Archibald MacLeish: An Introduction.

The Poems

Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982), has largely faded into critical obscurity, but, in his own time was a major figure; a sort of poet-statesman, writing some of the most widely read poetry of the decade while entering into public positions, ranging from editor at Fortune magazine to various positions in the adminstration of Franklin Roosevelt, including simultaneous positions as Librarian of Congress and assitant director of the Office of War Information and finally, as Assistant Secretary of State from 1944-45 (Reflections 71-175).

MacLeish's poetry, as well, demonstrates an engagement with the immediate trend of the times and a sense of duty on the part of the poet to speak to his times. Horace Gregory cites MacLeish's claim to "speak to my own time / To no time after" (Gregory 449).

In poems like "Reproach to Dead Poets" and "Epistle to Be Left in the Earth," MacLeish advocates a poetics that "tells", that articulates the nature of the larger social order as a service and a duty to humanity. In "Epistle" this vocation is depicted as passing on of truths and knowledge from beyond death by the leaving of poetic composition "in the earth". The poet becomes the tool for the social order's self-perpetuation.

Of course, for MacLeish the social is a sort of generalized humanity, rather than a specific cultural tradition. In "Speech to a Crowd" he appeals to this mass to, as in "Epistle" find meaning and immortality only in "earth and the man". Searching in "the dark" for deep and permanent meanings is folly and prevents the "crowd" from taking possession of the earth "that was always [theirs]".

MacLeish expresses a similar sentiment in "Invocation to the Social Muse," as he addresses the polyglot muse as "Senora", "Fraulien", "Tovarishch", and other titles. Here he also refers to poets as "whores" who follow competing army camps and will lie with either side. The ideals that the various armies claim as justification are imagined messages from the darkness that ultimately impoverish humanity. The poet demonstrates his indifference to these distractions by accomodating both, for they are all part of the crowd to whom the poet owes his only duty.

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