Why photograph a fact when you can catch
A nightmare, be a Jackson Pollock or
A Dalí at his Druid weirdest? Snatch
A depth of fanged subconscious and then pour
Some paint of guts across your canvas. Real
Is boring. Ditch it. Art becomes mirage
And mystic queasiness inside a squeal.
Eschew the common or make a collage
Of it that churns up nausea. The key
Trick is to mix up meaning or to ban
It. Spread some purple fantasy and brie
Across a beach. Jesus on a divan
With hydrogen bomb mushroom clouds would do
Or cover some swallows with Elmer’s Glue.


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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11 Responses

  1. Joseph S. Salemi

    The enjambment here is sustained over most of the sonnet, which is unusual, but it helps drive the insistence of the narration. I would revise the last line, which is metrically deficient and sticks out. Try this:

    Or cover swallows up with Elmer’s Glue.

    • Phillip Whidden

      I like your suggestion for smoothing out the meter of the final line and might use when the sonnet is published in my encyclopedia. Competing against this, though, is the overarching thrust of the poem. If I were the devil’s advocate, I might say that since the sonnet is about the degradation of much art in the twentieth century, an iambic pentameter line with a degraded meter might be said to “fit in” with that theme. Still, on balance, I like your suggestion.

  2. James A. Tweedie

    Hmm . . . I assumed Mr. Whidden was being cheeky, poking fun at the scourge of decadent abstraction in art that–sometimes intentionally–takes reality (including natural beauty) and deconstructs it into a “fanged, subconscious, nightmare.” Not all abstract art points in this direction, of course, but the examples cited by Mr. Whidden seem to be specifically chosen to represent the less redemptive aspects of 20th century art. Perhaps Mr. Whidden can clarify the matter for us?

    • Phillip Whidden

      In a sense all art–all forms of art–is/are abstraction. To reduce a three dimensional scene to two dimensions in painting, for instance, is abstraction. I won’t go on and on to prove my point. The sonnet was not an attack on abstraction. It was an attack on the twentieth century’s reductionist approach to art, primarily through obsessing with form instead of meaning and content, and on the resulting diminished power of almost everything–except ugliness. Of course there are exceptions. The sonnet does not attack the exceptions–or mention them. Why would it?

      • James A. Tweedie

        Thank you, Mr. Whidden, for your response, which I believe supports much of what I read into (and out of) your finely-crafted sonnet. I am pleased to note that I am in wholehearted agreement with your comment, including the phrase, “Of course there are exceptions.” Dali was a skilled and gifted artist who, in the end, sold his soul for the sake of entrepreneurial self-parody. On the other hand, I have only high praise for Picasso whose mastery of visual art is displayed in virtually everything he ever did. At the moment, my feeling is that the entire spectrum of the so-called modern art movement has run out of ideas with first-year undergraduate art school students producing works indistinguishable in quality and originality from big-name, big-buck, high-society artists. The story of the Emperor’s New Clothes comes to mind . . . Check out the final final scene in the Rocket Loan Super Bowl ad for the final word on the subject https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bnMnKifbIo4

      • Phillip Whidden

        This is a reply to James A. Tweedie’s second comment on “Art.” Thanks for trying to be positive while seemingly disagreeing with the tone of the poem about so much of twentieth-century art, or at least diverting attention away from the ugly grotesquerie of so much of it by defending some of it. Perhaps that was not James A. Tweedie’s purpose. When I mentioned exceptions, I did not have Pablo Picasso in mind. You may have seen on this website my attack on one of his portraits of his unfortunate lover. That portrait is vile. I suppose if he hated her enough, that that might explain why he painted it. Here’s a little piece of verse about this kind of Picasso-ish “portraiture”: Picasso’s portraits are a type of “art”/ As lovely as a putrid-smelling f*rt.” The types of exceptions I did have in mind might be exemplified in two paintings, one in the American Museum of Art (Smithsonian Institute, D. C.), and one in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels. The first is a group portrait, “Family Group” (1951) by John Koch. The other one is an iteration of “Empire of Light” by René Magritte. I hold back from giving weblinks for these two because, despite the high quality of the e-images available online, the actuality of these two paintings is hypnotically beautiful “in the flesh” but e-images are incapable of conveying that haunting perfection that I have experienced when standing in front of them. In the context of such stunningly lovely twentieth-century paintings such as these, Picasso’s portraits that I can call to mind are obscene. Thus the word “f*rt” above. I have a whizz-bang anecdote I could tell you about an undergraduate’s senior exhibition at a university in the 1970s that fits in well with Mr. Tweedie’s final comments about current such students.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      No, you misunderstand. The poem is meant to be sarcastic, and is a generalized attack on modern non-figurative art. Kip Anderson is correct, however — to include Salvador Dali in this poem was an error, since he was a highly accomplished figurative painter, even if he did work as a Surrealist.

      • Phillip Whidden

        It was the egregious ugliness in much of Dali’s work that the sonnet pointed to. So to include Dali was far from an error. To employ his impressive figurative talent for ugliness is telling. Of course, sometimes art must be ugly. Why wouldn’t it be? But there is ugliness that is called for and ugliness that is not.

      • DPB

        I read the poem again and you are right. This teaches me that one should peruse a poem more than once before judging it.

  3. C.B. Anderson

    Pollack is a doodler/scribbler, but Dali is sometimes very evocative — a world of difference. Enjambment aside, Joe’s solution for the final line of the poem is masterful. There is virtually no limit to the number of solutions for metrical expression in English. What we lack in rhymes (or so some say) is made up for by the multitude of legitimate ways a line (or a sentence) can be constructed. And end line 13 with a comma.


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