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This article is taken from PN Review 255, Volume 47 Number 1, September - October 2020.

Essaying On… Kirsty Gunn
I have been keeping time to a sort of music in these pages recently. Writing first about exploring new ways of critical and poetic thinking in a beautiful Georgian room formerly given over to string quartets and a grand piano, and now of the activities circling around that composition, many and various yet in happy counterpoint to the original theme of risk, attempt and the give-it-a-go essayer that is the key note of essay form.

For essays are not just a way of writing about thinking, I am coming to realise, but a whole way of being in the world. They help us imagine and describe reality, discover fresh means of expression. They are not only part of that ‘adventure into language’ as Seamus Heaney, in his Nobel Prize Acceptance speech, described his own life’s work but are also a portal through which one can view one’s thinking, writing self. Essays are not just for essayists, then; they’re good for all of us. In that same speech Heaney talks about ‘the temple inside my hearing’, the place in the mind that is alert to and representative of the effect of poetry, and so it does now seem to me as though that kind of ‘listening’ might be applied as well to the circling patterns of thought around the short stories and poems that we make as it does to essays drawn from the world around us. Both require a fine tuning of words to discover the sensibility beneath  – to give to our mute, aphonic selves music.

And such pleasure there is to be had in this coming into voice! For as I’ve been saying to students – not just at Merton College where I have been talking about essaying recently1 but in Scotland, too, and London, where a number of different essaying projects have also been initiated – there is a great feeling of freedom in this form. An essay is outward facing and expansive; it makes space for new forms of creativity. It allows for other disciplines and art forms – poetry, drawing, painting, biography, as well as history, science, mathematics – and is not closed off to yet more ideas arriving within its pages, right up to the very last sentence. It’s a freedom we need to exercise. For in these constrained and perverted post-truth times, of pandemic and lock down, of untrustworthy politicians and advisers, how important it is to show young people a language that speaks so differently from the bullish diction of our age, where the lies of ‘I believe’ and ‘I am certain’ rankly outnumber the hesitancies of ethics and philosophy. Essays give students a ‘space’ where their enquiring minds may be given full rein. When universities have let their teaching programmes be so constrained by aims and outcomes and so-called ‘Quality Monitoring’ metrics, essays feel enabling; here is a form of writing that lets all kinds of thinking out into the open air.

This is not to say, of course, I remind the students, that one simply picks up a pen and follows the line of one’s thoughts – although indeed we do exactly that in our round table sessions together, whether in the beautiful room in Oxford or in seminar sessions at Dundee. Because it is, most certainly, the case that when, after setting down a poem before them, along with a prompt (a flower, perhaps, or fruit, a line of text; that ‘temple inside my hearing’ from Heaney, again, would be perfect here) there are only a couple of minutes given them to read and consider before they’re off! And for sure, picking up pens and paper and letting them hit the page in a single timed shot – I make it about ten minutes, with time taken later to edit and cut or add further material – is a fabulously exciting way of catching the flight of a thought as it’s released from the reading and exercise that have been set, no doubt about that. But letting the pen on the paper track those winging responses is ‘first draft thinking’ only. Essays must come beautifully finished and edited when they are finally presented for reading or assessment; as with all good writing they are... refined.

So we must take up the ‘scarves of our drafts’ – as I’ve been calling these first attempts at thinking, pages, I am hoping, of scribbled lines and ideas and the random and various associations collected around these tracks of thoughts un-stoppered from our minds – and lay them down on the table, smoothing out the edges and going into them now to work on them, to flense off the parts we don’t need, to add fresh lines to those areas of the text that need extra presence, a deepening of intellectual questioning, or the glitter of metaphor to make a certain point show itself, to concentrate a quote or an image... We labour then, to overhaul a paragraph here, re-calibrate the meaning of a reference there. We must pay attention, I say, to what our writing wants to say – so that we can let meaning emerge from all the words we’ve first put down in that first great rush of response and imagination as though crisp and fresh as a newly minted thought. ‘Drafting’ I remind them, ‘rewriting, writing in, writing over, writing through...’, showing them the meticulous work of essayist Chris Arthur and his reminder taken form Basho: ‘Let there not be a hair’s breadth separating your mind from what you write...’ This is also what essaying is all about.

