The Perils and Pitfalls of the Lyrical Essay

By gd dess may 22, 2019.

The Perils and Pitfalls of the Lyrical Essay

The Word Pretty by Elisa Gabbert

The lyric essay partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language. It partakes of the essay in its weight, in its overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative form.

Supposedly, the mere exposure effect explains why we prefer a mirror image to a photograph — familiarity alone breeds appreciation. And yet: the familiar is pretty, the unfamiliar beautiful. (But if beauty is rare, it would have to be unfamiliar; aesthetics can be circular.)

bullies the reader into granting that, since one cannot figure out what is going on, there must be something significant going on, some complexity of thought, where in reality there are often familiar or even shopworn notions, addressed too simply and too casually to add any new dimension of understanding.

It’s a book that recognizes the tedious struggle of our daily lives and yet considers it nothing less than a tragedy that these lives, filled as they are not only with boredom but with fjords and cigarettes and works by Dürer, must all end in total annihilation.

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Bodies of Text: On the Lyric Essay

Amy Bonnaffons


Suppose you want to write, in prose, about a slippery subject that refuses definition. Something like water, or the color blue. Like the word “lyric,” or the word “essay.”

Beginning, you balk at the question of form. One long block of prose seems to suggest a linear accretion of meaning, building to a thesis—but the more you poke at your subject, the more it seems to spread in all directions, to touch everything you’ve ever touched.

Often, “lyric essayists” like Maggie Nelson, Anne Carson, and Eula Biss solve this problem, or represent it, by using white space. Each paragraph (Nelson prefers “proposition”), like a stanza of poetry, becomes a little island of text, lapped by whiteness—set against blankness, and in relation to the others. Like music, lyric paragraphs make use of silence. They draw attention to their own density. In navigating them, the reader (perhaps confused, perhaps delighted) becomes a stakeholder in their meaning.

What do the white spaces signify? What does their silence say?

John D’Agata and Deborah Tall, editors of the literary journal Seneca Review, are generally credited with the institutionalization of the “lyric essay” as a genre. In the introduction to a 2007 issue specially dedicated to the term, they write: “The lyric essay does not expound. It may merely mention. As Helen Vendler says of the lyric poem, ‘It depends on gaps. . . . It is suggestive rather than exhaustive.’”

In emphasizing the gaps, we run the risk of casting the lyric as diminutive: it “suggests,” or “merely mentions.” Do such verbs imply an anorexic refusal to “expound?” Or can the lyric essay give rise to a different kind of amplitude?

In her book Lyric Time, Sharon Cameron refers to the voice of the lyric poet as inherently “choral,” since it takes place outside of linear (narrative) time and can thus synthesize multiple temporalities into a single utterance. The lyric essay, though it unfolds over a longer span of time, might be seen as accomplishing something similar: a Whitmanesque multitude refracted through a singular voice.

Plurality is one consequence of fragmentation. Perhaps the lyric essay is strengthened not by unidirectional “expounding” but by a lateral spread accompanying its movement through linear time, as its “propositions” multiply.

Recently, scholars in various fields have begun to critique linear models of meaning-making in favor of the sprawling “network” or “rhizome.” Caroline Levine writes in her book Forms, “networks might seem altogether formless, perhaps even the antithesis of form.” Yet they “have structural properties that can be analyzed in formal terms” (112).

The white spaces might be read as the necessary separations between nodes of a network, or as intervals between distinct voices that together form a chord. The essay’s plurality might become a kind of extended grasp: “As Henry James put it…‘Really, universally, relations stop nowhere’” (Levine 130).

Or we might view the recent emergence of networks and rhizomes as evidence that there are more ways of conceiving of structures—more ways of reading—than we might have previously granted.

My aim is not to advocate for the lyric essay, or for a particular method of reading lyric essays—rather, I want to read the category “lyric essay” as a text, keeping in mind that the form’s greatest innovation may be an invitation into heightened awareness of our reading strategies: of individual texts, and of genre itself.


Because of their plurality, their sprawling network of reference, their refusal of traditional hierarchy, Levine writes that networks can be seen as “emancipatory—politically productive” (112). Productive of what, in this case? Emancipatory for whom?

Tall and D’Agata write, “Perhaps we’re drawn to the lyric now because it seems less possible (and rewarding) to approach the world through the front door, through the myth of objectivity.” They trust their contemporary readers to grant that objectivity is a myth—an an assumption upon which earlier lyric theorists, defending the legitimacy of their field against the presumed objectivity of “science” and “reason,” could not necessarily count.

D’Agata and Tall do not define the word “lyric,” but by deducing its qualities from those they set it against, we can tell that they associate it with a) the unmythlike fact of subjectivity and b) some kind of back door. Or, well, at least not the front.

Maybe lyric slips through a side entrance; maybe it tunnels into the basement; maybe it parachutes onto the roof and slides down the chimney. Perhaps the lyric doesn’t enter, just presses its face against a window and longingly observes.

Even in the context of poetry, the meaning of “lyric” is elusive. In their introduction to The Lyric Theory Reader, Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins write, “A resistance to definition may be the best basis for definition of the lyric—and of poetry—we currently have” (2). Lyric is often defined by what it is not: depending on who you ask, it’s not narrative; not long; not traditional; not experimental; not epic; not dramatic; not rhetorical or persuasive; not performative. And yet, somehow, “lyric” has come to stand in for poetry in general, or prose at its most “poetic,” whatever that means.

Jackson and Prins speculate, “Perhaps the lyric has become so difficult to define because we need it to be blurry around the edges…to include all kinds of verse and all kinds of ideas about what poetry is or should be” (1).

When critics do define lyric against something else, it’s often something perceived as normative, some sort of “front door.” In one of the most influential discussions of lyric poetry, “Thoughts on Poetry and its Varieties” (1833), John Stuart Mill defined it against the performative rhetorical eloquence of political oratory: “Eloquence is heard, poetry is overheard” (71). In a sentence deleted from the essay yet printed and widely circulated later, Mill used an image of spatial marginalization to compare the poet to someone crying out in a solitary prison cell, overheard by the reader on the other side of the wall. This spatial metaphor, like D’Agata’s and Tall’s, explicitly eschews the front door—in fact, eschews entrance altogether. For Mill, the wall between the poet and the reader preserves the authenticity of the poet’s utterance. Uncorrupted by attention to rhetoric, which bends it to another’s perceived expectations, the poet’s expression remains pure.

But the poet knows he’s writing for someone. Mill himself admits as much, acknowledging the inherently performative character of lyric: “It may be said that poetry which is printed on hot-pressed paper, and sold at a bookseller’s shop, is a soliloquy in full dress and on the stage….The actor knows that there is an audience present; but if he acts as though he knew it, he acts ill.” In other words, the poet’s art consists of skillfully, publically, pretending to be alone.

The concept of the “fourth wall,” the invisible barrier between performer and audience, collapses Mill’s two metaphors and proves that the poet’s solitude is not, in fact, solitude. It’s a triangular relationship between reader, writer, and wall. In Eros the Bittersweet, Anne Carson describes this triangulation as fundamentally erotic: “Where eros is lack, its activation calls for three structural components—lover, beloved and that which comes between them” (16). Lovers and readers fantasize about freedom, but require structure.

“Nonfiction” is perhaps the only genre to contain a negation in its very name. The category contains everything from journalism to memoir to biography to cookbooks. But it is quite clear about what it refuses. Why is this particular dividing line so bold?

John D’Agata, in a special anthology of Seneca Review essays called We Might as Well Call It the Lyric Essay, argues that Nonfiction developed in response to a perceived threat. He cites a 1903 article in which librarian William Doubleday complains of his patrons’ increasing demand for fiction, seen as unserious frippery for passive (usually female) readers. Doubleday prefers “a special form of literature read by young men” who “recognize the sternness of the battle of life” and prepare themselves for it by “serious reading.” In one of the first recorded uses of the term nonfiction, Doubleday uses the eroticized language of advertising to suggest its potential deployment against fiction’s threatening advance: “Attractive works of non-fiction may be temptingly displayed in convenient showcases” (5).

Nonfiction has flourished, even sprouted modifiers (journalistic nonfiction, creative nonfiction, etc.) and MFA programs. Yet D’Agata complains that the term’s largeness robs it of legitimacy: “Within the span of a single century, ‘non-fiction’ has overshadowed half a dozen other literary terms to become the bland de facto banner that flaps above everything from journalism to memoir, imposing the same aesthetic standards and expectations on everything that falls beneath its shadow.” Why is this a problem? Presumably, because the umbrella term has been imposed from the outside, rather than chosen by its practitioners. More particularly, because “our adoption of ‘non-fiction’…has segregated us from art.”

Unlike Doubleday, who feared the threat of a genre he regarded as feminine and Other, D’Agata is troubled by a tradition he’s writing within—on one side, by the pedantic, fact-fetishizing world of reportage, and on the other, by the fuzzy overshare of the memoir, with its Oprah’s-Book-Club whiff, its trauma narratives hawked for redemption.

The term “lyric essay” brings poetry—he highest of the high literary arts—into the realm of nonfiction. The term ingeniously takes advantage of lyric’s double valence: 1) it definitely means poetic and 2) nobody can agree on what else it might mean.

In adopting the term “lyric,” the “lyric essay” subtly smuggles in the concept of the “Lyric I”—a term that connotes, among other things, the notion that a poem’s speaker can transcend the boundaries of the poet’s actual, historical self. The “Lyric I” has been a site of generative contention, but critics generally agree on one particular paradox: the “I” belongs, at least partially, to the poet; yet it would be the worst kind of misreading to accuse the poem of falsehood if it appeared to depart from the poet’s biography. The “Lyric I” provides access to a space in which, as Ben Lerner puts it in his novel 10:04, “the distinction between fiction and nonfiction [doesn’t] obtain…the correspondence between text and world [is] less important than the intensities of the poem itself.”

