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Humanism, Poetry and Modernism
Archibald Macleish

Humanism, Poetry and Modernism
Poetry stands apart from the concrete. Like the poeticisms of the Tao Te Ching, it speaks in paradoxes in order to circle an idea that cannot be expressed outright. In “Theory of Poetry” (New and Collected Poems, p. 418), American poet Archibald Macleish writes, "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.”

In order to know the world by heart, one must also know oneself. To write poetry with any effect, one must specifically feel and explore their humanness in the scope of society, the world at large, and also the universe. 
Macleish wrote in such a manner, ranging from bombastic manifestos in “Speech to a Crowd”  where he commands the reader: “Let the dead shriek with their whispering breath. / Laugh at them! Say the murdered gods may wake / But we who work have end of work together. / Tell yourselves the earth is yours to take!” (New and Collected Poems, p. 307) to soft incantations that pull the reader into a deceptively quiet conversation, like in “What the Wind Said to the Water: What the Water Replied”:

Man, like any creature, 
Dies where two days meet: 
Dead, by time is eaten. 

Sea worm leaves behind 
Shell for wave to find: 
Man, the shell of mind. (New and Collected Poems, p. 457)
Sparse, imagistic descriptions, with a mix of prosaic conversation, often filled his modernist aesthetic. But most people know him for “Ars Poetica”, a poem which marked both the contemporary shift in poetic styles and in critics’ reading of poetry entire. The impact of the final stanzas speaks for itself:

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.

Whether by blood or because of the pressures of his disillusioned, war-torn times, Macleish was humanist to the core. What makes him stand a head above the rest of modern poets is not just the depth of his poetry and his output of over fifty works of poetry collections, plays and essays, but what he chose to do with his reputation in the public sector. He believed that a poet’s place was not on the outskirts of society looking on, but directly in the middle of it. He publicly advocated for poetry, as the Librarian of Congress, and succeeded in getting the most funding for the Library of Congress since its inception. He also began the process of naming the first Poet Laureate of America. 

Archibald Macleish was born May 7, 1892. For more of his work, read Tower of Ivory and Poems 1924-1933.

By Thad Higa



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