Blurred lines, mixed colors, shades of grey: all our favourite metaphors for describing life’s fluctuations rest on our understanding that imperfection is an immutable axiom of life. However, our closest approximation of perfection is also linguistic.
We understand experience, condensed into comprehensible meaning, through words. And by writing, we perfectly express these experiences — grief, fascination with a Grecian urn, mild amusement — exactly as we understand them.
Among the motley collection of works that emerge from the act of writing — of striving for perfection — poets are often attributed as being most capable of capturing a moment ‘perfectly’, manipulating rhyme, rhythm, phonetics and even silences to convey profound experience. Poetry is the epitome of linguistic beauty, so much so that beautiful prose is called ‘poetic.’ Yet, in this collective, overweening fascination with poetry, we lose sight of another form of writing that conveys as much artistry: the essay.
The notion of viewing an academic essay as beautiful may seem far-fetched, ludicrous even — especially for a college student. Essays are associated with mundane descriptions and rigid, mathematical structures — not diction and rhythm. Poems flow from a wellspring of untapped emotion after ponderous reflection, using fountain pens and manuscript paper, whereas essays are angrily typed on modern laptops in word processors, driven by the impetus of professor’s due dates set on Canvas. Poems are written by poets, while essays are written by, well, everyone.
Essays can be beautiful. There is such a thing as the perfect thesis. I don’t mean one that is ‘specific, arguable and demonstrable,’ nor do I mean one that has the requisite ‘elements of a thesis’. However, being able to condense hundreds of unrelated thoughts about a text, topic or opinion into one sentence that exactly conveys your thoughts certainly falls into the realm of the perfect.
This approximation is not necessarily the same as an approximation of the ‘perfect’ image in a poem. An essayist cannot build a thesis, detail by detail, the same way a poet can build the image of an ornate painting or a marble bathtub in our mind. Nor does our sense of an essay’s perfection have any association with depth and profundity of emotion. Perfect theses are carved like well-defined sculptures from the clunky, disproportionate amalgams of thought from which we start. As we whittle down ideas to our central claim, like pruning leaves from a tree of thought, we make large incisions in our unseemly amalgams — the first draft. And as we shift the positions of words, or replace them using our internal thesaurus, we begin to define the sculpture of thought from its distinct peripheries.
Unlike poems, that feel successful if they are capable of inducing catharsis, it is more difficult to understand the perfection of a thesis in the moment. We only reach that epiphany when we look upon our final effort and sigh with pride and intense contentment.
Like a perfect thesis, the structure of an essay can be perfect too. Again, I don’t mean an essay with ‘clear topic sentences that emerge from the thesis’, but rather, an essay that feels alive, and grows inexorably in strength, intensity and persuasiveness from its first line to its ultimate conclusion.
A reason why essays are unfairly overlooked as beautiful or artistic, is that unlike poetry, we don’t actively read or appreciate the essays of others. We don’t subscribe to ‘an essay a day’ email lists or attend ‘essay’ readings or recitals, where we can applaud or exclaim ‘that’s beautiful!’ Nor do we generally write essays outside of academic contexts or for college admissions. This is understandably so; while we may appreciate poetry through its sparing words and hidden clues, we find essays lengthy, convoluted and too formal to be appreciated as simply beautiful. Reading an essay every day is a larger time commitment than most of us can make with fragmented energies and dwindling attention spans.
While one unabashed essay nerd cannot overturn centuries of systemic misrepresentation of the essay as a tool of academic torture and convince the gatekeepers of the artworld to display essays in their collections and galleries, he can certainly make one request: the next time you write an essay, which might just be tomorrow, treat it the way you would treat poetry. I don’t mean to say procrastinate writing it until you have a moment of poetic inspiration, but rather, understand that it is not only useful, but also beautiful. Know that the hours of hard work, the sleepless nights, the repeated drafts, don’t add up to 1,500 words on a computer screen, but rather to a three-dimensional sculpture of thought. Perhaps one, that you’ll look back on in a month or year and exclaim, “Ah! That was exactly what I meant. That was perfect.”
PRADZ SAPRE is a first year in Benjamin Franklin college. His column, titled ‘Growing pains,’ runs every other Monday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.