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The second line of Ben Fama’s chapbook New Waves, (Minutes Books 2011), is  “All I want is my life/ to matter somehow.” And it seems that this book sets out to execute that statement despite the line’s futility. I say this with sincerity since it’s an important aspect of the human condition (especially for writers) but remains an ungraspable, continuous pursuit. In short, this is a book composed with clear-minded longing. The cultural awareness is unpretentious, the feeling is real, and the structures are solid.

There’s been a post about Ben Fama’s poetry brooding in me since his last chapbook, Aquarius Rising, came out from Ugly Duckling Presse in 2010, and that’s because his poetry sticks with me. The word “hipster” has been thrown around a bit in reviews, but I find the term superfluous and dismissing. The difference between Ben Fama’s poems and many of his so-called hipster contemporaries is palpably clear. Some think it taboo to talk about things like texting and internet in poetry, but this calls to mind Ezra Pound who wrote “The artist is always beginning. Any work of art which is not a beginning, an invention, a discovery is of little worth. The very name Troubadour means a ‘finder,’ one who discovers.” Using off-limit terminology indicates the poet bending expectations, respecting the readers’ ability to move forward in thought. It is authentic ventures unto the brink of expectation I find most engaging in new poetry. Most importantly, the poet remains unequivocally loyal to the poem that wants to be written. Certainly that is the case with Ben Fama. How can we live in a culture so deeply entrenched in electronics and digital communication without interacting with it emotionally? Being “timeless” isn’t about removing the contemporary but about writing a good poem. Period. In this new collection, the poems feel they are exactly as they should be, even with their flaws. But flaws are imperative, essential to development, and are what make the poems here stunning.

Deeply entrenched in the occult, Fama explores known and unknown realms of human life. The speaker is concerned with prophecy, but in his impatience or frustration, he himself begins prophesying. He’s looking into a crystal ball, asking why the hell things happen this way, then taking on the roll of soothsayer himself: “Ivan the Inconsolable, / don’t forget how good things are. / You know you can always / sleep in the grass.” With all his questioning and yearning the speaker is still thwarted—with love (lots with love) with family, even with divination itself. But this yearning is what drives the poetry. To pause for a moment over the ending of [This world repeats a soft etc.]

Once I was a teen king
thundering over the peasants.
I was born in the image of Steve.
Once I was a farm boy
on the level of clouds.
Float me back to those heights.
I remember yellow heat
in my yellow clothes and
an idea like a campfire
telling me it wasn’t sure
I’ve ever done the right thing.
Now when it asks for cures
I retrieve an amulet from a secret
altar of things that make me calm
to look upon, and when it asks
Fama, where is your love now?
I think about eating poutine
from the small of her back.

In his interview with Ben Pease on Scattered Rhymes, I learned Poutine is a dish consisting of French fries topped with fresh cheese curds, covered with brown gravy or sauce and sometimes additional ingredients. What’s so arresting in this poem is the speaker’s concern with the enigmatic “idea,” something carried over from childhood maybe—something organic—perhaps even those first moments of real self-doubt. Indeed, the speaker is deeply concerned with the self (more universal than egotistical) exploring complex, layers of self-identity and self-assessment. The “idea” tells the speaker “it wasn’t sure / I’ve ever done the right thing.” The “idea” is purposefully vague, but seems as if it is the voice of the universe or the mystical, shrouded in the speaker’s consciousness. The voice of the universe is in some ways, indifferent, even cruel in this poem. I feel that the poem teeters on a concern with mortality. The occult, the “altar” of items that calm the speak down from these thoughts, again drive him to another question: “where is your love now?” To counteract the gravity of that epiphanic statement, the speaker reverts to a kind of ridiculous eroticism. In a way it’s a defense mechanism that appears (lightly) throughout the book—but somehow Fama manages to make the line both beautiful and absurd, just like poutine.

