Whenever poetry is read, the opportunity for a new interpretation is born. The interaction between the poem and the reader is a unique experience and the meaning of each piece does not always follow a specific set of rules. Poetry is artistry; the author takes on the role of a painter and every reader becomes a canvas. Although the words do not change, each time a poem is read for the first time, a new masterpiece is created. A poet can write to evoke feelings in a reader or speak on a variety of topics that may conjure up emotions in the person who reads it. A poem does not have to convey heavy meaning or need to be explained, it should just be enjoyed and appreciated for its beauty. The final line in Archibald MacLeish’s, “Ars Poetica” sums it up perfectly, “A poem should not mean But be” (23/24).
MacLeish relies heavily on imagism as evidenced by the many examples used throughout the piece. He immediately begins with a simile in the opening lines which describes how a poem should have substance and weight but not be too flashy or loud. “A poem should be palpable and mute as globed fruit” (1/2). Here the author relates a tangible item, in this case a round piece of fruit, to a poem. It needs to be picked up and touched not just read for the sake of reading. A poem should be experienced and heard not just recited. The use of end rhyme also adds a nice rhythmical feel to the first two lines and is used cleverly to draw the reader into the piece for further examination.
Throughout the first stanza, MacLeish compares a poem to physical objects. He continues this type of association when he writes, “Silent as the sleeve worn stone Of casement ledges where the moss has grown-” (5/6). The author summons up an image of a person sitting alone, quietly thinking outside the northern exposed balcony with head in hands while the elbows rest on the ledge. The reader gets a sense for how a poem can be contemplated and reflected upon not just skimmed over and forgotten about. The idea of time is also a critical part of the opening stanza which MacLeish makes apparent with two images, the “old medallions” (4) and the moss that has grown on the ledge. A good poem transcends time and many poets are still relevant today because of the simplistic yet universal language used in each verse.
In order to be effective and fully understood, poetry does not need to be remembered and recited word by word. A poem is at its best when the reader can recall the emotions felt during the first interaction with the piece. The author claims, “A poem should be wordless As the flight of birds.” (7/8). The image of a flock of birds in flight can raise a variety of feelings and the obvious paradox presented here is a good way to help the reader gain an understanding of how a poem can arouse a reaction without needing to be rationalized. A slight change in the rhyming scheme is also employed in the last couplet of the first stanza. The slant rhyme used here focuses on the “s” sound and there is also a rhythmic relationship between the “word” in “wordless” and the “bird” in “birds”.
The second stanza focuses primarily on the moon and the timelessness of a good poem. A pivotal moment in the piece occurs where MacLeish likens the slow movement of the moon to the deliberate measure of time. “A poem should be motionless in time As the moon climbs” (9/10 ; 15/16). He repeats these lines twice in a poem that consists of just 24 lines. An important idea is represented here, and the author is attempting to drive a certain point home. A poem should stand the test of time and a great poem can still be relevant for decades or even centuries. Another paradox is presented to the reader when the author states, “A poem should be motionless in time As the moon climbs” (MacLeish has created a poem that speaks while promoting silence. Several human experiences are mentioned in “Ars Poetica” including grief, love, loneliness, and memories. The piece develops and progresses all while advocating motionlessness.
An atypical image of love is used towards the end of the piece, “The leaning grasses” (22) paints a picture of a field or meadow where two lovers once laid, and their bodies created an impression in the grass. Another unusual example of love occurs on the same line, “two lights above the sea-” (22). Here the idea of a moonless night appears, and a pair of stars cross one another as they rise up in unison directly above the ocean.
Math is the mother of all sciences and poetry is the mother of the arts. But unlike a mathematical problem that has only one absolute outcome, a poem can have as many meanings as it does readers. MacLeish confirms this idea when he writes, “A poem should be equal to: Not true” (17/18). An equation is a mathematical statement that two things are equal. While many components of a poem can be agreed upon or decided, it is more likely that each reader will have a different interpretation or understanding of a poem.
“Ars Poetica” is full of figurative language and MacLeish uses metaphors throughout the piece.