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.