None of the poems have titles, and while the chapbook is a mere fourteen pages, it’s probably best. There’s a sense of long operatic movement in which each line functions for the whole pulse of a song. The first line of the book situates you in its realm: “The only colors in this world / are yellow and orange.” He doesn’t see things in black and white, but rather two vivid colors—as if this is a new perspective on old traditions. With all their contemporary airs, the poems have a classic feel. This hybridism is a strength Fama wields with finesse, and one I hope he sticks to. Adding to this traditional feel, the settings are, at times, deeply pastoral. It’s another element of yearning, as is his obsession with the mystical (a motif also explored by such poets as W.B. Yeats). However binary the world in Fama’s poems is, everything is turned backward, questioned yet paced at such a speed that we’re lulled out of absolutism. We’re in a place of melancholy, but it’s lit-up like a sun, and the wisdom in the voice helps the reader find it more relatable: “I wake heavy, I don’t know why.” The musical calm is perhaps one of the most striking elements; calm that resists the sometimes overt anxiety (“People want / me to do certain things but I won’t if it’s boring”). The book is wrought with a tone that adds fluidity to the dualistic system, keeping it interesting. The opening poems pull you in and carry you weightlessly throughout, the first lines burning in your mind until the last moment. New Waves is elegant, quietly devastating, but with an aura of hopefulness and clarity. He’s talking about gchats while wrapping the reader into the earnest futility of desire. The speaker seems young, but not naïve.  He’s lost, he’s looking, he’s examining.

The poems are intimate, but there are gaps of information. They aren’t necessarily confessional, as they give much space for the reader to do work. Delicate if not obscure references to the speaker’s past (“I was born in the image of Steve”) are mixed with flourishes of the surreal, and again there’re vague illusions to the speaker’s concern with mortality (“If I leave / leave a lock on my tomb.”) The poems are concrete, and still there is always a question of reality:

My therapist says
I use writing as
a perceptive model
that allows me to
interpret reality—

This passage seems almost a wry reference to the confessional poets, but we are quickly brought back into Fama’s unique landscape: “though my paradigm / remains immature and / I bring toxic energy / to new relations.” The humor and intimacy in the language allows for the reader to enter in completely, but without the feeling that we’re being told what to feel or how, nor does it employ the opposite effect of leaving us cold.

Ultimately, when I leave Fama’s chapbook, I think what is most important is that there’s passion. It seems such a simple thing, but it’s so often an elusive asset. In New Waves, healing and destruction are simultaneously experienced; ecstasy and pain are the same beast, yet the work is never overwrought. New Waves is a homage to love lost, to the mystical, to immaturity stained with experience.

The last lines of William Shakespeare’s King Lear have just come to mind. This collection feels like the wisdom realized after a long, insane escapade of emotional thwarting and general human grievances. Somehow, comingled within youth and folly and agedness, is the need to be (in its many forms) passionate and open. I don’t mean open as in confessional, nor do I mean that one has to write like Ben Fama does—rather the opposite: that what is sometimes lacking in new poetry is a patience and honesty with one’s inner workings. What is happening is Fama is interacting with his own surroundings and experiences with an astounding clarity. He doesn’t shut out what he experiences intellectually and casually. What is important to him becomes important to us. He doesn’t care about what he “ought to say” in pleasing an audience, he says what he feels. As writers, we needn’t stifle that unique element of how we each interpret reality. We can bring forth, with all its faults and strangeness, how we exclusively relate with the world. And this is the direction Ben Fama is going in with stunning, mottled vigor. As Albany says:

The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, not live so long
King Lear Act V, Scene III

Don Paterson, the leading contemporary Scottish poet, throughout this book cites previous critical studies of the Sonnets (especially those written by Stephen Booth and Helen Vendler), but when he does it’s almost always to differ from them. Did he expect to get applause or even grudging acceptance from literary scholars? I’m not sure. To the task of exegesis and evaluation, Paterson brings neither academic credentials nor a rigorous critical method but instead a sharp mind, some serious homework, emotional engagement with the topic, a willingness to take risks, and the technical experience of a practicing poet.  Apart from having written sonnets himself, he has translated (or “imitated”) Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus and is the editor of the Faber anthology 101 Sonnets. Clearly he has a partisan interest in the form itself and for that reason alone might want to comment on one of its greatest practitioners.

