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.

7 thoughts on “MacLeish’s Later Poems”

  1. Why a maple leaf? Two syllables, rhymes with grief, but what associations has the maple leaf got with grief? A single leaf (as in cummings “a leaf falls” can be an effective symbol for isolation, detachment and loneliness, but what else might one associate with a maple leaf?
    Mark Flagg

  2. MacLeish seemed to refer to leaves a lot in his poems, apparently as a symbol of “death.”

    Certainly “maple leave” is more “palpable” than the abstract leaf, but whether there is some particular significance to the maple tree I don’t know.

  3. hey! i think your blogs are amazing.. most of your reactions to MacLeish’s poems provided useful insight for me, coz we’re taking them up in class now. im a sophomore at highschool and i was having quite a hard time understanding Ars Poetica. Thanks!

  4. I feel that the beauty of ‘Ars Poetica’ is that it does what all the greatest poetry should do: not describe, but *evoke*. Take:

    For all the history of grief
    An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

    These lines could evoke any number of impressions for different readers: that’s the point, not that they *mean* something.

    And what do these lines evoke in this particular reader? The idea that grief is emptiness and loneliness. Why is the doorway empty, for example? Because someone who should be in the house isn’t there any more, perhaps? Why aren’t they there? Is it a lover who has left for another, never to return? Is it a loved one who has died? Our griefs are personal and individual: that is why leaving WHY the doorway is empty to our imagination makes it such a potent image.

    The maple leaf is also ripe with suggestion: I imagine the maple leaf to be ON the doorway; and if it’s on the doorway, it’s off the tree and therefore cut off from life. It’s an autumn leaf, a dead leaf, dry. No maple syrup from them, then!

    Perhaps it’s symbolic of how a grieving person feels: perhaps they themselves are that maple leaf resting alone in an empty doorway, waiting for death and being crushed underfoot.

    These ideas touch us more than history books, than “all the history of [other people’s] grief” – it is the human-scale, individual tragedies that touch us.

  5. Maple leaves, in literature often represent love. So by saying that along with “an empty doorway” MacLeish could mean that love evokes loneliness. Also, sinse maple leaves come in the spring, and spring represents hope or new beginnings, it could mean that love brings a new beginning after greif.

  6. I learned this couplet in High School, more than 50 years ago, and it has stuck with me (I had to look up the rest of the poem). I always wondered about the significance of the maple leaf, but in some sense it doesn’t matter. The persistence of the image speaks for itself, and together with the meter and rhyme it still has an emotional effect on me.

    1. I never consciously memorized the poem, but those last two lines have stayed with me ever since I read it in college nearly 50 years ago.

Comments are closed.