Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
John McAuliffeBill Manhire in Conversation with John McAuliffe
(PN Review 259)
Patricia CraigVal Warner: A Reminiscence
(PN Review 259)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
Next Issue Gwyneth Lewis ‘Spiderings’ Ian Thomson ‘Fires were started: Tallinn, 1944’ Adrian May ‘Traditionalism and Tradition’ Judith Herzberg ‘Poems’ translated by Margitt Helbert Horatio Morpurgo ‘What is a Book?’
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
Reader Survey
PN Review Substack

This article is taken from PN Review 254, Volume 46 Number 6, July - August 2020.

Essaying in the Old Music Room...
An adventure in timekeeping, composition and conversation
Kirsty Gunn
Since the beginning of this strange year 2020,  as the Northern hemisphere has inched, day by day, out of a mild Midwinter into Spring, I  have been at Merton College in Oxford where, despite everything that has been going on in the wider world, life has continued in its calm unchanging way – much as it has continued, I imagine, since the College was founded in 1264. Bells have been calling me to Chapel, to Work, to Lunch and Dinner, to Study, to the Library, chiming out a day as in a series of Les Tres Riches Heures; each enclosed by borders of flowers and the patterning of quads and lawns within a medieval wall.

And every week, three times a week. I have been coming to a small but perfectly formed Georgian building – a grand sort of playhouse, I suppose is how I’ve been thinking of it - set at the end of a long path in the corner of the Fellows Garden.  This is The Old Music Room, where a group of us – colleagues and students – has been meeting to talk about a particular form of and approach to writing... An essay.

Or should I say, essai.  For the way we have been writing, reading, and thinking about this particular form of writing has been guided more by the ‘drawn from life’ observations of a Michel de Montaigne than those teaching and ‘Aims and Outcomes’ learning documents so beloved of educational bureaucrats  and politicians. For sure, the essays demanded by Humanities departments that are to be created in order to homogenise assessment procedures and regulate course content have little in common with the kind of thing we’ve been up to in the Music Room this past term where we’ve been aligning ourselves, rather, on the side of the poets. As Dan Beachy-Quick puts it, in an essay of his we’ve been reading, ‘Ten Meditations in Poetry’s Hut’, to read and write is to exist more in the realm of dream than in certainty – and, he suggests, is the more ‘real’ of the two. ‘What I like more’” he writes, referring to Bede’s story of Caedmon and his hymn to creation, ‘and take more seriously, is that such songs begin in impossibility, in not being able to sing’.

Not an ‘aim’ or ‘outcome’ in sight, then. Only uncertainty, doubt, risk... The essayer in essay. In fact those we’ve been interested in are deliberately set in contrast to the so called scholarly or scientific academic essay, with which we have all become so wearyingly familiar. As Beachy-Quick suggests in his own essay, put together in a series of tentative fragments or ‘Meditations’, this is a kind of writing not tied down to prescription, or to a strategy or summary or outline. Instead it suggests and thinks out loud and wonders on the page as it goes along, asking questions and letting the mind follow the trail of its own thought, suggesting new lines of thinking, imagining and being and adding ‘a world to a world, adds a self to a self’. It’s a vital and exciting approach to creating critically oriented and research-based text, this, a different kind of academic ‘paper’ that is more about thinking than the presentation of finished thought; more about questioning than proving.

More essaying, then... than essay. Essaying as a refreshing and invigorating way of approaching our critical work and research, and essaying as a means of actually writing about it... Essaying the right word, entirely, loosened from noun into verb, as we have been loosening ourselves into a way of being more creative and risk-taking in writing about how we live and think - as scientists, historians, mathematicians, literary scholars, as well as writers, artists, poets.

And the Music Room has somehow set the note and key. Because in that lovely space that was that was once home to – what? A string quartet? A small ensemble for chamber music? A grand piano with few gold chairs for an appreciative audience? – another kind of composition has been played. For here is a form of writing that we might well think of as a new kind of musical score, non-fiction prose that is lyrical as well as intellectual, that sounds as well as says. Gabriel Jospovici has written, in one of his own beautifully modulated essays, about Dante in this context; how the poet knows well the human need to meld a dolce stil nuovo with a familiar, spoken, language to bring complicated and abstract ideas home in fresh individual expression. So we’ve been setting our research and academic thinking to a new score, considering time and rhythm and phrasing, the sound of notes; words as metaphors and meanings as well as tones and lengths of tones, attempting a form of writing about matters of expertise and specialism that can be played for everyone to enjoy.

To learn how to do this, we’ve been reading all kinds of essays – by Gabriel Josipovici and by Peter Davidson and the New Zealand and American fiction writers Maurice Gee and Walker Percy and Marilynne Robinson, as well as those by poets Dan Beachy-Quick and Rusty Morrison and Li Young Lee – and writing, in imitation, our own versions, experimenting with the many places our research can take us as our individual language ‘yearns’, to use Gabriel’s lovely phrase, towards a wider, deeper form of expression.

 So we’ve had medics and mathematicians, as well as poets and historians, literature students and scientists, sitting together at the same table, making essays, beginning sections of writing each week that have carried ideas and themes that can be incorporated into essaying about whatever it is we do – whether writing about illustrated medieval manuscripts or the abstractions of physics. In a beautiful light filled room, finding a kind of music in our thoughts that has all the pleasures of a highly wrought sound-scape aligned to the rigours and formalities of deep thinking and analysis and critique that comes with our very different and wide ranging intellectual disciplines.

