Once upon a time, Archibald MacLeish cast a shadow.
Mar 2, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 23 • By JOHN SIMON
Students being students, they looked for and found spurious shortcuts. In the case of Yeats, they latched on to the line "the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart," and bandied it about as an answer to every question about the poems. This was brought to MacLeish's attention and mildly upset him.
What upset him much more was the students' discovery of what remains to this day his best-known poem, "Ars Poetica," and its portentous ending: "A poem should not mean / But be." Visibly embarrassed, MacLeish went into a superior performance of rhetoric and oratory trying to explain that those words, whatever they managed to be, did not mean what they seemed to say. But dissatisfied with his own sophistry, he resolved to repudiate the poem and prevent its future reprinting. Needless to say, he dropped the idea.
When the course got to Rilke, MacLeish announced that, in a forthcoming lecture, we would alternate: He would read a poem in translation with me then reading it in the German original. I don't know how the reigning beauty among Radcliffe students, Christine Bosshard, of German-Swiss origin, got wind of this and came to me asking to audit that session. I, of course, agreed--and, after one look at her, so did MacLeish.
Christine enjoyed my performance, but alas, not enough to show any further interest in me. MacLeish, however, summoned me to his office, which I entered wondering what I had done wrong this time. He, however, received me cordially, and merely wanted to know who was that beautiful girl I had brought to his class. I told him what little I knew.
Christine graduated, but I somehow managed to track her down in New York's West Village. She granted me a short walk around a few blocks of the Village. She revealed very little about herself, and made no mention of MacLeish. That was the last I saw of her.
As the course progressed to Rimbaud, I hoped that Archie (that was how I thought of him, but certainly not how I addressed him) would also ask me for some recitation in French. This didn't happen, either because he did not know my fluency in French, or because, in his five expatriate years in Paris, he had learned enough French to be able to recite Rimbaud in French to himself, and let the students fend for themselves.
At term's end, Archie threw an afternoon farewell party for his students in both courses. He and his wife Barbara inhabited a rather grand house in the suburbs, and we foregathered in a large, glassed-in terrace room. In a corner sat Barbara, lovely but prematurely white-haired, looking wifely and silently knitting. When Archie would turn to her for comment, she would just smile and knit on. He was nicely put together, as always, conservatively suited as befits a former assistant secretary of state and Librarian of Congress. Not for him the academic uniform of rumpled corduroy jacket and khaki pants.
For some reason, Harold Brodkey wasn't there; perhaps he had had enough of menopausal maunderings. When MacLeish voiced his regret at the absence of an outstanding student, I had had enough and quoted the outstanding student's slur. The result? It was held against me, not him.
The last time I saw Archie was years later at some cultural program of New York's 92nd Street Y. He was seated a few rows ahead of me on the aisle, with the good wife next to him. I went up to them and greeted respectfully. After the briefest bafflement, Archie beamed at me, greeted me warmly and, turning to Barbara, asked, "You remember John Simon, dear, don't you?" Barbara said little, if anything, and smiled her knitter's smile. No memorable words passed, and perhaps there wasn't even time before the program began.
Sad, but not exactly unearned, is how unread and unremembered MacLeish has become today, not quite 27 years after his demise, both as poet and cultural propagandist. This despite his two Pulitzer Prizes for poetry and one for drama (the pretentious but hollow verse play J.B., which also won a Tony). He also won a National Book Award, the Bollingen Prize in poetry, an Academy Award for Documentary Feature (The Eleanor Roosevelt Story), and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
His poetry hardly even needed Edmund Wilson's brilliant satire, "The Omelet of A. MacLeish." Check out almost any poem of his and it reads like a parody of T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound. Even the frequent absence of punctuation MacLeish could have derived from e.e. cummings or Guillaume Apollinaire. On dusty shelves, the poems may still be, but they certainly do not mean much.
John Simon writes about theater for Bloomberg News.