Philosophical Poetry by Fred Wilbur

Photo of cracked asphalt
Photo by F. Wilbur


In a recent batch of ‘reviews’ from an online magazine, I was struck by the variety of descriptive words used to evaluate the thirty-five or so poems. They ranged from “funny,” “strong,” and “moving” to “masterful,” “cinematic,” and “sardonic.” These superlatives were illustrated by a phrase or line which purportedly was the essence of the work; the impressive image, at least. Clearly, there was little effort to delve into the subject, the art or mechanics of the pieces. I wonder, would readers just pick out the “exhilarating,” the “charming,” the “delightful” in hopes of lifting their spirits only to ignore the “delicious,” the “witty,” the “riveting”?

All this to introduce “philosophical” placed uniquely next to my poem. I certainly appreciate being included in this sound-out and grateful for prompting some thought about the nature of my piece.  But the label explains nothing.  All accomplished poets are, or should be, philosophical.

There are gradations of this philosophical thing, of course. For years I have underlined words (or circled ones that definitionally challenged me), checked or Xed lines, and jotted notes in the broad margins. Some poems earn a So What!? indicating a poem lite, read once and forgotten. Others demand another, closer reading because they are more compelling; there is something that intrigues. The reader is persuaded to read it again, to live in the words. And at the logical, far end, other poems are cerebrally jumbled, reliant on arcane or abstruse vocabulary or are clubhouse private and come out sounding like nonsense. And, with the current trashing of fact-based communication, to find common sense is now a virtue. The most effective philosophical poem involves the practical, the rule-of-thumb variety which observes, questions, explains, in an effort to study the fundamental nature of knowledge, of reality, of existence. It guides the reader to a gob-smack insight or some ever so quiet ah-ha moment; what good poems do.

Some synonyms of ‘philosophical’ are abstract, logical, metaphysical, profound, rational, thoughtful, and I’m sure other words, but you get what I’m saying. Even pure description hints at point of view, a tone or attitude, selective word choice with accompanying nuance, syntax and maybe more. Was it Wallace Stevens who suggested that pure description has or can have significance and meaning? However, banal descriptions of spring land in the So What!? pile.

There is a recurring refrain these days that words matter, a phrase of credence in reaction to recent political consequences where disinformation, dog whistles, or secret symbols are clearly disingenuous. The phrase implies (in this usage) that everything said should be true, i.e. express generally accepted facts. I subscribe to this concept wholeheartedly. We have to believe in this phrase to be serious writers, and not just in that socio-political context.

But I wonder how this idea applies to art in general and poetry in particular. Is imagination and the scenarios created through it untrue? Are movies, science fiction novels, Guernica, Shakespeare’s plays, Albinoni’s oboe concerti untrue? I am of the school (counter to many suggestions to novice writers from poets who should know better) that poems are indeed fictions. Or at least don’t have to be literally ‘true’ in every detail. The worst thing a novice poet can say as a defense is “it really happened that way”. Reality is beside the point. A poem must have its own logic, verisimilitude, indeed, its own ‘truth.’ We say words in poems matter. I’d say the integrity of the poem matters. Is this considered philosophical?

As poets and writers, imprisoned in our own minds, we aspire to escape, to have a larger voice. I don’t mean the ‘finding your voice’ of self-help manuals, but a humanist voice. Again, there is a range of voices. One can find whimpers in the wilderness of cultural platitude or find cheap cleverness and cloying narcissism. You can also find genuine sincerity even in fostering a fiction which speaks to us if we’d only pay attention. Personally, I wonder why the poet’s biographical details should be necessary to appreciate the work and have concluded that the work should stand on its own self-contained merits and that any biographical information is only derived from what is in the poem. We should not need to know that so-and-so moved to Omaha at age nine to see hogs for the first time in order to appreciate so-and-so’s poem that mentions bacon.

Part of this need for so-called voice (and rule number one of the poetry instruction manuals) is to be concrete. This advice is useful up to a point. An effective poem usually has a literal surface to cling to or enough imagistic specifics to carry the poem. This emphasis on concreteness, however, implies that if an abstraction creeps in, there is a diminishment of the poem’s value. Presumably the reader gets ‘lost.’ A poem worth its herbs and spices carries the reader beyond the (dare I say) factual, the predictable, the ordinary, the purely descriptive. Stopping by Woods On a Snowy Evening is both literal and abstract in that it implies, through connotation, many other considerations. We encounter abstractions daily: LOVE represents an intangible emotion (though printed on rainbow colored sympathy balloons!). Money (and an NFT!) is only a (cheap) representation of worth or value. Courage, cowardice, grace, grief, peace, envy, death, etc. Not to be too philosophical, but don’t we live constantly with abstraction, with ideas? Doesn’t this avoidance of abstraction in poetry diminish the art? As poets (artists) what are we afraid of? Mental work? Admittedly, because these concepts can mean different things to different people in indifferent situations, they are to be handled adroitly. They must earn their place in a poem much more than purely ‘concrete’ images.

My poem deemed ‘philosophical’ is mostly observational having an underlying narrative of a pilgrimage challenged by global warming induced change. The ‘comment’ of the poem is the seduction/addiction of natural beauty, beauty being the abstract. Though I deal with some ordinary subjects and tangible objects in my poetry, I hope it conveys some detached amusement, some joy tempered by realism, some worded wisdom that takes the reader beyond the stone’s throw. Auden said a poem should be more interesting than anything that might be said about it (in Mary Ruefle On Theme, page 56 in Madness, Rack and Honey.) Isn’t this being philosophical about the integrity of poetry?

Frederick Wilbur
Frederick Wilbur received his BA from the University of Virginia and an MA from the University of Vermont. He has authored three books on architectural and decorative woodcarving. His two poetry collections are As Pus Floats the Splinter Out and Conjugation of Perhaps. His work has appeared in many print and on-line reviews including Shenandoah, The Atlanta Review, The Comstock Review, The Dalhousie Review, Rise Up Review, and Mojave River Review. He was awarded the Stephen Meats Award by Midwest Quarterly (2017).

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