After four years of university, only a half-dozen or so of the roughly fifty courses taken proved advantageous to [my] expectations of a “higher” education. By senior year, most of us mastered the fine art of catering to each instructor’s “vomit” format: quote author, summarize points, repeat for required length of paper.
Countering the Standard Structure
Thankfully, the professor who taught my American Renaissance class chose to amend the collective problem. It’s the sole class in my collegiate career that leaves me feeling like I’ve actually grown as a writer. By the final draft of my final paper, my writing properly steered back toward a legitimate analysis of the course material. My essay contained little more than a phrase or two quoted from the stories, poems, or essays covered. Witness my favourite:
No one counters the concept of religion with more brilliance than Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his 1844 essay “The Poet,” he writes: “The religions of the world are the ejaculations of a few imaginative men.” Simple, blunt, even a little humorous, but Emerson gets his point across.
He opens by including religion of any kind, noting that he speaks to the beliefs “of the world.” He uses a powerful metaphor to illustrate the value he places on religion, referring to it as an ejaculation. Emerson’s choice of words carries several layers. “Ejaculation,” as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, holds a most interesting meaning.
On one hand, it reads as a quick and hasty emotional prayer directed at God during a moment of emergency. Emerson’s declaration towards religion, then, holds that it is merely a blind and wishful hope for men to focus on in times of trouble.
At the same time, “ejaculation” also refers to the fluid released by male sperm.
Both definitions fantastically emphasize the opinion that religion is a sham, invented by “a few imaginative men”; religion is the product of the imagination. It’s a system created to give order and allow people a sense of faith.
The above passage contains two full paragraphs based off of one short sentence from Emerson’s essay. See, the key to intelligent analysis is in dissecting more than just the generic, overall meaning of a writer’s piece. Rather, it’s taking a specific phrase or even individual words. It’s identifying why the author chose to phrase their thoughts that particular way. It’s about asking yourself what you feel the writer meant to communicate to readers based on their diction.
In Emerson’s case, it’s also a genius way to reflect his tone/voice in his writing. The snippet used in the above passage drips with his tongue-in-cheek perspective on religion and its place in society. Strictly through his use of both definitions for the word “ejaculation.”
Authors don’t always intend to include these intricacies with their writing. Scholars spend years analyzing the works of some of the world’s greatest minds, only to have one or two laugh it off as something “written just for the hell of it.”
Writing With Intent
Regardless, if you want a specific idea to come across to your audience, you pay attention to diction and phrasing. It matters. Intentional or not, without the careful selection of words, poetry like that of Emily Dickinson has less of an effect on us readers. That’s one of the beauties of language.