Archibald MacLeish, Part One: The Nightmare Begins

If he were alive today, you’d be seeing this picture on a wanted poster in a post office.

Some poems stick with you all of your life. At the same time, so does extreme trauma and malaria. One poem/trauma that comes to mind is “Ars Poetica” by well-known walrus molester Archibald MacLeish.

Even though I not only know very little about the man’s life (and indeed have no intention at all to research it,) I am going to go ahead and write a biography of Archibald McLeish based on my reaction to “Ars Poetica.”


Archibald MacLeish was born in 1892 to Andrew and Martha MacLeish. Andrew was a part-time circus prostitute and Martha worked evenings as a hotel door. Archibald (or “asshole” as his schoolmates called him) was raised in near poverty. He went to grade school in Glencoe, Illinois, where his teacher taught him how to read and write. The teacher was later gnawed to death by wolverines in a freakish display of actual karma.

Archibald MacLeish happily left his provincial home town – if being tarred, feathered, and hurled by a trebuchet across the county line counts as “happily leaving.” Luckily, his training in his father’s career stood him in good stead and he made his way to the dreamy campus of Yale with nothing but chapped hips and a predatory look in his eye.

He was accepted into Yale as a mascot and cautionary tale. There, he blossomed into a bigger asshole. He kept trying to pick up flappers by screaming “HARVARD” at them, forgetting which college he was attending. For some reason, this didn’t work. He turned back to his father’s trade temporarily to afford a smoking jacket, but when the circus left town he was relegated to the odd-numbered “fleet week.”

After graduating from Yale, he was accepted into Harvard Law School because apparently Harvard Law School has its own version of “pig night.” There, he studied underwater law and the dumpsters outside of Pforzheimer House. As a sideline at Harvard, he served as a drinking fountain (whites only.)

Later, he confessed his fundamentalist belief in Onanism. He tried to form a church, but whenever he asked someone to attend they punched him in the sternum and called him “asshole.” This was a perpetual puzzle to him since he had never told anyone his childhood nickname.

Archibald MacLeish graduated from college with a dream of writing poetry. Alas, this dream was unfulfilled. So, he wasted everyone’s time by scattering letters on a page with the hopes that something might turn up. Since this was well before television, The Beatles, sex, the internet, or anything other than mind-crunching boredom, he was given the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, the word “poetry” being in huge sarcasm quotes.

Also known as ‘The World’s Biggest Jackass” award.

He didn’t get the joke. And so, a terrible poet was transformed into an inhuman monster.

For the rest of his life, whenever asked a question, he would answer, “Pulitzer Prize winning poet Archibald MacLeish says…” People fled from him, children wept at his voice, dogs howled and whimpered as he passed, and he was in constant danger of being attacked by karma’s one true avenger: the wolverine.

Archibald MacLeish died on April 20th, 1982. Incidentally but perhaps not coincidentally, April 20th is also Adolph Hitler’s birthday. I would not be surprised if that were not the only connection between the two.

In PART TWO, I will do the Breakdown on his most famous poem “Ars Poetica” and why you should only read it next to an eyewash station.