En 505, Modern Poetry
3 May 2010
Apologetics of Poetry
Poets often enjoy writing poems about their art. Some strive to identify exactly what constitutes poetry, and others seek to defend it. The poems they produce often convey truths regarding poetry better than prose treatises do due to their practical nature. For instance, a poem on the qualities of poetry can include examples of these features in the poem itself. Those that defend poetry frequently point out its uses and effects or its value as an art form. Poets such as A. E. Housman and Archibald MacLeish subscribe to one of these viewpoints, and even though they may recognize the merits of the other perspective, they focus their poems on poetry on either the use of poetry or the art of poetry. A. E. Housman’s poem “Terence, This is Stupid Stuff” defends the value poetry on the basis on of its use, and Archibald MacLeish’s poem “Ars Poetica” endorses poetry’s value as an art that can be experienced.
First, while both “Terence, This is Stupid Stuff” and “Ars Poetica” defend poetry, their structure differs, and these differences contribute to their themes. Terence in “Terence, This is Stupid Stuff” rationally argues his case for pessimistic poetry. He begins by logically discounting the false premise that one should write cheerful poetry by presenting a similar example and following it to its logical end. He points out that if one desires to “pipe a tune to dance to” there are “brisker pipes than poetry” such as that of alcohol (Housman, “Terence, This is Stupid Stuff” 14, 16). With this example, he relates to his listener and shows how the effects of alcohol and consequently cheerful poetry will not last: One will wake up after a night of drinking and realize that “the world” is “the old world” still (39). Terence then builds on this argument by highlighting the bad in this world and the necessity of preparing to combat this world’s “ill” (44). These facts lead to Terence’s conclusion that one must acquire a taste for realistic poetry that prepares one for “the dark and cloudy day” (58). Terence subsequently reinforces this conclusion with the example of Mithridates who inoculated himself against poison with poison. This case illustrates how one can use pessimistic poetry to prepare for reality. The essay-like structure of “Terence, This is Stupid Stuff,” shows how a poet can employ logic to reinforce a theme such as the use of poetry.
On the other hand, “Ars Poetica” by Archibald MacLeish presents the reader with a series of paradoxical rhymed couplets that describe what poetry is. These descriptions form an argument for the value of art as an experience. The first section argues for poetry that is “mute,” “dumb,” “silent,” and “wordless” (MacLeish 1, 3, 5, 7). “Literally, this dictum is nonsense,” and this nonsense builds the speaker’s case for the poetic experience (Knickerbocker and Reninger 405). Instead of rational statements, MacLeish employs similes and metaphors that summon different images in his reader’s minds. By relying on word pictures such as “globed fruit” and “old medallions,” MacLeish emphasizes the value of tasting, feeling, seeing, and experiencing poetry as art.
Second, the poetic techniques utilized by both Housman and MacLeish culminate in their respective themes regarding poetry. In “Terence, This is Stupid Stuff,” Terence relates to his listeners with his diction and allusions. In fact, the first speaker mentions how Terence eats and drinks like all the others, but insists on writing pessimistic poetry. Terrence then constructs his case on this foundational common ground. Furthermore, common words such as “victuals,” “tunes,” “hop-yards,” “muck,” and “smack” form realistic sentences that contribute to a conversational tone and thereby indicates the usefulness of poetry to the reality (Housman, “Terence” 2, 10, 17, 35, 53). In fact, neither speaker employs any similes nor metaphors since Housman viewed them as “inessential to poetry” because their purpose is not “to make” the “sense clearer or their conceptions more vivid” (The Name and Nature of Poetry).
The poetic tools that Housman does use match the poem’s conversational tone and relate to Terence’s audience as in the case with the poem’s allusions which contribute to the poem’s meaning in multiple ways. For instance, the line “moping melancholy mad” “is an echo of lines 485-486 of Book XI of Paradise Lost,” but knowledge of this allusion is not a requirement for understanding the poem’s argument (Housman “Terence” 13; Leggett 203). In fact, the line’s alliteration contributes to the flow and style of the poem. Furthermore, Terence relates other allusions to his audience. He compares the inspiration from the Muses with the inspiration from alcohol and contrasts alcohol’s and Milton’s justifications of “God’s ways to man” (Housman 22). Terence also renders a classical allusion to Mithridates understandable in his final example. His listeners do not have to guess who Mithridates is or how he relates to Terence’s point. By ensuring that his allusions pertain to his listeners, Terence again emphasizes how poetry can connect to the common man and influence one’s everyday life.
