Tuesday, June 06, 2006

"Ars Poetica"

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

As old medallions to the thumb,

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

A poem should be wordless
Like a flight of birds.


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

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

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

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


A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

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

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

A poem should not mean
But be.

By Archibald MacLeish

I read this poem recently and it made me pause and wonder a little about what poetry is. Archibald MacLeish wrote this poem in 1926 as a kind of poetic creed of what he thinks poetry is. The title “Ars poetica” is Latin for the art of poetry, taken from a poetic treatise by the Roman poet Horace during 1A.D. describing the necessity of poetry to be brief and lasting.

Indeed, this poem appears very simple, yet seems to speak of something profound, as it strings abstract ideas and images together in a series of statements about poetry. The first part describes poetry as being “palpable”, something that can be strangely enough, physically touched and felt, just like the surface texture of a fruit in one’s hand, like the engravings of old medallions with one’s thumb; yet is paradoxically “mute” and “Dumb”. How can a poem be “mute” and “dumb” when one of chief pleasures of poetry is found in the aural delight of reading it?

It seems even more absurd when a poem is said to be “wordless”, and of all things, is compared to the flight of birds. The second part goes along in a similar vein, where the poem is described as being static in both time and space, even while the moon through its revolving motion around our earth “climbs” through the sky.

How does one make sense of all these seemingly paradoxical ideas? Well, take some time, the whole afternoon or day(s) if you need to, and linger a while with this poem, and slowly let the images and ideas sink in. Don’t rush, everything will come together gradually. *wink*

Share with me what you think...:)

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Blogger bibliobibuli said...

this one i'm still pondering ... will come back and post when i've pondered some more

11:12 PM, June 08, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

paradoxical? - it certainly overturns expectations! maybe this is what a poem should do anyway?

"palpable" {lovely word, the sound of of it almost fruity itself on the tongue)and "mute" are not words you would expect to be associated with poetry ... you can't actually touch a poem, it isn't a three domensional thing you can feel ... and poems are only mute on the page ... we read them aloud too

the idea is repeated with "dumb" "silent" "wordless" ... and then "motionless" ... but i have no explantion for that, i don't know what the poet is saying

"globed fruit"? and orange or other citrus?

maybe the poet is saying that a poem should make the things being described solid to us and he certainly does with very vivid images e.g.:

"Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown" which makes me think of a medieval castle, and
"as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees" is so lovely.

"A poem should be equal to:
Not true."

What does this mean? That poems are lies?

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

For love
The leaning grasses and the two lights above the sea –"

Maybe her he's talking about how a poem has the power to use objects to symbolise emotions, and one poem about a specific love or grief can stand for all the loves and grief of the world

"A poem should not mean
But be."

now these last two lines i love. i hate the over-analysis of poetry, just want to enjoy it.

but this poem frustrates me like hell because it really doesn't all tie up for me (wonder if any other readers felt this too?)... is he anticipating this and telling us just to accept and not go looking for a key??

6:31 PM, June 09, 2006  
Blogger Gilbert Koh said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

7:53 AM, June 11, 2006  
Blogger Gilbert Koh said...

What kind of poetry is this poem referring to? What comes to mind is WS Merwin's poetry -

where the images often are such that you can never quite pin them down and dissect precisely, and say: "Aha, therefore THIS is what the poem means."

There is something in many of Mervyn's poems that escapes easy definition -

the ideas are huge; the images eternal and timeless; they operate at the subconscious level rather than at the level of the rational, logical, poem-analysing mind

this, I think, is what your chosen poem is referring to.

One example of Merwyn's poetry:


7:58 AM, June 11, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

thanks for the link, gilbert - another poet discovered

enjoyed reading some of your poetry too and i see you have had some published by qlrs - can you tell us what's happened to website?

11:21 AM, June 12, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmm, I think he's showing that a poem is in fact not mute, dumb, silent, motionless, etc as shown by the analogies to old (and presumably full of history) medallions and a flight of birds which is definitely not 'wordless' but full of the sounds (or language) of birds in flight. similarly, a moon climbing cannot be motionless, but is timeless in its ancient repeated journey through the night.

The last portion of the poem is I think what the poet is telling us directly a poem is, namely that it is 'not equal' nor 'means' but for 'grief' and 'love', just 'be's or is in tangible truth.

Lovely poem, wonderful use of words. Am now going to read up on all his works. Thanks so much for sharing this one, Dreamer Idiot.


7:05 PM, June 14, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

p.s. just a qualification or further not on my earlier post. The poet shows us a poem's effect is as that of the analogies, the kind of 'thundering silence' juxtaposition that hits people far more effectively sometimes than saying something directly.