Presumably, D’Agata wants to defend a similar kind of freedom for the lyric essayist, allowing her to construct a persona marked by artful indeterminacy, unhampered by the shackles of fact-checking yet assumed to bear a close relationship to “reality” in all of its “sternness” (unlike fiction, which is a made-up story about fake people). Thus, ingeniously, the term “lyric essay” simultaneously disowns the low-art subgenres on both sides of the fiction-nonfiction border. In allowing for lyric indeterminacy, it repudiates both the dry fact-obsession of the journalist and the solipsistic navel-gaze of the memoirist; yet, by hewing closely to “reality,” it avoids being mistaken for a puffy airbrushed fantasy or a yarn devised for entertainment.

There is power in naming. Institutionalizing the term “lyric essay” achieves, among other things, a guaranteed career niche for D’Agata, a place for him in literary history, firmly within the camp of High Art.

More so even than Seneca Review, for which he shares the masthead with his former mentor Deborah Tall, D’Agata’s anthology The Next American Essay stakes his claim on the genre. Next American Essay is an unusual anthology. It offers 32 essays (including the “prologue” and “epilogue”), ordered chronologically, one for each year, from 1975 to 2003. Why begin in 1975? Because that was the year D’Agata was born.

This choice might seem appropriate for an anthology of lyric essays: like a lyric essay, the book is highly personal and poetically idiosyncratic. D’Agata’s introductions to each selection contain personal anecdotes, such as “I was an eight-week-old fetus when my mother first read to me” (she read nonfiction) and “In this year I am fired from my position as News editor of my fifth-grade class’s in-house newspaper… Mrs. Tuttle, who fires me, says I don’t know the difference between nonfiction and art. Mom says to take this as a compliment” (2, 167). Like a lyric essay, the anthology absorbs and transmutes the contents of its author’s life even as it discusses his ostensible subject. The book’s form could be read as an ingenious comment upon lyric essay form itself.

And yet there’s something suspiciously self-anointing about it. Though Next American Essay is widely regarded as the defining lyric essay anthology, the term doesn’t show up until page 435, introducing the final selection. The book’s structure thus stealthily posits a narrative with two intertwining threads: D’Agata’s life and the essay’s evolution. The climax of both happens simultaneously, with the naming of the lyric essay.

As he charts the essay’s forward progress into ever more lyrical territory, D’Agata also reaches backward, gesturing into the decades and centuries of literary history long before his birth, as if to show that the consummation of this boy-meets-genre romance was historically inevitable—fated, even. In his commentary, he gestures as far back as Cicero and Sei Shonagon. Plutarch and Plato, he suggests, were proto-lyric essayists.

Such transhistorical mapping of genre has its advantages, and may not be entirely self-serving. The term “lyric” itself has been used in a similar way; though many contemporary theorists reach as far back as Sappho for the origin of lyric poetry, Jackson and Prins point out that “the concept of lyric as the oldest form of poetic expression is actually a relatively recent notion; specifically, it is a post-Enlightenment idea” that became reified during the Romantic period (2). Reaching back into history for the presence of the lyric, critics run the risk of anachronistically imposing Romantic constructions of the individual self onto earlier time periods. Yet Jonathan Culler has defended this broad, transhistorical use of the term by arguing that such generic classification can provide “the scope to activate possibilities occluded by narrower conceptions” (75); it helps critics relate temporally disparate works through tropic similarities, taking us “beyond the period-by-period agenda of our ordinary studies” (75).

And yet the ambiguous nature of D’Agata’s structural move—at best a lyrical gesture in and of itself, at worst simply careerist—seems at least worth acknowledging. In a widely read essay in The Believer, Ben Marcus heaped praise on the anthology: “D’Agata’s transitions alone, which show how alive an anthology can be, and would make any editor envious… could outfit a whole new generation of writers with the skills to launch an impressive and relevant movement of writing.” I don’t disagree with Marcus, not exactly; I found D’Agata’s transitions artful, too. But, especially if D’Agata is helping to “launch” a “movement,” it seems important to examine the story of that movement, and recognize other ways of centering it than with his birth.

There is power in naming, and not just for the namer: once the “lyric essay” existed as such, writers could write into the fledgling genre, expand its territory from within. As Eula Biss writes in her essay “It is What it Is,” published in Seneca Review’s 2007 issue, “Naming something is a way of giving it permission to exist” (55).

Of course, essayists were writing lyrically long before D’Agata and Tall and the Seneca Review; the anthology’s transhistorical focus proves as much. Furthermore, D’Agata never claims to have been the first person to utter the term—just to institutionalize it. The term caught on partly because it described something people were already doing, that had only lacked a unifying generic label. The fact that they continued to do so once that name existed, perhaps more visibly, should not be viewed as an argument that anyone needed the permission of D’Agata or of Seneca Review to create such work.

And yet, when a writer sits down to write something, she must consider form. Some writers ascribe an anthropomorphic agency to their own writing, investing it with a desire to take a particular shape; they claim to postpone thoughts of form until after the writing has stewed long enough in formal indeterminacy to “know what it wants to be,” or that they’ll begin writing in one form and another form will “take over.” Perhaps it’s possible to sit down and enter some blank formless state of receptivity and accept whatever the muse provides. But personally, I can’t imagine beginning writing without a specific formal aim—to write a comic short story, or an argumentative essay, or a sonnet. Things often change as I write, but beginning the process is difficult enough without being able to envision the shape I’m approximating, the container I’m trying to fill.

Once the term “lyric essay” became institutionalized by journals like Seneca Review, a writer could sit down and intend to write a lyric essay. Maybe she’d already been doing so, with or without the term in mind, but now she could write with more clarity about her aims and audience. She might know how to “market” her essay, and to whom.

This intentionality, crudely teleological and possibility-limiting as it might seem, can be experienced as a kind of freedom. Biss has described the form as “organic to the way I think” (57). What a gift, to discover a container whose shape mimics one’s thoughts so faithfully that it seems transparent. This isn’t in any way to argue against generic indeterminacy; I’m excited by works that break form. But it’s my feeling that formal codifications can be generative: the more rules there are, the more potential sites of identification exist—also, the more rules there are to break.

To address the term “marketing”: it seems silly to use the term in this context, when no one is making much money off lyric essays. But there’s a different kind of capital at stake here, the kind associated with “high art.” Not only “cultural capital,” but actual money in the form of fellowships, grants, and lucrative university jobs. To make space in the “high art” realm for a type of writing is to confer power on those who practice it.

So who are today’s lyric essayists? If indeed the lyric essay sidesteps the “front doors” of journalism, memoir and fiction in order to open a portal into a new literary space, then who is being invited? Who is crashing the party? Who is notably absent?


For all her gratitude at what the term “lyric essay” has permitted her to discover and articulate, Biss remains suspicious: “I suspect that genre, like gender, with which it shares a root, is mostly a collection of lies we have agreed to believe” (56). Indeed, as many have noted, “genre” and “gender” both concern form and classification.

Like most taxonomic classifications, both genre and gender are somewhat arbitrary; they have hidden agendas. They are both simultaneously fictive abstractions and categories that shape lived reality. The name “essay,” famously, comes from a verb that means “to weigh” or “to try,” highlighting the genre’s emphasis on process, its willingness to embrace indeterminacy. Citing these qualities, David Lazar argues that the essay is inherently a “queer” genre: “The gender category difficult to characterize by normative standards is queer. The genre category difficult or impossible to characterize, the essay, is also queer…. The desire of the essay is to transgress genre” (19-20). Lazar personifies the essay as a desiring subject in order to plead against carving it up into sub-genres; the term “lyric essay,” he argues, restricts the essay’s freedom by making it “genre normative” (20). When writing about genre, there’s a tendency—almost a cliché—to disparage its limits, to gesture longingly towards an over-the-rainbow world beyond it. Ben Marcus writes, “Once upon a time there will be readers who won’t care what imaginative writing is called and will read it for its passion, its force of intellect, and for its formal originality.” But don’t we long for labels, too? What would a world without them look like? Could “formal originality” exist without definitions of form?

In her book The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson shares an anecdote from her friend Christina Crosby, a professor of feminist theory, whose class “threw a kind of coup”: “they were tired of dismantling identities, tired of hearing that the most resistance one could muster in a Foucauldian universe was to work the trap one is inevitably in. So they staged a walkout and held class in a private setting, to which they invited Christina as a guest. When people arrived, Christina told me, a student handed everyone an index card and asked them to write ‘how they identified’ on it, then pin it to their lapel. Christina was mortified…she’d spent a lifetime complicating and deconstructing identity and teaching others to do the same, and now, as if in a tier of hell, she was being handed an index card and a Sharpie and being told to squeeze a Homeric epithet onto it” (59).

