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; the creative role of the language and form in making the essay an essay.
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.
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.
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?
Now we are talking and thinking poetics.