≡ Menu

Piety: We will be using this term in its extra-religious sense as first defined (in that sense) by George Santayana, and greatly expanded upon by Kenneth Burke in his work Permanence and Change. I strongly suggest you read Burke’s chapter on piety since it is an astounding critical work. At any rate, you can get the whole of Permanence and Change on PDF by Googling it. Do so.

For now, let us give Santayana’s definition of piety: “loyalty to the sources of one’s being.” Now this is not confined to physical being, but to one’s cultural, sexual, political, professional, and symbolic being, also one’s semiotic being (for example, brand names and fashion). A person may contain conflicting pieties. This is why a “noble” person who does the grand gesture of forgiving a criminal and is gladly arrested while protesting his execution might, a week later, fly into a fury and rage and think evil towards someone who has messed with the order of the pencil’s on her desk. In rational terms, they are just pencils. What’s the big deal? In symbolic terms, they may represent her sense of control, her sense of private space. Once we see this as a loyalty to the sources of her being, but realize that those sources are complex and varied, and might even be in conflict, we get an idea of why human behavior is so complicated. A theory in current evolutionary psychology might offer insight.

David Buller, in his wonderful work, Adapting Minds, both takes to task, and explores a belief common in 1980′s and 90′s in evolutionary biology known as the modularity thesis:

Evolutionary psychologists claim that human psychological adaptations take the form of modules, special purpose “minicomputers”, each of which is dedicated to solving problems related to a particular aspect of survival or reproduction in the human environment of evolutionary adaptness (EEA). Summarizing this view, Steven Pinker says, “the mind is organized into modules or mental organs, each with a specialized design that makes it an expert in one arena of interaction with the world. The modules’ basic logic is specified by our genetic program. Their operation was shaped by natural selection to solve the problems of the hunting and gathering life led by our ancestors in most of our evolutionary history.” Given that evolutionary psychologists claim that there are hundreds or thousands of modules comprising the human mind, this view of the mind has been called the “massive modularity thesis.”

Such division of labor, such independence and non-coherence of modules might well explain why a person dead set against the death penalty might fly into a rage over a shifting of her pencils. Of course, if the module of her anti-death penalty belief, if one of the mini-computers in a set of mini-computers, and her reading, political mind set, and awareness of semiotic piety is in full force, then she might not rage, even if she feels infuriated. After all, someone might think it odd that a person against the death penalty is “freaking out” over her pencils. She might keep her voice at a “peace activist” level. She might patiently and gently express to the sinner that she likes her pencils just so. She may even make a little self-deprecating joke about her own “OCD.” It depends on the level of stress. Still, if this person continues to fool around with her pencils, our activist might find a way to exile her from her life. She will keep the murderers close, and exile the pencil terrorists! After all, a murderer might kill a family in cold blood, but he never fucks with your pencils. To put it in an adage: “men may forgive murder, but they will never forgive a mooch who never has his own money or cigarettes.” This is the loyalty to the sources of one’s being in a nut shell. But notice the conflicting piety. Perhaps we can see piety in the following manner (cheap but effective):

Macro-piety: Those core loyalties to one’s being concerning how you and others should live, how the world should be, and how it really is (idealism/criticism/ realism)
Micro-piety: Those little habits, those beneath which nots, your sense of space, choice of music, quirks, tendencies of personality that define you moment by moment.
Pietistic integration: The attempt to make macro piety and micro-piety accountable to each other, and to live as a seamless whole.
Pietistic conflict: Those conflicts between pieties that cause us to be unique, complex, contradictory, and weird or misunderstood.

With this knowledge we could have no trouble doing a typical romantic comedy eco-disaster movie: in romantic comedy, boy and girl or girl and girl, or boy and boy meet, dislike, are thrust into a situation with each other, compromise, fall in love, have one more major falling out, then reunite: lights outs. Now for the movie:

Wendy, a crusading, passionate ecology doctoral student is hired to work with the world renowned Peter Thorndike, the leading authority on studying glaciers for evidence of global warming. She has heard that he is called the “monster.” But she has read and admired all his work. Like Katherine Hepburn in the days of yore, she is undaunted and believes she can work with the monster. In point of fact, she is looking forward to the challenge. She is 100% eco: hemp, her whole being expressing a life of hiking, veganism, chanting, political activism, etc, etc.