This anecdote comically illustrates how both our lust for classification and our rejection of it might spring from a similar source—an urge to accurately limn reality. As Nelson puts the dilemma: “On the one hand, the Aristotelian, perhaps evolutionary need to put everything into categories—predator, twilight, edible—on the other, the need to pay homage to the transitive, the flight, the great soup of being in which we actually live” (53). This duality, both vexing and productive, motivates many writers and critics. Maybe this is why we’re tempted to personify our own writing as desirous, to imagine it capable of willing transgression. Transgression is sexy. Think of overhearing, of eavesdropping; of scaling walls to reach the unseen beloved; of back-door entrances to speakeasies with complex passwords. But every transgression requires a boundary. Christina Crosby’s story captures the confusion that can result when a category like “feminism” is transgressed from within: such transgressions, paradoxically, require the proliferation of walls. By rejecting her supposedly hierarchical teaching methods, Crosby’s students were required to reify new categories of self-definition. Presumably, Lazar’s distaste for the institutionalization of the “lyric essay” shares something with Crosby’s distaste at being handed that Sharpie. If, as noted above, ever-more-subtle classifications might become generative sites of identification and/or resistance, Lazar and Crosby remind us that they can constrict and chafe as well. So what new wall might be reified by the “lyric essay” in order to name the transgression it seeks to perform? Who might be liberated, and who “mortified,” by this taxonomic move? One concept that’s being transgressed is that of the “fact.” In a review of D’Agata’s book The Lifespan of a Fact, Lee Gutkind describes hearing one of his colleagues use “D’Agata” as a verb. “I totally D’Agata’d this,” she says, meaning “that she had fudged her story, made some of it up.” Gutkind is the protective father, if not actual originator, of the term “creative nonfiction,” which of course rivals “lyric essay.” Many writers and critics use the two terms interchangeably, or see lyric essay as the sub-genre, but the terms of the turf war between these two generic godfathers themselves are starkly clear: Creative Nonfiction, the journal Gutkind edits, fact-checks assiduously, while Gutkind imagines that D’Agata, on hearing his name used as a synonym for fictionalizing, “would be pleased.” The Lifespan of a Fact consists of the record of correspondence between D’Agata and Jim Fingal, his fact-checker at The Believer on a story about a teenager’s suicide that had been rejected by Harper’s due to factual inaccuracies. D’Agata is unapologetic about his strategy of altering facts for the sake of “art”: “When Fingal proves that there are 31 strip clubs in Las Vegas and not 34 as D’Agata claimed, D’Agata says: “The rhythm of ‘34’ was better in the sentence than the rhythm of ‘31,’ so I changed it.”

What is the difference between importing the artfully indeterminate “Lyric I” into the realm of nonfiction, as a way of granting power to subjectivity, and simply making shit up? Does such a distinction matter? D’Agata claims not to care, but I side with Gutkind in suspecting that there’s a difference between “queering genre” and borrowing the authority of one genre, on bad credit, to bolster the profile of another.

Furthermore: does such a maverick stance towards “fact” betray a certain kind of presumption? One wonders how a writer might reliably distinguish between irrelevant facts—facts that can be smudged for the sake of art—and facts on which others’ lives and legal futures might hinge. I’m not saying that the facts D’Agata changed fell into the latter category—but I’m not sure I would trust myself, or anyone else outside of the story, to know the difference. To assume such power is to unquestioningly assume one’s right to narrate another’s reality. Gutkind goes farther: “The market for lyric essays is limited at best. Perhaps this new book’s lame idea, that art supersedes fact, is D’Agata’s foray into self-promotion and image-building in the creative writing academy. That—and not the general public—seems to be his target audience.”

So here is the High Art thing again. Not all “lyric essays” play fast and loose with the facts, and most of them don’t pretend to be journalism anyway. But still: does the “back door” of lyric lead, perhaps, not to a shadowy speakeasy but to a rarefied academic cocktail party, one whose attendees can afford to scoff at the banality of “fact?”

Perhaps D’Agata can be forgiven for conflating the creative writing academy with some kind of marginal space: it hardly holds the cachet of other, longer-standing, more traditionally prestigious academic departments. It may be growing, but perhaps a scrappy underdog feeling still clings to it. Many public debates have been held, for example, about whether MFA programs are inherently anti-intellectual. Even so, if the traditional academy is what the lyric essay seeks to transgress—well, I’m not sure this is a transgression that interests me.

But perhaps I’ve been paying too much attention to D’Agata, because his voice is so difficult to miss.

When I was an undergraduate, I sang in the Yale Women’s Slavic Chorus, which was formed in 1969, the first year women were admitted to the university. Its origin story: when a group of women petitioned to join the long-established Russian Chorus, they were denied, but one of its members volunteered to teach them Bulgarian women’s vocal music. Today, the Yale Women’s Slavic Chorus is still going; their gatherings and concerts are still the weirdest, loudest, most joyous, most unapologetically female events I’ve ever attended. Sometimes the original male founder comes to these gatherings and hangs around. He tells anyone who asks that he founded the chorus, that he is responsible for its existence; if you smile appreciatively and appear willing to listen, he’ll quip that he did so “to meet girls.” But it’s obvious, once the music starts—once the “girls” open their throats and start hollering—that none of it’s really about him.

I’m not saying D’Agata is that guy. (For one thing, he’s not standing on the sidelines; he’s singing too.) But I suggest the analogy to frame the different kinds of ownership that might be at stake here.

In Next American Essay, D’Agata writes, “In Italy stanza means ‘a room.’ In Spain stanza means ‘a shelter.’ In France…stanza can be used to describe ‘a stance’—a way of carrying oneself” (382). I like the little volta of this third definition. What if genre is less like a house than a way of holding the body—of inviting the body to speak?

Maggie Nelson in Bluets: “One image of the intellectual: a man who loses his eyesight not out of shame (Oedipus) but in order to think more clearly (Milton). I try to avoid generalities when it comes to the business of gender, but in all honesty I must admit that I simply cannot conceive of a version of female intelligence that would advocate such a thing. An ‘abortion of the mind, this purity’ (W.C. Williams)” (55).

Gender is a slippery, often-misleading signifier, but it’s also a lived reality. Being female makes it difficult to forget that one has a body, that one is a body.

Susan Griffin echoes Nelson’s critique of this brain-in-a-jar model in her essay “Red Shoes.” “Without the body,” she writes, “it is impossible to conceive of thought existing. Yet the central trope of our intellectual heritage is of a transcendent, disembodied mind” (306). Such a notion, she argues, is a fantasy of liberation that itself becomes a kind of cage: “The idea of an entirely autonomous mind has a subtext, and that is the desire for unlimited freedom from natural limitations…. And yet limitations are a necessary predisposition for any existence, including the existence of something we suppose to be abstract and cerebral, like the essay. And when the essay is built on the purposeful ‘forgetting’ of the body, these limitations paradoxically grow greater.” (306)

Jenny Boully’s essay “The Body,” also included in The Next American Essay, consists exclusively of footnotes. Some of its pages are almost entirely blank. The essay’s title refers not only to its own absent “body of text,” but to the physical body of its lyric speaker. Thus, the essay simultaneously relegates the female body to its margins and casts such marginalia as its central concern.

The last thing I want to do is suggest some kind of easy relationship between gender and literary form, to argue that women are predisposed to write in a certain way. And yet, for many, writing about gendered experience presents a paradox: how to represent the robustness of one’s own lived experience while also representing the experience of obscurity, of erasure? How to explore the messy, fluid realities of the body without sacrificing so much linearity that one’s work is labeled incoherent or unreadable? How to transcend the “diminutive,” the traditionally “feminine,” without devaluing it?

Susan Griffin again: “Is it possible to write in a form that is both immersed and distant, farseeing and swallowed? I am thinking now that this is what women have been attempting in the last decades. Not simply to enter the world of masculine discourse but to transform it with another kind of knowledge” (315).

The lyric essay, with its associative logic and its openness to visuality as a tool of meaning-making, may in fact be more suitable than other forms for expressing embodied truths—especially those previously neglected, those experienced in the gaps between sanctioned “facts.” It may offer unique tools for expressing the presence of absences. Perhaps this is why many notable female writers, especially those interested in writing about and through their female bodies, seem to excel at the lyric essay, to find the genre a congenial home: Maggie Nelson, Jenny Boully, Susan Griffin, Anne Carson, Eula Biss, Mary Ruefle, Brenda Miller—among many others.

Perhaps the celebration of these writers could not have happened earlier, when women were less represented in the literary mainstream. That same mainstream is also, conveniently, more receptive now to regarding embodied and fragmentary writing as art, as a valued form of intellection rather than an avoidance of it. Griffin’s and Boully’s presence in The Next American Essay indicates the acceptance of their writing by the creative writing establishment. Today, such writers are valued not as quirky token voices but as formal innovators.

The essays mentioned above do not necessarily represent the dizzyingly diverse genre as a whole, in either their form or their concerns; even if I could, I’m not really interested in proving that they are, or that the lyric essay is somehow a “female” genre—to do so would be to essentialize, and to run the risk of ghettoizing. (Besides: even the term “female” feels, these days, like an outmoded category in need of renovation.) But these examples serve to highlight the folly of separating “identity politics” from studies of “form,” as many critics still insist on doing. Essays like Boully’s show how formal innovation can arise, at least partially, out of the urgent need to explore the lived reality of a particular identity. It seems to me that any genre proving hospitable to such efforts should be welcomed.

Despite Lazar’s objections, “queerness” might not be hampered by generic reification: the lyric essay potentially gives high-art sanction to all sorts of experiments. And not just those by women, or queer writers. If the lyric essay’s associative structure, its deployment of visual tropes and of blank space, are tools particularly suited to exploring the bright mess of embodied experience, then the genre opens new possibilities for anyone with a body.

Paradoxically, it also seems well-suited for exploration of the disembodied, the fragmentary, the flashbulb immediacy and ephemerality of the Internet age. Sarah Menkedick skeptically writes in “Narrative of Fragments” that the lyric essay’s form, which seems to both represent and invite interruption of the reader’s attention, “is as easy to consume as a Flickr slideshow, as successive sound bites on CNN, although in its language and content as a whole it intends to be difficult and tries for Barthesian jouissance.” Maybe—but to me, this paradox seems less like hypocrisy than evidence of a messy, invigorating attempt to reckon with disruption. In this post-postmodern age, even writers who might have previously benefited from the illusion of a unified, separable self are forced to confront the reality of fragmentation, and find new ways to express it.

