No Church in the Wild

The song No Church in the Wild is a collaboration by hip hop artists Kanye West and Jay Z. In this post I analyze the lyrics of this song.

Exhaustive Analysis?
This prefatory note could be made of any poetic analysis, but for whatever reason, I felt like I wanted to talk about it now: this isn’t going to be an exhaustive analysis. That’s impossible. A work of art ultimately has to speak for itself, since any analysis will always leave something unsaid.

There is a story (I can’t remember where I heard it) about a man who, enthralled by a ballet performance, asked the dancer what the dance meant, and received the answer: “if I could tell you, I wouldn’t have had to dance it.” All art is an act of expression, and the form is chosen because of the needs of the content. So the essential nature of what is expressed by any work of art must be given by that artwork itself.

So what then is the point of analysis? Not to paraphrase the content. Instead, it’s a way to engage more deeply with the work; to walk around it and look from different angles; to gain an appreciation of its nuances and subtler shades of meaning. But, in the end, we have to return to the work itself.

Theme

The theme of the song is expressed by the title. It is an expression of nihilism. The “church” stands for “meaning, value, or purpose” and “the wild” stands for “the world”. So the title literally means “there is no meaning, value, or purpose in the world”.

The central image is not really an image at all, but a negation of an image: “no church”. This complements the message of the song; we feel the loss of value more strongly when contrasted with the image of a church whose existence has been negated. The term “the wild” functions similarly, by implication -the “wild” is a negation of social order.

One might ask whether “the wild” really means “the world”; couldn’t “the wild” literally mean the wild? In another context, sure. But not in this song, which goes works to dispel the illusion of power and reveal the emptiness of our social structures:

Lies on the lips of a priest

Our religious institutions are empty;

Thanksgiving disguised as a feast

Our rituals and celebrations are empty;

Tears on the mausoleum floor
Blood stains the Coliseum doors

These lines evoke violent rebellion and struggles for power, calling to mind the fall of Rome, and illustrating the transitory nature of social order. As powerful as these institutions may appear, they are ephemeral.

And, the first verse cuts straight to the heart of the matter with these lines:

Is Pious pious ’cause God loves pious?
Socrates asks, “whose bias do y’all seek?”

Here, the lyrics reword the Euthyphro dilemma: do the gods love pious things because those things are pious, or are those things pious because the gods love them? What decides ethical value, ultimately? The next line provides the answer: nothing. Everything is just a bias. We decide our own values.

Chorus

The chorus is a beautifully crafted rhetorical expression of nihilism.

The first line reads:

Human beings in a mob

Superficially, this could be talking about some particular humans who have formed a mob. But this is really a statement about the human condition. We exist as a mob; we are on our own, doing whatever we want to do, without a ruler or governing structure.

The following lines read:

What’s a mob to a king?
What’s a king to a god?
What’s a god to a non-believer?
Who don’t believe in anything?

The first three of these lines are all rhetorical questions: “What’s a mob to a king”? (nothing); “What’s a king to a god?” (nothing); “What’s a god to a non-believer?” (nothing). The fourth line is a double negation; “don’t believe in anything” means “believe in nothing”. If we strip away the rhetorical clothing on these lines, they read something like:

nothing
nothing
nothing
believe in nothing

The following lines superficially offer some kind of a response to this nihilism:

We make it out alive
All right, all right

To “make it out alive” is a cliché idiom that means that we’ll get through it, and “all right, all right” seems to be trying to console us -don’t worry, it’ll be alright. But the lines feel half-hearted, empty, and they don’t make us feel at ease.

The use of the cliché “make it out alive” on its own is enough to make the consolation feel dead. But even more striking is the ironic use of “make it out alive” to mean “get through life” -you don’t get out of life alive. That’s the whole point. You die.

In case it was not clear enough that we are meant to be left with the resounding feeling of emptiness, the chorus ends with a repetition of the title line: “no church in the wild”. At the end of the song, this line is repeated four times.

Struggle with nihilism

The lyrics don’t merely call attention to nihilism and wallow in the lack of value. The second verse enacts a struggle within that nihilism, a dramatic evolution as the speaker tries to find purpose in their own way. (Of course, these efforts are doomed to failure, representing, necessarily, the particular bias of the speaker).

I live by you, desire

This line seems to suggest that hedonism is an appropriate response to nihilism.

Your love, is my scripture

This line seems to suggest that love provides a better source of meaning and value than religious institutions.

No sins as long as there’s permission’

This line promotes a worldview where morality is not determined by a religious authority, but by whether you are trespassing on other people’s autonomy.

Final Words

I hope you liked this analysis of No Church in the Wild. Now might be a good time to listen to the song.

If you liked this post and want to thank me for writing it, or if you want to see more posts like this in the future, please buy me a coffee:

Bitter Knowledge, by Yannis Ritsos

“Bitter Knowledge” is a poem by the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos (1909-1990). It can be found in the collection “Late into the Night: the Last Poems of Yannis Ritsos”.

