Bedrock Poetry by Fred Wilbur

Photo of cracking yellow line in street
Photo by Fred Wilbur

“An artist is said to be original exactly when he takes up the challenge of tradition and makes us see something more than we already knew.” Demetri Porphyrios. Classical Architecture.


I am a fundamentalist. But contemporary connotations dredge up all sorts of pejoratives that I want to dispel. I want you to understand fundamental. There are fundamental math equations, fundamental conventions of a civilized society (etiquette), of language use, rules of public road driving, of constructing a printed book, of lasting friendships, fundamental principles of civil rights in an educated and democratic country. In the long game, fundamental common sense.

“Fundamental, as an adjective, among other definitions, means: of or relating to essential structure or function, of central importance and as a noun; one of the minimum constituents without which a thing or system would not be what it is.” [Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 1976].

Fundamental is not to be confused with Fundamentalism which is associated with a literal, dogmatic belief in religious writings, creeds, and so forth. You may prefer one interpretation over another, as I personally am more drawn to Theravada (Way of the Elders) Buddhism than to the many other derivative schools.

But I want to bring this back to writing. I am a fundamentalist poet. Let me explain. Poetry is by definition: “a metrical writing or a writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound and rhythm; a quality that stirs the imagination of spontaneity and grace.” [same source] This is my creed.

Accuse me of old-foggy-ism, being mired-in-the-mud-ism, even absenteeism. I care, but in a different way than you might think. I don’t care if I am labeled this or that, but I want my work to be universal, timeless, even fundamental. How can this ever be achieved? I travel a middle path, believing in experimentation, but also believing in discipline. Shouldn’t every poem be an experiment? Shouldn’t every poem be disciplined?

Experiment for experiment’s sake, i.e. to be shocking or trendy or even ‘cool’, however, usually does not end well. In failure lies the empathy of the world, but is that what you want? Bottomline, strive to entertain the fundamentals and not the lukewarm translations from the mother tongue, the babble of street conversation, or the garble of newspeak. You cannot soar without your feet on the ground. Learn the basics.

Don’t allow the “message” to be diluted by the bric-a-brac of prose platitudes. No, I don’t live alone with thirteen cats leaving their objections in a hidden corner or under the bed or live among immutable classics of some golden age. I have grandkids to educate me.

As I suggest, be a fundamentalist of the moderate. You should want a degree of purity in your poems—not necessarily sequestered in old forms, old traditions, but definitely within the realm of the definition. Use our marvelous language to its fullest in definition, in connotation, and use, even neologisms which seem bastardizations of real words. Don’t get me wrong. I love well-written prose, and I think I can recognize when it is well-crafted. I know when it is imaginative (I understand a horse that sports wings), but then why not write a poem?

Poems that are like an Early Red Haven peach, ripe with wisdom and slurpy-delicious, are read again and again. The peanuts and potatoes of prose must be rubbed free of dirt, and most of us can do without the empty calories. Give the reader apricot nectar or a hand-full of hand-picked wild raspberries.

Part of the seduction of prose is that it bears impatience well. In our culture of distraction, we find ourselves desperate to jot thoughts down, oops, text immediately, which is a sort of sub-prose class of communication. (No wonder our brains are getting smaller). Emails and texts and FB posts are riddled with inaccuracies, mis- and dis- information, ludicrous grammar and misunderstanding. Witness the fad for “flash fiction.” Enjoy the challenge, but don’t pass off prose for poetry.

Rarely does this stream of prose have pools where one can skinny dip at leisure.  As co-editor of poetry for Streetlight, I read a fair number of poems (and prose-poems,) which display for the most part a modicum of craft. Yes, yes, the MFA-ers say everything should sound like conversation, nothing artificial. For the most part, we enter into conversation as a practical matter, not thinking if the person is articulate, succinct, ordered, poetic or a good orator. (One of those old-fashioned words!)  For the most part, I think the lack of artful speakers is one problem with the news media these days. But don’t get me started.

So, what have I said?  I have meanly labeled, disparaged, snickered at the hybrid genres and imposters of prose jostling for legitimacy. Should I be chastised for this? The fundamental question is, can we balance the tried-and-true fundamentals and the crash-and-burn fancifuls? Is it a cop-out to say there are no fundamental answers?

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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