Poetics of the Essay: thought in the making

The poetics of the essay: what does this mean? Poetics is surely related to poetry. In studying the genre of poetry, you will give a great deal of attention to the poetics of the form, how a poem is made. But in this etymological sense of the word, poetics–the making; poem is a “thing made”–concerns the making of any writing, poetry or prose, poem or essay.  Thus the three elements of our essay exploration can be categorized in this way:

  • Philosophy: What an essay is, what it is arguing for, what its ideas and concerns are.
  • Rhetoric: How an essay and its ideas and argument are working; how the essay organizes and focuses the attention of the audience and moves the reader through the sections and paragraphs.
  • Poetics: What the essay is doing and how it is made; the creative role of the language and form in making the essay an essay; how individual sentences, lines, and words turn (verse= turning) and focus attention.

This listing should remind us that any of these elements can’t exist entirely alone. There is no essay that is all poetics, no philosophy and no rhetoric; the poetics, what the writing does, correlates with how the argument (philosophy) works (rhetoric). Furthermore, as I mentioned in a previous discussion, poetics and rhetoric have long been viewed as fluid and in some cases indistinguishable: metonymy, metaphor, irony, for example, can be classified as both rhetorical figures and poetic figures of speech.

However, there are texts where one element seems more at play in the meaning of the essay. And so, as we turn our attention to more recent and still emerging contemporary forms of the essay–mutlimedia essay, lyric essay and other types of creative nonfiction forms of the genre–we will have an opportunity and obligation to focus in on the creativity of the essay. These are essays; but given the forms of their presentation (and the tools that go with the media), we might say, with a nod to Marshall McLuhan, that the message (or philosophy) of these essays is in the medium.

When we watch an essay (is this the appropriate verb?) or listen to one, we are challenged to give some attention to what this essay does in this unfamiliar form. Take Rankine’s “Zidane.” I recall when she visited Washington College a couple years ago, and shared this essay, I said to her: if high schools presented this as a type of essay, as an example of what a writer might do with an essay, think of all the students (particularly disaffected boys) who would be begging to write essays. The transcript for the “text” in the essay is included in her recent book Citizen (from which she read when she visited us again in September, 2015). For additional video essays (or moving poems as she calls them) that she has made with her husband, the filmmaker John Lucas, consider the series “Situations.” She includes the prose versions of these essays in Citizen. And one of the original video or film essays, according to John Bresland, is Chris Marker’s “Sans Soleil.” You can watch the opening 2 minutes in this clip.

Does the addition of the visual and the audio to the more familiar verbal experience of an essay in Rankine’s example enhance the essay? Does it add immediacy that would have been lacking in a print version? Does it do the opposite, engage (or is it distract) because it presents us with a hypermediated (multimediated) reading experience? Is it too much, or too little, or just right?

Marshall McLuhan, media theorist who argued that “the medium is the message,” might be considered an early-adopter of the lyric/poetic/new media essay. In The Medium is the Massage, he defines any medium/technology as an extension of a human faculty. And so the book, he argues, and shows, is an extension of the eye.

He goes on to suggest that the new forms of electronic literacy emerging in the 1960s suggests that books also want to be, or to become, extensions of the ear. This is one way to get a handle on the new media forms of the essay we will be exploring over the next week, using (more deliberately) our eyes and ears.

Now we are talking and thinking poetics.

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