Jim Finnegan over at Ursprach posted this ironic bit of faint praise for Archibald MacLeish. I don’t know if it reflects his own sense of MacLeish’s importance, but it’s certainly true that “they” who quote his famous “Ars Poetica” very often find the rest of his work forgettable. But Hayden Carruth, who never seems to have forgotten anything important, provided an answer to “them” in his essay “Homage to A. MacLeish,” available in Effluences from the Sacred Caves: More Selected Essays and Reviews:
What is it that makes poetic genius—a Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Browning, Ezra Pound? Poetic talent, of course; that comes first. But something more is needed, the capacity to push that talent, roughshod and in hell or high water, over everything, and this capacity is the more important ingredient. Genius is idiosyncrasy; often enough it is aberrance. Other poets, equally talented, who lack this capacity, who are too modest, too humane, too uncertain, or (if we must be psychoanalytical) too inhibited, fall short of genius. They take their verbal styles more from flamboyant or more persuasive poets, they work only gradually toward modes of personal expression, and they devote much of their artistic energy, not only outside their poems but inside them, to the needs of others, instead of pressing forward in the course of a relentless monomaniacal vision. They are, make no mistake, very good poets, yet they fall in the second rank, the journeymen who sustain and always have sustained civilization’s artistic enterprise.
While it’s probably true that MacLeish is a poet of the second rank, it’s useful to keep in mind Cavafy’s poem about the poet Eumenes, who complains to his mentor Theocritus about the fact that he (Eumenes) has worked two years to produce a single idyll. You can read the poem a good translation of the poem here. Theocritus’s admonition is worth keeping in mind when thinking about a poet like MacLeish.
I’d add that however one “ranks” MacLeish, he did write many excellent poems. One of my favorite is this one, from his last collection, The Wild Old Wicked Man:
“In some some inexplicable way an accident.”
Oh, not inexplicable. Death explains,
that kind of death: rewinds remembrance
backward like a film track till the laughing man
among the lilacs, peeling the green stem,
waits for the gunshot where the play began;
rewinds those Africas and Idahos and Spains
to find the table at the Closerie des Lilas,
sticky with syrup, where the flash of joy
flamed into blackness like that flash of steel.
The gun between the teeth explains.
The shattered mouth foretells the singing boy.