Friday, June 19, 2020

Wild Fridays #24: The Living Dead

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.

 Archibald MacLeish (1892 - 1982)

The last two lines of this famous poem are often quoted on their own – which in some contexts can make them sound pretentious and even meaningless 
(irony unintended).

The whole poem was recently referenced by a member of the Haiku on Friday facebook group. Looking at it again, I realised that, though one might very well take issue with it as regards poetry in general, it is a very apt prescription indeed for haiku: the immediacy, the grounding in sensual experience.

Its recommendations perfectly exemplify ’show, don’t tell’. But isn’t that what we’re advised to do with all our writing? So perhaps it is a good recipe for poetry in general, after all. Why, then, did I suggest one might take issue with that?

Oh, I think there are many valid ways to approach poetry. I've noticed that, just when someone seems to have formulated the definitive rules for writing excellent poetry, someone else will come along and break them – in brilliant poetry.

MacLeish himself later departed from the position he took in Ars Poetica. Wikipedia, in its comprehensive  account of his life and work, says, 

MacLeish's early work was very traditionally modernist and accepted the contemporary modernist position holding that a poet was isolated from society. His most well-known poem, "Ars Poetica," contains a classic statement of the modernist aesthetic: "A poem should not mean / But be." He later broke with modernism's pure aesthetic. MacLeish himself was greatly involved in public life and came to believe that this was not only an appropriate but an inevitable role for a poet.

Best known as a poet, he was also a playwright and prose writer. His poetry won a number of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize three times and the French Legion of Honour. Wikipedia gives us further details of his distinguished career:

MacLeish studied English at Yale University and law at Harvard University. He enlisted in and saw action during the First World War and lived in Paris in the 1920s. On returning to the United States, he contributed to Henry Luce's magazine Fortune from 1929 to 1938. For five years MacLeish was Librarian of Congress, a post he accepted at the urging of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. From 1949 to 1962, he was Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University

He instituted great, much-needed reforms at the Library of Congress and began the appointments which would grow into the position of Poet Laureate. As a former librarian myself, I particularly love what he had to say about books and libraries:

When he was seventy-four years old the Cretan novelist Nikos Kazantzakis began a book. He called it Report to Greco ... Kazantzakis thought of himself as a soldier reporting to his commanding officer on a mortal mission—his life. ...

Well, there is only one Report to Greco, but no true book ... was ever anything else than a report. ... A true book is a report upon the mystery of existence ... it speaks of the world, of our life in the world. Everything we have in the books on which our libraries are founded—Euclid's figures, Leonardo's notes, Newton's explanations, Cervantes' myth, Sappho's broken songs, the vast surge of Homer—everything is a report of one kind or another and the sum of all of them together is our little knowledge of our world and of ourselves. Call a book Das Kapital or The Voyage of the Beagle or Theory of Relativity or Alice in Wonderland or Moby-Dick, it is still what Kazantzakis called his book—it is still a "report" upon the "mystery of things."
But if this is what a book is ... then a library is an extraordinary thing. ...
The existence of a library is, in itself, an assertion. ... It asserts that ... all these different and dissimilar reports, these bits and pieces of experience, manuscripts in bottles, messages from long before, from deep within, from miles beyond, belonged together and might, if understood together, spell out the meaning which the mystery implies. ...
The library, almost alone of the great monuments of civilization, stands taller now than it ever did before. The city ... decays. The nation loses its grandeur ... The university is not always certain what it is. But the library remains: a silent and enduring affirmation that the great Reports still speak, and not alone but somehow all together ...

Meanwhile, I wonder what you think of his pronouncements in the poem I’ve shared. What do you feel poetry is, or should be?

If you decide to write your own ars poetica (a poem about poetry) please don’t link to it in the comments here, as that doesn’t work very well, but save it for a Sunday, when you can share it more effectively in Writers’ Pantry.


Material shared in 'The Living Dead' is presented for study and review. Poems, photos and other writings and images remain the property of the copyright owners, where applicable (older poems may be out of copyright).

This photo of Archibald MacLeish is in the Public Domain.


  1. I enjoyed the poem, ‘palpable and mute / As a globed fruit’ and ‘motionless in time / As the moon climbs’ – it is. I also enjoyed the background to it that you gave, Rosemary, and the discussion about how to approach poetry. That’s one of the wonderful things about poetry - there are no absolutely definitive rules because we are always breaking them and making up new ones. A poem is read differently by everyone who takes the time to read it, and that seems to be crucial, taking the time, unravelling the strings of words with our own fingers, rather than following the lines prescribed by others first.

