Essay by Dave Mehler

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

— Archibald MacLeish

MacLeish may be first poet to actually come out and say something so outrageous so directly: that a poem not only doesn’t have to, but in fact shouldn’t, “mean.”

Poets have been composing difficult poems long before MacLeish wrote his “defense” of poetry, and their complexity is part of what contributed to poetry losing it’s readership and the stigma gained, probably some time after it’s audience became readers instead of listeners. Long before prose was invented, people spoke and sang what we call poetry to help them work: as they rowed or marched or struck hammer to metal on anvil; as a part of ecstatic religious rituals; to help them retain historic or cultural heritage; prophesy the future; and perhaps most importantly, for entertainment–it was THE art form utilizing language. Then prose was invented, literal speech writing, a sort of transcription of events that was supposed to be straightforward factual delivery system of language without using the ambiguous, textured, figuratively layered speech of poetry.

Prose is for literalists wanting to discover and know certain things discreetly about the world. Poetry is for artists, dreamers, warriors and spiritual sages who want to know experientially. Prose is for those who seek after knowledge and poetry is for those who seek after wisdom. The difference is this: poetry is not about whether a poem means, but how it means. Poetry can signify meaning in hundreds of ways using a variety of rhythmic, conceptual and linguistic tools, whereas prose (excusing narrative fiction) is concerned with conveying no frills, no confusion, straightforward communication of ideas and facts: one clear meaning, or meaning simple with the least amount of distraction along the way. Poetry understands the best way of telling the truth is by telling lies. Narrative fiction also understands this truth; while poetry can be narrative it isn’t restricted to linearity or even necessarily logic.

No one wants to read gibberish, but if poetry uses tools other than literal means to convey them, one can get at meanings that can’t be conveyed or conveyed so well, literally. This is the point, and what I believe MacLeish, in his abbreviated way, meant. Poetry is heightened language and sophisticated communication: it is free to communicate in many more and different ways than just the literal. Poet’s work involves dancing around the edges of meaning, above, below or to the sides of denotation through connotation, metaphor, rhythm, ambiguity and subtleties of sound. Poems that may appear meaningless may be communicating differently or more densely than prose. Just because language is the medium does not mean that everyone can understand or import what’s being purported–unlike prose readers, poetry readership might require some specialized training in how to read it, or need to remain open to experiencing the poem as a thing in and of itself and not view it only as a means toward the end of “communication”–this is why some hate poetry. Not everyone gets it–so they write it off as impenetrable, prettified, ecstatic, obtuse, or boring–meaningless–when meaning is there as dense as a sun before going supernova. Someone once said, prose walks; poetry dances. Some do, while others can’t hear the tune.

Dave Mehler

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