MacLeish’s Later Poems

Although there are still significant political poems among those written in the 50’s, MacLeish for the most part seems to have turned to more personal themes. Many of the poems are devoted to writers he has known, several discuss the art of poetry, and a few, my personal favorites, are devoted to old age.

Although I’ve never seen it in an anthology, I actually prefer “Theory of Poetry” to “Ars Poetica.” Indeed, I find it ironic that most people only know MacLeish from “Ars Poetica” since much of his poetry certainly wouldn’t meet the definition of poetry suggested by that poem:

Ars Poetica

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,

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.

Published in 1926, “Ars Poetica” exemplified the principles of the Imagists in their reaction against the consciously “intellectual” poetry that seemed to hold the day. When written, it served a welcome purpose in calling poetry back to its unique qualities. In some ways it seems to reflect the qualities of the Asian poetry that inspired Pound and others, poems that relied almost solely on images to convey their meaning. In some ways, it even describes the kind of poetry I’ve become fondest of in recent years. On the other hand, it seems to me that it places nearly impossible limits on poetry and confines it to the narrowest of ranges.

Although I agree with the conclusion that “A poem should not mean/ But be,” strictly speaking, it is, after all, impossible for a poem to be “wordless/ As the flight of birds.” If “all the history of grief” could be conveyed in the image of “an empty doorway” or “a maple leaf” how many poems would we need?

On the other hand, the best of his poems certainly fit the definition suggested in “Theory of Poetry.”

Theory of Poetry

Know the world by heart
Or never know it!
Let the pedant stand apart—
Nothing he can name will show it:
Also him of intellectual art.
None know it
Till they know the world by heart.

Take heart then, poet!

It is love, not mere knowledge, that ties us to the things of this world and determines their importance in our lives.

One of my favorite poems in this section, though, uses one of MacLeish’s predominant symbols, the leaf, to suggest the shortness and beauty of life:

The Old Men in the Leaf Smoke

The old men rake the yards for winter
Burning the autumn-fallen leaves.
They have no lives, the one or the other.
The leaves are dead, the old men live
Only a little, light as a leaf,
Left to themselves of all their loves:
Light in the head most often too.

Raking the leaves, raking the leaves,
Raking life and leaf together,
The old men smell of burning leaves,
But which is which they wonder – whether
Anyone tells the leaves and loves –
Anyone left, that is, who lives.

Although there is a deep sadness in the poem, there is also an inevitability, and sense of rightness, that transforms death from a tragic mistake to a natural evolution.

Finally, there is MacLeish’s “With Age Wisdom,” which suggests that there is at least some small consolation for aging:

With Age Wisdom

At twenty, stooping round about,
I thought the world a miserable place
Truth a trick, faith in doubt,
Little beauty, less grace.

Now at sixty what I see,
Although the world is worse by far,
Stops my heart in ecstasy.
God, the wonders that there are!

I’m no longer sure how I felt about the world at twenty, but know that I took it for granted and longed for the kind of despair that inspired the great artists of the time.

Now I just appreciate the beauty that I discover around me, whether the beauty of birds at the feeder in winter or the spring daffodils heralding the oncoming summer.