Still, if someone had told me a year ago that we were soon going to see a book in which a contemporary poet would read one of the central works of Shakespeare and assign grades to various parts of it, I wouldn’t have believed it.  To remark that it’s too late for our likes and dislikes to have any effect on the reception of canonical literary works like Shakespeare’s raises a more general question, one that can’t be instantly resolved.  To what extent do the classics belong to our actual, lived experience? How can we make use of them? These questions may sound shocking or naïve, but consider the following. Even if the best of Shakespeare’s sonnets were submitted to magazines today as being the work of a living poet, no editor would publish them.  As for the stage, producers wouldn’t get past the opening scene of Hamlet or King Lear before tossing these plays on the reject pile.  Renaissance or Jacobean English is not what we speak, in fact, we’re almost at the point now when Shakespeare, like Chaucer, requires a translation for new readers coming along.  We know that our response to Shakespeare isn’t and can’t be the same as his original audience’s because the weight and connotation of the words he uses has shifted (and sometimes vanished) since he wrote. Apart from that, no historical reconstruction of the staging and performance of Shakespeare could have the same effect on us as it did for Elizabethan audiences unless our minds, too, could be reconstructed in a 16th century mould. It has always struck me as too blithe when critics say, “Yes, of course we read Dante differently from the way his contemporaries did. It’s in the nature of great literature to support many kinds of responses, each valid for its time.”  But then why, if a literary work is just a Rorschach test whose meaning is nothing more than what we attribute to it, are certain figures (Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton) consistently deemed worthwhile occasions for our projected meanings while others (Hesiod, Ennius, Ariosto, Jonson, Marvell) are much less often considered? Besides, if we say that we don’t mind if our way of appreciating Shakespeare differs from his audience’s, we’re implicitly dismissing as irrelevant the actual abilities and targeted efforts of an author who wanted to evoke specific responses.

In fact, it’s the aim of most literary scholarship to reconstruct the mental and verbal compass of classic authors and of their audiences, so that we can measure the success of a given work according to the author’s own aims and, in varying degrees, appreciate that work roughly as its first audience did.  This is the literary equivalent to time travel.  Without the specialist’s literary archeology, we’d have only partial access to any work dating from earlier than the 19th century. Hence Auden’s well-known finger-wagging at Yeats for his poem “The Scholars,” a satire mocking academics who, “Edit and annotate the lines/ That young men, tossing on their beds,/ Rhymed out in love’s despair…”  Auden reminded Yeats’s ghost that without scholars we’d have erroneous texts and mistaken notions about what their authors intended.  Scholars can also inform us about prevailing tastes in the era when a given work was written. For example, dealing with Shakespeare, they can tell us that punning and metaphorical conceits were highly prized during the age of the Virgin Queen. This makes a sharp contrast with our own day, when “the lowest form of humor” is always met with a groan, and audiences experience literary conceits as excruciating artifice, contrary to our demand for seriousness and for discourse that is direct and uncensored.  That same demand would put a low value on the hyperbolic tendencies of the Elizabethan sonnet sequence, which, following Petrarch’s lead, hoists praise of the beloved to a level that contemporary taste would find overblown and dishonest.  (Granted, we’re not under oath when we write love poems or epitaphs, but even Shakespeare is aware of the problem, to judge by his sonnet “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun,” a stab at anti-Petrarchism that, despite its truth-telling aims, seems less successful than its hyperbolic counterparts.)

Once familiar with the earlier standards, do we then enjoy or at least admire Shakespeare’s double-entendres and those elaborate metaphors extended for a dozen lines, along with his promotion of the beloved to quasi-divine status?  The tutored reader can, I think, admire them at one remove, or at least acknowledge the author’s vast resourcefulness in devising effects he knew his readers would approve.  Yet it’s not easy for us to suppress habits of thinking and feeling like those that led Max Beerbohm to write Savonarola Brown, a wicked parody of a Shakespeare play.  What seems to happen when we read the Sonnets is that we remain in a kind of affective limbo, half believing, half disbelieving in them, yet consistently impressed by Shakespeare’s wordsmithery, his inventive figuration, and sonic finesse.  It doesn’t matter that present-day editors would consider them overdone and their author a show-off meriting only a printed rejection slip: the Sonnets will never go out of print or cease to be included in English Lit courses.  Nor can we rule out the possibility that a later age will place a high value on elaboration, artifice, and hyperbole: in cultural history, shifts in taste have often taken surprising turns.

Don Paterson certainly doesn’t attempt to transform himself into a contemporary of Shakespeare. Though familiar with Elizabethan literary standards, he evaluates individual sonnets according to contemporary taste or else his own.  Apparently not bothered by the fact that his strictures won’t stop them from being read, he’s quite ready to pronounce the first seventeen of the Sonnets (the so-called “procreation sonnets”) as “rubbish,” a judgment based on the artificial and implausible feelings they express. In a speculative vein, he cites and gives some credence to the narrative premise behind A Waste of Shame, William Boyd’s BBC drama of several years ago. In Boyd’s plot, the rising playwright is commissioned by the mother of the young nobleman William Herbert to write the “procreation sonnets.”  The widowed matriarch, distressed at her son’s celibacy and failure to provide continuance for the family line, pays a handsome sum for the bardic propaganda, and eventually arranges a meeting between the two men. At which point Shakespeare really does fall in love and begins writing out of emotional rather than financial motives.  Though it made for an entertaining play, I don’t find this narrative plausible. Moreover, it involves some harum-scarum speculation about the nature of Shakespeare’s sexuality, a topic on which Paterson has no doubts whatsoever:

The question ‘was Shakespeare gay?’ is so stupid as to be barely worth answering; but for the record: of course he was.  Arguably he was a bisexual, of sorts; though for all the wives, mistresses and children I’m not entirely convinced by his heterosexual side.  Mostly, his heart just wasn’t in it; when it was, his expressions of heterosexual love are full of self-disgust.

