Discover more from Poiema
A (Short) Essay on Essays
This, dear reader, is an essay. But even though we have tamed the unwieldy stacks of sentences and named them, we are no closer to knowing what they actually are just by dressing them up in a well-starched title. That chunk of clauses that we typically refer to as an “essay” is a nebulous thing. It can be any number of things, though it isn’t any particular thing. Not yet anyway.
An essay may take the form of an army of arguments where polemical points are paraded out in force in order to capture the citadel of the unpersuaded (or otherwise persuaded) mind. While it is legitimate to refer to such a thing as an essay, it would be foolish to argue that is what an essay is.
I might write a short story about old dogs, children, and watermelon wine (as one troubadour has famously crooned) and call it an essay. That would be quite alright; perfectly acceptable. But it isn’t necessary that an essayist tell tales, or mention tails of any kind, at all.
An essayist may attempt to turn your eyes into feet and lead you up a mountain’s lofty peak before giving you your sight back again, new and improved. His desire is for your eyes to see new things, or new perspectives, or maybe just old things from a fresh perspective. So he focuses on sights, and sounds, and smells. His enchanted words assault your eyes with such force that their spell spills over to the other senses that are crowding in around your eyes. They too want to see what all the fuss is about. His essays don’t argue for anything and they aren’t really telling stories as such; they just point to things and hope that you stop long enough to take notice of them. This may be extremely intimate or radically impersonal. The writer may be so consumed with his subject that nothing matters more than it being shown aright, or he may be so enamored with his muse that he is not content until his reader has seen it aright. In both of these cases, the chief occupation of the author is that of a describer. An essay may describe something about anything, it may draw attention to anything about something. On the other hand, an essayist is under obligation to describe nothing. He can choose anything between nothing and everything.
So just what is an essay? An essay is that which argues or not, or tells a story or not, or describes or not, or something else or not. This is what we might call opaque clarity. Such is the problem with nouns. Nouns are nearly impossible to understand until they do something. I can get a better grasp on the thing when it isn’t sitting still. So when I think of an “essay,” I think first about a verb.
When an essay gets up and walks around it becomes an attempt. To essay is to try. To essay is to venture, to risk. To essay is to endeavor. Thus, an essay is a venture, no, it is an adventure. An essay is that bit of words welded together by potentiality; it’s that pile of predications built upon the foundation of possibilities. Arguments are not essays, but essays may attempt arguments. Stories are not essays, but essays may strive to weave worlds together by spinning golden yarns. Descriptions are not essays, but an essay may seek to turn your eyes into traveling feet, or grasping hands, or savoring mouths, or well-tuned ears. In every case the essay does what essays do; it attempts, it strives, it seeks.
What makes an essay? A world of infinite possibilities. What makes an essayist? A persistent, yea insistent, desire to try. I’m not yet convinced that a man cannot reach into the heavens and grab a fist full of stars. The only people confident of such things are those who have stopped leaning on the tips of their toes. I never trust people who have both feet on the ground. They never go anywhere.
What I have written is not exhaustive. Neither is it the final word on the matter. This is only an essay after all.