Consider reading my analysis of Ritsos’ poem “Maybe, Someday” before this one. These two poems can be read together, and it makes more sense for the other one to come first.

As with any analysis of a poem, we should begin by reading it in its entirety first, and appreciating it as a whole.

Bitter Knowledge
by Yannis Ritsos (translation karlóvasi, 6-30-87)

Stay in this sheltering half-light with folded hands.
There’s nowhere for the lame night-watchman to sit.
The chairs were sold off two weeks ago. Out front,
they’re hosing out some large barrels. Barges
lie beached in the harbor. The newscaster’s voice
carries from across the street. I don’t want to hear.
I sweep the charred moth wings off the table
from the night before, knowing only
that all their weight is in their weightlessness.

Tone

The tone is depressed, wistful and resigned. A number of images point to giving up or feeling powerless: the “folded hands”, the “lame” watchman with nowhere to sit, the charred wings. The images also create a deep feeling of emptiness or lacking purpose: The barrels, being hosed out, empty; The watchman, nowhere to sit; The barges beached on the harbor, inert; The moth wings, discarded, burned, brushed from the table. The images in this constellation all show loss: a loss of purpose or function.

The overall impression created is one of sadness, emptiness, and loss.

Watson’s tone analyzer confirms this reading, identifying sadness and fear as the prevailing moods.

Interpretation

Ritsos is talking about his life as a poet. He is the “lame night-watchman”, powerless as death (“night”) approaches. The “bitter knowledge” of the title concerns his life’s work.

Late into the night of his life, he is reconsidering his contributions, weighing the value of his life’s work. The charred moth wings “from the night before” are the totality of his life’s work: insubstantial, charred, fragile, crumbling at the slightest touch. Their value: nothing, except proving their “weightlessness”.

Ritsos devoted his entire life to poetry. He hoped that he might share the beauty of the world as he saw it, through his poetry. This was his driving passion: to end the loneliness of living in his private world; to bridge the divide between separate beings; to commune with others through his craft. At the end of his life, he came to dismiss his life’s work -sweeping it from the table- as a total failure.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening is a poem by Robert Frost, and one of the more famous poems in the English language. I would like to take a look at some of its interesting elements.

First, as in any analysis of a poem, it’s better to begin by looking at the poem in its entirety, and appreciating it as a whole (some would say you have to start by reading it at least twice, since you must first grasp the whole in order to appreciate the individual lines in light of the whole). Here it is:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Rhythm and Rhyme, and Acoustic Correspondence

The poem is written in iambic tetrameter. It has chain-rhymed quatrains -a form that is known in Persian as a Rubaiyat. It’s difficult to pull off in English, because it strains linguistic resources. It is a demanding form -four rhyming lines spread across four quatrains and linking them together- and poor execution will result in rhymes that seem forced or obvious. Frost pulls it off well, with language that seems natural and appropriate.

The rhyme scheme looks like this:

A
A
B
A

B
B
C
B

C
C
D
C

D
D
D
D

That’s not the extent to which Frost is playing with sound. At a first pass, we might notice only the end-rhymes. But there are more interesting effects occurring here.

As I read the first stanza, the recurring /h/ in each line is deliberate, as is the recurring /w/, and the internal rhyme with /ill/ in lines 2 through 4. Each of these sounds establishes a subtle corrspondence, perhaps just below our conscious awareness. I map the sound correspondence in the following way, with ‘x’ representing “unused” syllables, acoustic effects bracketed with ‘/’ marks, and leaving the end rhymes as A and B:

/h/w/xxxxxA

/h/h/xxx/ill/xA

/h/(w/ill)/xxxxxB

(The second syllable of the third line is bracketed because it creates a correspondence between two sounds in a single syllable.)

By the time we finish the third line, we have already heard a pair of /w/, a triplet of /h/, and a pair of /ill/. Here is the denouement of the first stanza: every single one of these sounds recurs in the final line, which is dense with acoustic correspondence, and thereby invested with the energy of the previous lines. Even if we don’t know why, we feel the line as powerful and satisfying.

I map the first stanza this way:

/h/w/xxxxxA

/h/h/xxx/ill/xA

/h/(w/ill)/xxxxxB

x/w/h/w/ill/x/w/A

Visualized out this way, we can see why the line feels so powerful -it is loaded with correspondence to the previously established patterns, satisfying our subconscious urge to see those sound pairs recur. The final line effectively ties the whole stanza together, linking it through acoustic correspondence with nearly every syllable.

Sensory density and psychological fidelity

This is a powerful poem in terms of sensory density. We can feel the cold, the snow falling, the wind. We can hear the wind, the “sweep” of “downy flake”, the bells of the little horse. We can see the evening woods. The frozen lake. And so on. It is rich with sensory experiences. But for all its sensory density, the poem is remarkably internal, closely tracking the mental state of the speaker. It feels psychologically real.