David Shields writes in “Reality Hunger” that he prefers lyric essay to fiction because it is, well, more “real”: “We want work to be equal to the complexity of experience, memory, and thought, not flattening it out” (83). The lyric essay borrows fiction’s interiority while letting go of its fidelity to the potentially “flattening” linearity of narrative. In doing so, it invites the reader into a crystalline structure of thought that—like a rhizome or network—might resemble chaos and formlessness at first, but upon closer look, might accurately represent the bright mess of a particular mind, inside a particular body, inside the vivid confusions of our shared world.

I suspect that most practitioners of the lyric essay, whatever they think of the term itself and its relation to identity politics, would resonate with Susan Griffin’s rhetorical questions in “Red Shoes”: “Bringing the public world of the essay and the inner world of fiction together, is something sacrificed? The high ground? Perspective? Distance? Or is it instead a posture of detachment that is renounced, a position of superiority? The position of one who is not immersed, who is unaffected, untouched? (This is, of course, the ultimate ‘fiction.’)” (314) At its best, the lyric essay accurately locates the writer in the “great soup of being” —the confusions of lived time, the jagged shape of thought, the betrayals and silences of the body.


I’ve typed the phrase “white spaces” so many times now that I can’t help but focus on the word “white.” Blank pages are usually white. But that doesn’t mean they are innocent.

Claudia Rankine’s recent book Citizen has been called a lyric essay. Though most reviews labeled it as poetry, its formal indeterminacy and plurality have invited a variety of classifications. Either way, the subtitle, “An American Lyric,” seems to invite the reader to treat the book’s speaker with the generative indeterminacy, the choral plurality, of a “Lyric I”; Rankine has said that this speaker, who explores the lived experience of Black subjectivity in America, conveys experiences that are her own as well as those of people she knows. The book mostly eschews the “I” itself in favor of a second-person “you”; this “you” could represent the speaker’s plurality, or her dissociation from herself. Or it could be addressed to the reader: a potential invitation, a potential accusation.

Many associate whiteness with blankness, innocence. But Rankine’s book reminds us that whiteness is more like willful ignorance, disavowed knowledge. It’s a highly complex set of codes and privileges, disguised as normative neutrality. To equate whiteness with blankness is a refusal of knowledge—or of acknowledgment. Citizen’s spare blocks of prose on blinding-white paper serve to underline this notion: to force the reader to confront whiteness as part of the text, to confront whatever she projects onto it in response to its difficult (and notably black) “propositions.”

One notable absence in The Next American Essay: writers of color. D’Agata cops to the anthology’s demographics in his introduction: “There are 19 men in here, 13 women. Twenty-nine are Americans; 1 is a Mexican; 1 is Canadian. There’s a Native American, a Korean American, an African American, a Thai American. I’ll bet you there are probably some gay people, too” (1). I guess he figures he’ll get points for honesty.

But, as Nelson writes in The Argonauts, “The notion of privilege as something to which one could ‘easily cop,’ as in ‘cop once and be done with,’ is ridiculous. Privilege saturates; privilege structures” (97).

For an anthology of 32 writers to contain only one African-American, and only five writers of color in total, is striking—particularly striking when the words “Next” and “American” are in its title. In the “Next America,” the one on the verge of being, Americans of color will outnumber their white compatriots. (We Might as Well Call it the Lyric Essay isn’t much better: just 3 writers of color out of 15 total—demographics presumably representative of Seneca Review as a whole.) So are writers of color particularly under-represented in this fledgling genre? Or in John D’Agata’s mind? Or do these numbers reflect the larger inequities of the publishing world, of society?

If I had to guess, I’d blame the exclusion not only on D’Agata’s personal blind spots but on a persistent yet misguided notion in the Academy that “high art” and “identity politics” are inherently contradictory. Either way, there are many wonderful writers of color who might be called “lyric essayists.” Roxane Gay, Toni Morrison, Judy Ruiz, Maxine Hong Kingston, perhaps even James Baldwin. And more—certainly, many that remain unknown to me. It would be unfair to disown my own complicity in this; writers of color have rightly taken white writers like me to task for not looking harder, past the gatekeepers’ darlings. But if such writers remain outside of the anthologies and publications considered to be genre-normative—to define the standards by which the lyric essay is recognized and marketed—that says something. For one thing, it says that we need some new anthologies. If the lyric essay does in fact open up new and exciting possibilities for embodied writing within the realm of High Art, it should not, in its excitement at finally being invited, neglect to look around and see who is still absent.

Still, I would like to insist on seeing the lyric essay’s blank spaces as sites of possibility for everyone—if only because, in insisting, we might make it so.

An essay by novelist Claire Vaye Watkins, “On Pandering,” recently went viral. Watkins decries the way in which her own internalized misogyny shaped her first book, while calling herself out on her frequent blindness to her own white privilege: “Myself, I have been writing to impress old white men.” Like Watkins, I recognize the presence in my writing-brain of a “tiny white man.” And yet as a female writer I’ve been invigorated by identifying patriarchal structures so as to depart from them—to conceive of myself as writing into some other place yet to be mapped. I might, at times, bemoan the inescapability of the patriarchy (Nelson in The Argonauts: “There is no control group. I don’t even want to talk about ‘female sexuality’ until there is a control group. And there never will be.” (66)) But maybe there’s value in having a structure against which to rebel. We might fantasize some pure organic form—some control-group form—but new forms have always ruptured older ones in order to bring themselves into existence.

It would be impossible, especially for me, to compare gender and race; among other offenses, doing so would deny the existence of intersectionality. But perhaps racist and sexist structures can resemble each other both in the erasures they inflict and the ways in which their charged, dubiously defended borders might invite a kind of generative violation. Destruction can be a powerful kind of creation. Watkins ends her essay with a battle cry: “Let us, each of us, write things that are uncategorizable, rather than something that panders to and condones and codifies those categories. Let us burn this motherfucking system to the ground and build something better.”

Yes, let’s—even if the old structures won’t disappear entirely; we’ll always be reacting against them, to some degree. Still, we can salvage that obsolete front door and make a window out of it. Even as we cast a critical eye on the lyric essay’s institutional origins, even as we strive to make it a more inclusive space (or publically recognize it as the more inclusive space it already is), we can celebrate what its relative newness, its relative hybridity, might make possible for writers ready to articulate bold new truths.

No, there will never be a control group. But what there can be: a breakage, a re-shuffling. The result of breakage: a proliferation of edge, of space.

A new arrangement of truths, a different kind of meaning.

Notes Biss, Eula. “It is What it Is.” Seneca Review , Fall 2007: pages 55-60.

Boully, Jenny. “The Body.” In The Next American Essay , ed. John D’Agata. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2003. Pages 435-466.

Cameron, Sharon. Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre . Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.

Carson, Anne. Eros the Bittersweet . Champaign and London: Dalkey Archive Press, 2009.

Culler, Jonathan. “Lyric, History and Genre.” In The Lyric Theory Reader . Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. Pages 63-76.

D’Agata, John, ed. The Next American Essay . Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2003.

D’Agata, John. “What’s In A Name?” In We Might As Well Call It the Lyric Essay , ed. John D’Agata. Geneva, NY: Hobart and William Smith Colleges Press, 2014. Pages 5-10.

D’Agata, John, and Deborah Tall. “The Lyric Essay.” Seneca Review , Fall 2007. Web. 10 December 2015.

Garner, Dwight. “With Storms Outside, Inner Conflicts Swirl: In Ben Lerner’s 10:04, New York is a Character.” The New York Times . 2 Sept, 2014. Web. 8 December, 2015.

Griffin, Susan. “Red Shoes.” In The Next American Essay , ed. John D’Agata. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2003. Pages 301-215.

Gutkind, Lee. “Doing a D’Agata.” Los Angeles Review of Books , 19 March 2002. Web. 8 December 2015.

Jackson, Virginia, and Yopie Prins. “General Introduction.” In The Lyric Theory Reader . Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. Pages 1-10.

Koestenbaum, Wayne. “Assignments.” Seneca Review , Fall 2007: pages 15-18.

Lazar, David. “Queering the Essay.” Essay Review , Volume I Issue I, Spring 2013: pages 19-23.

Levine, Caroline. Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network . Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2015.

Marcus, Ben. “On the Lyric Essay.” The Believer , July 2013. Web. 10 December 2015.

Menkedick, Sarah. “Narrative of Fragments.” The New Inquiry , July 3, 2014. Web. 10 January 2016.

Mill, John Stuart. “Thoughts on Poetry and Its Varieties.” In Dissertations and Discussions . London: Savill and Edwards, 1859.

Nelson, Maggie. The Argonauts . Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2015.

Nelson, Maggie. Bluets . Seattle and New York: Wave Books, 2009.

Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric . Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2014.

Shields, David. “Reality Hunger.” Seneca Review , Fall 2007: pages 79-91.

Watkins, Claire Vaye. “On Pandering.” In Tin House , 23 November 2015. Web. 10 December 2015.

Amy Bonnaffons’s writing has appeared in The New York Times , Kenyon Review , The Sun , The Literary Review , and elsewhere. She is a founding editor of 7×7, a journal that publishes collaborations between writers and visual artists. Amy holds an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University and is currently working on a PhD in English at the University of Georgia. A New York native, she currently resides in Athens, GA.

Essay Daily: Talk About the Essay

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The seneca review: introducing, defining, and promoting the lyric essay.

Since its inception in 1970, the Seneca Review has published mostly poetry. As essayists, our interest in SR began roughly thirteen years ago, in Fall 1997, when the “lyric essay” made its first appearance. John D’Agata’s term as Associate Editor of SR began at about the same time, SR ’s website would lead me to believe.

