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The poet as essayist.



Who is the ‘I’ crouching behind the ‘We’? Why talk to us on stilts, guv’nor? Why do you want us always to look up…?

I DISTRUST PEOPLE who write or talk as though they don’t have bodies or histories, though it can result in a certain stateliness of tone. That is the realm of the grandiloquent, where it is all too easy to be suckered. If a fellow wants to divorce himself from his first-person singular, our wish to question that intimate pronoun might grow apace. Who is the ‘I’ crouching behind the ‘We’? Why talk to us on stilts, guv’nor? Why do you want us always to look up, and never down? Stop booming; a whisper might be more believable. Some philosophers acknowledge their daily existence in the midst of their prose; others do not. I need to visit the kitchen, therefore I am.

It can depend on the matter at hand.

Euclid announces in Proposition 47 of Book I that the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the two opposing sides. Now I don’t need to count the fellow’s griefs or know which side he butters his toast on. This is definitive stuff. So in a different way is this:

Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse…

I don’t care how blind he is, or how he’s been getting on lately with Mrs Milton. The story is bigger than the voice employed. If the theme is big enough, the first-person singular is swallowed by a larger force. Euclid’s propositions balance up the world. As long as we limit its dimensions. Milton’s imagined world traces the aetiology of our trauma. And we’ve already encountered most of the characters before, though some new ones introduce themselves in their allegorical uniforms. In both cases the form is equal to the pressure of the saying.

Look hard enough and you will see the form in the fragment. Form is never incidental.

Form should always be central to our considerations. Some refer to Montaigne as a philosopher, but they are careless in doing so. Montaigne never wrote a work of systematic philosophy and seems to have been unwilling to do so. He was a thinker whose form was the essay. If we have to designate the overall pattern of his thought, it was essayism.1 Essayism cherishes the fragment, rather than disparaging it. Look hard enough and you will see the form in the fragment. Form is never incidental. Wittgenstein’s prose does not join up. Each section keeps its distance from the others. These truths are wary of intermarriage. They are sceptical of holistic reconciliation. They say the truth itself appears in fragments.

Form is important because it shapes the thought it contains. Claude Lanzmann disparaged Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. The problem with the film was its form. Can a Hollywood movie contain the truth of the Holocaust? No. It shapes the experience to facilitate its own function: to entertain, through characterisation and suspense for a limited time (three hours and fifteen minutes). Lanzmann’s own filmic representation, Shoah, lasted nine and a half hours. There was no dramatic action in it. It was held together by the thematics of the Holocaust, historic testimonies, and the inquisitorial unrelentingness of the director. Hollywood movies also press towards comedic form: we long to see the couple leaving hand-in-hand at the finale. And so the Holocaust has a microcosmic happy ending. The macrocosmic reality (historically speaking) was a catastrophe. But the microcosm (this movie) finds a form of redemption. The generic nature of the form shapes the historical experience it is pursuing. And inevitably distorts it.

If you mistake the form then you mistake everything. Most conspiracy theories have a glimmer of truth in them. This is the barbed hook that the fish’s mouth is snagged on. This is the bit where we can engage with the world as we know it; then we are led away into the grand conspiratorial halls, which Milton baptised pandemonium. As faith in conventional politics dwindles to a trickle, big theories showing who’s really in charge take command. The wave increases as the official trickle diminishes to vanishing point. The form is dialectical; as one aspect swells the other contracts. Form here must be read in relation to the official propaganda it is supplanting. It is a function of larger ideological manoeuvres.

FORM CAN TEND to be nostalgic. The first train carriages imitated horse carriages. The first films tended to lean towards the theatrical. Charlie Chaplin stood midway between vaudeville and the cinematic screen. The true essayist insists that you cannot merely enlarge an essay to make a book. That is to travesty its form. Nor can you take a theatrical play and automatically turn it into a film. The form must be entirely re-thought. Neither Waiting for Godot nor Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead make good films: the theatrical form remains too resounding inside the celluloid. If you make a film of ‘The Ancient Mariner’, you will produce a mere narrative; the poem is much more than a narrative, though narration remains at its core.

When George Oppen wrote Of Being Numerous in the 1960s, he was a writing a consciously, formally democratic verse. It fragments and recombines. It celebrates the ‘shipwreck of the singular’. The ‘I’ has been fractured. It is no more an isolated entity, a singularity that commands its world. The form of that marvellous poem utters its meaning. The short jagged lines shape themselves into crowds. These crowds are never queuing to see a throne. The 1960s spent a lot of time examining the ‘I’, for – as George Harrison would point out – life goes on within you and without you. As a poet, Oppen is an essayist.2 The essayist knows he can never portray the whole; it must always remain partial. We only ever get to see in glimpses and glimmers.

Alan Wall was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor PlaceboJacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman Books in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays has now been issued by Odd VolumesThe Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, and now a second collection, this time of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin, is now available. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here and a new collection of essays is forthcoming from Odd Volumes.


  1. I have touched on this topic before, here, in The Fortnightly Review.
  2. See for example, Oppen’s 1975 poem, “Populist“.
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