In his 1980 essay, ‘Language: The Poet as Master and Servant,’ the American poet David Young is deeply critical of what he regards as a ‘fatal discursiveness’ in some modern poetry. ‘Perhaps the verse essay is a respectable and legitimate genre,’ he concedes, ‘but I wish it wouldn’t be confused with lyric poetry.’ I admit I wish it would. Historically speaking, Raymond Williams might call the verse essay a ‘residual’ form, in so far as it offers a mode through which ‘certain experiences, meanings, and values which cannot be expressed or substantially verified in terms of the dominant culture are nevertheless lived and practised.’ Although the genre’s popularity has suffered since rising steadily from Horace and Lucretius to an eighteenth-century heyday led by Pope, plenty of contemporary poets work with an urgent sense of essayistic purpose. Andrea Brady’s Wildfire (Krupskaya, 2010), Heather Phillipson’s Not an Essay (Penned in the Margins, 2012), GC Waldrep’s Testament (BOA, 2015), and Tyehimba Jess’s recently Pulitzer Prize-winning Olio (Wave, 2016) are just a few of many book-length experiments that combine research, inquiry, and argumentation in personal, ‘academic,’ and ‘poetic’ registers to thrilling effect. On the other hand, the tweet-thread and other new forms of online commentary increasingly employ accretive structures and strategies of concision that seem more germane to verse than prose. From either angle, the verse essay haunts the crumbling divide between creative and critical activity.
Taking this less as an excuse for self-contentedly didactic writing than as a space for making/being to jostle into asking/thinking, it helps to remember that the ‘essay’ part of verse essay just means ‘attempt’, and that the best essays are already charged by the same potential empathy as the best lyrics—in the precariousness of their ‘I’, an openness toward their reader, and the performance of perspectives that admit their limitations. With good reason, the notion of poetry ‘exploring’ certain subjects or themes has become a default for book blurbs. Readers seem more responsive than ever to the idea that poetry might be full of ideas—though less interested in poses of authority than in new ways of being involved in the investigation. In his entry for the wider category of ‘verse epistle’ in The Encyclopedia of British Literature, 1660-1789, Bill Overton notes that the classical Horatian verse essay is actually ‘closer to conversation than lecture, a conversation in which, although there is only one speaker, constant attention is paid to the implied presence of an addressee’. Suddenly, a direct line appears through Frank O’Hara’s great dictum—‘The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.’ Mary Ruefle, in a 2016 interview discussing her prose collection My Private Property, takes a reverse position on poetry, while still acknowledging the interpersonal dimension when working across forms:
Poems are my inner life, take it or leave it. I don’t particularly care what the reader thinks because I’m just not invested in other people’s responses to my inner life. With discourse, with prose, it’s much scarier. There’s something built into its very nature—it’s more open and external, and it’s in exchange with another.
Although I only wish I shared Ruefle’s take-it-or-leave-it distance with poetry, her contrary (but not contradictory) emphasis on vulnerability and exchange in ‘discourse’ has been, along with the genre-shrugging openness of My Private Property, a model to me while struggling with the piece that follows.
we were debating an article about doing small things
to make a difference helping those around you in
practical ways as a way to combat more abstract despair
faced with figures & news from Syria or somewhere
on the other side of the world charity you joked
begins at home you also found it dubious before
I had a chance you brought up effective altruism
from a different debate last spring a different article
I remember because I’d pulled the old reading chair
into the garden & made a joke about it on Instagram