On the Essay

Essaying is an activity of attention and openness—to your own thinking, and to the myriad ways your thinking  takes shape as thoughts on a page; to the often unexplored and dim contours of your physical and emotional life; to the memories you construct (and reconstruct) as you make sense of what you call your past; to the building of the larger story, the emergence of a sequence of events that conjure what we call history, marshaling language to produce the impression (the illusion) that through writing worlds past may become tangible once again; to the world around you, as you begin to see, again and again, that there is more and more than meets the eye .

A poetics of the essay includes the literary and cultural history of the essay–from its emergence in the sixteenth century to the current forms of essaying in the twenty-first century-on the page, as well as in adaptations of the form in sound, image, and visual design. Statements about the nature, form, and purpose of the essay as a literary form, moreover, raise engaging questions about definitions of the essay and spark lively debates and quarrels about language conventions and literary form.

It is a story worth knowing. From the decidedly formal methods of classical rhetoric and medieval scholasticism to what Joseph Addison called in the early eighteenth century the “looseness” and “freedom” of an essay; Theodor Adorno’s twentieth-century call for the essay to proceed “methodically unmethodically”; the essay as a “personal” orientation (as opposed to the “factual” article); the adventures of an engaged mind in the process of searching for a form; the first-person-confessional-imperative in what Laura Bennett calls the “first person industrial complex,” or the essay as defined by the “presence” of a distinctive persona–in these, and in other formulations, one finds the  possibilities of a poetics of the essay.

A poetics of the essay is of interest to writers as well. It is of special interest to writers of the essay, who are themselves cultivating attentiveness and openness, to themselves and to the world. As the writer Scott Russell Sanders explains in “The Singular First Person,” his essays attempt to “speak directly out of my life into the lives of others.” Of course essaying out of one’s life and into the lives of others, we might do well to keep in mind what Sanders adds, that “you had better speak from a region pretty close to the heart, or the reader will detect the wind of phoniness whistling through your hollow phrases.”