And so we land at the crime he is most famous for. The poem that killed poetry. “Ars Poetica.” In this poem, MacLeish’s thesis is a poem is a waste of time and one shouldn’t even bother with it. And with his poetry he comes SO CLOSE to proving this theory!
Printed below is his entire poem “Ars Poetica.” The original lines are in bold black and a cold dose of sanity is in tabbed italics.
BY ARCHIBALD MACLEISH
With much needed notes by John d’Andriole
A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,
Okay right away we’re starting off with a problem. A globed fruit? Like a banana? Or a pear? And yes, technically fruits are mute AND this rhymes. So I am assuming Archie felt like he was getting a twofer on this one. But poems should be mute? I suppose I should stop reading this right now, but I am going to take a hit for all of you since that is the kind of mensch I am.
As old medallions to the thumb,
Hey! I see we are sticking to rhyme! But how are medallions dumb to the thumb? Does he mean “dumb” as in can’t speak or “dumb” as in lacking intelligence? And why are old medallions dumb? Are new ones loquacious and astute? Like an old boot? See what I did, Archie! I turned it around on you!
Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—
Sleeve-worn? Stone? What does that have to do with hinged windows? Plus, poems have to be silent? You can’t read them out loud? I suppose when it comes to his poems that may be a mercy.
A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.
Yep, drop that rhyme like a dirty diaper! A poem should be wordless as the flight of birdless doesn’t scan. But for a wordless poem, this really draws things out a bit. He should have made good on his promise.
Yes, that asterisk is in the original poem. I think it is intended to indicate to the reader that the thought is complete. He needed the asterisk because there is nothing in his actual writing that indicates a complete thought. Here we go with part two.
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,
Okay, if time is motionless, why is the moon climbing? What the hell, Archibald? I mean, I can see how you are trying to build an image here, but already you’ve missed your whole point. Do you think gluing pretty words all slapdash makes good poetry?
Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,
Releases twig by twig the night-entangled trees-es you mean? Rhyme or don’t rhyme, both are fine. But NEAR-rhyming? That is half of half-assed. You are quarter-assing this. Unless he is near-rhyming “trees” with “leaves.” Which is somehow worse.
Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—
So, do you know where winter leaves are? ON THE FREAKING GROUND! If the moon is behind the winter leaves, WE ARE DOOMED!
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.
Proud of that line are we? Or did you have a dinner engagement to go to and just wanted to beef up his word count and dash this off to the Volume XXVIII, Number III edition of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse? Editor Harriet Monroe, you should have been ashamed of yourself!
Completed thought part two: electric boogaloo! I can hardly wait to see what other partial thoughts he’s scraped together out of found objects in his bathroom!
A poem should be equal to:
This is a poem right? Or supposed to be? A poem about what a poem is supposed to be, but the poem is a lie? Is this a logic test? Do you think that we are all robots and you are using a logical contradiction to fry our circuit boards? WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS, ARCHIBALD MACLEISH?! What power mad, laudanum soaked nightmare to you have planned for us all?!
For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.
I am having a hard time making sense of this, other than by thinking he had a mini-stroke while writing this and his language center rebooted while he had pen in hand. At least we’re back to the rhyming. I sure hope he stays consistent with this…
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—
Aaaaaand he doesn’t.
This is one of those pretty poetic lines that, when pondered, is gibberish. He is serving us wax fruit and begging us to eat it.
A poem should not mean
You have spent ALL this time telling me what a poem means and now you’re saying that you have completely wasted my time. You owe me, Archibald. You owe me time. I will have my revenge. I will create an afterlife just so I can drag up from the grave and dope-slap you until you have a permanent lisp.
There you have the fullness of the crimes of Archibald MacLeish. The good thing about this? It’s short! At least he didn’t try his hand at something like epic poetry.
But hang on! In the future I will find other famous Modernist poets to hate on. So many to choose! Maybe T.S. Eliot? Ezra Pound? The mind boggles!