As though to reflect this process and celebrate it, my sister the painter Merran Gunn has created a set of these ‘scarves’ or banners for the Music Room in Oxford: thin hangings of rice paper stained and dyed, and in chalks and inks the lines of various bits of writing appear through the soaked colours... ‘memories that will shape images not yet conceived...’, I read, and ‘to renounce control... willingly, consciously...’, and ‘these fragments remain...’. So we see how essays can become artworks, performances of a kind; here on parchments that hang tentatively from a wall and flutter in an unexpected breeze. They don’t need to serve some function or other. Essays don’t have to tell or to explain – although they may well be put to use in all kinds of surprising ways. In the first instance, though, as with a poem, an essay can simply... be.

The ‘creative writing workshop’, that idea founded in post war America, as a kind of intervention of state – to return servicemen and women, after the years of aimless combat and national action, to a sense of work and imperative by providing a ‘creative’ method by which to re enter society – is not a useful idea for those of us keen on essaying about the place. That word ‘workshop’, even, with its associations of sweatshop and the industrial line – not to mention various dubious notions around ‘permission’ and ‘me-time’ that seem to inhabit the very phrase ‘creative writing’, as if all writing were not creative, anyhow... – these and more are reasons why publishing historian and founder of the poetry review magazine DURA, Gail Low, and I call what we do ‘Creative Essaying’. These teaching sessions that are not so much lectures as talks, shared by the two of us, in a lecture room arranged with large tables that we can sit down and move around, are as intent upon reading as they are on writing. Essaying has become an attractive way to bind the two together, we’ve found, keeping the texts close at hand as discussion and the writing exercises develop and we encourage students to read aloud or pin their fragments and ideas and reactions to their reading upon the wall for us all to see.

The idea first to range about, somewhat, listening, wondering, and then finally to catch and mount seems to me to capture in one this ‘essaying’ initiative of ours. Students have been knocked into submission by what they’ve been told an essay is, so we’ve noticed: A tame creature indeed that plods down the page in a ‘five paragraph’ set as the recent Why They Can’t Write by John Warner, just published by Johns Hopkins Press, attests. If the teaching room is a place of ‘complexity’, a ‘subtle topology of corporeal relations, of which knowledge is only the pre-text...’, as Roland Barthes outlined it, so imaginatively and provocatively in his own essay ‘To the Seminar’, then our young people seem to have had little experience of it in their high schools and undergraduate ‘pathways’ where learning is all focused upon grades and teaching is engineered so as to achieve them. No wonder our cry to ‘Just Write’ brings a ripple of panic into most rooms. Wherever our essaying talks have been taking us – and by now, because Gail and I have also established a small publishing venture2 as a way of increasing our essaying activities, these destinations are proliferating – we find teachers, graduates and undergraduates new to this game must first get over their understanding of a form that is traditionally understood as wanting to marshal and contain thinking, not let it go free.

'Essaying Banners' created by artist Merran Gunn

‘Essaying Banners’ created by artist Merran Gunn.

One of the projects we’ve been working on, with students at Merton as well as in Scotland, is an exhibition, of sorts, which we’ve called ‘These Windows’. It’s an online publication as well as a pamphlet; a series of mini essays – fragments in some cases – created in response to the museum collections at the V&A, both in Dundee and in London. We invited students to select, either randomly or by design, an item in one or other of those institutions, and write a piece in response to it. Art students would be on hand, then, to translate the writings – into drawing, prints, designs – and there! A sort of double essaying took place.

