Writing every day impresses on me how hard finding just the right word, phrase, or sentence can be, let alone crafting an entire essay or book. Some like Plato can capture the words, in beautiful phrases, in sentences that are perfect, in books that are greater than the wonderful parts. Others can do just one thing: Churchill knew words, phrases, and sentences, though his books were not as good. Charlotte Bronte writes life changing books, even when her paragraphs sometimes fail her. James Fenimore Cooper could capture a time, painting his period in words nearly inaccessible to us now, but standing as a portal to his past.
There are so many ways to write something fine, but so hard to do it! Poetry helps, perhaps best of all, because great poetry is concentrated fineness.
When a foolish student is assigned a poem in school, he thinks: “AHA! That will be fast.”
If the poet is very great, then one page of poetry can be finer, harder, more insightful than hundreds of pages of prose. When I grow frustrated with my inability, I turn to the poets who help me continue looking for a fine phrase. Yet all these great authors overwhelm. How can I write anything? Why not just read what they wrote? Perhaps, I should just imitate them.
How can I write an essay finer than Abolition of Man? I will never produce a poem so great as Langston Hughes. Should I just quit and copy? The opposite tendency, never read older, greater writers, does not appeal to me: too much beauty is lost.
What to do?
Copy and paste is for plagiarists and an intellectual evil.
What about putting someone else’s ideas into my own words?
That is a start for students, but not for adults. While times do not change in some eternal ways, they do change! Plato speaks and does not speak to our times. This may be mere application, but could I do more? Could I hope for just one fine phrase going beyond the page?
How can great texts be useful without being overwhelming?
A great writer shows us how: James A. Emanuel. He could blend music and poetry, write in very traditional forms, and express contemporary, prophetic truths in eternal language. Emanuel could find the right phrase and use classical forms without losing his own unique manliness:
A Pause for a Fine Phrase
I meditate right off the page.
Quick memory and pleasing rage
And soothing slide of conscious mind
Move to the brink, and there I find
A meaning more than what you meant
Gleaning in a corner bent
Right out of flooring that you laid
For stud and joist you never made.
The corner turns and comes to me,
Then something fits, and I am free
To lift my finger off the line
That you have made completely mine.
We should look for authorial intent in any great work: we learn from great minds this way. This is just the beginning of education and Emanuel sees this truth. We can “meditate right off the page.” We recall what was meant by the first author, but are able to add something new. Others laid the floor, we need more. The great texts, really any text, can be the raw materials given us to raise a new roof!
This intellectual labor, using “our pleasing rage” and our own experiences, works over other material in our pause to find a fine phrase. This image helps me visualize how I can stop reading and begin creating something new without losing the valuable work of others. We do not plagiarize, because we make something new from the materials provided.
Even here, where I mean only to learn from a wise poet, even if I am getting what he says right, I can look up, lift my finger off the line of text and own at least my own experience of this poem.
Racism and violence cost the United States most of the career of the poet, James A. Emanuel. Let’s make sure we do not keep repeating the evils that made this necessary on the part of this necessary genius.