Enter Peter Thorndike, the monster. Peter, about six years older than Wendy and a thousand galaxies removed semiotically: never saw a cheese burger he didn’t like. Listens to death metal. Wears shirts given to him by his aunts at Easter from Wal-Mart. Smokes, and not hand rolls, or American Spirits, but Pall Malls. Drives a gas guzzling pick up. Gets along with the locals, talks hunting, and has no patience with tree huggers, though he is, at heart, a profound lover of the woods and of nature. He is grouchy, prone to getting ranch dressing on his reports, a person who any tree hugger might hate if he wasn’t so brilliant and dedicated to his work.

Wendy’s perfect boyfriend (there are always these perfect boyfriends in such movies, a man with a perfect integration of macro/micro pieties, all except for one thing: he’s too perfect. No one likes too perfect. they are the kind of romantic character we despise). He’s hot, plays bluegrass bass & fiddle in a eco-cowboy punk band, and always says the right thing to Wendy at the right moment except they are too comfortable with each other: no tension, no real passion. He’s wonderful in bed, but when she tells him she’s going to work with Peter Thorndike in some back water town in Alaska, he barely misses a beat and has no problem with it. His fatal flaw is he doesn’t care enough to stop “caring” in all the expected ways.

The first scene would be the meeting of Wendy and Peter under the rules of antipathy common to romantic comedies. She might enter his office while he is finishing a bacon double cheeseburger, polishing it off with Orange cream soda, and dancing around his charts and stats to a speed metal band. They conflict, but their common thread is the work. One night they get stranded on a mountain, and of course, this is where the bonding takes place (like the drunk scene in Jaws). They become friendly in spite of all their difference. We first know she might be falling for him when she Googles speed metal. We might know he is falling for her when he brings his bottle of hot sauce to the dinner she has made him of Tempe, and goes to pour it on the food, and then desists, looks at her, takes a bite, and actually likes it. We can see the romantic comedy in terms of thesis, antithesis, synthesis. We can go all Hegel on this. But the active literary interest and drama/comedy will be created by a creative between conflicting pieties, and over all growing affinity.

Piety then is what we value, or that loyalty to the sources of our being, but it is more than value. In the full complexity of human constructs it is the rhetoric of conflicting and supposedly coherent values. We will now look at a famous poem, and see it in the terms of this piety (loyalty to the sources of one’s being). The poem is by William Carlos Williams. He is considered an arch-modernist and an enemy of the sentimental tradition of Edwardian and romantic literature. Some claimed his poems are “anti-poems.” Nicanor Parra, a South American poet heavily influenced by Williams, had the temerity to call his Williams-influenced poems “Anti-poems.” At the same time, Stevens charged his friend Williams with the sin of sentimentality (a terrible charge against a self proclaimed champion of the new). Both Parra and Stevens are right, for, in Williams, as in many dynamic and important poets, we find what I will call pietistic conflict. On the one hand, Williams was all for throwing out flowery speech and the overly rhetorical convolutions of the European (read English) tradition. On the other, he was raised in a world of flowers and color; his mother was a gifted painter, and Williams had a blind spot in his otherwise clear headed doctor way of thinking—or rather than a blind spot, let us call it a conflicting piety. Also Williams, in his earliest years, was completely enthralled by the poems of John Keats. In his poem “The Act” he makes two characters, but I believe they could be seen as a dramatization of his own inner aesthetic conflicts, his conflicting pieties. At any rate the poem:

The Act

There were the roses, in the rain.
Don’t cut them, I pleaded. They won’t last, she said.
But they’re so beautiful where they are.
Agh, we were all beautiful once, she said,
and cut them and gave them to me in my hand.

