An ars poetica poem is a poem examining the role of poets themselves as subjects, their relationships to the poem, and the act of writing.
“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 This Art: Poems about Poetry (Copper Canyon Press, 2003).
History of the Ars Poetica Form
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 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.”
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.
A poem should be 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 relationships to the poem, and the act of writing. Sharon Olds’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.