"A poem should not mean / But be."

September 17, 2008

When I first read the poem “Ars Poetica” by Archibald MacLeish, I was in high school and had formed what, in retrospect, could be termed unreasonably strong ideas about what constituted a good or bad poem. Foremost among my criteria was whether or not a poem meant something; it had to convey some message, some coin of knowledge or truth or even mere opinion couched as wisdom. Moreover, at the time it was important that the meaning be apparent almost immediately, at least to me–let the other students struggle to follow the map to that fabled X in the sand, so long as I was already there, shovel in hand. Certainly there was some small satisfaction in unearthing subtext or delving into multiple interpretations, but in the end, meaning was that fixed point, that terminus–that X marking the spot.

And so “Ars Poetica” was, to my closed mind, an enjoyable poem with an ultimately flawed conclusion: “A poem should not mean / But be.” What nonsense! A poem had to mean something. Otherwise, what was the point? Why write anything if you’re not trying to convey some message? Wasn’t that the purpose of communication–to, well, communicate? What other goal could a poem possibly have? None. It was ridiculous. With that, I left MacLeish in his empty doorway and moved on.

But the poem stayed with me, as good poems do. Like an old medallion, I carried it in my pocket and occasionally brought it out for further inspection, but it remained dumb as the day I found it. Years passed, and drop by drop my head was deliberately filled with knowledge by intelligent and thoughtful people. I practiced reading and writing and gradually became better at both, which caused me to look back at my younger self, first with disgust, then pity, then a kind of fondness reserved for children making their first clumsy steps without a steadying hand and immediately trying to run. Then one day, out of nowhere, that line from MacLeish’s poem suddenly returned to me; only I knew what he was trying to say, finally, or at least I grasped something that had been beyond my reach so many years before.

The poem is called “Ars Poetica” because it attempts to convey guidelines for writing poetry, as Horace did in the treatise for which the poem is named. “A poem should be…” is the refrain, followed by vivid images that emphasize the theme of the piece. And then, at last, the final two lines summarize the entire argument, even though I had previously mistaken what that argument was. MacLeish was not indicating that poems should have no meaning. Instead, he believed that a poem must have an existence as real and tangible as the objects that populate his writing. It should not be mimetic, because to imitate is to be a mere reflection of the thing itself, inclusive of all irrelevant details. No, a poet’s work is to select and distill, to find the details that best communicate the theme and to reduce them as a cook reduces a sauce, boiling away the extraneous until what is left is concentrated and potent.

The poem should not merely be words on a page, conveying some meaning; it should be equal to the thing discussed. It should not attempt to tell the reader what to think or feel; it should instead incite those feelings as if the reader was experiencing the moment of the poem first-hand. In short, “A poem should not mean / But be.” Is it possible that I am still misinterpreting the poem? Certainly, but I am no longer as concerned with finding some ultimate poetic “truth” as I once was, and so I like to think that my former ideas can peacefully coexist with my current ones. That qualification aside, I can think of few statements that better reflect my present views on poetry, and indeed writing in general, than those two brief lines.

With that in mind, I hope to use this forum to explore my literary experiences, both as I read the great works of those who have come before me and as I take my own clumsy first steps toward becoming a writer. There is a certain arrogance implicit in creating a public journal such as this one, predicated on the assumption that other people will care about what I have to say. Perhaps they will and perhaps they won’t, but as an old friend of mine once said, “If one person will listen, then I’m going to talk!” Whoever and wherever you are, mystery person, this journal is for you.

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