    1. I so agree, Kim! And I have to say that, in these troubled times, it becomes clear that it is indeed inevitable that (not all, but many) poets will comment on current affairs – and indeed I think it necessary that we do.

  2. Dear Rosemary, this was an evocative Wild Friday write! MacLeish’s poem seems to agree with my assessment of poetry …trying to ascertain what a poem should be is a bit like nailing jello to the wall! The parameters of poetry are as varied as those who read it, and its creation as varied as those who are compelled to put pen to paper. My personal poetry is extemporaneous and inspired by serendipity. I frequently have difficulty attempting to torque it into suggested guidelines, and making it fit a mold seems then to stray from my original intent. I am wondering if anyone else has the same difficulty. I will read the responses with great interest!

    1. Love your description, Bev! (Nailing jello to a wall.) Yes, I absolutely agree with what you say about the parameters and creation of poetry. Maybe it would be interesting for you to keep both versions of a poem – the one that fits external guidelines, and the one that best expresses your original intention. I find that fitting into the constraints of external guidelines can sometimes produce a better poem than what I might have done without them.

  3. Thank you, Rosemary, for this article on Archibald MacLeish and his poem, Ars Poetica. And it leads me to read more of his works at the Poetry Foundation. :)

    I liked what he says in Ars Poetica. I think a poem should be what he said, strong imagery, and sounds. I find the 3rd stanza very musical. :)

    1. Thanks for your comment, Lee San. Yes, that 3rd stanza is quite lovely.

  4. Rosemary, you are truly a student of the craft or rather the poetic arts. I'm learning as being part of the community and as you share these fellow Australians, I've enjoyed the expansion of my reading. Please forgive this Yank for not seeing some other words as often as I should.

    Truly, thank you for shedding light on them.

    1. Thank you, Joel, I'm glad you like the poetry I feature here. It's true I am well acquainted with my fellow-Aussies, so I may tend to focus on them more than others, but I do try to go further afield as well – and you'll be pleased to know that the wonderful Archibald MacLeish was American.

    2. I should review my words before I hit send (1am is not the best time). I meant to give thanks for all of your Wild Friday features as you have expanded my readings into your fellow Australians of which I've not heard of before your introductions. I appreciate this.

      My first memories of MacLeish was from readings in grade school where poetry and literature seemed forced upon us. It seems that in my current state of seeking out an appreciation for the beauty in the small things, I've come to read (and write) a bit.

      I may get one comment/email/writing out of a thousand right the first time ;)

    3. Oh that makes more sense! I thought surely you must know MacLeish. But the way poetry is taught in schools is extremely off-putting. Ha, when I joined the 'staff' back in 2010, I was partly motivated by the lack of knowledge elsewhere of our fine Aussie poets. I pitched to Robb (the Poets United founder) that I would spend the first 6 months focusing on them, and then widening the brief to poets from all over – which he approved and I did. I'm glad I'm still widening that awareness and appreciation! I have my own gaps in knowledge of poets of other countries (UK and USA seem to have cornered the market) so I sometimes ask other team members to keep me apprised. And I do a lot of online searching and reading. So having this 'job' expands my own poetic education too. (And by the way, I posted, deleted and rewrote my comment to you twice over, what with getting the words wrong and then getting the place to post it wrong! ROFL)

  5. Rosemary, I completely agree with your statement about the last two lines of the poem being a really good description of a haiku. I can't say the that I ever thought about it before, but the idea of a haiku (a good one) being all feeling and experience and sensory yum makes a whole lot of sense.

    1. I think those qualities are so much more important than 5-7-5, LOL.

  6. Thank you so much for introducing us to Archibald MacLeish and his poem and thought process, Rosemary!💘 I feel poetry should (if nothing else) make readers feel emotion, give them something to take away after reading. I agree with Kim, there are no definitive rules because we are always breaking them and making up new ones. I think that says a lot!💘

    1. Sanaa, your own poetry is definitely fulfilling your own goals and making your readers feel emotion – and then some!

  7. I like the poem and the discussion you gave us. I feel poetry should speak in whatever voice the poet is inspired to write with. I find myself commenting on current events these days because that is what fills my mind, yet others slip in which I feel balances my thoughts so I won't go crazy in the USA. So many times poetry is the voice for others. I sometimes ask myself, "Why did I write that?" Then someone will read it, give feedback, and I discover the reason.

    1. Ha, yes, it is often others who let us know what work our poems are doing. And I think that's the best of all.


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