The Mnemosyne Weekly: Poem Thirty-Six (MacLeish)

A Black Bird With Snow Covered Red Hills
Well, we’ve all got our ideas about what a poem should be–at least in my fantasy world, where everyone cares about poetry enough to debate the topic. In this week’s selection, “Ars Poetica” by Archibald MacLeish,we have a poem about what a poem should be. And though I’m not in full agreement, I do admire what MacLeish says, and, even more, I love the way he says it–the images and metaphors, the sections, the clean lines and flighty couplets–all inspire a sense of quiet beauty. And, I’m sure you can tell by the O’Keeffe pairing what one of my favorite couplets is: “A poem should be wordless /As the flight of birds.”
It will be rather a long poem to memorize, but it will be worth it. Enjoy!
Archibald MacLeish
Ars Poetica

By Archibald MacLeish
A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,Dumb
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.

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