In that period, though, there were no homosexuals, only homosexual acts, these termed “sodomy” and punishable by death.  The “gay identity” hadn’t yet been formed, so the most we can say is that some people of the time were gay without knowing they should be classified as such.  A man so prominent as James I could marry and produce heirs, while still spending the lion’s share of his hours in bed with a series of young favorites, concluding with George Villiers, eventually made Duke of Buckingham.  As evidence contrary to the assertion that James had sexual relations with men, scholars cite the very harsh legal stance he took towards “sodomy.”  Yet the full account of the struggle for acceptance and civil rights for gay people includes incidents of strong opposition coming from figures who were later revealed to be gay. Opposition was simply throwing dust in the eyes of potential enemies as a clever way of avoiding arraignment and prosecution.  Any person who “protesteth too much” should be aware that those very protests to strike us as a card played in order to evade exposure or at least self-knowledge.

Paterson doesn’t do anything like this, in fact, he is more than sympathetic to the attraction that one man might feel for another. Discussing Boyd’s TV play he says:

Certainly if Herbert [William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke] looked anything like the young actor who played him on the box, I can see WS’s problem. (Although he almost certainly didn’t, if we’re to trust portraitists of the time. Wriothesley [Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton, often proposed as the subject of the Sonnets], on the other hand, is clearly gorgeous. Though I admit that playing the game of ‘who’d you rather’ at 400 years distance does not, perhaps, represent the leading edge of scholarly research.)

This is funny enough to inspire in me a response just as unscholarly.  We have no proof that Shakespeare did or did not sleep with the young man described in the Sonnets, or with any man.  My speculation is that Shakespeare was no “gayer” than Paterson is, who, precisely because he isn’t threatened by any imputation of homosexuality, can be so relaxed about the topic.  On the evidence of the Sonnets, Shakespeare could recognize male beauty and form strong bonds of affection with men, bonds that could be described as love (or, nowadays, “bromance”).  But the keen bite of physical desire for men that we discover in Marlowe or Whitman is absent in his writings.  Where we do find it is in the so-called “dark lady” sonnets.  Further, if Shakespeare did in fact have sex with a man, he wouldn’t be so imprudent as to record and publish his desires, thereby risking arrest and a pre-mortem funeral pyre.  On the other hand, there was no law against one man loving another so long as that love never involved sexual expression.  A quasi-biblical text for the European Renaissance was Plato’s Symposium, which concludes by recommending a non-physical love on the part of an older man for a younger, as a means of transcending Nature and attaining knowledge of the realm of Pure Ideas.  In Dante and Petrarch, the gender of the beloved changed to female, but there was still no physical consummation, and the purported result was the same: propulsion (by sublimation, we would say) into the upper atmosphere of divine truth.  Meanwhile, if we’re going to read the sonnets as autobiography, then number 121 “’Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed” can easily be understood as a repudiation of slander to the effect that Shakespeare’s feelings for the beloved were ever actualized sexually.  In Sonnet 20, he had already spoken of the physical mismatch (which further demonstrates his total lack of experience concerning male-to-male sexual relations) between himself and the young man:

Till Nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure.

The pun on “pricked” was active for Shakespeare’s time as for ours.  The sense is clear: “I can’t make use of your genitalia, but we two have a non-physical, Platonic love, and that’s the most essential thing; where sex is concerned, women can handle that for you.”

