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Here’s a question: What to do with (how to view) a poem you can’t help but think of as perfect?

Here’s one that falls in that category for me, “The Doe” by C. K. Williams, a latter-day sonnet:

Near dusk, near a path, near a brook,
we stopped, I in disquiet and dismay
for the suffering of someone I loved,
the doe in her always incipient alarm.

All that moved was her pivoting ear
the reddening sun shining through
transformed to a color I’d only seen
in a photo of a child in a womb.

Nothing else stirred, not a leaf,
not the air, but she startled and bolted
away from me into the crackling brush.

The part of my pain which sometimes
releases me from it fled with her, the rest,
in the rake of the late light, stayed.

Now let me qualify “perfect.” I don’t ask perfection to include striking innovation or veining a mine with new nugget. Good thing, because this poem is drippingly conventional. It’s definitely not McHugh-tragicomic or Joron-machine-surreal. It’s no New Sentence or newer freedom. But it does exactly what I was raised to think a poem is supposed to do: make my mouth water discovering its words, make my mind water discovering their meaning, and hurt me. The hurt is key. As the Greeks said, learning is suffering. So here is pain’s perfect translation-as-projection-and-or-illustration, for any deciduous-woods walker process-walking through some anguish or melancholy. Who doesn’t see a deer in the right light and feel all failings come to the fore—yours, the world’s, someone’s in between—especially when something hard has happened? (Maybe hunters don’t, or maybe they do before they don’t.)

But the perfection goes deeper (gets worse) than that. Look at the craft of the thing. From the opening anaphora on, you get the sense that each word was considered on its merits in some plenary session. Each lifted like Larkin’s votive glass of water, to congregate the any-angled light, just so. The brush crackles, the afternoon-oblique sun rakes, the alarm is incipient. Brush echoes dusk’s muffle. “I in disquiet” loudly pleads. “The suffering of someone I loved” quietly rubs. Late, rake, and pain, assonant, hit the final plangent note. There’s also a smart pair of -ings: suffering and reddening, neither too close together to seem contrived, nor too far apart to seem unrelated. And the reddening begins, early in the second stanza, to give us plenty of time to redden further (past Life magazine’s, or 2001’s, baby photo), slowly toward that burgundy finish. Even the word, rest, comes just when a slight pause is needed, to dehisce pain from itself, into pain that pain releases and pain that recognition keeps.

But it’s not just the words that are choice, it’s the movements and symmetries that are seamless. “Near dusk, near a path, near a brook” is reflected (in cadence) at the end of the octave by “in a photo of a child in a womb.” Meanwhile “Near dusk, near a path, near a brook” zooms in; “Nothing else stirred, not a leaf, / not the air” zooms out. Back at the last two lines, if we separate “the rest” and “stayed” from the rest of the words, as syntax tempts us to, a question presents itself: Which stayed more, the rest or the unrest? Both about equally, the poem answers in its ultra-efficiency.

I feel almost cheated, hoodwinked, like a focus group conspired to write a poem I couldn’t find fault with. So let me return to the opening question: What to do with (how to view) a poem you can’t help but think of as perfect?

And what if your idea of perfection makes you worry that you might be pretty boring, at bottom? I could say, well, the innovation here is to need none—to out-Frost Frost, if you like. Yet there’s always something innovative, if you look hard enough. For example, the octave doesn’t hit the sestet with any tension, as it’s usually expected to, but rather with a mild (perhaps mildly tense) stillness. The real tension happens halfway through the sestet, which is visually broken into tercets—to mirror riven pain?

But here’s the thing: I’m bored by trying to convince you, if that’s what I’m doing, that “The Doe” isn’t boring. What have I said beyond that it’s well crafted, emotionally savvy, and (to boot, in the good sense) self-aware? “Boring” isn’t much of an objective criterion, of course. (Boring’s boring apology?) The truth—as it tends to reduce—is that this poem came along when I needed a poem like it, a few years ago, having walked in the woods feeling sorry for a friend, never having thought to imagine my pain as both divided against itself and capable of self-kindness.

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.