The Human Perishable Heart: Archibald MacLeish at Antioch
Today on Rediscovered Radio, we meet the American poet Archibald MacLeish whose life spanned most of the 20th century. Bob Dylan described him as a man “who could take real people from history..and with the tender touch of a creator, deliver them right to your door.” Rediscovered Radio producer Dave Barber has the story of a MacLeish visit to Antioch College. Captured on tape, it is now part of the WYSO archives.
Archibald Macleish once told the Paris Review “Poetry is the art of understanding what it is to be alive.” MacLeish was 74 and an eminent man of American letters when he came to Yellow Springs in 1966. He came to see the Antioch Area Theatre stage a production of his Pulitzer Prize winning play J.B. While at Antioch he gave a poetry reading.
"This is a literary poem, sort of literary, its about a subject which has become literary at least, Paris in the twenties. When I lived there for about 6 years I didn’t realize it was literary I didn’t realize I was even an expatriate. I was just living in Paris. This really is a poem for a young generation. Years Of The Dog.
Before, though, Paris was wonderful. Wanderers.
Talking in all tongues from every country.
Fame was what they wanted in that town. Fame could be found there too — flushed like quail in the Cool dawn — struck among statues
Naked in hawthorn in the silver light.
James Joyce found it. Dublin bore him.
Could have sung with McCormack! Could he? He could.
Did he? He didn't. He walked by the winding Seine.
And what did he eat? He ate orts: oddities:
Oh he was poor: obscure: no one had heard of him:
Rolled on the floor on the floor with the pain in his eyes.
And found fame? He did. Ulysses: Yule Book:
Published to every people even in Erse.
(Molly Molly why did you say so Molly!)
Or the lad in the Rue de Notre Dame des Champs
At the carpenter’s loft on the left hand side going down —
The lad with the supple look like a sleepy panther—
And what became of him? Fame became of him.
Veteran out of the wars before he was twenty: Famous at twenty-five: thirty a master —
Whittled a style for his time from a walnut stick
In a carpenter's loft in a street of that April city. "
Before his time in Paris, Archibald MacLeish had witnessed World War One up close as an ambulance driver, like his friend Ernest Hemingway, and later as a soldier, too.
During the second World War, after President Franklin Roosevelt had picked him to be Librarian of Congress, he wrote propaganda, was involved in the formation of the OSS, the predecessor to the CIA and became an assistant Secretary of State. His poem Actfive, published in 1948, grappled with the shock and loss of faith caused by war. It was the final work MacLeish read at Antioch.
“The city of man consumed to ashes. Ashes. The republic of marble rubble on its hill. the laws rules rights prayers filters all exhausted. elders and the supernatural aides withdrawn abandoned by them all by all forsaken the naked human perishable heart naked as seaworm and the shattered shell no further savior standing to come forth nor magic champion with miraculous blade nor help in fight nor suffer in the field thou art my shield thou art my rock no help no hand no sucker but itself the human perishable heart confused weak frightened in the staring face of time after so long a shelter shuddering cold after so long a slumber sleeping still.”
After Actfive was published, MacLeish taught at Harvard University for the next 13 years, where he explored the meaning of poetry with his students. In a 1958 lecture MacLeish offered insight into a career that merged art with a public life. He stated that “poetry and journalism are both recreations, different in degree but not in kind, for the material in each case is our human experience.” Statesman-poet Archibald MacLeish died in 1982.
For more about Archibald MacLeish’s 1966 appearance in Yellow Springs, visit the Rediscovered Radio blog at https://wysoarchivesblog.wordpress.com/2017/01/12/archibald-macleish-j-b-in-yellow-springs/
Rediscovered Radio is made possible in part by Ohio Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.