The Contemporary Essay / Thinking with Emerson: An Exchange on the Poet’s Essay / Philip Coleman and Heather J. Macpherson

Patron saint of the essay, Montaigne, looking on.

From: Macpherson, Heather J. <>
Date: 11 December 2021
To: Philip Coleman <>

Dear Philip,

How are you? My hope is that you are finding yourself a quiet evening after Storm Barra dared whip through at the semester’s end a few days ago. Power outages are a nuisance. I used to enjoy them—an excuse for candles and board games, but now we rely on technology in such desperate ways. Most importantly, I hope everyone found safety.

I was mulling over Emerson (Ralph Waldo, that is) the Egotist (as he refers to himself in that letter to his Lydian). First, I would like to quietly state that although Emerson’s poems have their place I prefer the poetics of his prose. In that same letter dated February 1, 1835 he writes: “I am born a poet, of a low class without doubt yet a poet. That is my nature & vocation. My singing be sure is very ‘husky,’ & is for the most part in prose.”

When you brought this to my attention, my immediate reaction was that RWE was trying too hard to flicker in the eyes of his future wife, light her soul aflame with self-importance and why he should remain in Concord and she should join him there. But there is more than persuasion. I read it again and again, and found myself caught in the burning wick as I attempted to find a dry timber of my own to properly emit the sturdiness of each long vowel o (picture the macron above the o) in the vocal folds: “poet,” “low,” “poet,” “vocation,” “most,” “prose.”

Scholars have written time and again about Emerson’s anxiety, a heavy lack about and in his poems. But here, he is expert and lovely with a sonorous echo throughout each line. The long vowel o resonates through the body, emanating from the diaphragm, through one’s limbs until a laryngeal reveal like a low D on the chromatic scale. Emerson’s echo is solid yet malleable—when the long vowel o ends, it’s final sound is /w/, becoming a companion to the /ou/ in “our doubt,” and of course the “low” before it.

His poetry is best in prose and Emerson sees this in his work, especially as he evolves from his journals to essaying to lectures and speeches; the oratory, the recitation motivates the poetic.

Hmm. What do you think, Philip? I look forward to your thoughts.

My best,


From: Philip Coleman
To: Heather MacPherson
Date: 14 January 2022

Dear Heather,

I am so sorry that it has taken me over a month to respond properly to your email. The period just before Christmas was incredibly hectic here and when I got back to the desk last week I needed to clear some things before I could get give this the attention it deserves. Then, just as I was getting ready to reply, Lola’s message about the cluster came through (5/1/2022), and that’s made me think again about what we’re trying to do and whether this is the best way to go about it…. I thought I’d send this to Lola also today, therefore, and she might let us know what she thinks before we proceed any further.

Lola’s message reminded me that the initial assignment was to write on “the poet’s essay” and I fear I may have narrowed things down too much by suggesting that we focus our attention on Emerson’s letter to Lydia Jackson on 1 February 1835! That said, several of the points you in your email are absolutely relevant to the broader discussion, even if they were prompted by your reading of Emerson’s letter, so maybe I can summarize and respond to some of these here:

  1. I think many (most?) readers do prefer Emerson’s prose to his poems, though I admit that I love some of his poems: “Days,” “The Rhodora,” “Hamatreya,” “Concord Hymn”—these are all terrific in different ways and repay close attention. Laurence Buell has a great chapter on RWE’s ‘poetics’ in Emerson (2003), where he says: “Even at his poetic best, Emerson was no Emily Dickinson.” Nonetheless, Buell sees Emerson’s influence in the work of many major poets from Walt Whitman to Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens and Robert Lowell. It’s not Emerson’s poetry, though, that these poets valued, but his prose and, indeed, what you call “the poetics of his prose” has resonated with so many writers, poets and prose writers alike. In his foreword to The Best American Essays of the Century (2000), which he co-edited with Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Atwan says that Emerson’s “independent, freethinking, inquisitive mind shaped American thought and writing, and his spiritual heirs invented the twentieth-century essay.” The phrase “thought and writing” here is important because it suggests many kinds of literary production, from poetry to non-fiction. 
  2. When we engage with Emerson’s writing, then, I think we are encouraged to leave aside the categories with which we often organize different kinds (genres) of literary production and this has real value in the classroom in particular. I have used his letter to Lydia Jackson many times, in courses on poetry and on the essay, to get students to think about the ways in which essays—not just Emerson’s, but by a wide range of writers, from Benjamin Franklin and Washington Irving to David Foster Wallace and Eula Biss—are made. Emerson’s claim that his “singing […] is for the most part in prose” is an invitation to think about the different ways that ‘prose’ forms sing. Too often, I think, readers of essays, in particular, are concerned to discover their discursive or thematic meanings and they don’t pay enough attention to their use of language and form. Your observations about the play of sound in Emerson’s letter is so useful because it shows us what is to be gained by paying attention to the music of his prose, even in his letters. To hear this properly we need exactly the kind of vocabulary you use, I think—one that is attentive to the minutiae of the text but which also has a sense of its overarching tonality and rhythm.
  3. Your point about the relationship between all of this and Emerson’s background in oratory—as a preacher and lecturer—is of course also crucial, not least because it reminds us of the performative nature of his work. In the letter to Lydia Jackson it could be said that he is performing to an audience of one, but I think he always had his eye on posterity too and the letter’s opening reference to Edmund Burke suggests a broader frame of cultural and historical connections even in this intimate love-letter. The letter offers both an explanation of himself to Lydia and an attempt to get to the heart of his own efforts as a writer, caught between traditional constructions which, of course, he will dismantle in even more comprehensive ways in his longer works (I’m thinking, in particular, of his essay “The Poet”).

