas of transcendence into the more metaphysical world the speaker has been driving at. Maybe the "maple leaf" represents a readily present reminder of the physical world (either that, or Canada). 
    • Either way, the ideas that are present here really stand out from one another, and that may be the point. We know MacLeish likes to rely on images rather than allegories in order to relate a poem to us, and these lines are a perfect example of this technique. 
    • The connotations that come to mind based on a series of images, like this one, are indicative of our own unique humanity. And poetry, according to the speaker, should speak to that part of our humanity without all the stifling truths and such.

    Lines 21-22

    For love
    The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

    • Here we get another series of images that relate to the purpose of poetry. If a poem is "for love," then those "leaning grasses" and "two lights above the sea" should speak to us in their own way in the context of love. 
    • And just like grief, love is a highly sensual and subjective emotion. A poem that is "for love" should therefore never limit a reader in the world of the concrete and physical. After all, love can't be measured so a poem about love should likewise never be measurable in its so-called truths. 
    • Notice the not so typical kind of imagery the speaker is using here in association with love—again, very modern. He's not talking about ruby lips and flowing hair. He uses "leaning grasses" and "two lights above the sea" instead. So we can fill in the blanks for ourselves when imagining images like these. 
    • Also, we notice that we don't have a couplet here. So the speaker is again blending the modern in with the more conventional devices of poetry by having a little break in the rhyming.

    Lines 23-24

    A poem should not mean
    But be.

    • And of course we end with the real takeaway of the whole poem. Poetry shouldn't be about "meaning," but should be about "being." What's the difference? 
    • Think of it this way: meaning is like those math equations you can't stand, the "A+B= C" kind of idea. But "being" is way more natural than all that. It's freed from the concrete world of meanings, equations, and appearances. 
    • So a poem should just be—like our favorite Beatles song
    • And if we think about poetry being about life, our speaker's ideas here ring true (without being "true," of course). Life doesn't "mean" anything, so far as we know. But life exists and therefore it must "be." Deep, we know. 
    • By the end, we can really dig what the speaker is talking about in "Ars Poetica." Poems are about life, life is indefinable, so poems should likewise avoid the easy routes of seemingly digestible truths and meanings. It should "be" just as free as life itself. Likewise, we should read poetry for the experience rather than any big "meaning."