Perhaps because I have always practised both forms, the essay and poem strike me as different expressions of the same impulse. I use the word “impulse” advisedly, because in either case I find it a matter of inspiration, and can’t get started without an unmistakeable inner urge to get something said. A less grand term for the essay is the article. Though Montaigne, who invented the essay, published no articles, almost every essayist since has done so: especially for English literature, almost all the short factual prose pieces that have ever mattered began their lives in newspapers and periodicals. Hence my main reason for liking the word “article”. It smells of hot metal. Even today, when I have not been a regularly salaried journalist for almost 25 years, I still publish most of my prose pieces as articles first, and I still compose them in the measures dictated by journalism in its various grades. Those measures, I think, happen to fit the natural breadth of a prose piece. A thousand words is a natural length to aim at for a short feature in a newspaper. About two and a half thousand is a natural length for a longer feature in a newspaper. Three, four and five thousand are natural for articles in serious magazines. Keep at it for about forty years and you get the knack of planning the number and order of themes in your head so as to fit those frames. I can’t exactly compose when I’m out walking, but if you catch me sitting there looking glazed it’s usually because I’m cooking something up, and if it isn’t a poem it will almost certainly be an article.
Addendum as of May, 2006: One of my aims, since I started this section, has always been to provide examples, for aspiring young prose writers all over the world, of how these things are done. Since the best examples might not necessarily be by me, I am proud to announce that the site’s very first Guest Prose Writer is the brilliant London journalist Zoe Williams, who has honoured me by agreeing to contribute the piece she wrote in 2002 on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, bits of which I have been quoting in conversation since I first read it. Did you know why the vamps on Buffy’s patch are so seldom threatened with garlic? Neither did I.