Friday, November 16, 2018

What it is

I'm a self-taught essayist. In graduate school I wrote and studied poetry. Twenty or so years ago I began growing dissatisfied with my poems and with poetry generally, and turned to writing prose, which I'd already done a bit of. I became very interested in essays, a desire dormant in me, and among my first steps in catching up (ongoing) was to sit down and read Phillip Lopate's 1995 anthology The Art of the Personal Essay from front to back. I read and teach the anthology to this day. For all of the valid criticism of the book—it could've used more avante and experimentally lyric essays, for one, and more marginalized voices wold be nice in an updated edition—it remains, for me, an indispensable and frequently rewarding and surprising book. The introduction is stellar and a standard-bearer, and Lopate's choices of essays beautifully balance forms, subject, and autobiographical impulse, not to mention the centuries. What I learned early on in the classroom was how fun and valuable it is to teach essays in pairs—say, Virginia Woolf's “The Death of the Moth” with Annie Dillard's “Seeing," how close observation of ordinary things can yield an infinite world of sensations and ideas, especially helpful as I face the uphill battle of dissuading students from believing that they have to have experienced something conventionally "dramatic" in order to write an interesting essay. (Open your eyes in the morning and you have enough to write about.) Wole Soyinka's “Why Do I Fast?” paired with Walter Benjamin's “Hashish in Marseilles" can show how a hash trip and extreme fasting, widely disparate experiences, one born of intellectual curiosity and indulgence, the other from political injustice and protest, can open up similar doors of surreal and startling perceptions.

The other day I paired Plutarch's “Consolation to his Wife” (1st century AD) with William Hazlitt's “On the Pleasure of Hating" (early 19th century). I asked my students to imagine the essays fighting each other in a boxing ring or back alley: Which essay would win? And why? The conversation's always fun, and often illuminating, as my students debate the strengths and vulnerabilities of each essay, each of which offers a philosophy of how to live. How do we move through our days while grieving or dealing with ordinary setbacks: with consolation or hate? Ideal stoicism or lower passions? Deliberate remove or hot takes? What I especially love is the liveliness of conversation about essays that are hundreds and hundreds of years old, the issues raised in them as relevant to twenty-something lives as anything, the writers' act of writing and exploring part of a long tradition my students are engaging. When Hazlitt complains about a favorite painting fading from his imagination, the early joys it brought him dulled by the passage of time, my students substitute their own favorite song, video, or meme that's lost its luster. And the centuries dissolve. A student once dismissed Hazlitt as sounding like a "cranky blogger," and to a semester that description rings hilariously true and accurate to my classes. "The memorable essay...is not place- or time-bound," says Joyce Carol Oates. "It survives the occasion of its original composition." I wrote this on the title page of my copy.

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