Most recent posts have included some sort of disclaimer/full-disclosure clause, and mine is no exception. In fact, my disclosures are many: I love poetry. I know very little about poetry. I know even less about the lyric essay. What excites me most about SR is the fact that gifted essayist and fellow MFA candidate at the University of Arizona – Noam Dorr – will have a piece published in the next issue.

According to the SR website, here are a few things (I translated into bullet form) that the lyric essay does:

· The lyric essay partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language.

· The lyric essay partakes of the essay in its weight, in its overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative form.

· The lyric essay does not expound. It may merely mention.

· The lyric essay, generally, is short, concise and punchy like a prose poem. But it may meander, making use of other genres when they serve its purpose: recombinant, it samples the techniques of fiction, drama, journalism, song, and film.

· The lyric essay often accretes by fragments, taking shape mosaically - its import visible only when one stands back and sees it whole.

· The lyric essay stalks its subject like quarry but is never content to merely explain or confess. It elucidates through the dance of its own delving.

· The lyric essay sets off on an uncharted course through interlocking webs of idea, circumstance, and language - a pursuit with no foreknown conclusion, an arrival that might still leave the writer questioning.

· The lyric essay is ruminative; it leaves pieces of experience undigested and tacit, inviting the reader's participatory interpretation.

· The lyric essay’s voice is often more reticent, almost coy, aware of the compliment it pays the reader by dint of understatement.

The SR editors seem to envision the lyric essay as a kind of… minx? She desires. She merely mentions. She melds. She feigns coyness. She meanders. She’s punchy! She pursues. No, she stalks .

She leaves the writer questioning.

But what about the reader?

After all, for each thing that the lyric essay does, the lyric essay asks for the reader to do something in return – to follow the “uncharted course,” to synthesize the “webs of idea, circumstance, and language,” to assemble the fragments, to interpret the mosaic, and ultimately, to gain something.

In an interview that accompanies the Spring 2009 issue, Geoffrey Hilsabeck asks Dan Beachy-Quick, whose piece “The Laurel Crown” appears in the same issue, about this idea of the “lyric reader.” (A small, edited portion of the interview appears below.)

GH: If there can be lyric poets and lyric essayists, can there be lyric readers, or is that absurd?

DBQ: The lyric reader understands that the worth of reading isn’t some sum-knowledge. Rather, the lyric reader sings back out the world the reading gave her, and in doing so, in expressing and making exterior that world reading gave her, a world now also deeply her own, she offers that world back up to doubt and question. Singing is this offering not of doubt, but to doubt. This is why, in the reading I love the most, the same reading I write about, I do not feel I’ve learned anything, or gained anything, but feel more profoundly my ignorance, and if I learn anything, I learn how better to take advantage of that ignorance.

So again, the lyric essay is a … siren? I have to admit, I’m pretty intrigued by SR ’s recurrent depiction of the lyric essay as a kind of elusive woman, although I’m not sure if this concept is unique to SR or not. I’d guess not. But worth a little discussion, in any case, I think.

Notably, the most recent “special double issue” of SR for Fall 2009/Spring 2010 is titled “The Lyric Body,” and features pieces that address our corporeal lives. Pieces in this issue – most of which I found fascinating – tended to focus on the body as it changes - as it ages, travels, plays, dies, heals, etc. Not surprisingly, a significant number of the pieces in this issue also focus on the body in a state of peril or decline, as it faces death.

In the introductory essay, Stephen Kuusisto and Ralph James Savarese explain the reason for this thematic choice: “The body presents a form for engagement, the only one an organism has. That engagement is always political, whether we recognize it or not, and always lyrical, whether we see it that way or not.”

Clearly, SR seeks to engage readers who are interested in the more lyrical, experimental versions of the essay. And although I often find these forms inscrutable, I found most of the pieces I read in SR to be at once challenging and very accessible. I wanted to do the work that the essays were asking me to do - to be a “lyric reader.”

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Search form, sing, circle, leap: tracing the movements of the american lyric essay.

My journey into the expanse of the lyric essay began when I opened Maggie Nelson’s Bluets . At that time, I had been writing poetry for over ten years, exploring motherhood, mental health, and my Asian American heritage. I saw my work as lyric poetry that drew from the bloodlines of my first love, Sharon Olds, and her transformative poem, “Monarchs.”

Until Bluets , I had viewed the essay through the lens of my high school and undergraduate education: as a rigid box that enclosed a thesis supported by three or more paragraphs of argument sealed in by the packing tape of a conclusion. To me, there was no similarity between poetry’s lush landscape and the corrugated angles of prose.

But fifteen years after graduation from college, I sat on a worn chenille sofa in my living room with Bluets in my hands. I read Nelson’s first lines: “Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color. Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession . . .” The slim book fell from my fingers as a chord reverberated within me. My body knew that Nelson’s work was more than strict, formal prose. Within my marrow, Bluets sang and shifted; its music, undeniable. Why, when I read her prose, did my breath quicken, and my chest throb as if I was reading a poem? Where was Nelson’s thesis? Where were her essay’s harsh lines?

That was my introduction to the American lyric essay. A transmutable beast, the lyric essay roams a borderless landscape. I ride on its slick back, scanning the rolling hillsides. Prairie grass brushes against my thighs, sunlight ebbing in and out of towering clouds. The fragrance of honeysuckle weaves into the upturned earth’s musk. The lyric essay ambles and leaps, circling fields blue with cornflower.

In “Out of and Back into the Box: Redefining Essays and Options,” Melissa A. Goldthwaite explores the landscape of the essay. “The page,” she writes, “is an open field, not a box to fill with other box-like structures . . . There are few, if any, right angles in nature. I can think of no natural squares—just hills and uneven slopes, rounded flower petals, curved riverbank, beautifully twisted trees.” To Goldthwaite, the essay resides in many forms: “a tree, a glove, a fish, a fist, a container, an alternative, a poem, a story, and question.”

If an essay flows from form to form, how can it be contained? How can the lyric essay be defined? In my correspondence with Goldthwaite, she answered: there is always the desire to hem in prose, to categorize or label. Even the lyric essay can be “taught [or defined] in rigid ways.”

Perhaps my desire for a concrete answer stems from my training as a chemist and molecular biologist. In the laboratory, I titrated analytes to determine their concentration down to two decimal places. I swelled with satisfaction as I studied the immutable code for DNA strictly defined by the pairings of nucleic acids: adenine with thymine and guanine with cytosine. Though I left the scientific world nearly twenty years ago to become an artist and writer, the desire for precise measurements and definitions still lingers.

In my conversation with the poet Jos Charles, we ruminated on the question again: what is the lyric essay? Perhaps as Charles proposes, the definition of the lyric essay is a Western invention, one that readers try to impose on prose works. Am I trying to cram a mountain into the form of a dogwood blossom? When does the search for definitive truth end in the marring of beauty and wonder?

Werner Heisenberg, a leader in the field of quantum mechanics, proposed that it was impossible to pinpoint the precise location of an electron in space and also determine its momentum. From the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the shapes of electron orbitals were born. These orbitals take the form of spheres or intricate petals extending from an atom’s nucleus, showing the possible position of an electron at any given time. Perhaps Heisenberg’s principle can be applied to the lyric essay, so that its essence resides in an approximate form, a form that shifts according to time and space.

The term “lyric essay” was introduced by Deborah Tall and John D’Agata in the Seneca Review in 1997. This “dense” and “shapely form,” write Tall and D’Agata, “straddles the essay and the lyric poem . . . forsak[ing] narrative line, discursive logic, and the art of persuasion in favor of idiosyncratic meditation.” In this way, the lyric essay “spirals in on itself, circling a single image or idea . . . [it] stalks its subject like quarry but is never content to merely explain or confess.”

In her 2007 essay, “Mending Wall,” Judith Kitchen writes that “the job of the lyric essayist is to find the prosody of fact, finger the emotional instrument, play the intuitive and the intrinsic, but all in service to the music of the real. Even if it’s an imagined actuality. The aim is to make of , not up .” The musical lyric essay is a “lyre, not a liar.”

I believe that the intent of the lyric essay has shifted since “Mending Wall.” Though the lyric essay still searches out truth, it has become more and more uncertain of what the truth is. Its emphasis has changed from navigating a singular truth to reflecting multiple truths.

Why has the lyric essay become more uncertain? It may be, as the essayist Aviya Kushner proposes, that the world itself has become exponentially complex, making it difficult to pinpoint universal truths. Perhaps, the lyric essay reflects humanity’s fragmentation, the exchange of ultimate truths for the truths of individual experiences.

Even the definition of the lyric essay is evasive, the essay’s meaning shifting over time and space. This is where the scientist in me struggles. I dislike this level of uncertainty. The lyric essay shifts under my gaze, glinting like a emerald’s countless facets. I fear that by searching to define the lyric essay, I will become lost within its prism. I feel my way through the dazzling light, the reverberating haze.

I must come to some form of conclusion. How can I speak about something that seems impossible to define? Perhaps, as Jos Charles ponders, the lyric essay evades definition because the lyric essay doesn’t exist as a form. Instead of a lyric essay, perhaps there is, as the scholars Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins propose, a form of “lyric reading,” an agreement between the writer and reader. Perhaps the essay signals to the reader: Approach this piece lyrically. Once the reader enters this agreement, they succumb to the essay’s musicality, rhythm, leaps in logic, and fragmentation.

Though the lyric essay is a wild, changeable beast, attempts have been made to contain it. In the introduction to A Harp in the Stars: An Anthology of Lyric Essays , Randon Billings Noble attempts to outline the lyric essay. The lyric essay, she states, is “a piece of writing with a visible/stand-out/unusual structure that explores/forecasts/gestures to an idea in an unexpected way.” Noble then motions toward some of the current forms of the lyric essay, including the segmented essay, separated into sections through number, title, or white space and the braided essay, with its woven, repeated themes.

