The Ars Poetica is a literary device that uses the form of poetry to define or describe the nature of poetry itself. It is inward-looking rather than outward. The poet attempts to explain what poetry is or should be by using the forms and traditions of poetry.
There have been many famous poems about the art of poetry throughout history, but the tradition can be traced back to the Roman poet Horace, who wrote the first of the form in name and in content.
Horace was born in 65 BC and died in 8 BC. His Ars Poetica was published in 13 BC.
Known for his odes and satires, he became one of the greatest Roman poets of his age. He believed poetry should instruct as well as provide pleasure to its reader. His full name was Quintus Horatius Flaccus. Below is an excerpt from Horace's poem Ars Poetica, or The Epistle to the Pisones:
Suppose a painter to a human head
Should join a horse's neck, and wildly spread
The various plumage of the feathered kind
O'er limbs of different beasts, absurdly joined;
Or if he gave to view a beauteous maid
Above the waist with every charm arrayed,
Should a foul fish her lower parts infold,
Would you not laugh such pictures to behold?
Such is the book, that like a sick man's dreams,
Varies all shapes, and mixes all extremes.
"Painters and poets our indulgence claim,
Their daring equal, and their art the same."
I own th' indulgence such I give and take;
But not through Nature's sacred rules to break,
Monstrous to mix the cruel and the kind,
Serpents with birds, and lambs with tigers joined.
Naturally, it seems strange that anyone wrote that way during any time but that was the way much poetry was written then. Today, such verse would not be jilted by the coupleted rhyme scheme and the strict sense of meter.
Such is the case with Archibald McLeish’s poem of the same title. His Ars Poetica, though it rhymes, does not conform to the traditional meter of Horace’s verse. That has to do a lot with the difference between the two time periods in which both poets wrote.
McLeish was born in 1892 AD and died 100 years later. He wrote much of his verse during the Modernist era, which featured such prominent poets as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. In fact, Ars Poetica was written and published in 1925, at the height of the Modernist movement. Read the full poem below:
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:
For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea –
A poem should not mean
If Archibald McLeish is different from Horace because of eras, personalities and philosophies then such is no less true of Czeslaw Milosz, who also wrote a poem titled Ars Poetica.
Milosz was born in Poland in 1911 and died in 2004. Though he was widely traveled and distinguished in many countries around the world, he spent most of his time in the United States after 1960. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980. His Ars Poetica? appeared in 1961. The first two stanzas appear below:
I have always aspired to a more spacious form
that would be free from the claims of poetry or prose
and would let us understand each other without exposing
the author or reader to sublime agonies.
In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent:
a thing is brought forth which we didn't know we had in us,
so we blink our eyes, as if a tiger had sprung out
and stood in the light, lashing his tail.
Notice that Milosz’ poem does not rhyme. Again, we see a difference between the eras and each poet within them.
Milosz is considered a postmodern poet. In Postmodern poetry the language is more common and attempts to reach a popular audience through the vernacular of the common man. It does not rhyme because poets from this school of poetry believe that poetry should be written in the way that people speak. Therefore, though it looks like a poem in form, it is written - and spoken - in the natural flow of everyday language.
Not all ars poeticas are titled Ars Poetica. Many poems about poetry are ars poeticas in content and form but not necessarily in title. Such is the case with the following poem by Millennial poet
How To Write A Poem
Take your heart out. Empty its
Contents upon a thin sheet
Of paper. With the five fingers
Of your leftmost hand
Smear the debris across the canvass
Like mud. You are painting
With words, the words
Of your soul.
Whether an ars poetica rhymes or not, follows a specific form or contains a certain rhythm is not as important as the depth and insight it provides into the art and nature of poetry.
The ars poetica attempts to get to the heart of the definition of poetry without sounding like a dictionary or encyclopedia. After all, if the definition were the most important aspect of the poem then the form of poetry would not be necessary.
Rather, the ars poetica poet seeks to derive a meaning of the art form not from mere words but also from the form, the rhythm, the meter and the tone. It is the entire work that defines the individual poem as well as the general form.
But let’s be honest. No one can give a complete definition of poetry. No dictionary, no encyclopedia, no poet and no ars poetica has ever given the definitive and final answer to the question, “What is poetry?” In fact, such a feat may well be impossible. But that is not the point, really.
What is the point is that a continual dialogue exists regarding the nature and form of poetry so that readers and writers alike may gain insight into the pure work of art that is poetry and add to the compendium of verse their own sacred souls.
To the extent an ars poetica accomplishes this goal it can be said to add value to the dialogue and to the ongoing collection of poetry around the world.
Check out these ars poeticas from the past and present: