Culture Writer Ilina Jha finds Soul and Substance by Jay Wright to be insightful but lacking in certain areas
Jay Wright is one of America’s leading poets, as well as an essayist and playwright, with a career spanning over half a century. As his latest publication, Soul and Substance: A Poet’s Examination Papers (2023) makes evident, he shows no signs of slowing down. This essay collection dissects and asks big questions about topics such as death, rhythm, and the self, utilising diverse African mythologies, notable philosophers’ ideas, and even mathematics to explore these topics.
The form and style of Soul and Substance might surprise some readers. Wright’s essays, excluding the first, are built out of short pieces of writing, separated from each other by gaps on the page and by large areas of white space – some pages contain as little as one or two sentences. Such a style is certainly rather different from the more traditional essays that readers might be accustomed to, and seems rather akin to poetry. Indeed, Wright’s writing style is definitely that of a poet rather than what we might think of as a traditional essayist. Furthermore, not only do Wright’s arguments refuse to conform to a standard pattern of logical argument building, they also frequently lead to more questions than answers. Wright does not claim to provide a definitive answer to the questions he poses, though he does offer possibilities to ponder.
Soul and Substance contains some very interesting and useful insights into topics that we may not have considered before, such as the status of death and what ‘the self’ is. It is also clear that Wright is a learned and well-read man, drawing on diverse ideas to help explore and develop his own. However, in some cases the concepts Wright discusses are highly complex and are not always explained for clear comprehension. Additionally, Wright frequently uses vocabulary that is unfamiliar to the general reader. While it is certainly a good idea to challenge readers with new, complex vocabulary, I feel that I will have to reread the whole book very slowly, with frequent referrals to a dictionary, in order to understand completely everything that Wright is trying to say. Complex ideas and vocabulary can be used in a way that enables the everyday reader, with just a little bit of work, to understand what is being explained – and there are points when Wright achieves this. However, there are significant sections where I felt completely lost as to what Wright was arguing.
Additionally, Wright frequently includes quotations in languages other than English. This in itself is not a problem; what is a problem is that he often does not provide a translation. For a book that is written in English, and therefore designed for English speakers and readers who may not know another language, this is very frustrating. If there are artistic reasons for including untranslated quotations, then these should be stated clearly so that the reader at least knows what they’re letting themselves in for when they read the book.
All in all, Soul and Substance is a poetically-written essay collection with some interesting ideas and insights; however, you will need a good dictionary and a lot of time on your hands if you want to understand fully everything Wright is talking about.
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