It begins with the speaker wondering “whose woods these are”. There is a feeling of being lost, a feeling subtly accentuated by the inversion of the expected “whose woods are these” to “who woods these are”, which puts us slightly off-balance (as the speaker is). We then feel the movement of the speaker’s thought process -from being lost, to tentatively located- in the space of the first line, when we hear the words “I think I know”. The poem moves quickly, and we are swept up in the thought process of the speaker. Perhaps without our conscious awareness, the speaker’s thought process develops further, not explicitly, but implied by their perception of the woods: the woods are no longer “these” woods but “his woods” (the unknown man who lives in the village). The speaker becomes gradually more confident in a way that feels psychologically real.

Limitations on Human Beings, Finding Our Purpose

This is poem is largely about the perceptual limitations of thinking beings. (At a deeper level, it is about our inability to grasp the “truth” of existence in a grand sense). The first stanza embodies this theme, shifting between a feeling of being lost, then tentatively placed, then slightly more assuredly located in space; it enacts the struggle to find one’s place.

This theme is further reinforced as our attention is shifted to other characters. The unknown man who “will not see” what is happening, or the little horse who “must think it queer”. The speaker, the horse, and the unknown man are all presented in terms of their psychological limitations: what they cannot see, or cannot understand, or are struggling to know.

In the final stanza, we get the sense that the speaker will not keep his “promises”. He wants to sleep, but he has miles to go. The repetition of this final line suggests an ongoing task; the poem ends not with finality, but by propelling the speaker towards the “miles to go”, for which we have no suggestion of a resolution.

The speaker’s “sleep”, in this case, seems to represent death. His “promises” are those owed to his fellow beings, represented by the village outside of the woods. The never-ending task of a thinking being is to find their purpose among their fellow beings (as the speaker first begins by trying to find his place) and this task is not done until we’re dead. It is ultimately a poem about searching for meaning in life. But it is a search that can have no resolution.

This should not be interpreted as a depressing poem. Frost says the woods are “lovely, dark and deep”. The implication here is that our being lost in the dark woods of life, of trying to find our purpose, is actually a lovely thing.

On the topic of the darkness of this poem, it does enact suicidal thoughts; the speaker looks at the woods and wants to “sleep”. Some part of him wants death. But this isn’t the focal point of the poem, or its resolution. Ultimately, the speaker continues trudging on, because of “promises” owed to his fellow beings; he will continue searching for his purpose in the dark.

Oxford Comma

Let me make take this opportunity to make a plea for the Oxford comma. Consider this line from Frost:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

Here, the absence of an Oxford comma means that this line should be read not as listing three qualities of the woods -“lovely”, “dark”, and “deep”- but rather, an entirely different meaning: the loveliness of the woods consists in their being “dark and deep”. And further, if we take this line metaphorically, Frost is saying that the loveliness of life consists in not knowing our purpose -that the beauty comes from our endless search to find meaning in the darkness. Alternatively, we might read this line as suggesting the loveliness offered by the sleep of death -dark and deep- and embodying the speaker’s suicidal thoughts. Or both at the same time. It is a powerful line.

However, if for some tragic reason we stopped using the Oxford comma, we wouldn’t know how to read this line, because we wouldn’t have a mark to distinguish these two possible readings (if the Oxford comma was optional, then we wouldn’t know whether the line simply had an omitted comma). English would lose some of its expressive capacity and would be, to that extent, broken.

The argument for dropping the Oxford comma seems to be that, in certain cases, it is obvious from the context that the items are meant to be read as a list (for example, “the three fruits were an apple, an orange and a banana”). This is a bad argument. We might just as well omit the period from sentences that close a paragraph. Besides, that usage looks jarring to people who respect the Oxford comma. We will understand your meaning, probably, but you also needlessly risk causing annoyance and giving the impression that you don’t care about language.

Don’t break English. Use the Oxford comma.

Santa Claus

Finally, just for fun, let us just consider that this poem might really just be about Santa Claus.

Who is this strange man who has stopped in someone else’s woods at night, on a snowy evening? What are all these promises he has to keep? Why so many miles to travel?

The “darkest evening of the year” would be the 21st of December. But perhaps Frost has taken some liberties here. “The fourth darkest evening of the year” doesn’t quite fit in the established meter, and isn’t quite as neat.

The harness bells evoke a reindeer, and the animal appears in a stanza rhyming on queer/near/year. Is “reindeer” being playfully implied by rhyme?

The opening stanza introduces our speaker, and it rhymes on know/though/snow. Playfully implying “ho-ho-ho” through rhyme?

Well, read the poem again for yourself and see if that interpretation makes any sense:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Final words

Thanks for reading. I hope you liked this post.