Paterson represents this conclusion as tragic, but the tragic note is nowhere sounded. The speaker calmly accepts the impossibility and is, if anything, only too content to keep their love on a Platonic plane.  The poem includes a couple of instances of what Paterson describes as Shakespeare’s “knee-jerk misogyny” (found elsewhere in the Sonnets, not to mention the plays) without going so far as to say that it is proof of the poet’s gay orientation.  A good thing, because, as we know, gay men are far less misogynist than straight, indeed, the greatest percentage adore women, beginning with their own mothers. That adoration often takes the form of diva-worship, and some individuals will carry it to the point of simulating their iconic figures, cross-dressing as Judy, Barbra, or Madonna.  Dismissing women as “stupid cows” or “bitches” is more the habit of straight men because of course a woman can grant or withhold what they most desire. Frustration and anger when desire isn’t reciprocated take the form of misogyny, whereas sex with women is for a gay man “one thing to my purpose nothing.”  He’s fully satisfied with women’s company and friendship, which they are much more often willing to offer than sex.  Paterson wants to see the misogyny of the “dark lady” sonnets as the inevitable side-effect of his homosexuality; in fact, it suggests the opposite, to the extent that evidence drawn from these poems can be used to argue anything about his biography.

Putting aside Plato, in what human narrative is it psychologically plausible for a man in love with and lusting after another man to urge the beloved to marry and have children?  That is the burden of the first seventeen Sonnets. On the other hand, if we decide that Boyd (or Paterson) is right about the far-fetched commissioning theory, we have to regard Shakespeare as the most mercenary sort of hack, his palm crossed with enough silver to stimulate the drafting of sentiments passionately expressed and yet never in the least felt.  That hack (to follow the hypothesis) couldn’t automatically rule out the possibility that the young beloved would accept the faked protestations of love as genuine and possibly begin to have feelings for their author in return.  In that eventuality, how would the perpetrator of this literary imposture then behave?  It’s too damning a scenario to conjure up and amounts to a character assassination of Shakespeare.

Even when we decide that the first 126 Sonnets are dealing with a purely Platonic relationship, the sheer number of them and the variety of tacks taken suggest that a “marriage of true minds” needs as much treatment as a full-blown union would. In the real world, would it be salutary (if the author really meant to make use of them) to devise so many literary approaches to self-therapy, some of which seem like pettifogging or avoidance?  Modern readers can’t help wanting to recommend a professional counselor, at least in those moments when they forget that the poems are fictions.  To a degree that we find disturbing, it is literary convention more than autobiography that governs the production of poems in the Elizabethan era. Nothing requires us to believe the Sonnets had more than a casual basis in Shakespeare’s life; it’s even possible that they were written not to win over or reproach any existing beloved but instead simply to produce poems, poems exploring feelings more hypothetical than actual.  We certainly don’t suppose the Shakespeare underwent the experiences of the characters represented in his plays, no matter how intricately and convincingly developed their feelings may be. Many contemporary poets, though presumed to be working within an aesthetic of sincerity and authenticity, are ready to admit that they invent the subjects of their ostensibly autobiographical poems. How much more likely it is that Shakespeare did the same thing. The speculations we make about his motivations reveal more about us than about the author.

That sort of revelation, in fact, is the value-added aspect of this book. It provides us with an indirect portrait of the mind, technical preoccupations, and emotional commitments of Don Paterson.  Because of his first-rate work elsewhere, we’re interested to read this practical account of his own literary standards—well, more specifically than that, the motions of his thinking as he confronts the subjects dealt with in each sonnet and the rhetorical strategies used in their composition. Judging by the diction he uses, you can see (and this is useful information about him) that he wanted to avoid academic pomposity at all costs, the result, that the prose sounds spoken, informal, and American, with lots of slang and some Scottish diction thrown in for flavor. Sentence fragments abound, along with interjections, and the text deploys as many underlinings as Queen Victoria’s diary.  If the zingy style wasn’t sufficiently noticeable in the excerpt quoted above, here’s another example:

Yikes. SB [Stephen Booth] explores the various textual knots and cruces here at some length, and very instructively, but let’s see if we can find a more direct route through the poem, and take it line by line. OK. Suit up, scrub, and on with the gloves. This is going to get messy. At least five lines here present real interpretative problems. Scalpel….

The ensuing analysis is presented through the conceit of a surgical procedure, involving metaphoric use of artery clamps as the poem’s “blood pressure” drops, and a final stitching up.  It’s as though the Sonnets’ persistent use of conceits had overtaken their critic, this time in prose.  The effect of using diction more often heard on talk shows and Facebook is unsettling at first, but the fact is I quickly stopped minding and focused instead on the content being conveyed.  Reading pace through these pages is brisk, and they never have the sleeping-pill effect of most academic prose.  Yet, though Paterson circumvents the dead hand of scholarly style, he never entirely abandons the explicator’s task, even when says, “Sorry, it’s late, and I’ve been drinking.”  If I were teaching the Sonnets to undergraduates, I’d assign this book, knowing in advance that they would sense an ally in the author, one who understood their language and mental universe.  So primed, they would also be able to absorb content in the commentaries apart from what’s based entirely on the author’s personality.

