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 breath 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.
The articles here have mainly been written and published since The Revolt of the Pendulum, my most recent essay collection, came out in 2009. So really they are more or less current, but at the risk of scrambling the chronology I have divided them into two sections. Those in the section marked Current Interest deal with topics that strike me as having particular importance in world politics and culture right now, or, as he Americans might say, at this time: call it the beginning of the 21st century. Some of these essays date back beyond the Revolt of the Pendulum, most of whose constituent essays can be found under that book’s title in the Current Books section, although the Picador edition naturally holds much more material. But if there is any duplication, I hope the reader will put it down to the fact that there are some things which can’t said often enough, because they always remain matters of urgency. Those pieces in the section Other Recent Articles fall under a wider brief. I would like to think that the problem under discussion was interesting in each case, but we don’t feel as if everything depends on our solving it tomorrow. Or not yet we don’t.