In my mind, a pattern emerges, an outline within the mist. Though difficult to define, the lyric essay contains elements that separate it from the rigid forms of my high school and undergraduate years. Unlike the traditional essay that is bound to a thesis, the lyric essay is a cloud of thought hovering around a question. However, as Noble writes, though the lyric essay is “slippery,” it must take on the responsibilities of an essay, “to try to figure something out, to play with ideas, to show a shift in thinking.” An essay, at its heart, is an exploration of truth, a straddling of black and white.

To me, the American lyric essay diverges from the traditional argument of the essay and its narrative counterpart, the personal essay, in three ways. Like a poem, the lyric essay might have honed rhythm and sound. It also diverges from narrative structures and instead revolves around themes. The lyric essay might also transition intuitively from concept to concept.

In this way, the lyric essay sings, circles, and leaps. These elements of the lyric essay can be explored through Lidia Yuknavitch’s Chronology of Water , Maggie Nelson’s Bluets , and Chet’la Sebree’s Field Study .

In her extended craft essay, The Art of Syntax , Ellen Bryant Voigt argues that syntax propels the musicality and rhythm of lyric poetry. The language spoken by “ordinary human beings” is elevated to poetry by the “echoes of more regular patterns of song.” By linking verse to “ordinary” spoken language, Voigt bridges the gap between poetry and prose. In this way, I believe, syntax plays the same role in lyric essay as it does in lyric poetry: it drives the musicality of language, thus propelling the essay from beginning to end.

Syntax can be described as the chunking of language in phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. Syntax, Voigt adds, is a “flexible calculus” that creates meaning. Within the lyric essay, syntax unfurls a sonic landscape of expansive rhythm and song.

As the psychologists and researchers Laura Batterink and Helen J. Neville state, the human brain navigates syntax “outside the window of conscious awareness.” Since the areas of the brain that process syntax are adjacent to those that process music, the reader instantaneously experiences the music of lyrical language.

Robert Frost writes that “the surest way to reach the heart [of the reader] is through the ear . . . By arrangement and choice of words on the part of the poet, the effects of humor, pathos, hysteria, and anger, and in fact all effects, can be indicated or obtained.” When the reader encounters the cloud of the lyric essay, they instantaneously experience its music, its murmuring, electrical hum. This is especially true in Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water , where syntax carries not only the rhythm and sound of her prose, but also its emotional intensity.

In her lyric essay collection, Yuknavitch navigates her chaotic childhood, her passion for swimming, and the power she summons through her transformation into a writer. In her first piece, “The Chronology of Water,” Yuknavitch harnesses the power of syntax. She writes: “The day my daughter was stillborn, after I held the future pink and rose-lipped in my shivering arms, lifeless tender, covering her face in tears and kisses, after they handed my dead girl to my sister who kissed her, then to my first husband who kissed her, then to my mother who could not bear to hold her, then out of the hospital room door, tiny lifeless swaddled thing, the nurse gave me tranquilizers and a soap and sponge.”

Here, Yuknavitch carries the reader through the birth of the speaker’s stillborn daughter through what Voigt refers to as “right-branching” syntax. In this form, phrases extend outward carried by similar language. In this passage, the grammatical chunks are separated by the preposition “after” and the conjunction “then.”

Using right-branching syntax, Yuknavitch describes the scene in which the speaker’s daughter is passed from her to her sister, husband, and mother, and then out of the hospital room. At the end of this extended sentence, the right-branching syntax halts. Yuknavitch crafts the sentence in waves: “after . . . after . . . then . . . then . . . then . . .” until the rhythm breaks on the rocks of the independent clause: “the nurse gave me tranquilizers and a soap and sponge.” The abrupt change in syntax silences the essay’s musicality. There isn’t a miraculous revival; with the passing of her daughter, the speaker is left with grief.

When Yuknavitch’s language carries me away, I must depart from the marching tradition of prose and drift into the lyrical. With her, all I hear is the water and the sounds of mourning. This is the mystic power of the lyric essay: it sweeps the reader up into its wave. The lyric essay becomes the reader, the reader becomes the song.

Frost writes that “a sentence is not interesting merely in conveying a meaning of words. It must do something more: it must convey a meaning by sound.” If the sentence can be seen as the poetic line, then syntax can work in two ways within prose: to complement the sentence’s flow or to be, as Voigt states, in “muscular opposition” to it.

Yuknavitch’s Chronology of Water shows both of these abilities of syntax. In her essay “How to Ride a Bike,” Yuknavitch navigates the harrowing experience of her father forcing her to ride a bike down a steep hill:

Wind on my face my palms sting my knees hurt pressing backwards speed and speedspeedspeedspeed holding my breath and my skin tingling like it does in trees terrible spiders crawling my skin like up high as the grand canyon my head too hot turnturnturnturnturn I am turning I am braking I can’t feel my feet I can’t feel my legs I can’t feel my arms I can’t feel my hands my heart my father’s voice yelling good girl my father running down the hill my father who did this who pushed me my eyes closing my limbs going limp my letting go me letting go so sleepy so light floating floating objects speed eyes closed violent hitting object crashing nothing.

Here, Yuknavitch has chosen to break each sentence like a poetic line. In doing so, she has created a section of text that reads like a prose poem. The section is void of punctation until Yuknavitch lands on the collision with the “nothing.” In the absence of punctation, syntax governs the rhythm of the lines. The right-branching syntax of the repeated phrases: “. . . my palms sting my knees hurt . . .” in the beginning of the section churns like the pedals of a bike.

The compressed segments, “speedspeedspeedspeed” and “turnturnturnturnturn” act as turns within the prose poem, where syntactical tension matches the increased tension of the narrative. What follows are two right-branching segments: “I am turning I am braking I can’t feel / my feet I can’t feel my legs I can’t feel my arms I can’t feel my / hands my heart . . .” Again, syntax complements the narrative movement. As a reader, I am carried by the syntax, experiencing the speaker’s panic as the world spins out of control.

Sometimes, syntax can be used to restrain the flow of the sentence. In this case, syntax is in “muscular opposition” to the narrative. In “Illness as Metaphor,” Yuknavitch describes the four-week period in which her eleven-year-old self was ill with mononucleosis. During this time, she was under the supervision of her abusive father. Yuknavitch writes:

In my sickbed my father removed my sweat soaked clothing. My father redressed me in underwear and pretty night- gowns. My father stroked my hair. Kissed my skin. My father carried me to the bathtub and laid me down and washed me. Everywhere. My father dried me off in his arms and redressed me and carried me back to the bed. His skin the smell of ciga- rettes and Old Spice cologne. His yellowed fingers. The mountainous callous on his middle finger from all the years of holding a pen or pencil. His steel blue eyes. Twinning mine. The word “Baby.”

The syntax of the sentences is uneven, alternating between right-branched strands, such as “My father redressed me in underwear and pretty nightgowns. My father stroked my hair,” and chunks of sentence fragments: “Kissed my skin.”

As a reader, I desire to race through this piercing and troubling description, but Yuknavitch holds me to the page. The syntax of this section restrains the flow of the narrative, challenging me to take in the details one after the other, to experience, as Yuknavitch did, every excruciating moment. As Yuknavitch writes: “It’s language that’s letting me say that the days elongated, as if the very sun and moon had forsaken me. It’s narrative that makes things open up so I can tell this. It’s the yielding expanse of a white page.” With a steady, skilled hand, Yuknavitch holds back the current of the narrative using syntax that suspends the reader within the pain and power of the moment.

In “Mending Wall,” Kitchen makes a distinction between a lyrical essay and its lyric counterpart. “Any essay can be lyrical,” she writes, “as long as it pays attention to the sound of its language or the sweep of its cadences . . . A lyric essay, however, functions as a lyric .” Like the lyric poem, the lyric essay “swallows you . . . until you reside inside it.” In other words, an essay isn’t a lyric just because of its musical language. Rather than creating a linear narrative, the lyric essay encompasses the reader by circling an image or theme.

In some personal essays, the engine is the story. In “Picturing the Personal Essay: A Visual Guide,” Tim Bascom provides pictorial representations of different forms of personal essay. Bascom describes the form, “narrative with a lift,” as a chronology with tension that “forces the reader into a climb.” Jo Anne Beard’s essay “The Fourth State of Matter” is an example of this form. Bascom describes Beard’s essay as “a sequence of scenes [that] matches roughly the unfolding real events, but [has] suspense [that] pulls us along, represented by questions we want answered.”

Bascom also contemplates essays that are a “whorl of reflection.” These essays are “more topical or reflective,” eschewing the linear movement of time for a circling of a topic. This circling occurs organically, “allow[ing] for a wider variety of perspectives—illuminating the subject from multiple angles.”

I believe that some lyric essays are formed as these whorls. Maggie Nelson’s Bluets is an example of elegant circling of image and theme. On the surface, Nelson’s long essay is the study of the color blue. The essay has 240 sections. Each section is interconnected with a focus on blue. “Each blue object,” Nelson muses, “could be a kind of burning bush, a secret code meant for a single agent, an X on a map too diffuse ever to be unfolded in entirety but that contains the knowable universe.”

Nelson finds blue in “shreds of blue garbage bags stuck in brambles,” a lapis lazuli tooth, the eyes of a martyred saint. Nelson also describes the absence of blue: “There is a color inside of the fucking, but it is not blue.” When others ask about Nelson’s fixation on the color, she responds: “We don’t get to choose what or whom we love . . . We just don’t get to choose.”

