Poetry Review: “Ars Poetica” by Archibald MacLeish

In honor of National Poetry Month, MontanaWriter is featuring poems about poets, poetry, and writing poetry. 

Poets end up writing a lot about poetry and poems because in the end they write about the things they know best and feel most passionately about. For the poet, naturally, there is nothing to feel more passionate about than poetry.

“Ars Poetica” is, of course, a staple of English Literature classrooms. It is often used to springboard a discussion about the purpose of poetry in specific and art in general. There is the usual nod to the irony of discussing the “meaning” of a poem about poetry having no meaning, but it is only that: a nod. The assumption in academia remains that no one could seriously believe such an assertion… at least no one who is not a poet.

On a cool April morning, MacLeish seems like just the thing.


Ars Poetica

A poem should be palpable and mute
As 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
As the 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 two lights above the sea–

A poem should not mean
But be.


Listening with a pencil and my ear, these are the lines I marked:

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


MacLeish repeats this line twice in the stanza-section. He also repeats the word moon in each line of the same stanza. Only the word poem occurs more times in the poem – six times for “poem” to  four times for “moon.” Repetition in poetry is for tone, sound, and emphasis. He is, of course, using it for all three purposes.


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