Study Guide

Ars Poetica Themes

  • Art and Culture

    Of course "Ars Poetica" (Art of Poetry) is about art. What were you expecting it to be about? The life cycle of the mealworm? But it's also about how to experience art and, in some ways, life in general. For a moment we get to feel out of ourselves, no matter if the speaker is talking about poetry or birds flying in the sky. Any way you cut it, we get to go beyond the physical world and explore the metaphysical world of art and poetry.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. What is the most important point the speaker appears to make about art and poetry? Can we even call it a "point"? Why or why not?
    2. How does the speaker use literary devices to help demonstrate the "art of poetry"? Are the devices effective? Why or why not?
    3. How does the poem appear to be a balance of conventional poetry and modern poetry? Why couldn't MacLeish just stick with one or the other?
    4. Do you think poetry can ever just "be"? Is it really possible for a poem to be meaningful without giving us any "meanings"? Why do you think so?

    Chew on This

    Bottom line: poetry is about life. In MacLeish's poem, then, poetry must therefore resist defining something as indefinable as life.

    Relax, everybody. Art and poetry shouldn't try so hard to prove something; rather, it should be just as free as life itself.

  • Versions of Reality

    It's a modern poem, so you know "Ars Poetica" is likely going to delve into the tricky world of reality and our frequent, but futile, attempts to define the world around us. And yet, MacLeish keeps things relatively simple for us here. Reality, in his poem, is about "being" rather than "meaning." So put away that calculator and dust off your imagination already.

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. Can we really pin down a particular "reality" in the poem? If not, what does that say about the poem's theme of versions of reality?
    2. What's the significance of time in the poem? How does time relate to the poem's theme of versions of reality?
    3. What's the deal with the "history of grief"? Does "history," in this sense, provide an accurate depiction of reality? Explain.
    4. How do the different sets of imagery contribute to the poem's emphasis on versions of reality? Do we feel as if we're dipping in and out of different realities?

    Chew on This

    Reality, in MacLeish's poem, is a matter of perspective and "being," rather than a concrete depiction of the world around us. Trippy, we know.

    Time for a cliché: a picture says a thousand words. If we're going to try to define reality in MacLeish's poem, it makes sense to do so via imagery, rather than so-called "truths."

  • Language and Communication

    Even though a poem should be "wordless," according to our speaker, "Ars Poetica" still has words in it. (We went back and checked, just to be sure.) And since the speaker is talking about poetry and the ideas a poem might communicate, it's safe to say that we have some questions floating around concerning language and communication.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. How should a poem communicate the world to us? Is language always such a bad thing in MacLeish's poem?
    2. Is it really possible for a poem to be "palpable and mute" at the same time?
    3. What's the relationship between language and truth in the poem? Can language ever really communicate "truths" about the world and life?
    4. If a poem should be "wordless," how can we expect to understand what a poem is about? What should we rely on instead of words and explanations?

    Chew on This

    Language is a tricky thing when it comes to good poetry; it should make us feel something but it shouldn't scream at us at the same time. AT THE VERY LEAST AVOID ALL CAPS.

    Words can never really communicate truths to us, whether in poetry or anywhere else, but they can make us feel "truth" as we perceive it. Far out.