It’s discovering essaying as orature as well as literature, I suppose, is what has been also on our minds. That along with sounding as music in the air essays are ‘a voice in the ear’, as American essayist Philip Lopate puts it, a form of writing  that might carry sound as well as...sense; the sense of our own presence, speaking, living, being on the page. And that we might learn to listen to essays with ‘the minds ear’ as the poets have always done, react and respond to them, feel them – as well as read them on the page... This too has been part of our Music Room adventure. Reading from ‘Pro Nobis’ a sequence by Lance Phillips, Rusty Morrison writes ‘this poem...rests alone on a page, but its two lines are more than enough language for me to contend with’. ‘I feel’ she says, ‘something in the words, the  phrasing, that hurts me...’. Might then, I wonder, this awareness of the music of our own language, our own syntax, our particular vocabularies and tones of voice and timbre, all caught up in the texture of sentences and paragraphs, generate a sort of ‘Poetics of scholarship’, I wonder? A form of factual, critical writing with all the depth of research and study we expect of serious intellectual work that is affecting as it is comprehensive? So: lyrical criticism of a canonical text? A quartet, an ensemble of scientific research played pianissimo as well as forte? A solo and chorus of translation studies that takes one voice and marries it to another? Essays made up of individual approaches, attitudes, cadences, mixing together musically and idiomatically, personably and informally or in full formal orchestration...However the sing and play and suggest, we essayists say: Bring it on!

Of course there has been a long tradition of poets and artists engaging with a particularly supple and capacious form of non-fiction that lets them write about their own and others’ work in meticulously idiosyncratic fashion , but for those of us involved in teaching and current education and publicly evaluated research this essaying expedition has been wonderfully enabling. In freeing ourselves from the impersonality of so much academic writing we’ve been able to read and think and write as ourselves on the page, contributing to knowledge as colleagues and friends instead of intellectual adversaries. So writing as... discussion, conversation; ‘the writer watching herself think’, as one of our students, a translator of the poet Chantal Maillard and a poet herself, Yvette Siegert, puts it, who in so watching also speaks of what she has seen. Essaying as listening, then, party to an exchange that opens out – here and here and here - into fresh questions and considerations, reflecting an open-ended back and forth approach to scholarship and research in which ideas are not presented as thesis or argument or in the back-and-forth ping-pong of dialectic but are instead suggested, volunteered, given.

‘I think the beginning should “evolve” into something equally sinuous as it becomes the end...’ writes essayist Linda Chown, listening in to our meditations from the Midwest and contributing with her own essays and pensees to our reading. ‘To be freed from the dominance of one guiding perspective’, ‘Essaying into the unknown’, ‘Following the line of thought’....  These phrases have been sounding and singing in The Old Music Room this past Hilary term in different kinds of essays written by all of us that are now contributing to a wider discussion in and outside the University*. ‘An essay is not about something but a movement towards it...’ And, ‘The personal is the energy  that takes the essay on a journey towards it subject...’. Yes, essays are indeed a kind of conversation, I’ve been thinking, more and more, with all of conversations starts and stops, questions, pauses; a music to my ears that contains and celebrates conversation’s life affirming sound of interlocution, of speaking and listening, the exchange of words, that is at the heart of human experience.

When I arrived at Merton, there was some frost on the lawn of the Fellows Garden and the beginning of snowdrops; there was winter Jasmine that grew outside the door of The Old Music Room that gave out its sharp lemony scent into the cold air.  Slowly, slowly the banks became pricked with the shoots of daffodils and spring bulbs and now the gardens have come fully into colour. Those leaves that were tiny points of green on bare branches have unfurled, they mass the trees with great clouds of foliage and everywhere are bright lawns and flowers, ‘fresh quilted’, as Herrick has it.

Few are here to see this, though. As I write, the College is in lock-down with everyone else. The Spenserian scholar and Professor of English Language and Literature at Merton, Richard McCabe, who has been encouraging our essaying from its beginnings, was in touch with me by email earlier this week: ‘I am restricting my movements at the moment and spending most of my time indoors or taking a stroll in the Fellows’ Garden’ he writes. All is quiet.  The iron gates are closed to the street and Meadows now, and no one is coming through them with their keys; there is a Porter in the Lodge to greet anyone who might visit – but who will visit? The students work at home; Oxford seems so empty. I have left all my essaying things in the Music Room and how to get back there to fetch them?

How to tell about this, it occurs to me, how best for me to write about it – interrupted life that does not mean interrupted thought – than in an essay?



A further essay about various essaying activities that have been taking place around Scotland and elsewhere, as well as at Merton, will appear in a forthcoming issue of PNR.


Gabriel Josipovici’s essays about living with literature and the affect of language are collected in The Singer on the Shore and The Teller and the Tale, both published by Carcanet. His essay about Dante came out recently in Raritan.

Rusty Morrison’s She Encouraged the Separation - Poetry and Gravity and Dan Beachy-Quick’s Ten Meditations in Poetry’s Hut, along with other examples of essaying, can be found in various issues of The Kenyon Review.

Creeks and Kitchens, an essay about childhood and writing by Maurice Gee, is published by BWB Books in New Zealand.

Peter Davidson’s poetic and painterly extended essay Distance and Memory is published by Carcanet.

Killing Plato by Chantal Maillard, with a translation by Yvette Siegert, is out from New Directions.

In a forthcoming issue, there will also be details of a forthcoming essaying anthology, Imagined Spaces, with contributions from a  range of artists, writers and students around the UK, as well as, from the US, Philip Lopate and Linda Chown.

This article is taken from PN Review 254, Volume 46 Number 6, July - August 2020.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to
Further Reading: - Kirsty Gunn More Articles by... (7) Report by... (1) Review by... (1) Review of... (1)
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image