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Related Poems
Don Juan [If from great nature's or our own abyss]
by George Gordon Byron
Essay on Criticism [But most by numbers]
by Alexander Pope
Ars Poetica
by Archibald MacLeish
Ground Swell
by Mark Jarman
by Marianne Moore
Take the I Out
by Sharon Olds
The Bear
by Galway Kinnell
The Poems I Have Not Written
by John Brehm
What He Thought
by Heather McHugh
by Billy Collins
A Book Of Music
by Jack Spicer
A True Poem
by Lloyd Schwartz
Always on the Train
by Ruth Stone
Ars Poetica
by Anthony Butts
Ars Poetica
by Primus St. John
If It All Went Up in Smoke
by George Oppen
Related Prose
Epistles, Book II, Ars Poetica
by Horace
Lesson Plans
Poems about Poetry
Related Pages
Poems for Every Occasion
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Ars Poetica: Poems about Poetry


"To write about poetry is to believe that there are answers to some of the questions poets ask of their art, or at least that there are reasons for writing it," writes Michael Weigers, editor of the anthology One Art: Poems about Poetry (Copper Canyon Press, 2003).

Among the first known treatises on poetry, Horace's "Ars Poetica" (also referred to as Letters to Piso) is literally translated as "The Art of Poetry" or "On the Art of Poetry." Composed sometime between 20 B.C.E. and 13 B.C.E., the poem outlines principles of poetry, including knowledge, decorum, and sincerity, and introduced Horace as both a poet and critic. In the piece, he advises poets to read widely, strive for precision, and seek honest criticism.

First translated into English by Ben Jonson and published in 1640, the treatise set standards for poetry and criticism and laid the foundation for an entire category of poetic work still being written today. While the expectations of ars poetica have shifted from didactic argument toward more introspective takes on a poet's individual art, Horace's treatise continues to be serve as the model.

Alexander Pope's "Essay on Criticism" is the most exemplary ars poetica of the Enlightenment. Written in 1709, Pope references Horace by name and offers general wisdom as well as advice to writers: "Be not the first by whom the new are tried, / Nor yet the last to lay the old aside."

Romantic writers also employed key elements of ars poetica in their writing. Lord Byron's epic masterpiece, Don Juan, features numerous references to the formal and emotional aspects of composition:

An in-door life is less poetical;
     And out of door hath showers, and mists,
          and sleet,
With which I could not brew a pastoral.
     But be it as it may, a bard must meet
All difficulties, whether great or small,
     To spoil his undertaking or complete,
And work away like spirit upon matter,
Embarrass'd somewhat both with fire and water.

Perhaps one of the most famous American examples is Archibald MacLeish's "Ars Poetica":

A poem should 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.

Written in part as a response to the highly rhetorical nature of English poetry at the start of the twentieth century, MacLeish's piece states the Modernist perspective: "a poem should not mean / but be."

Poets have continued to expand upon the central tenets of Horace's work, closely examining the role of poets themselves as subject, their relationship to the poem, and the act of writing. Sharon Old's "Take the I Out" and Heather McHugh's "What He Thought" present speakers who use wit and introspection to reconcile an increased self-awareness with standards of poetic style; Billy Collins's "Workshop," John Brehm's "The Poems I Have Not Written", and Mark Jarman's "Ground Swell" use humor and rhetoric to offer insight into the writing process; and Galway Kinnell's "The Bear" and James Galvin's "Art Class" approach poetry obliquely, comparing the poet and writing poetry to subjects outside of the art.

Some other examples of ars poetica poems that can be found on include:

"A Book Of Music" by Jack Spicer
"A True Poem" by Lloyd Schwartz
"All Their Stanzas Look Alike" by Thomas Sayers Ellis
"Always on the Train" by Ruth Stone
"And It Came to Pass" by C. D. Wright
"Ars Poetica" by Eleanor Wilner
"Ars Poetica" by Primus St. John
"Ars Poetica" by Anthony Butts
"Ars Poetica (cocoons)" by Dana Levin
"Arthur's Anthology of English Poetry" by Laurence Lerner
"Because You Asked about the Line Between Prose and Poetry" by Howard Nemerov
"Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks" by Jane Kenyon
"Broadway" by Mark Doty
"Cockroaches: Ars Poetica" by Chad Davidson
"Dawn" by James Laughlin
"Detail" by Eamon Grennan
"Diving into the Wreck" by Adrienne Rich
"Endnote" by Hayden Carruth
"Envoi" by William Meredith
"In the old days a poet once said" by Ko Un
"Instructions to Be Left Behind" by Marvin Bell
"Introduction to Poetry" by Billy Collins
"Language" by W. S. Merwin
"Loading a Boar" by David Lee
"National Poetry Month" by Elaine Equi
"Near" by William Stafford
"On Becoming a Poet in the 1950s" by Stephen Beal
"On the Grasshopper and the Cricket" by John Keats
"On the Subject of Poetry" by W. S. Merwin
"One Train May Hide Another" by Kenneth Koch
"Poet's Work" by Lorine Niedecker
"Poetry" by Marianne Moore
"Poetry" by Billy Collins
"Prefix: Finding the measure" by Robert Kelly
"Science" by Robert Kelly
"Singapore" by Mary Oliver
"Some Part of the Lyric" by Gregory Orr
"Speech Alone" by Jean Follain
"Strawberry on the Drawbridge" by Matthea Harvey
"The Allure of Forms" by Coral Bracho
"The Bargain" by Cyrus Cassells
"The Cities Inside Us" by Alberto Ríos
"The High-Toned Old Christian Woman" by Wallace Stevens
"The Past" by Barbara Guest
"The Poem as Mask" by Muriel Rukeyser
"The Snow and the Plum — II" by Lu Mei-P'o
"The Uses of Poetry" by William Carlos Williams
"There is no frigate like a book (1263)" by Emily Dickinson
"This Was Once a Love Poem" by Jane Hirshfield
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