In this poem, Williams plays the aesthete to the woman’s practical and unsentimental notions. He is defending the source of his being in beauty. To cut the roses in the rain would be a sin against the source of beauty. That is the speaker’s piety. She is enforcing a piety or an impiety of utility, of “brutal” realism. This explains the dynamic energy of the poem. It is an essay on conflicting realms of piety. Burke, in the beginning of his chapter on piety, speaks of a man felling a great tree. He needs it for firewood. After felling it with his axe, he feels strangely at odds with himself. He may associate the tree with the father, with the sacred strength of the father. There may be a symbolic parricide in this act, one a poet might perceive more readily (of course, in the Mother earth realm of present day ecology, the great tree might as well be a mother). In ancient cultures such “sins” could be purged by a ritual act of cleansing. In a sense, the modern man’s act of cleansing is to fall upon the rampart and “piety” of the utilitarian. “nonsense!” The man says. “I need the wood. It’s just a tree. There are plenty more where that came from.”

We may not be aware of many of our pieties until they are trespassed against. As Burke points out in another book, The Rhetoric of Religion, the words Quoseth (Hebrew), Hagios (Greek) and Sacre (Latin) are traditionally translated as holy or sacred ground, but they are not that limited. A truly more literal translation is “ground set apart”—in which case, that ground can be sacred or accursed depending on the piety or impiety of the situation. Piety, in a sense is ground set a part, isolated from its semiotic indicators and its symbols, until those indicators and symbols are threatened or made unstable, or come into conflict with others. Let us look then at another poem grounded in piety as we are discussing it here: Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese.”

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

There are several conflicting pieties here. The section where Oliver goes on about penitents seems to be an implicit slap upside the head of standard, “guilt ridden religion.” The New Agers cheer! Yes! I don’t have to be good; all I have to do is let my body love what it loves. The overt piety of this poem is nature as a form of salvation, but the covert piety of this poem is the natural (as in organic), self-love, choice culture of spiritual consumerism. This choice culture only has to love what it loves. It doesn’t have to be good. It has to be a shopper. In point of fact, nature, in the later part of the poem “offers.” Now that’s a word dear to every consumer’s heart. I don’t know if Oliver intended this piety to be there, but it’s there in spades.

Also, it harks back to an earlier Protestant piety: the rejection of good works in order to emphasize faith and grace—election. We are “elected” if only we let our bodies love what they love. So, in going against the piety of guilt and repentance, she embraces the theological concept of election. She goes on to say (I am paraphrasing here): “Tell me your troubles, I’ll tell you mine.” This sounds like a good deal, except she immediately cancels troubles by implying they are negative in comparison to the majesty of the world as ongoing and healing process, all of which is at our disposal. How dare we waste time looking at our troubles? That is the lesser choice, the “bad” choice. So, to amend her opening gambit: you do not have to be good, but you can’t focus on despair because that is bad. You do not have to be good. You have to be positive. Could a new age consumer be more thrilled? I have seen otherwise sensible poets go into ecstasy over this well made, very good, but not great poem.

Unwittingly, it is touching and massaging every button of our choice culture, (the knee jerk I am spiritual, not religious) and the piety of choice, middle class privilege, consumer satisfaction, and positive thinking, plus “green think.” The geese are personified. They are angels, the angels of the new order which is an order of post-Wordsworthian salvation through communion with all sentient being. OK, fine. But this poem contains even more conflicting piety than Williams, and it reeks of the chief contradiction of the new age: A conflict between choice, and unlimited vistas, and very real concerns about conservation. In a more sensible argument, these conflicts might be resolved with: “you have choices, and you do not have to be good, but make sure you are organic.” At another point, Mary Oliver would not be so ready to say: “you do not have to be good”—if a group of hunters were out there, plugging away at the geese. God forbid! This would hit her dead center in her conflicting piety. Of course, if they were Native Americans, taking the geese and singing praise over them, that would be a different story.

This is the danger of piety: it shows all our utopias to be greatly compromised by our pietistic contradictions. I think of the squatter I knew when I was homeless, returning to his parent’s Scarsdale mansion on the weekend to do his laundry. I think of the radical feminist who I saw torture a waitress because she wanted her toss salad “just so.” In terms of piety and even in terms of the “modularity” thesis, these are not acts of hypocrisy. Our pieties are hidden, especially the ones that conflict with our core sense of self. They jump out at odd times to bite us on the ass.

But I want you to question your own piety and so, here, so I must figure out why Mary Oliver’s lovely poem enraged me.