All of this is to say that your message responding immediately to Emerson’s 1835 letter has opened up several lines of inquiry which all bear on this question of what it means to talk about “the poet’s essay.” Indeed, I would go further and say it leads us to think not only of the essays of individual poets—there are so many examples we could discuss in that regard, from Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot to Adrienne Rich, Eavan Boland and Mary Ruefle—but also about what happens when poets essay (using the word now as a verb, to suggest the activity of essaying.) Stephen Fredman is one critic who has considered the prose works of several major twentieth-century poets; in his book Poet’s Prose (first published in 1983), he considers works by William Carlos Williams, Robert Creeley, John Ashbery and others. But has anyone yet written about what happens when poet’s write essays? 

The bibliographical and literary historical response to that question would be one thing worth looking into, but I think there are harder, deeper questions to be asked about what it means to talk about the poet essaying. This, presumably, is what Emerson asked Lydia (and us) to think of him doing when he wrote prose—when he wrote essays—but I need to give it more thought…. I look forward to hearing what you think.

I hope the New Year is off to a great start for you! I promise not to take so long in replying to your next email.

All the best for now,


From: Heather Macpherson
To: Philip Coleman
Date: 7 February 2022

Dear Philip,

My apologies for such a lengthy delay. I found myself pleasantly mired in “thought and writing” with “what happens when poets essay.” I attempt to begin with consideration to each of your points which have startled my thinking in various ways. I am grateful for this!

First, your quote from Buell’s chapter, “Emersonian Poetics” reminds me of the “Four Stages of Development” which provides a visionary framework into what Buell refers to as Emerson’s “literary attitudes and practice”:

I. Stage One: Apprenticeship
II. Stage Two: Emerson’s First Profession
III. Stage Three: Prophetic Poetics, and
IV. Stage Four: The Hustings

In brief, “Apprenticeship” is Emerson’s earliest days as a “scribbler” of poems and prose, the latter in this case, referring to his journals and early manuscripts written throughout his educational career. Buell writes that “Emerson prized poetry as the quintessential literary mode,” a symbolic foreshadowing of the poet’s essay. “Emerson’s First Profession” looks toward his work in the ministry as his entry into the much admired and respected profession of oratory. “Prophetic Poetics” centers on Nature and the “romanticist blurring of poetry and scripture.” What strikes me most in this stage, and one that I will remark further on shortly, is the “unfix[ing]” of language. Finally, the Hustings focuses on his “transition to lyceum performance and freelance writing.”  

In your last email, you mentioned Emerson’s reference to Edmund Burke at the beginning of his love-letter to Lydia. My own heart sees this as a boastful expression to “his audience of one,” an attempt to impress his future wife with the importance of his work, and no matter how ill he might feel, he must complete his work, fulfil his commitment to the public. (I secretly find this charming; is that odd?) Of course his note also creates an entry point into the letter, a mere conversing on the goings-on within one’s life as letters are prone to do. 

His finished lecture on “Edmund Burke,” reads, at first, like lists of facts, one sentence after another begins with “He” and it is not until we reach the first “I” does Emerson’s prose begin to “unfix” the language, engage with a quality that captures attention: 

I can almost call a biography the admirable satire in Goldsmith’s Retaliation which with the allowance to be made for satire, embodies so much truth in every line and word, that, trite as it is, I shall be pardoned for repeating it. 

This rhetorical move from “he” to “I” is singular and powerful like a poem’s volta. Once this turn occurs, Emerson moves away from the paratactic and hypotactic listing toward more complex sentence structures that give permission to rhythm and voice. His use of the statement is set aside as the lecture becomes more lively. And occasionally, poetic. During the “traits” stage of his lecture, he writes that 

Burke’s heart was the seat of all beautiful affections. He was so happy in his domestic relations and so entire was his affection to his wife that he drew her character under the title of ‘the Perfect Wife’ and he repeatedly declared that under all the exhaustions, defeats and mortifications of his career every care vanished the moment he entered under his own roof.

We begin with Emerson writing a love-letter to his Lydian, a name “unfixed” that no one else shall call her; a letter that opens with Burke whose affection for his own wife, according to Emerson, named her “the Perfect Wife.” How nomenclature becomes the “unfixing,” a destabilization of the critical and academic into a softened sigh, a declaration of relief. Finally, his letter shows Emerson’s need for “his own roof” and that “roof” is Concord. His Lydian will be “the Perfect Wife” sharing the same “roof” where he can continue to “sing” in “husky” octaves to create a poet’s prose. 

