Writing a Personal Literary Essay

by Dawn Potter

Early in this book I mentioned how common, almost ubiquitous, the I point of view has become in poetry. So often our poems are outlets for the personal, the private, the spoken secret. Even when it is an outright fiction, a first-person poem can feel as raw as a diary entry.

Literary essays are a different story. While the I does rule over many forms of creative nonfiction, it is conspicuously absent in academic and critical prose. Its scarcity is puzzling because publishers, even scholarly ones, explicitly ask their authors to avoid wordy passive-voice constructions that mute the speaker’s voice and opinions. “The book can be thought of as a waste of time” is a way to evade responsibility for announcing, “I think the book is a waste of time.” Yet time and time again, authors retreat behind that cushion of words. In doing so, they may take themselves off the hot seat, but they also retreat into obscurity, anonymity, invisibility.

As you work to become a poet, you may find yourself in a position of needing, in some deep, personal way, to write about what you are reading. I urge to you to commit yourself to saying I think—not we think, not people think. Work hard to keep yourself from falling into convoluted grammatical “objectivity.” The truth is that you should not be objective when you’re writing a personal literary essay. You should push yourself to write subjectively about your own curiosity, your own reactions. The goal is to discover what you think about a work of literature, not to create an essay that you makes you look well read or professorially remote. Please understand that I am not deriding academic scholarship or theory. Simply I am saying that, like poetry, a personal literary essay comes from a different and far more vulnerable place in the author. It’s important to push yourself to write in ways that cherish that vulnerability, not mask it.

If I sound bossy here, it’s because I believe that for many years my own writing suffered from a timid unwillingness to face head-on some of the many issues I brought up in the Blake and Milton essays I’ve excerpted in previous chapters. How does a contemporary poet speak to a poet of the past? How does an obscure woman speak to a canonized man? How can their speech be an actual conversation rather than rant, polemic, diatribe, or blind adoration? For creative writers who take reading seriously, these are fundamental questions that have never been easy to answer.

In the introduction of this book I mention Countee Cullen’s life-long, necessary conversation with the Romantic poets—and how some of his peers derided that need. Why, they asked, should a twentieth-century African American poet waste his time talking to nineteenth-century English white men? The question I ask is, why shouldn’t he?

[from a chapter in draft of The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014)]

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