The spiritual journey is private. One cannot know Spiritual Reality through others—only through one’s own soul. Still, the spiritual journey might require the aspirant to address issues often misunderstood by others; thus, the use of classical rhetoric is vital for writers on the spiritual path.
A Quarrel with Myself
At the beginning of the spiritual journey, the seeker discovers a need to learn as much as possible about one’s own self. Knowing how one’s physical and mental bodies work helps lay the foundation for discovering how the soul—spiritual body—works.
My personal spiritual journey has long involved an interest in writing creatively, especially poetry and songs but also essays. While the poem/song works to dramatize the truths of one’s felt experience, the essay labors to state, elucidate, and support evidence for what one believes to be true about any given issue.
The spiritual journey is an individual journey. One can never know the Spiritual Reality through others but only through one’s own soul. Still, the spiritual journey might also require the spiritual aspirant to address issues that are blatantly misunderstood by others.
William Butler Yeats asserted: “Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.”
My quarrel has always been with myself, and quarreling with others has never interested me as much, especially because I hate confrontation. I much prefer writing and analyzing my own thoughts and beliefs to trying to analyze the often hastily spoken or sloppily written words of others. I say “hastily” because I do enjoy analyzing a piece of writing that has been well-thought out, organized, and as necessary as with essays, documented with reliable sources.
This writing preference has resulted in the fact that a great chunk of my writing includes commentaries about poems—both classic and modern poetry of others and my own original poems. I have determined that if my own poem creations cannot stand up to the same scrutiny that I employ in studying the poetry of other poets, I should not like to consider those works valid; thus, when I write a commentary about my own poem, the poem takes on penumbra of shelf-life that advances and enhances its original drama.
Therefore, this quarrel with myself includes not only the poems/songs themselves but also the commentaries I compose about them. I believe that if more modernist and postmodernist poets would take the time to write about their own poems—even if only for their own eyes—current poetry would be vastly improved.
Rhetoric vs Poetry
The Yeats quotation remains a perceptive evaluation of the two arts: rhetoric and poetry. Yet, the essay bridges the gap between pure rhetoric and pure poetry, even as it depends in large measure on clear application of the rhetorical principals laid out in classical rhetoric.
The essayist has to avoid the rhetorical fallacies of ad hominem attacks, either-or propositions, post hoc ergo propter hoc situations, and others. The essayist may also employ poetic devices, especially imagery and metaphorical dramatizations, as well as structuring a melodious flow of a pleasant rhythm. Unless one is just spewing for the fun of venting, the essay must satisfy its readers as reasonable, polite, and moral.
Poetry’s use of classical rhetorical principles is also important but for a different reason. Because poetry relies more heavily on sense awareness, it employs more images, metaphors, rhythm, and rime* than does the typical essay. Still, despite the mechanical similarities, the function of a poem and an essay remain worlds apart: one may argue with an essay’s stance but not with a poem’s drama. One may criticize and evaluate a poem’s execution but not the sincere feeling that may be expressed; however, hypocrisy leaves the poet open to a good thrashing.
For example, a reader might argue with a writer’s claim that vegetarians should be allowed to eat honey because bees are mere agents in making the honey and not part of the product they manufacture, but one cannot argue with the poet who dramatizes fear: “Now I am milkweed silk, the bees will not notice. / They will not smell my fear, my fear, my fear” (from Sylvia Plath’s “The Bee Meeting”). To argue that the speaker in Sylvia Plath’s “The Bee Meeting” should or should not be fearful of bees would be ludicrous; however, one might find fault with Plath’s execution of the poem, for example, one might object to the repetition of “my fear” three times as overkill.
*Please note: The spelling, “rhyme,” was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see “Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.”
The Poetic Personal
Such is the attraction of poetry for those who are introspective and desire primarily to argue with themselves about their own personal fears or flaws. Even if a poet’s poem employs a theme or image that is garnered from other people, ultimately, the poet’s own self is the entity against which the poet is arguing—or about which s/he is merely making a statement—and not with/about the other individual.
The Yeats quotation, therefore, has long been one of my favorites; it offers a clear understanding of an essential difference between poetry and rhetoric. But my penchant for bringing balance and harmony to my world of writing allows me to posit the essay as a mighty centurion standing guard allowing the two to live in a virtual bliss I call home.
The Spiritual Journey and Individual Liberty
Because the spiritual path is littered with debris from one’s fellows as well as one’s own life, sometimes it becomes necessary to argue against the stances taken by others. But for the introspective type—the type with which I do most definitely identify—the purpose of such argument will remain a deeply personal one; although the topic may at times seem otherwise. For example, when I compose a piece such as “The Big LIe: Republicans and Democrats Switched Sides on Race,” a reader might wonder what such a topic has to do with a personal “spiritual journey.”
