Ori Fienberg: Prolegomena to Any Future Five-Paragraph Essays

One of the first published mentions of a “five paragraph essay” occurs in Charles Sears Baldwin’s Composition, Oral and Written, published in 1909. Through the 60s and 70s it gained momentum, and over the last thirty years it achieved a stranglehold on high school English and college Composition classes, which has resulted on an inevitable backlash against this seemingly new form. But this new form has ancient roots in the classical argument. It’s a throwback to a time before the scientific method, when logic was a humanistic pursuit, rather than a mathematical function. Aristotle’s A Natural History of Animals functions in this way: Aristotle attempts a rudimentary taxonomy, wherein he calls on his powers of deduction to infer, for instance, that fish must sleep, though they can’t close their eyes. In some cases he’s observed the animal in question, but he also includes unlikely animals that he only knows of by report, such as an animal that never eats, and a species of immortal crabs “that slough off their old-age”. For these, logic falls apart and instead we experience the animal kingdom as Aristotle wants it. By displaying his yearning for deviant animals that make for a stranger world than the one he has seen, his dubious inclusions show another side of Aristotle the man. But we’re far removed from the time of the classical argument, and as a pedagogical tool the modern five-paragraph essay strains out these deviations to reflect industrialized, standardized realities. Still, while it serves a rigidly utilitarian role in high school English and college composition classes, and thus is spurned by the literary set, with nuanced deviation the five-paragraph essay becomes an intriguing personal essay form to explore the permeable nature of arguments, experience, and stories.

It’s easy to see why the five-paragraph essay is resented: it plays a vital role in bureaucratic educational indoctrination. Reproducing the rules of the form results in the reward. There are required components: an introduction that hooks the reader’s attention; a thesis, perhaps containing a concession; then concession, evidence and arguments; finally a conclusion must restate the thesis, but not exactly, while also offering opportunities for further thought. Beyond the required components lies a formidable set of rules and conventions. First-person narration is frowned upon; personal experience may make an appearance in the introduction, but rarely beyond it. Unambiguous language preferred and digression, strongly discouraged. Avoid clichés. Present an unbiased argument, but convince the readerwhen written within the arena of standardized testing, not only are forms and convention rewarded, but also puffery: the more multi-syllabic words the better. It’s no wonder that many students resent having to write them, and many instructors, often technical and/or creative writers themselves, dislike teaching it, and opt for other forms in their own writing. Whether mastered or not, the form is soon discarded by the majority of writers, but I’ve always been conflicted. In many ways, I enjoy the rules and feel they have merit; the bevy of restraints calls up a relationship to set forms of poetry, like a sonnet or a sestina, and I even have a fondness for some of its inevitabilities.

Not only are these rules utilitarian, they’re patterned, combining organic and planned elements. Early in high school, when I was struggling to make a thesis statement, my Dad once told me “it takes three trees to make a row”. Two trees do not invoke a pattern, but three trees indicate planning for a well-landscaped essay. Aristotle raises a variant when he reminds his readers of Musaeus’ observation about eagles and birds that lay three eggs: “That lays three, hatches two, and cares for one”. It’s a naturalist observation in a proverbial presentation, and it can be seen at the root of a five-paragraph argument: we must present three points to make a pattern of evidence, and despite our best intentions to love and take care of them equally, often one is weak, included to meet the form, while another is dear, perhaps the impetus for the argument, the central tree, or the story we want the reader to remember. We must always start with laying our eggs, or the planting of our trees, and by the time we finish they should be hatched/grown, and the form ensures proper mulching, or a good nest. For a class, to learn a form, perhaps the rules are best. When we reach beyond that, when we mix metaphor, or deviate from a pattern we risk failure, but risk is necessary to push the five-paragraph essay past its utilitarian roots.

The five-paragraph essay can be fertile ground for more personal and creative writing. Deviation is also logical. It’s part of our nature. In the pedagogical five-paragraph essay all restless metaphor must be rounded up and domesticated. In the personal five-paragraph essay they can be allowed to roam. Instead of a canned introduction, three pieces of evidence, and a conclusion-paragraph, it’s the form of all stories: a prologue, beginning, middle, and an end, with denouement. A wedding, three stories, and a funeral; trauma, three therapists, and an epiphany; parents, three girlfriends, and a wife; a job, three investments, and retirement: each is a five-paragraph personal essay. In many ways it’s a more honest, a guileless form: the epiphany is brought to the fore, in the first paragraph, the intrinsic argument offered immediately for consideration, rather than buried later in the essay. The real argument is in life, and it’s too hard to live without some structure. There’s too much evidence, too many contradicting stories.

It’s a delicate balance. There are the weaknesses and trauma that are really our strengths. The exceptions that are the rule, and the endless concessions we make and remake to ourselves, to those we love, and to those with whom we disagree simply so we can keep going. In a braided essay, we must hope that the braids unite, but it’s impossible to do justice to all the strands without tangling. The expository essay brazenly assumes its expertise. Dear Lord, save us from the epistolary. How heavy the crown if life were told in sonnets? What use a couplet when describing an extended period of bachelorhood? There’s nothing to stop a personal essay from going on indefinitely, but a five-paragraph essay must stop eventually. And whether narrative, descriptive, persuasive, or expository, all it takes is a more whimsical landscaper to combine pattern, personhood, and poetics to bring new purpose to the five-paragraph essay.

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Since graduating from the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, Ori Fienberg’s poetry has appeared in dozens of journals including 2Riverview, Entropy Magazine, Flyway, Mid American Review, Pank, and Subtropicsbut he has never had an essay published, till now. This writing was made possible through support from the Lava Step Collective at www.lavastep.com. You can find more of his writing online at www.orifienberg.com.

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