A poet’s prose. 

I agree with you. When we “engage with Emerson’s writing … we are encouraged to leave aside the categories with which we often organize different kinds (genres) of literary production and this has real value in the classroom in particular.” I am intrigued by your use of Emerson’s letter to Lydia in your courses on poetry and on the essay as a way to get your students thinking about the way essays are made. This is brilliant, I think, and I hope to adopt this idea in my own teaching. I have often focused on Emerson’s writerly evolutions from journal and poet to orator and essayist which prompts me to think in terms of genre. I think genre is less important than recognizing how a piece of writing is made. I now see how that opening reference to Burke, the remarks on Emerson’s physical health, and the reading he has done and must do to make his lecture worthy for public consumption—all of this leads him to write. 

I should probably find a way to end my own letter, but in truth, it is difficult to stop. I am unfamiliar with Stephen Fredman’s Poet’s Prose but I’ll search for a copy while I await your next email. I am intrigued by/with your question, “But has anyone yet written about what happens when poets write essays?” Maybe this is what we should be asking ourselves instead of grappling with genre by further subdividing the essay into kinds of essays. 

My best to you, Philip, and I look forward to more. 



From: Philip Coleman
To: Heather MacPherson
Date: 24 February 2022

Dear Heather,

Thank you for this wonderful message, so richly detailed and full of brilliant ideas for a further consideration not only of Emerson’s writing—his forms of making—but for how we think about the essay and the task of essaying more generally.

We began this project by agreeing to correspond about a short letter Emerson wrote in 1835. From there, our brief exchange has circled back towards and beyond that letter in ways that I believe have been genuinely productive. Lola has reminded us that tomorrow (!) is the deadline for submitting our finished piece but even if we had more time—and space (we’re almost at the word limit too!)—I don’t think we would reach a conclusion any time soon to what is in many ways a series of questions that we have only started to open up through our correspondence.

You suggest that “[M]aybe […] what we should be asking ourselves instead of grappling with genre by further subdividing the essay into kinds of essays” might be to consider the question I asked in an earlier message, i.e.: “what happens when poets write essays?” This, for me, is a central question and one I’d love to examine more in relation to a wide range of poets. I am concerned, however, that by asking that question I may be insisting on an essential distinction between poetry and prose—or the between the writer of poetry (the poet?) and the writer of prose (the prose writer?)—that Emerson’s letter seems to be urge us to set aside. If we take Emerson at his word, then he is “a poet” even when he is writing “prose,” but for him it seems the issue has less to do with form (or genre, for that matter) than with the very idea of perception itself and, ultimately, artistic vision. As he writes:

My singing to be sure is very ‘husky’ and is for the most part in prose. Still I am a poet in the sense of a perceiver & dear lover of the harmonies that are in the soul & in matter, and specially of the correspondence between these and those….

Not only does he insist on the importance of perception indeed, but of loving all that he sees, “in the soul & in matter,” and all relations between.

Emerson, in other words, seems to recommend the rejection of processes that would separate verse from prose, “soul” from “matter,” and to commend to us, rather, a deeper, more expansive—could we say “democratic” or even “Transcendental?”—approach to the special “correspondence” that exists between all things. 

The word “specially” in his letter is crucial because it hints at Emerson’s sense of the specific and particular connections between things but also their uniqueness, their closeness and dearness, as the word’s etymology suggests. (See entry for “special” in the OED.) I feel with this exchange, too, that we have started to get a little closer to what Emerson was saying in his letter, to his dear Lydian, and one of the things I want to do next is read her letters to see if we have a sense of how she responded to this piece….

On that note, Heather, and with too few words to spare, I leave the last word to you, but I know this is a conversation that we will continue into the future as we try to work the manifold meanings of Emerson’s “correspondence between these and those:” whatever it is we mean when we talk about a poet’s essays and his sense of the (special?) relationship poetry and prose.

All the best,


From: Heather Macpherson
To: Philip Coleman
Date: 26 February 2022

Dear Philip,

It seems that we have come to an end, Philip, at least for now. My overdue-ness due to the unbearable nature of endings—the challenging arrangement of final words that I seem to be struggling with, and, of course, farewells. 

After reading your last correspondence, I went to a digital copy of The Selected Letters of Lidian Jackson Emerson. I will spend time reading closely, looking for her response to Mr. Emerson. I also e-mailed the archivist at the Concord Public Library, so perhaps we will receive good news. Harvard is next on my list.

I am far over the few words left between us, but I hope that our conversations continue. Mr. Emerson has given us such burgeoning discourse with a single quote, like all good poets do. May we too, with our “genres” and “forms” embrace our “nature & vocation.” 

My best to you, dear Philip –


post script: I just now checked my email before sending this to you—Ms. Voss, archivist at the Concord Public Library responded to my question! Due to the snow storm today, the library was closed, but when she returns on Monday, she will look for correspondence between Mr. Emerson and his Lidian in 1835. I shall forward you her email shortly! 

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This is part of the cluster The Contemporary Essay. Read the other posts here.

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