Conversely, “Ars Poetica” uses figurative language to convey how “A poem should not mean / But be” (MacLeish 23, 24). Each simile and metaphor creates a picture whose influence extends to one’s senses to emphasize how a poem can “be” (24). The first simile compares a poem to a “globed fruit” (2). Just as a ripe fruit tempts one to taste it, so a poem should invite one to move beyond the meaning of the words on a page to experience everything the poet is attempting to communicate. The next couplet invokes the sense of touch with the words “old medallions to the thumb” (4). One must feel old coins to fully appreciate them, and the words of a poem must possess a texture that encourages one to feel what it means. The third image of a window sill conveys how poetry should affect a reader. Instead of shouting its message, a poem should slowly and silently impress its theme on the reader’s mind in much the same way moss grows. The final couplet of the first section recommends a poetry that does “not pay attention to its own words” or “how it works” just like birds do not “pay attention to how they fly” (“Overview: ‘Ars Poetica’” para. 2). The images of the first section exemplify how a poem can appeal to all the senses and engage the whole reader in a poetic experience.
The next section uses the journey of the moon across the night sky to describe poetry. When one looks at the moon, it appears to be standing still, but in actuality the night is imperceptibly passing. Likewise, a poem should progress from one idea to next without the one noticing and leave its impression on one’s mind. One may not perceive how the poet crafted the poem to create this impression, but the imprint exists nonetheless. For instance, an initial reading of this section does not reveal how the repetition frames the imagery and enforces the main ideas. One must first picture the moon through the trees before he/she can analyze how this mental image was created. A poem’s elements should contribute to a unified effect instead of drawing attention to themselves.
The last section of the poem consists of metaphors instead of similes in order to move beyond a description of poetry to its actual essence. To signal this shift, MacLeish employs a mathematical equation which seems out of place in a poem full of figurative language. This statement emphasizes the difference between poetry and factual accounts by suggesting “that poems should be equal to experience rather than” “truths about experience” (“Overview” para. 4). The value of poetry is not in its component truths but in the true-to-life experience it creates. The next two couplets continue these ideas through the use of metaphors. Metaphors equate ideas with concrete objects. While these equations are “not” actually “true,” they are true to human experience (MacLeish 18). Furthermore, metaphors enable the compression of poetry. For instance, “an empty doorway and a maple leaf” can communicate an entire “history of grief” (19, 20). “Specific images” can replace “entire long-winded explanation[s] that prose might offer” with just a few words and at the same time open the door to further exploration, especially considering how personal experiences enable the understanding of poetry (“Explanation of: ‘Ars Poetica’ by Archibald MacLeish” para. 4). The poem ends with the seemingly contradictory lines, “A poem should not mean / But be” (MacLeish 24). How can such a didactic poem call for poetry with no meaning? To understand this statement, one must consider its poetic context. Previous sections call for a poem that derives its value from how the poetic elements imperceptibly work together to create an experience that reaches the whole person. Therefore, a poem’s significance is not in the meaning of individual lines but in the combination of these meanings and how they contribute to the poetic experience. “The poem is a vital experience, not a merely descriptive report of an experience. And this poem about the meaning of poetry does not simply tell us what it is; it succeeds in actually becoming what it purports to demonstrate” (Sullivan para. 8). “Ars Poetica” defends the art of poetry through the use of figurative language.
When one considers the defense of poetry by poetry, as exemplified in A. E. Housman’s poem “Terence, This is Stupid Stuff” and Archibald MacLeish’s poem “Ars Poetica,” he/she recognizes the essential role both viewpoints play in apologetics for poetry. Each poem employs a different structure and different poetic techniques to convey their themes, but these distinctions allow the poets to relate to different readers. While some enjoy following a logical argument in poetry, others do not. While some love to explore the connotations of metaphors, others demand clear examples. Thankfully, poems come in different shapes and sizes and welcome defenses of poetry that recognize the differences between them.
"Explanation of: 'Ars Poetica' by Archibald MacLeish." LitFinder Contemporary Collection. Detroit: Gale, 2000. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. 21 Apr. 2010.
Housman, Alfred E. The Name and Nature of Poetry. 1933. Chiark Home Page. Ed. Ian Jackson. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2010. .
Housman, Alfred E. "Terence, This is Stupid Stuff" Vol. 1. The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. Ed. Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellmann, and Robert O'Clair. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 2003. 2 vols. 88-89. Print.
Leggett, B. J. "The Miltonic Allusions in Housman's 'Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff'." English Language Notes 5.(1968): 202-207. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. Web. 21 Apr. 2010.
Knickerbocker, K. L., and H. W. Reninger. Literature. New York: Holt, 1955. 404-05. Print.
MacLeish, Archibald. "Ars Poetica." Vol. 1. The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. Ed. Jahane Ramazani, Richard Ellmann, and Robert O'Clair. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 2003. 2 vols. 515-16. Print.
"Overview: “Ars Poetica”." Gale Online Encyclopedia. Detroit: Gale, 2010. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. 21 Apr. 2010.
Sullivan, Harry R. "MacLeish's 'Ars Poetica'." English Journal 56.9 (Dec. 1967): 1280-1283. Rpt. in Poetry Criticism. Ed. David M. Galens. Vol. 47. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. 21 Apr. 2010.
