Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Meaning vs. Being in Poetry

I'm not sure why Archibald MacLeish's "Ars Poetica" (http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15222) is so oft-anthologized, because I think it is one of the outlandishly poorest works in his oeuvre, if one actually reads a poem for its content and logic. The poem is readable and has an easy rhythm to it, but it is quite confused in its position on the art of poetry.

In the first of three sections, the poet proclaims that a poem should be "mute," "dumb," "silent," and "wordless." In the second section, just in case we live on Neptune and haven't been clobbered with enough adjectives yet, the poem twice adds that "a poem should be motionless in time." The third section, providing what is (sadly) the phrase most often quoted from MacLeish's poetry, closes with the claim -- a claim that is wrong on multiple levels, as I will discuss below -- that "A poem should not mean/But be."

One of the primary problems with MacLeish's "Ars Poetica" is that the poem itself is not even consistent with its own proclamation that "A Poem should not mean/But be." For example, the poem opens with the couplet, "A poem should be palpable and mute/As a globed fruit," which is a claim that already necessitates interpretation and "meaning" -- it asks the reader to accept the conclusion that a globed fruit is, indeed, palpable and mute, not even getting to the question of what "globed," "palpable," and "mute" mean to different people. Very well, this problem is not a major one. We're still in the second inning, and the Dodgers haven't lost the ballgame yet with this one.

But in the third stanza, MacLeish comes up with the incredible couplet, "For all the history of grief/ An empty doorway and a maple leaf." Though the poem does not acknowledge it, that couplet is essentially an amazingly bold conclusory remark on "the history of grief" that requires a great stretch of the imagination both for comprehension and acceptance. Superficially, it is a rather lovely couplet. But, like the rest of the poem, it is a Venus fly-trap of sorts. Essentially, the poem is equating all the past and present personal and societal destructions and violences to "an empty doorway and a maple leaf"!?! Would you go up to a Chinese dissident writing a poem about massacres during the Cultural Revolution and say, "tsk, tsk, 'an empty doorway and a maple leaf'/ for your history of grief"? Maybe you could. If you could, then golly, it's easy to solve problems! Pretty soon, we'll have no grief at all in this world -- woo hoo!

I haven't even gotten to the issue presented by the previous couplet, which proclaims "A poem should equal to:/ Not true," then turns around and equates the history of grief to an empty doorway and a maple leaf and equates love with "the leaning grasses and two lights above the sea." The issue here again is that the poem itself is "equaling to"; the poem itself makes comparisons and analogies. But the poem denies that it is undertaking these acts that require interpretation and meaning.

Now I am at the point where I am disputing the primary argument that "A poem should not mean/ But be." I am disputing it in two ways: 1) A poem that is must "mean," and 2) a poem should "mean."

1) First, I do not think that a poem exists independently of everyone and everything. Poems always have readers, even if it is just the author him or herself. Maybe if you randomly scribble letters on a chalkboard in the dark, say the letters form "a poem," throw the chalkboard in a silver safe, and throw the safe in the ocean, you might have an argument that that is a poem that "is" but doesn't "mean." But that's just getting a bit theoretical there, folks. A poem that describes something typically has some emotional, linguisitic, philosopical, spiritual, and/or political meaning behind it. A poem that is "means."

2. Second, a poem should "mean." Part of the power of poetry is that it does mean something. Every poem means in many different ways -- to the poet, to the friends and family of the poet, to the reader(s), socially, culturally, emotionally, linguistically, philosophically, spiritually, and politically. It may be possible for us to find most of these different elements embedded in every single poem.

I am not a fan of people saying that poetry doesn't mean anything. Of course, most of those people are just saying that poetry is less important than pogo sticks or football or collecting pogs or whatever. But it's related -- if a poem "should not mean," why should anyone care about it? I mean, you might as well go and marvel at all the amazing pogs in your pog colllection. At least the cardboard "means" something to you.

MacLeish was an amazing person and poet (http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/47) who led an amazing life. Nowadays, he is underappreciated, because, as evidenced by the sometimes unthinking popularization of "Ars Poetica," not a lot of people care to read his work thoughtfully. A poet like MacLeish deserves more than that.


Blogger Humour and last laugh said...


4:43 AM  
Blogger Amy said...

After reading your critique, I wonder if the true function of a poem like "Ars Poetica" is to make people engage in the kind of thought process you illustrate in your post. There are certainly inherent contradictions in the poem. Perhaps those who quote the poem as literal statements about poetry are missing the larger point--that the discussion about the function/purpose of poetry is more important than coming up with hard and fast conclusions.

As for the open door and maple leaf imagery, I have a very different take on what that means. It does not trivialize grief, but paints a picture of the lonliness left after grief. Or, it could be a statment that despite the horrible nature of destruction that leads to grief, the open door and maple leaf remain, becuase life goes on, because poetry will still be written, because life will continue anyway.

2:37 PM  
Blogger Stew said...

well put. i studied this poem in high school and always held a similar viewpoint that you articulate very well in your post. great job.

4:29 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Amy, yes, I agree with you that part of what ars poeticas should be about is to stimulate discussion about the art of poetry. And, to that extent, the poem is useful, because it has made me think more about poetry.

I thought about that first interpretation of the open door and maple leaf imagery, but I chose not to discuss it too much then, because my post was running long already.

Putting aside the fact that this imagery totally contradicts the "poem should not mean, but be" conclusion, I dislike the metaphor of the open door and maple leaf, because I feel it misprepresents the nature of the history of grief. It individualizes and isolates this grief. But, as I suggest in my post, I think that grief is communal -- grief, at least grief for other human(s), involves more than the person grieving. And poems are communal, which "Ars Poetica" seems to be denying, at least in parts of the poem. So maybe I'm saying that I do get what the open door and maple imagery is supposed to symbolize, but I'm not too fond of it.

2:35 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Stew, looks like we were both posting comments at the same time! Yeah, I think that "Ars Poetica" is taught at many high school, which perhaps kind of relates to a new post that I'm about to make...

2:43 AM  
Blogger Amy said...


Yes, the door and leaf are a lonely and isolated image. If grief is communal, this image would seem to trivialize the experience of grief.

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