Kinetic activity – an energy generated by setting up artists up a conversation between essayists, poets, filmmakers, architecture theorists and more – has been at the heart of our next project , too. ‘Imagined Spaces’ is a book of essays all based upon the idea of speculative, imaginative collaborations – suggesting one essayist in concert with another, to write together, write alongside, and also write alone... It’s that Music Room again, I can hear – and indeed a number of us did join voices around a table there, after a morning of essaying discussions with a group that included Peter Davidson, whose work we’d been reading and who talked of the rich archive of essaying papers – some no more than gestures towards texts – by John Aubrey held in the Bodleian; how they might be brought out into the light as much as any other writing, and allowed to live.

One of the students at Merton had gifted me with a copy of poems by Chantal Miller she had translated. Along with her own essay – about a Persian carpet in the oriental rooms on the ground floor of the V&A in London, ‘I... wait for illumination’, she writes, half way through her text – a poem by Miller, ‘Writing’, also seems to speak perfectly of the essaying project entire: ‘writing /like deference or like rebellion /without choice /without pause/... like someone who leaves the light on/and sleeps standing over his own body...’.

‘These Windows’ has been, as suggested by the title, a glimpse onto a view – upon the capabilities and imagination of young people, the kinds of writing they can make when not hounded by the notion of an objective or an argument or a thesis or the stringencies of a ‘workshop’. This, along with ‘Imagined Spaces’, represents a different kind of proposition altogether; there is a ‘light on’. Just as I have been thinking about how – as writers of fiction and poetry – the central action of essays remind us of how we get to grips with language, to make it our own, as well as help us learn what’s important about what we are trying to do as artists, so, too, might the essays we write be a form of instruction manual, a source book, a sort of personal ‘Works and Days’. The American poet Linda Bamber writes an essay about a lone sailor and it becomes a version of a workbook for her own understanding of imagery and praxis and...craft. ‘My own universe, I exulted, as I lost sight of land.’ Carl Phillips reaches the end of a long life as a poet and declares, in a recklessly confessional essay, that recklessness in art is all. He quotes a line from ‘Damascus’ by Deborah Digges, a poem using the central motif of a massive snapping turtle, stranded on a highway at a ‘Cross here or die. Die crossing’ the poem finishes; ‘Who did I think I was to lift him like a pond,/or ballast from the slosh of hull swamp, tarred as he was, undaunted...’

By really... essaying into the material we provide ourselves with, as writers or as teachers, by exposing ourselves, in essays, to implications we find we’ve made about other work, by letting ourselves be tainted by writing’s risks, so we train ourselves to become fluent in our own writing; we learn its rhythms and feel, its temperature – knowledge that can then be applied to a short story or poem or paragraph in hand. This deepening of our individual eccentric idiolect, this private imaginative language, in due course, comes to be in daily use; our natural way of speaking. As Edwin Muir, sensitive as he was to the dangers of splitting registers, reminds us: ‘A language which is used only for poetry is bound to grow poorer, even for poetry purposes, than one which is used for all ends of discourse.’ So this essaying of ours helps us look ON in order that we may regard the world from within.

‘And as I peered out my mind grew sharper’, writes Louise Gluck in ‘Nest’:
And I remember accurately
the sequence of my responses,
my eyes fixing on each thing
from the shelter of the hidden self:

first, I love it.
Then, I can use it.


  1. See ‘Essaying in the Old Music Room’ in PNR 254.

  2. The Voyage Out Press was established in 2016 to publish essays, poetry and some forms of non-
    fiction. The first publication of The Voyage Out comprised essays, artwork, conversation and fragments; due out in November is ‘Imagined Spaces’, a further volume of collaborative and solo essays. The Voyage Out Press also published These Windows earlier this year. Details can be found at; and

Carl Phillips, ‘Foliage’, in The Kenyon Review, Fall 2014, Vol XXXVI, Number 4.
Linda Bamber’s poetry collection Metropolitan Tang and her short stories Taking What I Like are published
    by Black Sparrow Press.
Chantal Miller, Killing Plato, trans. By Yvette Siegert, New Directions.

This article is taken from PN Review 255, Volume 47 Number 1, September - October 2020.

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