As a poet, I feel most at home composing in single lines and fragments. Word-burrs and turns of phrase, the images and mental leaps of metaphor, sentences measured by mood, moment, and meter — these for me comprise a reflexive mode of making, and of making sense of the world around me. But as a thinker, or as someone deeply invested in the possibility of ideas and in the examination of those conditions of what it means to be human, I place my faith not in verse but in prose, in the essay: that mindful attempt, one’s cogitations laid bare, a piece of writing that coheres not to resolve but rather to deepen nuance and arrive at the complication that clarifies.
Perhaps it’s disingenuous to position poetry and essay in this way — the former as a personal, meaning-making practice, the latter as a mode of inquiry striving after universal truth — as though they were somehow opposed to one another. Anyone who’s written in either form knows each offers both, and more. But there are differences and those differences matter (if only so that writers can more effectively worry those boundaries: to shade, blur, and brighten them). I delight in the fluidity of language’s edges, but at its core the essay must be about a question, about one’s peculiar agitation or agony. It is the work of refusing to sit still, or it is the work of sitting still long enough to shape experience, knowledge, and observation into something that can both contain and expand the subject, the subjectivity, the object, the obsession.
I recently finished The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, alongside Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women. I mention these books because my immersion in their ideas coincided with my appointment as The Offing’s senior essay editor, and the agitations particular to each have burrowed into my consciousness. [I want to insert a disclaimer here: these books deserve so much more than my casual use of them to illustrate the complexity and capaciousness I seek in essays; the fact they’ve slipped into this meditation is only a small consequence of their power.]
In The Argonauts, a work queering marriage and motherhood, Nelson — by way of Barthes and Wittgenstein — offers two paradoxes as models (or perhaps motivations) for writing. The first is Barthes’ analogy of the expression “I love you” and the mythical ship, The Argo, where the rebuilding of the latter speaks to the simultaneous integrity and mutability of the former. That is, to say “I love you” is to build “The Argo” anew each time. The second is Wittgenstein’s proposition that the inexpressible is contained in the expressible. Boyer’s book — which disassembles the conditions of capitalism — offers the following provocations: “Some of us write because there are problems to be solved”; “Poetry was the wrong art for people who love justice.”
Though these works are distinctly different intellectual enterprises, I appreciated the struggle in both to reconcile the limits of expression. I love these works for the tensions and resistances they offer, the honesty of their doubt, and for how they interrogate the inadequacies of language even as they express the potential — for clarity, solace, transformation — through those inadequacies.
If at this point I veer too abstract or obtuse, allow me to direct you to other examples, linked in a previous attempt at articulating what The Offing wants to publish in this department. In it, editor-in-chief Darcy Cosper describes the essays we seek as a “deepening and drawing together,” and speaks to the intersection “of public and private; the traverse between asking and telling, between knowing and not-knowing, between looking outward and looking inward.”
I add to her call that we want to feature vastly and deeply diverse voices, experiences, and perspectives; we will seek them out, and we hope you will share them with us. We hope to be challenged and humbled as often as we are delighted and awed. We hope to read you soon.