Two Views on the Nature of Language – An Addendum: Ars Poetica

While browsing this blog, I came across this 1971 essay by the literary critic Cleanth Brooks. It is short but incisive, and the first page, in particular, resonated with me quite powerfully.

Brooks opens with:

“One can sum up modern poetic technique by calling it the rediscovery of metaphor and the full commitment to metaphor. The poet can legitimately step out into the universal only by first going through the narrow door of the particular. The poet does not select an abstract theme and then embellish it with concrete details. On the contrary, he must establish the details, must abide by the details, and through his realization of the details attain to whatever general meaning he can attain. The meaning must issue from the particulars; it must not seem to be arbitrarily forced upon the particulars.”


“The commitment to metaphor thus implies, with respect to general theme, a principle of indirection. With respect to particular images and statements, it implies a principle of organic relationship. That is, the poem is not a collection of beautiful or “poetic” images. If there really existed objects which were somehow intrinsically “poetic,” still the mere assemblage of these would not give us a poem. For in that case, one might arrange bouquets of these poetic images and thus create poems by formula. But the elements of a poem are related to each other, not as blossoms juxtaposed in a bouquet, but as the blossoms are related to the other parts of a growing plant. The beauty of the poem is the flowering of the whole plant, and needs the stalk, the leaf, and the hidden roots.”

Although Brooks is employing an entirely different set of images and metaphors, I think that there is a lot in these two paragraphs that resembles Auden’s view of poetry, that I discussed in my last post. The “universal“, the “abstract theme“, the (possibility of) objects that are “intrinsically poetic” – all this recalls to mind Auden’s idea of the sacred, to which our only response (which cannot be described further, or more accurately) is of “imaginative awe”. So the reason why poetic language must apply metaphors and particulars is because it does not – how could it? – seek to define or describe the imaginative awe (thus I’m not entirely sure if Brooks’ use of the term “indirection” is an entirely happy one).

The further reason why poetry cannot simply be a collection of “poetic images” is because that would be tantamount to an exercise of translation, trying to generate in us the imaginative awe by reporting a set of experiences that have, in the past, generated it in others. That, of course, is a futile attempt. It must, on the contrary, be an organic whole, because order, balance, harmony and symmetry are what awaken in us a sense of beauty through form, and that is the primary aim of poetry.

This reminds me of a poem that we once read in school, and which now, the more poetry I read, speaks to me the more powerfully:

Ars Poetica

– Archibald Macleish

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.


Filed under Archibald Macleish, Cleanth Brooks

2 responses to “Two Views on the Nature of Language – An Addendum: Ars Poetica

  1. One thing that strikes me about Books’s point about concrete details, themes and metaphors is that though poetry may be the most obvious example, I think that it applies to all literature, and perhaps , all art forms.

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