The image of blue swims within the pages of Bluets , flashing in and out of each condensed section. Nelson’s images are strong and visceral, but by themselves, they would be unable to hold my attention for the entire essay. Under the layered blue images is the theme of grief over the loss of an intimate relationship. Nelson introduces this theme early in the essay, in section 8: “‘We love to contemplate blue, not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it,’ wrote Goethe, and perhaps he is right. But I am not interested in longing to live in a world in which I already live. I don’t want to yearn for blue things, and God forbid for any ‘blueness.’ Above all, I want to stop missing you.” Just as Nelson leans on blue, she had placed her faith in her intimate partner.

As the essay progresses, loss widens and deepens like a sea. Nelson writes: “We mainly suppose the experiential quality to be an intrinsic quality of the physical object—this is the so-called systemic illusion of color. Perhaps it is also that of love. But I am not willing to go there—not just yet. I believed in you.”

Nelson provides scant details of her romantic partner. In sections 67–70, Nelson explores the mating habits of the satin bowerbird. The males, Nelson writes, “can attract thirty-three females to fuck per season if they put on a good enough show,” while the female “mates only once [and] incubates the eggs alone.” These sections hint at a loneliness caused by abandonment. Though the cause of the end of the relationship isn’t revealed, Nelson exposes its aftermath: “It is easier, of course, to find dignity in one’s solitude. Loneliness is solitude with a problem. Can blue solve the problem, or can it at least keep me company within it?—No, not exactly. It cannot love me that way; it has no arms.”

Bascom writes that “whorl of reflection” essays are driven not by plot, but by the intoxicating pleasure of new perspectives and insights. This is especially true for Bluets. A whorl of contemplation, it’s a lazy river that loops for countless miles. Within it, I sometimes drift along with the images of blue and themes of grief and loneliness. Sometimes, I stand up and push against them. This tension between push and pull keeps me engaged in Bluets , within its circling of blue.

In “A Taxonomy of Nonfiction; or the Pleasures of Precision,” Karen Babine meditates on the “lyric mode” of the essay, which is driven by language, not narrative. Heidi Czerwiec states that “there are essays that are circuitous, nonlinear, that spiral around a central concept, incident or image, accruing meaning as they move. No forks, no false moves, no misdirection, only perhaps a pleasant disorientation as the writing twists and turns.” Though lyric essays are nonlinear, they still have centers that “hold.” Though Bluets isn’t driven by narrative, it circles around image and theme. In addition, there is an undergirding question that holds the essay in a state of tension: how will the speaker survive her grief? The answer is delivered in the one of the last sections of the essay:

For to wish to forget how much you loved someone—and then, to actually forget—can feel, at times like the slaughter of a beautiful bird who chose, by nothing short of grace, to make a habitat of our heart. I have heard that this pain can be converted, as it were, by accepting “the fundamental impermanence of all things.” This acceptance bewilders me: sometimes it seems an act of will; at others, of surrender. Often I feel myself to be rocking between them (seasickness).

As Nelson releases herself from the relationship, I also experience freedom and resurface from Bluets transformed.

Like a moth drawn to candlelight, I’m drawn back to exploring the form of the lyric essay. Through the haze of light refracted through dust and smoke, I seek its outline, first through the essay’s musical language and then through its circling of themes. In my conversation with the poet and essayist Chet’la Sebree, we discussed the “machinery” of the lyric essay. Lyric essays hinge on “having a poetic quality.” They are constructed like a poem, creating “sense and meaning” through associative leaps.

My discussion with Sebree makes me return to the work of Sharon Olds. It was within the pages of Satan Says that I encountered “Monarchs,” the poem that entranced me with images of creatures “floating / south to their transformation, crossing over / borders in the night, the diffuse blood-red / cloud of them . . .” Olds’s elegant line breaks allow her images to fluidly flow from one line to the next. Through these breaks, Olds also guides me through associative leaps, helping me connect the speaker to her first lover and the butterflies:

The hinged print of my blood on your thighs— a winged creature pinned there— and then you left, as you were to leave over and over, the butterflies moving in masses past my window . . .

Here, the intimacy is visceral. The speaker, lover, and monarchs are placed closely on the page so that my eye and mind make the connection between them.

Through reflecting on Sebree and Olds’s work, I came to believe that there is a link between poetry and the lyric essay when it comes to leaps of logic. Within both practices, syntax and white space help to guide readers over the gaps between images, thoughts, and themes.

During our time together, Sebree and I discussed her work with the lyric essay. As she wrote Field Study , Sebree asked herself: “How can [I] make an individual thought beautiful?” To Sebree, each thought is an “isolated cube of language.” I believe that each “cube” is connected through the bridge of syntax. Syntax is “sonically driven” and allows the lyric essay to make “musical sense.”

In Field Study , Sebree shaped each of the lyric essay’s sections around sound and musicality. In one section, Sebree reflects on the Women’s March and its significance to white women and how she regards the march as a woman of color. Sebree’s discussion of the march extends over five paragraphs of varying length:

The Women’s March meant a lot to a lot of women in my life.  By a lot of women in my life, I mean the 50% of my friends that are white.  With them, I don’t have to differentiate between “women” and “white women” because When I say “women,” at least 53% of the time people—and by “people,” I mean “white people”—will assume I mean “white women.”  These percentages are fake as fake news but this fact is not: white people see whiteness as universal.  There is no appropriate antonym for those of us who are not.

The first two paragraphs consist of one sentence each. In the second paragraph, Sebree uses assonance to create a couplet of “life” and “white.” This paragraph is carefully arranged so that “life” and “white” are placed in close visual proximity. The syntax of the sentence facilitates this visual coupling by placing the shorter dependent clause before the longer independent clause.

Within Field Study , associative leaps follow couplets. In the case of the Women’s March section, I am primed by the couplets to expect a shift in focus from Sebree’s description of her friends to the exclusion of Black women from the definition of “women.” The couplet, “life” and “white,” provides the reader and speaker an opportunity to “come up for air” before a plunge into the difficult topic of erasure. Sebree writes: “white people see whiteness / as universal.”

In Field Study , Sebree also uses white space to facilitate associative leaps. After the section about the Women’s March, Sebree adds a quote from Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda:

To say this . . . is great because it transcends its particularity to say something “human” . . . is to reveal . . . the stance that people of color are not human, only achieve the human in certain circumstances.   

Here, Sebree provides Rankine and Loffreda’s quote extra white space, their voices expanding within the essay’s visual and mental landscape. The white space helps the reader “meditate on the quote . . . [then] move back into [Sebree’s] language.”

In comparison, the Women’s March section that precedes Rankine and Loffreda’s quote is a larger block of text, leaving less space for the reader and meditation. As a reader, I can’t catch my breath and am immersed in Sebree’s thoughts about womanhood and racial exclusion. In this way, white space (or the lack of it) is a type of syntax. It acts as another way to group language and ideas.

Continuing the Journey

In the interview “John D’Agata Redefines the Essay,” D’Agata comments: “I like to think of the essay as an art form that tracks the evolution of consciousness as it rolls over the folds of a new idea, memory, or emotion. What I’ve always appreciated about the essay is the feeling that it gives me that it’s capturing the activity of human thought in real time.”

In this way, the lyric essay reflects the changing landscape of truth. Through this realization, the scientist in me has come to a place of acceptance—an acceptance of a truth not bound by rigid facts, but cradled in a cloud of shifting time and space. By capturing a moment of contemplation, the lyric essay captures the movement of the human spirit. This is the lyric essay’s gift to the world.

Like Heisenberg’s electron, the lyric essay roams a landscape of beauty and uncertainty. In the future, the lyric essay may transform into a beast that is unrecognizable to me in voice and motion. I will continue to revel in its wildness, a splendor that I cannot tame.  

seneca review lyric essay

Issue 164  Summer/Fall 2023

Previous: , next: , share triquarterly, about the author, sayuri matsuura ayers.

seneca review lyric essay

Sayuri Ayers is an essayist and poet from Columbus, Ohio. Her work has appeared on The Poetry Foundation website and in Gulf Stream Magazine , Hippocampus Magazine , CALYX , and Parentheses Journal . She is the author of two collections of poetry, Radish Legs, Duck Feet (Green Bottle Press) and Mother/Wound (Full/Crescent Press) and two forthcoming collections, The Maiden in the Moon and The Woman , The River , from Porkbelly Press. A Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee, Sayuri has been supported by Kundiman, the Virginian Center for Creative Arts, The Greater Columbus Arts Council, and the Ohio Arts Council. To learn more, visit .

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seneca review lyric essay

Writing From the Margins: On the Origins and Development of the Lyric Essay

Zoë bossiere and erica trabold consider essay writing as resistance.

Once, the lyric essay did not have a name.

Or, it was called by many names. More a quality of writing than a category, the form lived for centuries in the private zuihitsu journals of Japanese court ladies, the melodic folktales told by marketplace troubadours, and the subversive prose poems penned by the European romantics.

Before I came to lyric essays, I came to writing. When my teacher asked the class to write a story for homework , I couldn’t believe my luck. But in response to my first attempt, she wrote in the margins: this is cliché .

As a first-generation college student, I was afraid I didn’t know how to tell a story properly, that my mind didn’t work that way. That I didn’t belong in a college classroom, wasn’t a real writer.

And yet, language pulled me. Alone in my dorm room, I arranged and rearranged words, whispered them aloud until the cadences pleased me, their smooth sounds like prayers. I had no name for what I was writing then, but it felt like a style I could call my own.

While the origins of the lyric essay predate its naming, the most well-known attempt to categorize the form came in 1997, when writers John D’Agata and Deborah Tall, coeditors of Seneca Review , noticed a “new” genre in the submission queue—not quite poetry, but neither quite narrative.

This form-between-forms seemed to ignore the conventions of prose writing—such as a linear chronology, narrative, and plot—in favor of embracing more liminal styles, moving by association rather than story, dancing around unspoken truths, devolving into a swirling series of digressions.