Have to say that the line 'A poem should be equal to:
Not true.' is interesting in that that colon there makes me wonder if he's saying 'a poem should be equal to' is in fact not a true statement, or that the poem shouldn't be 'true'. There are probably arguments and justifications both ways, which is very cool.


7:21 PM, June 14, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Btw, I don't agree with the statement that a poem should not 'mean', but 'be'. That's quite an absolutist statement, implying that timelessness and eternal life are qualities (which the poem seems to be imlpying poetry is made of) that don't encompass meaning or, at the least, allow meaning to share the covers on a cold night. I believe both can and should co-exist quite nicely. Perhaps one day I shall write a reply to 'Ars Poetica' on this point. Still love the poem, of course, and am now a big fan of the site.


7:36 PM, June 14, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Whitearrow, my apologies for not replying, because I've been away and more recently, distracted or rather fixated by the World Cup (me, being the football/soccer nut that I am). Thanks so much for your lovely insights on the poem.

Yes, though the poem seems to dismiss the aural delights of poetry, the 'muteness' still 'speaks' - a kind of cummunicative silence that resounds through its very muteness. Instead of 'sounds', the images and objects (old medallions, moss on casement rocks) call forth their own emotional and intellectual response, hence can be 'felt'. Moreover, the images also constitute a kind of 'wordlessness', where the visual replaces what would otherwise be expressed through words, just like the evocativeness of the lifhgt of birds, which for me, suggest a release of 'meaning'.

For the second part, you are absolutely right about its timelessness, as Gilbert also pointed out. The paradox of being in motion and being motionless encapsulates that idea of being both in time-space, yet somehow transcending it... Hence the image of the moon which doesn't really appear to 'move', yet through both its and the earth's own revolution "climbs" the sky. Perhaps, this may be reflective of the relationship between the reader and the poem... with the 'static' poem on the page clearly being able to 'move' the reader. The choice of lunar illumination also seems significant for me, which like the poem's own 'soft light' in the 'darkness', gradually revealing what it attempts to express...

For the last part, I find the colon perplexing too, and am grateful for your ideas. I think thare is also a possibility that a poem being "equal to" is more of likeness and semblance than being an exact presentation of...so, in that sense, a poem is not a truth statement (paradoxically, the poem is rather didactic, or maybe it is not at all), but tries to come close to expressing some significance, i.e. our loves and sadness. Lastly, the last two, very memorable lines sums up, as you pointed out, the desire for an 'eternal' - timelessness amidst transcience... that just IS. As absolutist as that sounds, it kinda still appeals to me...I have no idea why, Hahahaha.

PS. Anyway, if you write a reply to Ars poetica, do let me know... :) Perhaps, by having a blog of your own.

12:34 PM, June 20, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

deeeeeppppp. i still can't get my head round it.

11:15 AM, June 22, 2006  
Blogger madcap machinist said...

I'm still thinking about this too... haha it's as if the poem has swallowed me whole

5:56 PM, June 23, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Only my thoughts on the poem... There are, off course, better ways to read it. :)

12:11 PM, June 24, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a great discourse on this poem! I'm currently explicating it in a paper for an English class, and I love dreamer's last insights.
One way that I've wrapped my brain around this message, with a bit of research, is with an analogy to a pane of glass. Good poetry, as in all of art, is like a clear pane of glass. The is the medium that a reader must look through to recieve the concepts and images expressed by the author. If the poem's words/"glass" is unclear, the message is hazy or lost altogether, and conversely, a clearly-conveyed message will enable the reader to forget about the glass altogether, and immerse themselves easily in more abstract ideas.

5:41 PM, July 16, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

By the way, I'm Alli... ^ Thanks once again for the discussion!

5:44 PM, July 16, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Hahaha... Alli*** I usually forget to reply. Thanks for your kind words, I don't know whether they were useful 'insights', but I hope you have a good "A" paper written. Anyway, a good resource for American poetry can be found here (I discovered it some time back):


Some of my ideas were drawn here.:)

8:21 PM, July 16, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have no idea whether or not you guys understood what he meant by dumb. I believe he was using dumb in the meaning of silent. Which makes that line make more logical sense. I just wanted to point it out just in case.

6:00 AM, April 05, 2010  
Anonymous sundayjones said...

mute...dumb...silent...wordless...a poem should not just tell the reader what it is about...like a work of art (sculpture, painting, drawing) the viewer must decipher the story or why it is there, it is not a book. A poem can transfer an entire story into a single simple image,just like art.
A poem being motionless in time...just means it descends all time and is universal. The paradox of not meaning but just being...I will chew on for a bit.

10:02 AM, April 14, 2011  

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