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Former Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish asks: What is a Poem?

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With National Poetry Month around the corner, this blog has published a number of posts about resources from the Library of Congress that you can use with your students. These include posts on poems written by soldiers during wartime and exploring the creative process of Langston Hughes. We’ve also done posts featuring primary source sets on Found Poetry and American Authors in the 19th Century, activities including Making Connections through Poetry and Lyrical Legacy, and the resources from the Library’s Poetry and Literature Center.

“Ars Poetica”
Archibald MacLeish

But let’s consider a very basic question: What makes a poem a poem? Noted poet and former Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish considers this in his poem “Ars Poetica“.

Students can begin by describing what they think makes a poem a poem. Provide them with a selection of poems, song sheets and sheet music from Lyrical Legacy, the primary source sets on 19th Century authors and Found Poetry, or soldiers’ wartime poetry. Ask them to determine which are poems, which are not, and why.

Next, hand your students copies of MacLeish’s handwritten version of “Ars Poetica”. This poem describes what a poem should be. Students can compare their description of a poem with MacLeish’s. How similar are their ideas of what makes a poem to MacLeish’s? Explore whether “Ars Poetica” is a poem or not. You might also ask them what difference it makes. How do they look at a piece of writing differently if they believe it’s a poem?

Want to learn more about Archibald MacLeish? The Poetry and Literature Center has a blog post on MacLeish. The May 7th Today in History feature also highlights MacLeish.

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