One of the first things an apprentice woodworker learns is how to make a box. The ability to join five pieces of wood together along their edges to form a continuous surface that can hold a certain volume is useful in all sorts of other applications. For example, many tables are made by connecting the legs, not directly to the tabletop, but to a box apron underneath it, which both gives the legs greater stability and prevents the top from groaning under a load. A bookcase is an upright box, divided by shelves, and the base is usually just another box orthogonal to the first. You get the idea: a cabinetmaker who can’t build a box isn’t much of one. But being able to build a box isn’t the end of the story either. You have to know how to put boxes together and how to add all manner of practical and decorative features to them.
In a new volume edited by Nigel Caplan and Ann Johns, the five-paragraph essay is defined as “an approach to writing that is insensitive to context, rhetorical situation, audience, or communicative purpose” and which “presents a single, prescriptive, and specific form for all student writing.” John Warner frames his opposition to the form in similar terms, insisting that it’s not the form as such that there’s anything wrong with but its universal application to all writing tasks in the academic environment. This characterization of the five-paragraph essay has always puzzled me, I must say, since I can’t imagine why any teacher would think that a single, specific form could be used for all the writing that students do. Nor can I imagine how a student can come to think that the constraints of one particular assignment would apply to all other assignments. But Caplan, Johns and Warner are closer to the action (in the US) than I am (in Denmark) so I will take their word that this view is widely held. As such, I’m here to help them oppose it.
William Carlos Williams told us to think of a poem sometimes as a “machine made of words” and sometimes as a “field of action”. Putting it in these terms, when the master tells the apprentice to join five pieces of wood to make a box a rich field of action opens up. A box is a machine made of wood, a thing for holding other things. There are many decisions to be made, some of which the master may make for the apprentice to focus attention on particular difficulties to be overcome, particular “learning outcomes”, to use today’s terminology. The master may specify which pieces of wood to use, or how big the box must be. The apprentice may be asked to make one with a lid or to get the job done in under an hour. The master may likewise leave the choice of materials, the box’s dimensions, and the time frame open, specifying only a function. “Build the ideal box to store dry rice in the kitchen,” for example. The apprentice will now have to learn something about rice and perhaps what happens in a kitchen. It is the master’s job to set up a situation, a purpose, an end-user — a field of action — within which the student can learn something.
Ezra Pound taught Rosmarie Waldrop to think of the prose poem (a lyrical paragraph) as “a center around which, not a box within which.” She called the relevant field of action “the lawn of excluded middle”, a place where contradictions can meet and work things out, like children playing in front of the house. An academic paragraph may not be as much fun, but the idea is the same. In a paragraph we play the truth and the meaning of words off each other in the reader’s imagination, hoping that by the end they get at least our meaning, and hopefully our truth. There is no one particular right way to do this, no universal prescription that can get the job done. “[T]he four points of the compass are equal on the lawn of excluded middle,” Waldrop says, “where full maturity of meaning takes time the way you eat a fish, morsel by morsel, off the bone.” This is where language happens.
To me, the five-paragraph essay is merely one place that writing can take place. It should never be presented to students as a universal norm for all writing, not even for all the writing they will do at school. But its unit of composition is, let’s say, widely applicable. It is rare that they will not be able to approach their task as the construction and arrangement of paragraphs, just as a piece of furniture can often be approached, at least as a first approximation, as an organization of boxes. By reducing the students’ range of rhetorical choices (by making a number of decisions for them) we can draw their attention to the potential of particular ways of putting words together, particular sentence structures, particular dispositions of the paragraph. One day, the student may find a way to accomplish a writing goal without writing a single coherent paragraph, just as the apprentice may build a bookcase without a single box. “Sometimes a bookcase is not a box within which, but a line along which,” they might say. But to have gained mastery of a basic form is not an obstacle to their work. It is the center of their strength.