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Faces & Voices IV
AN ANTHOLOGY OF VERSE AND PROSE
Composition for Honors
There is an idea which seems to have some currency among students and even some faculty at this University, that the term ‘Composition’ refers, almost exclusively, to writing. In disagreement, I make bold to state that Composition is, simply stated, the artistic arrangement of words. In order to arrange words artistically it is very necessary to become familiar with them, with their meanings, with their sounds, and yes, even with their shapes; so familiar, in fact, that whenever we think of composing, we readily know which words would comfortably fit with others to achieve the clear, unequivocal meaning we intend.
Recently I watched as a group of artisans erected a brick facing on a new building opposite Shaw metro station and was able to appreciate the care necessary in aligning brick with brick and secure it to its neighbors with just the right amount of mortar for achieving a strong, artistically pleasing structure. I learned that the arrangement of bricks was not haphazard, but depended on the architect’s vision and the community of structures into which the new building must fit.
Similarly with Composition. First we need words, the veritable ‘bricks’ of communication. We need to know, to have, and to be familiar with enough of them to allow us the widest possible choices when we think of something and wish to design the way in which it is spoken or written. This familiarity can be achieved only by reading, and herein lies our problem. Most of us do not read nearly enough or well enough to provide us with the continuing store of ‘bricks’ we need for comfortable Composition.
If students, especially Honor students, are to develop and maintain any capacity to form opinions and judgments, they must first develop the habit of reading, for their own pleasurable satisfaction.
How students read, well, middling or badly, does not depend wholly on themselves; very often, texts for their study are selected to serve particular requirements and the student is rarely directed to venture farther than the parameters which contain those requirements. Unhappily, many students read these texts without any sense of personal involvement in either their thrust or their meaning. Fortunately, there are some students, albeit a few, who are imaginative enough or inquisitive enough to want to know and understand and read in an entirely different way. They read with an overt urgency, and are determined to seize upon an idea and extract from it the last scintilla of meaning. Occasionally one catches a glimpse of such a student, alone, separate from distracting fellows and deeply involved in the interplay of words and their meaning. Bible readers, those who search the Scriptures for themselves, perhaps express this urgency more clearly than shall I say, readers of Shakespeare, Dante, Cervantes or Baldwin, yet the quest is the same.
One of the inescapable imperatives of reading is to prepare us, each one of us, for change, and change, in all its complex and intriguing immediacy, weighs heavily upon us all. Every aspect of our daily lives is now subject to quick revolutionary, unrelenting change which allows us little time to prepare for today, let alone tomorrow or the next day. Reading is therefore imperative and we must see it as a solitary praxis rather than as an educational exercise. We would do well to follow this advice Sir Francis Bacon gave to Samuel Johnson: “Read not contradict and confute, nor to find talk and discourse, nor to believe and take for granted; read that you might learn to weigh and consider.” Ultimately, we should read to strengthen the self and to discover the self’s authentic interests. The pleasures of reading are, in truth, selfish rather than social, but it is a selfishness which ennobles us, and, by extension, all those with whom we come in contact.
It is my opinion that the way we read and the benefits we derive from reading will depend on the inner distance we are able to place between ourselves and the universities, colleges, and even schools where reading is scarcely taught to be pleasurable in the deeper senses of aesthetic pleasure. A childhood largely spent watching television and playing electronic games eventually leads to an adolescence with the computer and, eventually, the university receives a student who is unfamiliar with the sheer joy of reading and is unlikely favorably to react to reading for its own sake. However, let me hasten to assert that there are a few who have discovered advantages in reading for themselves and not for those interests which supposedly transcend self.
Composition for Honors is a challenge, a clear though unspoken challenge to use words as imaginatively and artistically as our intelligence will allow, and because we may never plumb the ultimate of our intellectual capacity, there will always be plenty of room for improving our ability to compose, in thought, in speech and in writing. This challenge is directed to the individual student rather than to the group-class and how he or she accepts it and is responsive to it will be measured over a lifetime, long after concerns with ‘grades’ have finally faded like the last roses of Summer.
2000 Howard University.