It is probably not the poem at all, but the fact that I saw it raved about by affluent well-educated poetasters who were snobbish towards me. After all, I was not a wild goose. I was a working class prol who, somehow, because of my odd predilection and knowledge of poetry, had blundered into having authority over them in a work shop. They were all fans of Mary Oliver, and they hated anything brutal, or violent, or outside their piety of New Age epiphanies. They savaged a woman who had brought in a poem by Philip Larkin. I am not a big fan of Larkin, but I consider him at least the equal of Oliver. They savaged him for being a pessimist. I countered: “yes, but can you extend beyond your dislike of pessimism to look at his craft and skill in being a pessimist?” They could not. They savaged him for rhyming (someone had told them rhymed poetry was always suspect unless it was before the 20th century). One woman spoke up and said: “he’s just a clever dead white male.” I said: “so is Shakespeare… Do you think Mary Oliver is a better poet than Shakespeare?” She paused, thinking it out, then replied: “Shakespeare was good for his time. Mary Oliver is more relevant to ours.” I then launched into my knowledge of all of Shakespeare’s nature poetry, his superior knowledge of animal husbandry, his closer, almost daily encounter with a pre-industrial world. She said: “Well, you don’t like Mary Oliver because she’s a strong woman.” Then, unable to hold back, I said: “No I don’t like Mary Oliver because I think she’s just an upgraded version of self help drivel. I think her love of nature is privileged. I think John Clare far superior to her.  As for strong women, I was raised by five aunts and a strong mother. They got dirty. Bugs didn’t eat sugar from their hands. I think her easy spirituality is horse shit, and I think you can’t love nature in that way unless you come from an income of at least 100,000 a year, and can afford to have such wise sentiments. Every time I see a Mary Oliver poem, I hear the eco-friendly middle class trampling on the graves of working people. You don’t have to like what I say, As Mary tells us, I do not have to be good.”

I went away greatly puzzled by my anger. I felt awful. I actually liked “The Wild Geese,” but they also claimed it was superior to the sixth part of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” and that I could not stand. I examined my conscience. I had slipped into demonizing mode. It was not Mary Oliver I disliked. It was her gatekeepers. I went back the next week, apologized for my vehemence, and we entered a new realm. We started talking about received value and piety. I conceded it was a good poem. They conceded Larkin was funny. So it goes. Know your mechanisms before you proceed. More importantly, know that you can never know them fully. That is both to the pain and the glory of the human construct.

To get free latest updates, just sign up here

Joe Weil is a lecturer at SUNY Binghamton and has several collections of poetry out there, A Portable Winter (with an introduction by Harvey Pekar), The Pursuit of Happiness, What Remains, Painting the Christmas Trees, and, most recently, The Plumber's Apprentice, published by New York Quarterly Press. He makes his home in Vestal, New York.

View all contributions by

  • Annaj December 21, 2010, 6:37 pm

    I was engaged from the start when you mentioned two writers I used to read years ago: Santayana and Burke, but I like the whole essay with its narrative of the struggle to get things right.

  • ChristopherPhelps December 21, 2010, 9:15 pm

    I really enjoy your comprehension and comprehensiveness, Joe. Santayana, K Burke, WC Williams, Hepburn, Mary Oliver, Steven Pinker! Your critical honesty is what makes the dialog worth reading, though.

    I’m trying to formulate a thought about Mary Oliver. I find her poems simplistic, repetitive, and (how to say) loaded with furry dice? But although her spirituality is mannered, I get the sense that it’s authentic. I don’t know her life story well, either, but didn’t she move to Provincetown decades ago and spend the early years in (for lack of a better word) poverty? I don’t know another poet who’s stayed as true to her loves (woods, ponds, New Age hermeneutics, domestic life with her partner Molly). I’m saying this, I suppose, to defend her from the charge of being pampered and bourgeois. I can’t defend her readers (perhaps the only thing worse than smug urbanism is smug provincialism) except to say that I’m sure many people (poetasters, some more than that) hunger for her sort of authenticity, if that’s what it is.

