Below I have encluded an explication of a passage that I wrote some time ago. I didn’t have long to write a post this week but I wanted to share something that I’m proud of and something that maybe another student will have to do. Hopefully it will be helpful and if not enlightening. I would recommend you all read the book – it’s extremely good.
An explication of a passage in Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
“I was learning the craft of poetry, which really was an intensive version of what my mother had taught me all those years ago – the craft of writing as the art of thinking. Poetry aims for an economy of truth – loose and useless words must be discarded, and I found that these loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts. Poetry was not simply the transcription of notions – beautiful writing rarely is. I wanted to learn to write, which was ultimately, still, as my mother had taught me, a confrontation with my own innocence, my own rationalizations. Poetry was the processing of my thoughts until the slag of justification fell away and I was left with the cold steel truths of life.” (pg.51-52)
Throughout his book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates informs his son about his internal battle with his social position in the world as a young man. This passage correlates directly to his struggle with finding the truth. While he explains, earlier in his book, that he took time to study in the library for any answers he might need from outside sources, this passage informs the audience that he also looked intrinsically for the answers to the inner turmoil he experienced. Within the first sentence he informs his son that he learned poetry, which he says is an intensive rendition of what his mother taught him as a child. Earlier in the book he states that his mother always had him write down his questions and intrinsically search out reasons why he thought and acted the way he did. On page 51, Coates states that poetry forced him to do the same: to learn the art of thinking. He learned this art by confronting his own innocence and rationalizations, by forming poetry that helped him see the “cold steel truths of life”.
Many believe that poetry is something that is romantic. Something that can be read quickly, quietly, and without thought. Coates states that poetry is something different. He says it “aims for an economy of truth…” meaning that poetry is meant to utilize the truth, to be a stage on which truth is set. The word “economy” in this sentence means “the way in which something is managed” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. What Coates preposes is that poetry, even in its simplest form, is the essence of truth. He says that it discards “loose and useless words” even though they “…are not separate from loose and useless thoughts.” I believe that when he wrote this, the easiest way to understand what he meant is thus: poetry, while fluid and rythmic, is not filled with unnecessary words; even though, sometimes it may be filled by loose and sometimes useless thoughts and ideas. That is to say, on occasion, poetry is simply meant for the beauty it provides and not always to provoke deep thoughts. Coates concludes by saying that “Poetry was not simply the transcription of notions – beautiful writing rarely is.” This statement infers the idea that Coates believed that most poetry was founded on great ideas, profound thoughts, and the cornerstone of the writers beliefs, ideals, or morals. The way in which Coates expresses his understanding of poetry is that of a direct, flowing, and rhythmic way to understand one’s own innocence and rationalizations.
He expresses his desire to learn to write in a way which he was taught – to confront his own innocence and rationalizations. As he stated in the beginning of the passage “…the craft of writing as the art of thinking…” Coates understands, as most great poets and writers do, that the craft of writing is to think. Anyone can obtain the ability to write, but few can obtain the art of thinking. A craft is something that is learned – a trade that is taught by someone. The arts are something that is a passion, a process by which someone works until they have perfected what they do to make it beautiful and alluring to others. What is to be understood from this particular part of the passage is that, in order to write well and influence others, one must think critically and be willing to challenge everything known to them. Coates states that he wanted to confront his own innocence and rationalizations, he understood that in order to understand the world, and to better understand the way in which he was to function within it, he needed to challenge what he knew. Coates understood that innocence and rationalizations will pass away and he seeks to do it himself through his own intrinsic searching, through the art of thinking, and the craft of writing.
In the last sentence of his passage, Coates states that “Poetry was the processing of my thoughts until the slag of justification fell away and I was left with the cold steel truths of life.” The implication that stems from this particular sentence is that by leaving behind the “loose” and “useless” words, Coates was able to better direct his thoughts. He talks of the “… slag of justification..” this could be a reference back to his rationalizations that he spoke of earlier and wanted to confront. When he mentions the “slag of justification” falling away, it is easy to understand that he means all his rationalizations came to nothing and from that he was able to move forward to what was left. Slag refers to the substance. This means that all the basis of his justifications fell away. Coates was able to, without his rationalization or justifications, understand these “cold steel truths of life”.
Coates talks about the “cold steel truths of life” that he was left with after his justifications, rationalizations, and innocence fell away in the last part of this passage. While there are many truths to life, due to the context of this book, it could be argued that he understood these truths to be the way in which life would continue for him. He could also be referring to the manner in which society treated African Americans and how he believed it was unlikely to change. Whatever these truths are, he describes them as being cold as steel. A visualization to the reader that these truths are unforgiving and unbending, like steel bars on an iron cage. These are the answers he has been searching for, but it is clear from his description of them – they are not the ones he wants.
Through his passage Coates brings to life what poetry can be for a writer. It can be a way to weedle out the unnecessary words and ideas, and simply come to the truth. It helps the writer to wrestle with questions they may not otherwise think of asking themselves. And it gives direction to the answers and, potentially, to the truth. Poetry is the best form of writing; the best available way to learn the art of thinking, a way to find the truth.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. First edition. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015.
“economy, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2018. Web. 18 July 2018.
Oxford English Dictionary
“Islamophobia, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, July 2018. Web. 22 October 2018.
New York Times – “Arabian Knights” song; July 14, 1993