Poetry is a beautiful testament to the permanence of human experience, the ideas immortalized by men and women that brim with meticulous language and impassioned purpose. Poetry, beyond the mechanical conventions, is an art form. Archibald MacLeish’s appropriately titled work Ars Poetica, the ‘Art of Poetry’ is a treatise on the standards of poetic art, one which focuses not on its technicalities, but on its soul. Ars Poetica is divided into sections: one each for sensory comparison, lunar simile, and metaphysical truth. These include the many discrete yet profound images that acquaint us with what he believes a poem should be.
The sections are structured around the Imagist tenet of direct presentation, with four short two-line ideas per ‘stanza’. Each of these couplets, while not of universal length or rhyme scheme, nevertheless succeeds in illustrating different facets of a poem’s soul. The first and fourth in each stanza all start with “A poem should…”. These words reveal upcoming definitions as opinion, not reality.
Sensory comparison dominates the opening stanza. The very fourth word in the entire poem, “palpable”, is especially chosen to evoke a memory of sensory awareness. ‘Palpable’ is a feeling to be touched, tasted, explored; this image is continued with reference to “a globed fruit”. Not only is poetic art to be touched and explored, it is worthy of a symbol such as fruit - the sweet embodiment of indulgence and sensuality. An old medallion and a “sleeve-worn stone” ledge reinforce the concept of touch, along with familiarity, memory, and endurance. The medallion is shown as a well-loved family heirloom, one with well-thumbed texture and a story. The ledge is a similarly humble object, worn through use and mossy from age, frequently overlooked. As part of a building it could potentially outlast everything from its occupants to its political country of origin, just as a poem outlasts its author and literary age. The feeling of speechless awe that commonly accompanies the sight of birds soaring through the sky is also applied to poetry, the verses that soar above common literature. Sometimes, when a poem takes ‘flight’, it lingers, leaves the reader emotionally moved and its message or idea makes greater impact.
Conversely, the first stanza insists that a poem should be “mute as…fruit”, “dumb as…medallions”, “silent as…stone”, and “wordless as the flight of birds”. It is impossible to write a piece that overcomes this paradox of ‘wordless poem’; it would have to be static, created as art-for-art’s sake and devoid of any meaning or message. Meaning in poetry is by nature highly volatile - understanding depends on the interpreter.
However, since images such as old medallions or moss on stone frequently evoke emotional and intellectual response, it is plausible for a poem to be simply ‘felt’. This more simple, ‘wordless’ interpretation of poetry yields viable, albeit less explicit, results.
Words, especially poetry, should be like the moon: “haunting…(with) all the dispassionateness of a disembodied soul.” This quote from novelist Joseph Conrad captures the feelings of many who write about the moon. With its intricate layers of meaning, human perception of the moon provides the perfect subject for poetic simile. In this poem, the fifth and eighth couplets “A poem should be motionless in time / As the moon climbs” are identical, and the repetition serves to emphasize the juxtaposition of ‘motionless’ and ‘climb’. The moon’s advance across the night sky is almost imperceptible, yet visibly grows to die every month. The idea is that a poem should be as timeless, yet flexible enough to resonate with almost anyone. In addition, the romantic, mysterious light seen from the moon is mere reflected sunlight, just as poetry reflects reality instead of generating reality of its own.