Lesson 2

The essay strikes me as unexplored territory in English. With a few exceptions, it is either stuck in the 18th century narrative model – now called the ‘personal essay’ with its various sub-genres (travel writing, personal journalism, memoir) – or in standard literary criticism. The exceptions – in English – have been mainly poets (D.H. Lawrence, Pound, Olson, to name a few obvious ones) or writers close to the poetry world (such as Dahlberg and Metcalf). These days, amidst an overpopulation of everything, there are, as far as I know, only two writers doing anything interesting or new with the essay form: Guy Davenport and Susan Howe.

I can’t understand this at all, as the essay seems to me to have unlimited potential. It doesn’t need a first person; it can stretch toward pure narrative or the prose poem or the documentary; anything is possible. In writing essays, I only follow one rule, which is that all the information is independently verifiable. Contrary to what some people think, I never make anything up. Faux-erudition was done brilliantly and wonderfully by Borges and Nabokov. There’s no reason to do it again, particularly when the real world is strange enough.