April 2016: "Ars Poetica"
Perhaps because it is April, National Poetry Month, I have been thinking about a category of poems called ars poetica – poetry about writing poems. Probably all of us have read some of these kinds of poems; in this installment of Metaphor and More I'm going to take a look at a few of them and the metaphors they employ.
First, a couple more in-depth definitions. The Poetry Foundation, states that ars poetica is " A poem that explains the art of poetry, or a meditation on poetry using the form and techniques of a poem. " You can link to this definition in the Poetry Foundation glossary here:
You can also find a discussion of ars poetica at the Academy of American Poets under this link:
I got to thinking about all this while musing about white space and remembering Sharon Bryan's poem "White Space," which I reread and realized might be an example of ars poetica. The poem can be found at the Poetry Daily website, under this link:
There is no "I" mentioned in Bryan's poem– we don't overhear the speaker talking directly about the process of writing, and yet through the personification of words and white space, we understand we are hearing a story about writing. I think I first really began to feel the commentary on the writing process with these lines, talking about words:
since everything they did
was meant to point
to something beyond
The poem feels like a comment on the dance between letters, words, and white space, and we can ask, how does that dance come together? I like the personification of the components and this way of talking about the mysteries of the writing process without mentioning the writer. And the form of the piece shows us some of the things that poetry is about. There are lots of things going on in this piece, and the personification alone is very interesting.
A couple of other examples of ars poetica from the Poetry Foundation:
1. "Ars Poetica," by Archibald McLeish. This well-known poem can be found under this link:
I think this poem is wonderful because it describes the nature of poetry through a series of metaphors. What do you think about the lines "A poem should be wordless/As the flight of birds"?
For me, that speaks to how poetry employs words but the meaning is beyond words – which is really to say it is describing how metaphor works – creating a meaning beyond and above the sum of those parts of the individual words – that is (continuing to read through the poem to the end), "A poem should not mean/But be." And in the last section, third stanza from the end, he also describes the importance of images:
For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.
I think it's interesting how he describes silence, stillness, and meaning in the different parts of this piece…
2. Another is "Ars Poetica #100: I Believe," by Elizabeth Alexander, which you can find at this link:
Poetry, she tells us, is often in the small things, in the everyday things, like dirt in the corner or something overheard on the bus; not always the larger events or passages in our lives. In the final two stanzas, the speaker says:
Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,
and are we not of interest to each other?
A question for all of us: When we each think or talk about poetry, where in that discussion do we "hear ourselves the loudest"?
3. Here's another one from the Poetry Foundation, by Rita Dove, that you might enjoy taking a look at (and you can search for many more at this and other websites) –
Think about how the poem as a whole serves as a metaphor for writing.
4. And finally, I wanted to show you a couple of poems that are in the ars poetica vein, being about writers and writing, from Linda Pastan's new book (2015) Insomnia. I have this book out from my library right now and am enjoying it a lot! The first piece I wanted to show you is called "The Poets."
They are farmers, really –
hoeing and planting
get strict rows ripe with manure,
coaxing each nebulous seed
to grow. Year after year
of drought or rainstorm,
locust or killing frost, they bundle
their hay into stacks
of inflammable gold, or litter
the barn floors with empty husks.
At the market they acknowledge
each other gruffly and move on,
noting who has the more bountiful
harvest, whose bushel baskets
are laden with beets and tomatoes,
tumescent with fruit.
Under the sheen of success
or the long shadow of failure,
with a labor for remains
the same: their own muscular
beanstalk rocketing skyward
from a single bean.
– Linda Pastan
In this poem, I love how the couplets look like rows of planted crops in the field, and how that supports the metaphor of poets as farmers. And I think it really speaks to how people who keep writing are people who really need to write – whether they experience the "sheen of success" or "the long shadow of failure" – they have the need to tend that "muscular/beanstalk rocketing skyward."
William Stafford (1914 – 1993) is a wonderful poet, and one I encourage you to look into if you haven't already. He was known for his daily routine of writing in the early morning, which Linda Pastan alludes to this poem:
Remembering Stafford on His Centennial
When you said there was no such thing
as writer's block if your standards
were low enough, everyone laughed
and I laughed too, but you meant it, didn't you?
The point is to follow the winding path
of words wherever it wants to take you, step
by step, ignoring the boulders, the barbed wire
fences, the rutted ditches choked with ragweed.
How complicated such simplicities are.
Forget the destination, you taught us,
forget applause; what matters is the journey.
And started one yourself, each morning.
So, whatever form your writing journey takes, I encourage you to keep following that road! And while you are on it, perhaps you might try writing an ars poetica poem yourself! What metaphors might you use for your process of writing poetry?
May you have had a wonderful National Poetry Month, and may you celebrate poetry and metaphor every month! And as always, please let me know if you'd like to be taken off the list.
Best wishes until next time,
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Jennifer Burd teaches "Mastering Metaphor" through the Loft Literary center and writes a monthly blog, "Metaphor and More."