Ars Poetica

Posted: July 24, 2007 in About Literature, Term of Literature

Ars Poetica is a term meaning “The Art of Poetry” or “On the Nature of Poetry”. It originated with a work by Horace and has since spawned many other poems that bear the same name. Three of the most notable examples, including the work by Horace, are as follows.

Ars Poetica (also known as “The Art of Poetry”, Epistula Ad Pisones, or Letters to Piso) was a treatise on poetics. It was first translated into English by Queen Elizabeth I. Three quotes in particular are associated with the work:

  • in medias res“, or “into the middle of things”; this describes a popular narrative technique that appears frequently in ancient epics and remains popular to this day
  • “bonus dormitat Homerus” or “even Homer nods“; an indication that even the most skilled poet can make continuity errors
  • ut pictura poesis“, or “As is painting so is poetry”, by which Horace meant that poetry (in its widest sense, “imaginative texts”) merited the same careful interpretation that was, in Horace’s day, reserved for painting.

The latter two quotes occur back-to-back, near the end of the treatise.

The best known poem by Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982) took its title and subject from Horace’s work. His poem “Ars Poetica” contains the line “A poem should not mean/but be”, which was a classic statement of the modernist aesthetic. The original manuscript of the poem resides in the Library of Congress.

Ars Poetica

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:
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.
[source: wikipedia]

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