Ars Poetica Background

Ars Poetica Background

In 1923, Archibald MacLeish turned his back on a law career and moved his family from the United States to Paris to seek out a career as a poet and writer. Paris in the 1920’s was the choice du jour for American expatriate writers collectively known as the Lost Generation who would make their mark on the history of literature by being at the vanguard of a movement known as Modernism.

In 1928, MacLeish produced what many consider to the defining manifesto for Modernist poetry, “Ars Poetica” with it famous concluding line insisting that

“A poem should not mean

But be.”

One of the conventions of Modernism was, perhaps paradoxically, experimentation in meaning and form. Coming near the beginning of MacLeish’s career and published in 1928 in his collection Streets in the Moon, one of the great ironies of 20th century American literature is the evolution that MacLeish’s verse as he aged. “Ars Poetica” and other examples composed during that time in Paris stand in stark contrast to the more traditional and perhaps more accessible poetry of his later years.

Just four years after publishing “Ars Poetica” and just shy of a decade after making that leap of faith to head for Paris and pursue his passion, MacLeish was awarded the first of his three Pulitzer Prizes. In the interim, his poem had produced what would become—almost irrefutably—the single most often quoted lines of verse to describe the essential difference between the purpose of almost all poetry written before it and almost all poetry written after it. Of course, MacLeish’s later attempts to seemingly wrangle some meaning not subservient to being would be the most infamous examples of rebellion against his assertion.

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