    Don’t think that someone can’t attempt pulling the gentler strings of wisdom (“wise sentiments”) unless they come from a 100K bracket. To be upfront and personal about it, I’ve never made enough money to file taxes and still I’m very interested in those strings. Like Mary but with less purpose, I’ve moved to a cabin with a partner, to break the identity between time and money. Not the wisest move, I often think, especially considering the decidedly less beautiful surrounding landscape.

    Looking forward to more in this series! My micro-quibblings aside, I gain a lot from your perspectives.

    And now, as encouraged, I’m going to download Burke’s Permanence and Change.

  • Pigsnout2 December 21, 2010, 10:39 pm

    I think MAry Oliver is sincere. IAs I said I liked the poem, and was appalled at my behavior toward the women, but they had gotten the wrong thing out of Oliver: a justification of an easy eco-friendly, positive thinking, and they trashed this other woman who was not affluent and from an urban environment, and who loved Larkin for his sense of candor. I was reacting to the gate keepers rather than to Oliver, though I think the whole spirutal uplift and contemplative market a wee bit dangerous in light of recent events in the American economy. I think Oliver’s poem was free verse Wordsworth, and Larkin’s was the cynical counterpart to that. Oliver’s poems fit the present trend towards a sort of “contemplative” neo-pastoralism, but no one is admitting that having such vistas often costs a lot of money and affluence or the great sacrifice of actually knowing how to live on the land. Oliver is sincere. Her worshippers were all well heeled people from the NEw JErsey suburbs who supplanted working class farmers, built houses in the formerly rural areas, and then wanted others to stay out so they could enjoy their flowers, their deer and the red tailed hawks. They looked down on the grittiness of Larkin because they did not understand how close the grittiness of an urban life and a true rural life are: the getting by, the daily struggle. Oliver’s poem about a grasshopper eating sugar from her hand delights these well meaning people. But these same nature lovers will turn on a deer hunter who needs meat for his family because he can’t find employment in that formerly rural area where his famiiy may have lived for a hundred years. It is this pietistic agony, this complexity I wanted to render. I don’t trust poems in which nature exists merely as an excuse for spiritual transport anymore than I trust poems in which nature is merely a utilitarian means for gathering raw materials for survival. I know deer hunters who love the woods as much as these anti-hunting ladies, and who know the woods on a more intimate level. IN JErsey, where I come from, you can no longer be poor and live in the country. Williams warned the suburbanites many years ago when he wrote: “Raliegh was right, you can not live in the country, for the country will give you no peace.” I am all for those who go out into the country and respect the locals. What these good people did not see is that the price of their positive enchantment is enslavement of the poor, and gated communities that block access to the country for all but the richest people.. That was in Larkins poem, an equal truth: Man hands on misery to man.” Truth lies in love and contradiction. I think her poems are simplistic at times, but they fit the new left’s need to believe they are beyond class or such petty concerns as survival. I never hunted because I loved the deer, but I never looked down on a hunter who knew the woods, and honored them. I know my flowers, my woods, and my streams, but I also know nature itself can be merciless, and we must not sentimentalize it. The same sentimentality is behind the destruction of the woods by urban white flight.

  • ChristopherPhelps December 22, 2010, 9:04 pm

    Well, I agree. I’ve watched Florida undergo versions of the same transformation. In Florida’s case, from the peacefully tacky (and some places natural) to the high-stakes sentimental: to the usual facades and gated communities and private beaches. There are plenty of places left to be poor in Florida, at least. Inland.

    Like I said, I can’t defend Oliver’s readers. I believe I know precisely the sort of reader you’re describing. And I agree that money is often the drug that facilitates that sort of reader’s relationships to texts and world alike. “It all looks so good on paper [papering over realities].”

    I did want to put a word out there for Oliver herself, neither her poems nor those who read them. She moved to a shack in Ptown and practices what she preaches, or used to, I think. She’s the exception the rule would like to cozy up to. Such is the attraction, I suspect, for those craving sincere or authentic experience and very far (and moving deliberately farther) from it.

