Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

How To Write An Essay (A Poem)

Amongst English teachers--middle school, high school, college--there is something of an eternal disagreement about whether to teach students to write papers in the venerable form known as the five-paragraph essay: introduction, three "body" paragraphs, conclusion, and Bob's-your-uncle. (There's no doubt a lesser debate about whether to write "amongst" or "among." I simply like the look and sound of "amongst." I have no doubt that copy-editors have changed it to "among" in pieces I've written that were headed to publication. And may I say that copy-editors are unsung heroes?)
I won't rehearse all the arguments here, but even if you're far from the madding crowd of English teachers (and liking the distance), you may have already deduced that the basic disagreement is about whether to teach students an alleged formula (or "mold" in which to pour words) or to teach them how to write in a more process-oriented, organic way. By "organic" I don't mean pesticide-free, although I do like students to turn in essays that aren't sprayed with pesticides. I mean that the the shape of the essays springs from the writing and thinking itself, even as the student has absorbed many conventions of thinking, analysis, expression, and yes, even form (such as "the paragraph").
A while back I decided to write a poem about the subject, not really to take sides (although my attitude, in a nutshell, has always been, "But what if the essay needs a sixth paragraph to be successful?"), but just to play with and perhaps release some of the pent-up professional frustration that attaches itself to this debate, which must seem to have extremely low stakes indeed.
The poem was published in a journal called Writing on the Edge--right beside an essay that actually made a compelling case for a "product-oriented" approach to teaching composition if not for the five-paragraph essay, per se, although I believe the author did mention the venerable form. He emailed me later and said the poem made him laugh, and I emailed him back and said his essay made a lot of sense. So much for debate.
The poem features examples of what's known as a mondegreen, which is a word (or phrase) that results from somehow mis-hearing or mis-understanding another word (or phrase). An example might be "[Ex]cuse me while I kiss this guy" in place of "[Ex]cuse me while I kiss the sky," from the Hendrix song. My poem features a speaker who has, and who can blame him or her, misheard or misunderstood the English teacher.

Notes in Five Paragraphs on How to Write an Essay

According to my notes, an essay
should have a niece’s statement,
which is different from a tropical
sentence. An essay should have a
beginning (how could it not?), a
middle (seems easy enough), and
an end (unlike time, which is infinite).

An essay needs evidence. Otherwise,
the perp walks. The essay’s exertions,
if my notes are right, need supporting
retail. Paragraphs require transmissions,
and the paragraph-brakes need to work.

An essay should have an interesting title,
such as “The Duke of Windsor” or
“Vampire Vixen.” The essay should not
include any logical phalluses. It should have
a good sense of its audience, even though
no one will ever actually pay to see the essay
perform in public. Oh—and it should be

grammatically erect, I am told, and it should
impose a sin-tax on its sentences. There
shouldn’t be any coma-splices or
spit-infinitives. Obviously, nobody wants
an essay to induce a coma or project saliva.

An essay must sight its sources on a
“Works Sighted” page. The essay should
be engaged to its reader, but that sounds
kind of creepy to me. In conclusion, these
are my notes on how to write an essay.

(published in Writing on the Edge, Spring 2008) Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom
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