Annotated Works Consulted
Brooks, Cleanth. Modern Poetry and the Tradition. London: Poetry London, 1948. 14-16, 54-56, 118-27. Print. This new critical work explores aspects of modern poetry such as metaphor and symbolism by analyzing various works for these aspects. In one helpful passage, Brooks delves into the didactic nature of metaphor and details how this topic relates to the science and art of poetry. In another, Brooks notes Housman’s dislike for metaphor. Analyses such as these strictly evaluate the poems themselves, and when Brooks addresses the authors it strictly concerns their thoughts on modern poetry in general. These evaluations in turn point to Brooks’s belief that modern poetry is a reaction against romanticism. Additionally, this overview of modern poetry provides one with the context necessary to understand the ideas propounded in individual poems. Furthermore, it illuminates why modern poets used the techniques they did in their poems. In conclusion, this book provides useful information on the context of modernism as well as thoughts on general terms and their relationship to modern poetry and individual analyses of modern poems.
"Explanation of: 'Ars Poetica' by Archibald MacLeish." LitFinder Contemporary Collection. Detroit: Gale, 2000. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. 21 Apr. 2010. This essay begins with how many quote the last lines of “Ars Poetica” out of context and use them to defend “incomprehensible works” (para. 1). The essay then argues for a proper interpretation of these lines in light of the poem’s context by highlighting how the couplet simply extends the poem’s argument. First, the poem “reworks” “the theme of communication beyond poetry” through the images in the first section (para. 2). This point explores the relationship between a lack of words and the senses. Second, the essay shows how a poem’s structure and context can craft its meaning and explains how MacLeish argues in the second section for a “severe precision” in poetry that provides “structures that work both in the moment and in relationship to one another (para. 3.) Third, the essay describes how MacLeish calls for a “compressed” and “efficient” poetry through the use of metaphors (para. 4). In conclusion, the essay shows how the images of “Ars Poetica” work together to create the poetic experience but fails to actually detail the meaning of the last two lines of the poem.
Housman, Alfred E. The Name and Nature of Poetry. 1933. Chiark Home Page. Ed. Ian Jackson. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2010. . This lecture on the definition and nature of poetry can provide one with an excellent example of the difference between a prose treatise on poetry and a poem about poetry. It describes the elusive nature of poetry and explores how different centuries approach the writing of poetry. Houman views the “ambiguity” of poetry as “the first impediment” to this discussion and expresses this ambiguous nature in a series of questions that relate to many poetry readers. He even goes as far to call metaphors and similes “inessential” and ornamental. He also expresses his frustration with how one cannot adequately analyze what exactly makes poetry pleasurable and continues by exploring Coleridge’s statement concerning meaning and pleasure. Housman concludes by detailing how he composes poems. His composition process starts with an inspirational idea from which springs a few lines and concludes with the “laborious” process of adding to these lines and refining the entire poem. In conclusion, this lecture provides one with excellent insight into what Housman believed to be poetry and how he attempted to craft poems that reflect these ideals.
Leggett, B. J. "The Miltonic Allusions in Housman's 'Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff'." English Language Notes 5.(1968): 202-207. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. Web. 21 Apr. 2010. Leggett points out the overriding structure of A Shropshire Lad and highlights how the personas from the previous poems achieve fruition in Terence the poet and details how Terence forms his own poetic method built on Miltonic allusion. The first allusion Leggett notes is “Moping melancholy mad,” and he continues by revealing other allusions and their implications in the poem. He also shows how Terence “shares Housman’s ‘view of life’” and “view of art” and compares this shared view with the concerns of Paradise Lost and indicates that both the poem and Milton’s work “spring from an attempt to deal with man’s loss of innocence and his recognition of the human condition as characterized by mutability and death” (205-06). He concludes by stating that Terence’s belief that “his own bitter malt brewed from the ills of life” can better “justify God’s ways to man” (207). In conclusion, this work reveals many previously unknown Miltonic allusions in “Terence, This is Stupid Stuff” and shows how Milton’s works influenced Housman’s poetry.
"Overview: “Ars Poetica”." Gale Online Encyclopedia. Detroit: Gale, 2010. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. 21 Apr. 2010. This overview begins by detailing the structure of “Ars Poetica” and pointing out how its contradictory thoughts are unusual. The essay next explains how the images of the first can be sensed differently and how they contribute to the poem’s meaning. One helpful passage reveals how a poem should not be mindful of its words in much the same way birds do not pay attention how to fly. The second section explains how “motionless” reveals the gradual influence of poetry. The third section points how MacLeish allows the reader to “experience whatever the images may mean to them” (para. 4) and thereby emphasizes the poem’s experiential nature. In conclusion, this essay provides one with many helpful explanations of what MacLeish was trying to convey with his images in “Ars Poetica.”