The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 529

“Home Course in Religion,” a long narrative poem, does not adhere to a specific rhyme or rhythm scheme. Instead, this prose poem relies on a variety of structural devices to provide unity. As with many of his other poems, Gary Soto is more concerned with creating and conveying an image with short, tight lines and direct, succinct diction than he is with rhyme and rhythm. For example, Soto consistently juxtaposes two seemingly ordinary, terse words (such as “Top Ramen” and “cereal bowl”) that together reinforce the reality of the persona’s poverty, a poverty that influences his every action: “I was living on Top Ramen and cold cereal.” The socioeconomic concept of poverty and its resulting oppressiveness is pervasive in the poem. Building on this sense of poverty, the poem, written in the first person, allows Soto to create a persona whose view of the world and whose experiences are very similar to his. Thus, the poet speaks directly to and intimately with the audience, conveying an experience that is immediate and authentic.

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The poem universalizes the archetypal journey of an eighteen-year-old college student as he struggles to find the “quiddity,” or essence, of his life. As the title “Home Course in Religion” implies, the student undertakes his introspective journey by turning to religion. He begins by reading “a really long book” that “ought to be read by anyone/ Who has had a formal or home-study course in metaphysics.” Unable to understand the convoluted images, he turns to other sources such as the Bible and The Problem of Evil. Although “much clearer,” neither source alleviates his sense of separateness; rather, both books further obfuscate his search.

Throughout the poem, the young man’s attempts to find answers through prescribed religion are thwarted. He then turns to other venues: politics, society, and education. For example, when he and his roommates discuss former U.S. president Richard Nixon’s Watergate debacle and try to make sense of it, their ability to communicate with one another is impeded by a language barrier: “none of us understood what the other/ Was saying.” In college, his teachers lecture about “pumice” and the “Papuan people,” and, even though he takes notes, he is more intent on watching the teacher sweat—perhaps implying the nonrelevance of the subject matter. None of these institutions provides him with answers or helps him reconcile the ideal of the American dream with the reality of his world of “cracker crumbs” and the jar of peanut butter he regards as a “present” that he and his girlfriend used on their “last three crackers.”

The poem concludes with the gradual, and sometimes painful, disintegration of the young man’s belief in organized religion and institutions and with the deep personal sense of disorientation that results from his discovery. His three-day journey leads him to a rather dark, almost nihilistic, epiphany: “I realized I might be in the wrong line of belief.” This statement conveys a sense of growth and maturation; he realizes prescriptive religion can neither abate his suffering nor ease his socioeconomic hunger. He is now a stronger person because he knows that he will have to survive on his own.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 564

Soto defines himself as “an imagist, one who tries to provide a stark, quick image.” His definition could well apply to the prominent images and metaphors he creates in “Home Course in Religion.” Although he employs biblical allusions, ambiguities as a rhetorical device, and irony, Soto relies on central images and metaphors to convey the physical, psychological, and spiritual hunger of the young man.

Soto directly addresses the physical hunger the young man and his brother experience as they exist on Top Ramen, crackers, and cold cereal, which he eats in his Top Ramen bowl. Occasionally, the brothers are treated to “oranges that rolled our way” or peanut butter that the narrator’s girlfriend gives them. Soto’s continued, matter-of-fact references to these images resonates and heightens their emotional impact. By understating the multifaceted deficiency, the author explicitly conveys a deep sense of hunger that is reinforced when he says, “People with big cars don’t know how much it hurts.” This hunger precipitates the young man’s spiritual quest as a means of abating, or at least understanding, his pain and suffering; therefore, he begins reading religious books.

After trying to understand the content of one of his religion books, the young man plays basketball to “get the air” back into his brain. At first, the image of “air” conveys a positive, vibrant, life-affirming quality. When juxtaposed with reading a religion book, however, the connotation becomes subtly negative. Once again, after reading ten pages in another book that seems clearer (“Costly grace . . ./comes as a word of/ Forgiveness to the broken spirit/ And the contrite heart”), the “good air” leaves him and he falls asleep. The metaphorical suggestion in both examples is implicit: Prescribed religion cannot alleviate his suffering if the messages it conveys are too esoteric or too difficult to understand.

Nonetheless, the young man continues to search for a sense of reassurance through religion by reading about a “French mystic.” Instead of providing him with insight and hope, however, he learns that she talked “in weird/ Ways and no longer reached people with her thoughts.” Later, he reads another numbing text and again falls asleep. Once again, his efforts to understand his plight are thwarted. Ironically, on the second day of his journey, he learns “more about life” from a karate instructor in physical education class than he does with the help of a book: “Pain doesn’t exist . . ./Pain is in the mind./ The mind is the spiritual nature/ That follows your body.” He learns that he must control his pain and that pain is part of the human condition.

Metaphorically, by juxtaposing the images of “good air” leaving the brain or falling asleep with religious texts, the author conveys a sense of the young man’s alienation that is reinforced throughout the poem. Whether reading the Bible or The Problem of Evil, the young man experiences the same dullness in his senses. His vitality and energy are seen when he talks to and jokes with his roommates and when he makes love to his girlfriend. Again, when he plays basketball and returns home, “sweaty in every hole,” he feels revived and alive. In contrast to the deterioration of his vitality or life force when he delves into religious dogma, all of these interpersonal activities reaffirm his existence, evidence that neither his physical nor his spiritual hunger have been alleviated.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 125

Blasingame, James. “Interview with Gary Soto.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 47 (November, 2003): 266-267.

Bruce-Novoa, Juan. “Patricide and Resurrection: Gary Soto.” In Chicano Poetry: A Response to Chaos. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982.

Candelaria, Cordelia. Chicano Poetry. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986.

Cooley, Peter. “I Can Hear You Now.” Parnassus 8, no. 1 (1979): 297-311.

De la Fuentes, Patricia. “Mutability and Stasis: Images of Time in Gary Soto’s Black Hair.” American Review 16 (1988): 188-197.

Murphy, Patricia. “Inventing Lunacy: An Interview with Gary Soto.” Hayden’s Ferry Review 18 (Spring/Summer, 1996): 29-37.

Olivares, Julián. “The Streets of Gary Soto.” Latin American Literary Review 18 (January-June, 1990): 32-49.

Soto, Gary. “The Childhood Worries: Or, Why I Became a Writer.” Iowa Review 25 (Spring/Summer, 1995): 104-115.

Williamson, Alan. “In a Middle Style.” Poetry 135 (March, 1980): 348-354.

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