`OF course, the problem is one of form," he said.
He was descending the steps of Harvard's Widener Library. He'd just accepted me into his writing course, English S - "limited to 12," the catalogue read. I was a young man from the Midwest, as he had been more than four decades earlier when he'd enrolled at Yale. After reading some of my fiction from my sophomore year he'd taken me in.
Archibald MacLeish was 65 then. He was handsome, with a silvery reading voice. He descended from between Widener's pillars as if from a pantheon.
It was the era of Eisenhower, MacLeish's almost exact contemporary (MacLeish had been allied with Roosevelt and Stevenson). It was the time between McCarthyism, which MacLeish had fought, and the racial protests of the '60s, in which MacLeish later was to encourage former students to engage.
A tension built in the class between those inclined toward literary criticism and those of a more directly creative bent. Chiefly I remember the sunlight on his face in the seminar room on an upper Widener floor, his voice, and his remark that, when he went to his stone cabin early in the morning to write, he often felt like blowing his brains out.
Scott Donaldson has just written the first biography of the poet, "Archibald MacLeish, An American Life." Houghton Mifflin, publisher of MacLeish's poetry, released the book last week on the 100th anniversary of his birth. Donaldson, an English professor at the College of William and Mary, stopped by my office to talk about his book.
"He saved everything," Donaldson exclaimed.
After Yale MacLeish went to Harvard Law, then to Paris in the '20s, back to teaching and a stint as Librarian of Congress and as writer of lofty phrases for Roosevelt as America headed into war.
"He felt an obligation to make poetry do the work of politics," Donaldson says. "A lot of people were turned off by that. From the aesthetic end it was said his poetry became propaganda. From the political end, MacLeish was seen as an interloper."
MacLeish's poems have been dropping out of modern anthologies. His reputation would revive if his late poetry became more familiar, Donaldson says. MacLeish lived and wrote into his 90th year. "It is much more moving, humorous," Donaldson says of this senior work. "He is more himself and less the public man."
The young MacLeish struggled with self-doubt. "I have no strength but the good opinion of others," he wrote.
In France MacLeish adopted the writing routine he was to follow for most of his life, Donaldson observes: "He wrote in the morning, exclusively. For the ear-sensitive MacLeish, the poems almost always started with a sound, 'a rhythmic sound which clearly has a meaning but you don't know what ... yet.' When the sound became a phrase, a clause, a sentence, he knew he was at work. What he was after, in the end product, was 'a believable speaking voice, a voice that will collect feelings the way lint collect s on certain fabrics.' Once begun, the drafts were set down in pencil, with an eraser kept handy.... Each day he stopped while he had momentum for the next: He did not know what he would do on the morrow, but he knew there was still 'something moving inside.' When a poem seemed complete, he put it away in a desk drawer, letting it ripen (or the opposite) like an apple. He did not want to publish green poems."
In Paris he became friends with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Joyce. Published from abroad, MacLeish came home famous.
MacLeish was given to infatuations. He was rather too close to his wife, Ada, and to his poetry, and too distant from his sons. He felt distant toward himself, too. Among his late lines:
Now in the night the words
cry in the sound of the wind,
cry in the sound of the sea.
I wake and I know they speak
but not to me.
He had fought for form: "In adopting a public persona," Donaldson concludes, "he had almost lost track of himself."