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Collected Poems, 1917-1952

By Archibald MacLeish

Original Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Current Publisher: Out of Print

John Murillo writes:

Reading Archibald MacLeish's Collected Poems brought a new favorite poet into my life. It also gave me even more reason to question the criteria by which some poets are canonized while others go ignored for years. With three Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award to his name, MacLeish was clearly celebrated in his day. But how is it that after a four-year undergraduate liberal arts education, an MFA in creative writing, and countless conversations with other poets about influences and issues of craft—some insanely erudite poets, I might add—I'm only now learning about this important poet and his contribution to American letters? Someone should have pulled my coat a long time ago. Archibald MacLeish is the truth!

I'll let you in on a little secret: When we poets were asked to blog and assigned our NBA winners, we damn near shut down the internet with all the backchannel trading that went on. “Hey, can I get William Matthews from you?” “Sure, only if you give up Lucille Clifton.” “Damn. Okay, but how about...” For the life of me, I couldn't get anyone to take Archibald MacLeish off my hands no matter who I offered up in exchange. Good thing. Had I not read him, I'd have missed out on so so much, both as reader and writer. The old dude has a lot he can teach us.

MacLeish is often referred to as an imagist poet, albeit a latecomer to the movement. He's also been linked with the Modernists, due in part to a few of his long poems, which some consider derivative of Pound and Eliot. I'm not sure I'd group him with either. For me, he's more modern than Modern. There is such a fresh, even contemporary, feel to so many of his poems that he seems out of step with most in his cohort. His mastery of the line, his often subtle, always lively rhythms, give one the sense that one is reading what could have been written as recently as the eighties or nineties. 

In the poem, “Eleven,” for instance, MacLeish works a non-metered, mostly ten-syllable line as well as anything one might find in the best of Philip Levine or Henry Taylor. This line is perfect for his narrative because while it forces some compression—essential for the poem's image-driven muscularity—it also allows a little bit of swing, some room for the natural rhythms inherent in American speech, allows the poem to flow almost conversationally, the language almost transparent:


And summer mornings the mute child, rebellious,

Stupid, hating the words, the meanings, hating

The Think now, Think, the Oh but Think! would leave

On tiptoe the three chairs on the verandah

And crossing tree by tree the empty lawn

Push back the shed door and upon the sill

Stand pressing out the sunlight from his eyes

And enter and with outstretched fingers feel

The grindstone and behind it the bare wall

And turn and in the corner on the cool

Hard earth sit listening. And one by one,

Out of the dazzled shadow in the room,

The shapes would gather, the brown plowshare, spades,

Mattocks, the polished helves of picks, a scythe

Hung from the rafters, shovels, slender tines

Glinting across the curve of sickles—shapes

Older than men were, the wise tools, the iron

Friendly with earth. And sit there, quiet, breathing

The harsh dry smell of withered bulbs, the faint

Odor of dung, the silence. And outside

Beyond the half-shut door the blind leaves

And the corn moving. And at noon would come,

Up from the garden, his hard crooked hands

Gentle with earth, his knees still earth-stained, smelling

Of sun, of summer, the old gardener, like

A priest, like an interpreter, and bend

Over his baskets.

                             And they would not speak:

They would say nothing. And the child would sit there

Happy as though he had no name, as though

He had been no one: like a leaf, a stem,

Like a root growing—

I never get the sense, reading MacLeish, that he's forcing anything. He understands pitch, volume, when to foreground technique, when to pull back. He sings, whispers, and shuts the hell up at the right times, all with the intention not to call attention to himself as an artist, but to the work. Here is a serious craftsman. By the time the poems reach the reader, much of the work's been done. All that's left for one is to enjoy. And to learn.

One of my teachers, Kimiko Hahn, suggested that apprentice poets always read like thieves. When poring over the work of masters—or even lesser-known poets, including contemporaries—one should always be asking oneself, “What can I steal from this poet?  How can I take what they're doing and use it in my own work?” I came late to the work of Archibald MacLeish. But here is a storehouse of riches I can pillage for years to come.  And while most of my peers are looking elsewhere, I'll have it almost to myself. Watch me rob this old man blind.

John Murillo is the author of the poetry collection, Up Jump the Boogie (Cypher Books, 2010). A graduate of New York University's MFA program in creative writing, he has received fellowships from the New York Times, Cave Canem, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, among others. He is a founding member of the collective, The Symphony, and is currently visiting assistant professor of creative writing at Cornell University. (Photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Stanley Burnshaw for Early and Late Testament
  • Thomas H. Ferril for New and Selected Poems
  • Robert Hillyer for The Suburb by the Sea
  • Ernest Kroll for Cape Horn and Other Poems
  • W.S. Merwin for A Mask for Janus
  • Byron H. Reece for A Song of Joy
  • Naomi Replansky for Ring Song
  • Kenneth Rexroth for The Dragon and the Unicorn
  • Jesse Stuart for Kentucky Is My Land
  • Ridgely Torrence for Poems
  • Peter Viereck for The First Morning

Poetry Judges that Year: Leonie Adams, John Malcolm Brinnin, Howard Moss,
Oscar Williams, William Carlos Williams

The Year in Literature: Collected Poems, 1917-1952 by Archibald MacLeish also won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Other Information:

  • Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982) was born in Glencoe, IL.
  • In 1959 MacLeish won a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize for drama for his play J.B.

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Reader Comments (36)

I was amused and heartened by this piece. I'm glad to see MacLeish getting the credit he deserves. I've been trying to get people to read him for years!

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