Political positions become spiritual for two main reasons: (1) If a society gets its politics wrong, it could destroy its very existence; examples are the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, Persia, Babylon, and many others. (2) The complex act of researching history, stating and then supporting a stance regarding some issue strengthens the individual mind of the researcher/writer. Weak thinking never brought anyone to soul awareness. Because of these two points that grow on a spiritual base, I continue to elucidate my political world view on issues from time to time.
I believe strongly in individual liberty, and it becomes clear that all the societies that ceased to exist did so because of their failure to support the individual liberty of their citizens. Although I doubt that disseminating a political essay such as “The Big Lie: Republicans and Democrats Switched Sides on Race” will greatly affect the longevity of the United States of America, I take it as a spiritual duty to correct the errors against which the essay argues. I do believe that truth eventually wins with a triumphant finality.
Whether exploring my heart, mind, and soul in a poem, or offering political arguments against the wrong-headed and evil-intended opposition to individual liberty, I am moving my feet steadily down the spiritual path to awareness and soul realization. The Divine Reality awaits and while still above ground on this whirling ball of mud, I find that for myself, “Writing is home”—where I research, study, think, compose, and meditate, following the teachings and techniques of the great spiritual leader, Paramahansa Yogananda.
Writing About Poetry
Writing about poetry remains one of my most important tasks because, along with music, poetry became my most intense interest from a fairly early age. I have an affinity for language and sound, and I have observed a paucity of understanding in the area of poetry; thus, I strive to offer my insights in order to help others understand and appreciate the art of poetry.
When writers write about poetry, they do so from a chosen rhetorical focus based on the purpose they wish to achieve. Examples of a “rhetorical focus” regarding writing about poetry include but are not necessarily limited to the following: analysis, explication, criticism, scholarship, and commentary.
I will address each of rhetorical foci using the following poem, showing what each focus would likely address:
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow
of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
Rhetorical Foci for Writing About Poetry
The rhetorical focus of the writer determines what the discourse about a poem addresses.
The analysis of a poem includes separating the poem’s features into their distinct elements and then describing those elements. For example, the analysis of the poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” would point out any poetic devices such as metaphor: river as soul; simile: “soul has grown deep like the rivers”; personification: “its muddy bosom”; theme: cosmic voice declaring unity of humankind, and any others that the analyst might deem relevant to understanding the poem.
A writer explicates a poem to show how its poetic devices imply its message. For example, in the Hughes poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” the use of the metaphor and then the simile of the river as blood in veins and ultimately as the souls of humankind implies that all human beings are related to one another physically as well as spiritually. The personification of the “muddy bosom” contributes to the relationship between the river and the human body. Thus, the theme of the poem that focuses on the unity of humanity is spoken in a cosmic voice.
If the critic focuses on the poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” s/he would evaluate the poem’s overall success in terms of its clarity, its importance, and/or its appropriate use of poetic devices.
A scholarly focus on Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” would likely begin by explaining the use of the term “Negro,” especially because that term has become passé in modern parlance. It would also set the context for the speaker claiming, “Abe Lincoln / went down to New Orleans.” The scholar would likely supply the date and reasons for the president’s visit to that southern city and then suggest what that historical reference adds to the poem.
Unlike the writer of analysis, explication, criticism, or scholarship, the commentarian’s main focus is on the overall meaning of the poem. Thus the commentarian may employ any, all or none of the tools of the analyst, explicator, critic, and scholar to offer his/her informed opinion regarding the poem’s meaning.
It should be remembered that the reading of a poem varies greatly from the reading of an expository piece of prose. A poem essentially functions to express artistically and often dramatically what it feels like to experience life as a human being. Thus, any comprehensive statement about what any specific poem is doing remains someone’s opinion, and some opinions are more informed than others.
Commentaries may criticize a poem for any number of reasons from poor execution to faulty information. In that case the commentarian would necessarily have to rely upon historical and scholarly research, as well as on a knowledge base regarding the appropriate employment of poetic devices, which is the purview of the critic.
Writing as a Commentarian
My personal choice of rhetorical focus as I write about poetry is that of the commentarian. I might also add that I am, in fact, the one who coined that term and function. If you place the term “poetry commentarian” in the Google search engine, the only exact hit you will get is mine in an article here on this site. Otherwise, you get the suggestion for “poetry commentary,” a term that I did not coin.
My main purpose is to offer my informed opinion about the overall meaning of the poems I address. The only dissecting I do is that I address each poem’s stanza or movement. But the purpose remains that same, to offer my studied opinion about the poem. That may, sometimes, include the poem’s effect on readers, but meaning through commentary is always my intended goal.
For that reason, my commentaries never employ the title, “Analysis of ‘Such and Such Poem’.” My simple title of each commentary that focuses on the poem contains only the poet’s name and the title of his/her poem.