The classroom would allow me the space (as a review doesn’t) the to single out the many brilliant insights Paterson arrives at along the way and to disagree with just as many others. Well, one of each then, beginning with a disagreement.  I don’t find all the “procreation sonnets” worthless, an assertion Paterson tries too hard to prove. Discussing Sonnet 12, for example, he says that its first line, “When I do count the clock that tells the time,” is padded out with the phrase “that tells the time,” since, as he says, all clocks tell the time.  But the etymology of the word “clock” is from “glokken,” which meant “bell.”  The first public clocks were bells, intelligible to a populace unable to decipher a clock face yet still able to count. The association with “passing-bells” rung at funerals is part of the meaning.  Beyond that, a master theme in the Sonnets is the passage (and ravages) of time, so it fits to get the word into the first line of this sonnet. Further, time takes on a numerical aspect in an art that requires counting—counting of metrical feet and lines, and, for that matter, some thought about the numbering of individual sonnets.  Paterson (and here is where I agree with him) thinks that Shakespeare did indeed arrange the Sonnets in the order given to them in the Quarto; and that in the great majority of instances the number assigned to a given poem in the sequence is connected to its meaning.  Numbers have a kabbalistic or magical dimension (think how much has been made of the Trinity); and, while we can’t say that Shakespeare was a mathematician, he was certainly an arithmetician, one whose rhythms and numbers were a key component of the spell being cast.  In Paterson’s keen analyses of the numerical aspect of the Sonnets, he demonstrates his own skills with numerology, plus an awareness of at least one poet’s opinion to the effect that, “Poetry is speech that counts.”   This book has sustained some heavy attacks in the press, so much so, that, to use a Shakespearean conceit, Paterson could be described as “down for the count.”  However, because he is a poet, he’ll be able to use the experience and soon be standing up for the next round. A review is never a permanent impediment to the marriage of true minds, in this instance, between the poet and his reader.

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.

Today I thought I should add my secret voice to your evaluations.
Your intelligence may be genius, but remember as my mother said also always be nice.
A seventh grade teacher consoled me when I was teased:
You can always tell the genius by the enemies who surround him.
Try, though it’s impossible. See JA. Make no enemies.
Well, you’ll always have aesthetic enemies just by liking something “they don’t.”
But I’ve noticed even one personal enemy is too much in the tiny circle of Prospero’s Kabbalah.
You impress me and you’re so young, so you have I think one task: Go on! Keep working,
and keep your opinions growing widening and changing.
One day love Chatterton. The next day read Villon.
One month give up to Proust, one year give up to Kafka.
Pound’s big canon is correct: Be curious like a physical scientist (Aggazis for Pound).
Keep your work, throw nothing away, it might be the best you’ll do one day.
Don’t be arrogant with the stupid as I was accused and am.
See the dynamics of politics and art but without getting bitter.
Reject none of the great religions—read and memorize all sacred texts without belief.
Or keep them with you if must for certain periods.
Be interested in all the arts. That includes architecture, dance, painting, sculpture.
Read more than philosophers in philosophy.
But don’t make your poems be a vessel just of abstractions.
Exercise in real life, stay healthy, don’t take drugs, don’t drink like kids.
Read all the old magazines. Find a library that has them.
Know 1952 and 1852 as if they were 2010.
Have together in your mind the value of the concrete particular.
Make your work dazzle but not razzledazzle—make your being elegant and defended.
Read all of Shakespeare and the great commentaries—that doesn’t just mean Uncle Harold necessarily.
Learn languages. Each language is worth 500,000 or more.
When you learn a language, keep it up.
Translate a page every day.
I mean mistranslate a page every day and that will be a religious duty.
Don’t be a Rilke—practicing vulnerability.
Make it your business to read Marx AND Finnegans Wake.
Search out no great men—be a great man.
Don’t let emotional problems destroy you.
Don’t commit suicide obviously, and learn to scorn it but not the victim.
Don’t get married too young and if you have to write love poems, do.
Try writing 20 songs a year.
Try writing short stories. Read Kawabata.
Read everything that Meyer Schapiro footnotes.
Learn to travel and be one “on whom nothing is lost.”
Continue reading James even if others tell you they haven’t.
They will and they will have the subtlest teacher. Therefore,
read William and Henry and their father. Good luck,
David Shapiro in a Polonius-like mood.