D’Agata and Tall’s proposed term for this kind of writing, “the lyric essay,” stuck, and in the ensuing decade the word would be adopted by many essayists to describe the kind of writing they do.

As a genderfluid writer and as a writing teacher, I’ve always appreciated the lyric essay as a literary beacon amid turbulent narrative waves. A means to cast light on negative space, to illuminate subjects that defy the conventions of traditional essay writing.

Introducing this writing style to students is among my favorite course units. Semester after semester, the students most drawn to the lyric essay tend to be those who enter the classroom from the margins, whose perspectives are least likely to be included on course reading lists.

Since its naming, the lyric essay has existed in an almost paradoxical space, at once celebrated for its unique characteristics while also relegated to the margins of creative nonfiction. Perhaps because of this contradiction, much of the conversation about the lyric essay—the definition of what it is and does, where it fits on the spectrum of nonfiction and poetry, whether it has a place in literary journals and in the creative writing classroom—remains unsettled, extending into the present.

I thought getting accepted into a graduate program meant I had finally opened the gilded, solid oak doors of academia—a place no one in my family, not a parent, an aunt or uncle, a sibling or cousin, had ever seen the other side of.

But at my cohort’s first meeting in a state a thousand miles from home, I understood I was still on the outside of something.

“Are you sure you write lyric essays?” the other writers asked. “What does that even mean?”

The acceptance of the lyric form seems to depend largely on who is writing it. The essays that tend to thrive in dominant-culture spaces like academia and publishing are often written by writers who already occupy those spaces. This may be part of why, despite its expansive nature, many of the most widely-anthologized, widely-read, and widely-taught lyric essays represent a narrow range of perspectives: most often, those of the center.

To name the lyric essay—to name anything—is to construct rules about what an essay called “lyric” should look like on the page, should examine in its prose, even who it should be written by. But this categorization has its uses, too.

Much like when a person openly identifies as queer , identifying an essayistic style as “lyric” provides a blueprint for others on the margins to name their experiences—a form through which to speak their truths.

The center is, by definition, a limited perspective, capable of viewing only itself.

In “Marginality as a Site of Resistance,” bell hooks positions the margins not as a state “one wishes to lose, to give up, or surrender as part of moving into the center, but rather as a site one stays on, clings to even, because it nourishes one’s capacity to resist.”

To write from the margins is to write from the perspective of the whole—to see the world from both the margins and the center.

I graduated with a manuscript of lyric essays, one that coalesced into my first book. That book went on to win a prize judged by John D’Agata and named for Deborah Tall. I had finally found my footing, unlocked that proverbial door. But skepticism followed me in.

On my book tour, I was invited to read at my alma mater alongside another writer whose nonfiction tackled pressing social issues with urgency, empathy, and wit. I read an essay about home and friendship, about being young and the hard lessons of growing up.

After the reading, we fielded a Q&A. The Dean of my former college raised his hand.

“I can see what work the other writer is doing quite clearly,” he said to me. “But what exactly is the point of yours?”

Writing is never a neutral act. Although a rallying slogan from a different era and cause, the maxim “the personal is political” still applies to the important work writers do when they speak truth to power, call attention to injustice, and advocate for social change.

Because the lyric essay is fluid, able to occupy both marginal and center spaces, it is a form uniquely suited to telling stories on the writer’s terms, without losing sight of where the writer comes from, and the audiences they are writing toward.

When we tell the stories of our lives—especially when those stories challenge assumptions about who we are—it is an act of resistance.

Many of the contemporary LGBTQIA+ essayists I teach in my classes write lyrical prose to capture queer experience on the page. Their works reckon with nonbinary family building and parenthood, the ghosts of trans Midwestern origin, coming of age in a queer Black body, the over- whelming epidemic of transmisogyny and gendered violence.

The lyric essay is an ideal container for these stories, each a unique prism reflecting the ambiguous, messy, and ever-evolving processes through which we as queer people come to understand ourselves.

Lyric essays rarely stop to provide directions, instead mapping the reader on a journey into the writer’s world, toward an unknown end. Along the way, the reader learns to interpret the signs, begins to understand that the road blocks and potholes and detours—those gaps, the words left unspoken on the page—are as important as the essay’s destination.

The lyric essays that have taught me the most as a writer never showed their full hand. Each became its own puzzle, with secrets to unlock. When the text on a page was obscured, the essay taught me to fill in the blanks. When the conflict didn’t resolve, I realized irresolution might be its truest end. When the segments of the essay seemed unconnected, I learned to read between the lines.

The most powerful lyric essays reclaim silence from the silencers, becoming a space of agency for writers whose experiences are routinely questioned, flattened, or appropriated.

Readers from the margins, those who have themselves been silenced, recognize the game.

The twenty contemporary lyric essays in this volume embody resistance through content, style, design, and form, representing of a broad spectrum of experiences that illustrate how identities can intersect, conflict, and even resist one another. Together, they provide a dynamic example of the lyric essay’s range of expression while showcasing some of the most visionary contemporary essayists writing in the form today.


seneca review lyric essay

Excerpted from The Lyric Essay as Resistance: Truth from the Margins , edited by Zoë Bossiere and Erica Trabold. Copyright © 2023. Available from Wayne State University Press.

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Zoë Bossiere and Erica Trabold

Zoë Bossiere and Erica Trabold

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In the fall of 1997, Deborah Tall and John D’Agata, then the editor and associate editor of Seneca Review , respectively, began publishing what they called the lyric essay, pioneering the popular essay form. Tall and D’Agata discussed  the appeal of the lyric essay, writing: “We turn to the lyric essay—with its malleability, ingenuity, immediacy, complexity, and use of poetic language—to give us a fresh way to make music of the world.” Inspired by their definition of the lyric essay as a form that gives “primacy to artfulness over the conveying of information,” revise a forgotten draft of an essay and turn it into a lyric essay. Try to move by association and connotation, integrating gaps and lyrical language to help the essay bloom.


  1. Awesome Lyric Essay Examples ~ Thatsnotus

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  2. Seneca Review: Back Issues

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  3. Seneca Essay Skills

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  4. Lyric Essay

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  5. SENECA, Moral Essays, Volume II

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  6. The Influence of Seneca on Elizabethan Tragedy: An Essay (Bcl1 Pr

    seneca review lyric essay


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  4. "Letters from a Stoic" by Seneca: Review of The Main Ideas

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  6. Seneca, Medea, PARS 6 (Actus 4), Latin Recitation


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    Seneca Review: Lyric Essay. With its Fall 1997 issue, Seneca Review began to publish what we've chosen to call the lyric essay. The recent burgeoning of creative nonfiction and the personal essay has yielded a fascinating sub-genre that straddles the essay and the lyric poem. These "poetic essays" or "essayistic poems" give primacy to ...

  2. The Perils and Pitfalls of the Lyrical Essay | Los Angeles ...

    An influential definition of the form, by John D’Agata and Deborah Tall, was published in the Seneca Review in 1997: The lyric essay partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its ...

  3. Bodies of Text: On the Lyric Essay – The Essay Review

    2016. Amy Bonnaffons. 1. THE WHITE SPACES. Suppose you want to write, in prose, about a slippery subject that refuses definition. Something like water, or the color blue. Like the word “lyric,” or the word “essay.”. Beginning, you balk at the question of form. One long block of prose seems to suggest a linear accretion of meaning ...

  4. Essay Daily: Talk About the Essay: The Seneca Review ...

    The Seneca Review: Introducing, Defining, and Promoting the Lyric Essay Since its inception in 1970, the Seneca Review has published mostly poetry. As essayists, our interest in SR began roughly thirteen years ago, in Fall 1997, when the “lyric essay” made its first appearance.


    term I started editing a section of Seneca Review that was devoted to lyric essays. Fifteen years later, I am still editing that section. During the intervening years, however, I’ve moved away from using the term myself. These days I don’t refer to what I like to read or write as “lyric essays,” even though I still read a lot of the ...

  6. Sing, Circle, Leap: Tracing the Movements of the American ...

    The term “lyric essay” was introduced by Deborah Tall and John D’Agata in the Seneca Review in 1997. This “dense” and “shapely form,” write Tall and D’Agata, “straddles the essay and the lyric poem . . . forsak[ing] narrative line, discursive logic, and the art of persuasion in favor of idiosyncratic meditation.”

  7. Writing From the Margins: On the Origins and Development of ...

    While the origins of the lyric essay predate its naming, the most well-known attempt to categorize the form came in 1997, when writers John D’Agata and Deborah Tall, coeditors of Seneca Review, noticed a “new” genre in the submission queue—not quite poetry, but neither quite narrative. This form-between-forms seemed to ignore the ...

  8. What's a Lyrical Essay? A Review of Elisa… | Poetry Foundation

    GD Dess reviews Elisa Gabbert 's latest collection of writing, The Word Pretty, and considers the lyrical essay's recent abundance. At Los Angeles Review of Books, Dess writes: "The lyrical essay has proliferated in recent years. Its antecedents can be traced back to 1966 when Truman Capote, author of In Cold Blood (1965), introduced the idea ...

  9. seneca review: On the Lyric Essay by John D'Agata | Goodreads

    John D'Agata (editor), Deborah Tall (editor) 4.50. 6 ratings0 reviews. A collection of critical articles on the lyric essay. 200 pages, Paperback. First published January 1, 2007. Book details & editions.

  10. Lyrical Language | Poets & Writers

    In the fall of 1997, Deborah Tall and John D’Agata, then the editor and associate editor of Seneca Review, respectively, began publishing what they called the lyric essay, pioneering the popular essay form. Tall and D’Agata discussed the appeal of the lyric essay, writing: “We turn to the lyric essay—with its malleability, ingenuity ...