  • Pigsnout2 December 23, 2010, 3:09 pm

    I have a strange relation to the rich. My dad had an aunt Lu Lu, married a guy who was a self made multimillionaire. Once Aunt Lu Lu pulled up to our frame house in Elizabeth, New Jersey– about as urban neighborhood as you could get. I’m five. She’s about sixty five. I don’t know who she is. She’s driving a bright red Ferrari, and wearing glasses, and I said to her: “hey Lady, you shouldn’t be driving that car.” And she said: “well young man, why not?” And I said, “you’re too old.” She laughed her butt off, and when she found out I was Rocky’s son, she took a liking to me, so I got to go to her house in short hills which was only fifteen miles but a galaxy away from Elizabeth. She had a built in swimming pool and a bathroom for all five bed rooms. I thought two bedrooms made you rich. Her own son was grown, and a little crazy, and her husband was dead. She was lonely. She bought a telescope so I could watch the stars from her backyard. I grew to love her, but, one day, she just tired of me. I said something wrong, or didn’t live up to my initial wit, and I was not invited back. I was maybe all of ten. My mother called her up. I can still remember what she said: “My son is not a hobby to grow bored with.”Looking back, I realize there is a price we pay for this choice culture. We don’t know the difference between people and things. We get them mixed up.Everything is under our control and exists for our pleasure or displeasure. We make a life “style” instead of living. I am made sad by the serenity junkies. It is just as much a force of spirit and truth to refuse any cheap serenity, to live in the birth pain of our struggles to be decent people and our failures to be decent. We want to be above or below our lives, transcendent or decadent, but seldom in them. Those same wild geese flew over the chivas regal sign on the corner of Dewey Place and Rahway avenue when I was a kid, and my father, who had been raised for part of his life on a farm, woke me up, and carried me to that corner .We stood together and watched them fly over the chivas regal sign and the gas station, and they were amazing–like a broken string of rosary beads, and their sound went right through my belly. My dad worked the 4 to 12 shift. I was still in my jammies with a coat thrown over me.. A cop who knew him was walking the beat, and he said: “Rocky… what you doing with your kid out like that? He’ll catch his death.” My dad said: “we were looking at the geese.” The cop laughed: “Those sons of bitches sure can make a racket…. Think I should arrest them for disturbing the peace?” He was kidding. My dad gave him a cigarette. And the two men stood smoking. The cop, Officer Dugan, let me check out his gun. It is a mongrel
    narrative. That’s what I liked about Williams’ nature poems, and the poems of John Clare. They did not “purify” nature. The things of this world and the things of the woods, and fields each give their own wildness to each.
    The rich, by moving to estates in the country, and the affluent by buying up farms, and covering the soil with those pool tables they call lawns have destroyed the environment. A river, given seven miles of free flow from a polluted city, will clean itself. A river surrounded by pretty suburbs never gets a rest. The lawns that look so pretty are a desert land mass full of toxin. The traffic jams and cars create an emissions problem as bad as the industrial revolution. But it looks pretty, and we are in love with the pretty rather than the harsh and the beautiful, and we will destroy the earth in the name of having something pretty to look at. This pretty has no dynamic. It hates contradiction. Those ladies would have been horrified that those two men had a smoke and let me hold a gun while the wild geese flew over. To be honest, my mom was pissed when I bragged about getting to hold the gun.They don’t see intention, or motive, or the high comedy of life’s incongruity. They wish to avoid all unpleasantness. They want everything seamless, and that is, to me, a far more dangerous power: It’s this lust for congruity, and the pretty, and all the fake Edens that are based on economic privilege. I understand Oliver’s sense of wonder, but I worry that no one realizes that because they build those lovely houses in the burbs, and feel really bad when the sharp shooters are hired to cull the deer herds that have been eating their flowers and giving their children lymes, the wild geese are no longer wild. They stay all year, and are fed bread by sentimental idiots, bread that ruins their digestive tracts,and they shit into the lakes and ponds, and have become a “problem” like the deer. If I go to these suburbs in a junker Toyota, and I stop to stare at some pig nut hickory because the sun is hitting it just so, I promise a cop will pull up, and he won’t have a smoke or let me check out his gun.

    and ask me what I’m doing. If I say

    within fifteen minutes. It’s scary to me. It does not show up in our nature poems. .

    million dollar homes in the Jersey suburbs, have decided they c something

Leave a Comment