Bristlecone Longevity

The beauty of the tree is not how old,
Indeed how ancient in its gnarling now,
Not in its silent history yet untold,
Nor in the pre-historic roots and bough—
Their age—but in its newness ever new,
Its torqued refusal to be caught by death,
Rejection of defeat enclasped in screw-
Shaped trunk, five-thousand-year eon’s breath
There in its arid air, determined bark,
Those needles prickly and the feisty cones
Which stand against, aghast, against the stark
Realities which beat against its bones,
__These needles and these cones forever young,
____Which sing forever like a new-made tongue.


From the Enlightenment to Gazing at a Dark-haired Navel

How John Locke could result in Pollock is
Opaque to me, but still I think the thread
Is there. When humans think, they start to fizz,
And there’s a clue. If once an unfuzzed head
Is told it doesn’t have to follow God
Or other fundamental creeds, then it
Can run amok with alcohol and odd
Drug pleasures . . . or in a personal fit
Like “Me First, First, First, First!” A painter can
Fling paint across a canvas or can blob
It here and there. A poet fills a span
Of paper with some dribbled words. All throb
__With meaning, or at least that is the claim,
____But really it’s just feelings lacking shame.


Ars Poetica

“The word ‘classic’ itself . . . derives from the Latin word classicus which referred to recruits of the ‘first class’, the heavy infantry in the Roman army. The ‘classical’, then, is ‘first class’, though it is no longer heavily armoured.” ~ Robin Lane Fox, The Classical World: an Epic History from Homer to Hadrian, p. 1

The finest do not win the war with weight
Of numbers. Heavy popularity
Is not enough to stop them. You can freight
The arts with freedoms of vulgarity,
Simplicity, and banging rhymes in verse,
Or wildest sloshes meant to shock the eye
In paintings. You can conjure even worse
In license in a film with all awry
With tastelessness and dirt. There is a way
Which always has been there to make the best
Of creativity. It is the sway
Of formal rules to help the artist wrest
__The power of lawlessness by might of mind
____And make of grossest chaos things refined.


Phillip Whidden is a poet published in America, England, Scotland (and elsewhere) in book form, online, and in journals.  He has also had an article on Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum est” published in The New Edinburgh Review.

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6 Responses

  1. Amy Foreman

    Phillip, I enjoyed these immensely. Your incisive word choices and placements, your brilliant alliteration throughout (“fizz, unfuzzed, fundamental, fit, First, fling” in the second poem, and “win the war with weight . . .” in the third poem) and your skillful use of enjambment make these sonnets push forward relentlessly as a spring freshet, around their “turns” and over the falls, into the succinct, clear waters of your ending couplets. Very well done!

    • Phillip Whidden

      High praise indeed, Amy Foreman. Thanks. I only just noticed yesterday that these poems had appeared on the website. By that time others had occasion to find what they consider faults, so it was good that you got in there first. I note that one of them, in effect, finds fault with your comments. You might not be all that surprised that I consider your comments to be the correct ones. I’m smiling, Amy Foreman.

  2. Joseph S. Salemi

    One minor quibble about your Bristlecone sonnet: in line 8, you should say “four-thousand-year-old eon’s.” The addition of the word “old” to your compound adjective puts the meter of that line in sync with the rest of the poem, which is perfectly iambic. As line 8 stands now, it had only nine syllables, and can only be scanned as an iambic-5 with great awkwardness.

    • James Reis

      I noticed that the poem is set in a single cumulative sentence, which to my ear, needed that cadence break to highlight the poem’s payload with a spotlight shining brightly to frame its importance.

      When I read it the first time, that cadence break hit me strongly as the mark of poetic genius. Even after reading it, perhaps a dozen times, my opinion has not changed in spite of repetition’s reputation for covering the extraordinary with a blanket of familiarity.
      For me, this is treasure found.

  3. Leo Yankevich

    I enjoyed these all, but especially the last two. Unlike Amy, though, I don’t think your enjambments are that skillful. They only expose that you are searching for easy rhymes, rhymes that meet formal requirements, but have no punch.

    A sonnet titled “Ars Poetica” should show some bravura: tight biting rhymes with no enjambments.

    • Phillip Whidden

      Leo Y., I’m waiting for someone to give me a mastering rule to follow about enjambment that would avoid the lack of skill you seem to perceive in some of my sonnets. Will you provide it, please?

      I reject your accusation about my choice of rhymes. I accept your implied assertion that a poem should have “punch.” I think it was Coleridge who said that no poem can be poetry from beginning to end. (Was it Coleridge?) But, yes, if it is a poem, somewhere in there will be a punch or two.


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