Lyric Essay Definition Of Love

Monday July 22, 2013
By Dave Hood

The lyrical essay is a subgenre of the personal essay. It is based on images and ideas of a particular theme. For instance, Eula Biss crafts a lyrical essay about pain called “The Pain Scale,” which has appeared in Harper’s magazine. The writer of the literary essay constructs images with sensory details. The writer also uses poetic language, such as alliteration and assonance. The lyrical essay combines both prose and poetry, sometimes found objects of writing to create the lyrical essay. The essay is created with fragments of details, and each fragmented is separated with white space, asterisk, or number. The writer presents questions and relies on the reader to provide the answers. The lyrical essay encourages the reader to ponder and meditate while reading the essay.

In this article, I will discuss the lyrical essay. The following will be covered:
• Definition and features of the lyrical essay
• Categories of lyrical essays-prose poem, braided essay, collage, and “hermit crab” essay
• Techniques for writing the lyrical essay
• Creative Writing Style
• Additional reading

Definition of a Lyrical Essay

The lyrical essay is a type of personal essay that combines both prose and poetry. It is often crafted like a prose poem. The writer uses a series of image or ideas, not narrative or argument, to craft the essay. The image can be of a person, place, thing, or object. The idea can be anything. The writer attempts to recreate the experience and evoke emotion in the reader by using sensory details, description that expresses what the writer sees, hears, smells, tastes, touches, and feels. The lyrical essay is not organized as a narrative, with one event unfolding after the next. Nor is it organized in chronological order. Instead the writer creates a series of fragmented images using poetic language, such as alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme, and rhythm.

In 1997, The Seneca Review created the lyrical essay. This literary journal, publishing twice a year, defines the literary essay as follows:
• Combines prose and poetry
• Constructed from a distillation of ideas
• Mentions but doesn’t expound
• Suggestive but not exhaustive
• Relies on associations, imagery, and connotation
• Makes reference to other genres, such as film, music, literature
• Arranged in fragments as a mosaic
• Based on stories that are metaphors
• Based on intimate voice
• Crafted with lyrical language

The lyrical essay is usually fragmented. The writer creates a series of images using sensory details. Each image represents a fragment of detail, which are separated by double spaces, asterisk, or numbers. It is also suggestive. The writer implicitly suggests meaning. It is meditative. The reader ponders the words and emotion expressed in those words. It is often inconclusive. The writer provides no final point for the reader to take away. If you are interested in reading examples of a lyrical essay, visit The Seneca Review.

Categories of the Lyrical Essay

Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, in “Tell IT Slant,” identify four categories of lyrical essay:
• The prose poem or flash nonfiction essay
• The collage essay
• The braided essay
• The “Hermit Crab” essay

The Prose Poem. It is crafted like prose but reads like a poem. It is written in sentences, not verse. The writer uses poetic devices, such as imagery, symbolism, simile, metaphor to create a prose poem of one or more paragraphs. The writer also uses literary prose by using alliteration, assonance, and internal rhyme.

The Collage Essay. Like the art collage, the collage of a lyrical essay is based on a collection of fragments from different sources. For instance, prose, poetry, quotation might be combined. The use of juxtaposition is used. The writer separates each section with white space, an asterisk, subtitles, epigraph.

The Braided Essay. It relies on the lyrical examination of a particular topic. The writer uses fragments of detail from different sources . According to Brenda Miller in “Tell IT Slant”, the writer fragments the essay into separate pieces that repeat throughout the essay. There is a weaving of different ideas, such as quotations, descriptions, facts, lists, poet language, imagery. This essay also allows for an outside voice to provide details, along with the writer’s voice and experiences. The purpose of the outside voice is to shadow the writers voice, according to Brenda Miller in “Tell IT Slant.”

The “Hermit Crab” Essay. This type of lyrical essay is created from the shell of another, like the hermit crab that lives the life within the shell of another mollusk or snail. It borrows from fiction, poetry, description, personal narrative, instructions, questions and answers, diary, itinerary, table of contents, songs, recipes, collection of favorite CDs, that are used as a shell to construct something new.

For additional information about the lyrical essay, you can read “Tell It Slant”, a short text on writing creative nonfiction, focusing on the personal essay, and its various subgenres. To read examples of the lyrical essay, visit the Seneca Review.

The lyrical essay has these features:
1. The writer crafts sentences that have rhythm, like a prose poem. Paces and stressed syllables determine rhythm. Iambic pentameter is the most common type of rhythm. It is based on a pattern of five iambic feet. Yet, writers often just count the number of stressed syllables in a line to determine the rhythmic structure of their prose. A short sentence speeds up the pace. A long sentence slows down the pace.
2. The writer creates lyrical prose that sound musical by using alliteration, assonance, and internal rhyme.
3. The writer constructs the essay with fragments of detail. Each fragment is separated by white space, asterisk, title, or number.
4. The essay is often inclusive. Instead the writer focuses on evoking emotion in the reader, and the reader must draw his or her own conclusion.

Writers who have popularized the lyrical essay are:
• Eula Biss, author of “No Man’s Land” and many lyrical essays, including “The Pain Scale” which can be read online. (Conduct a Google Search)
• David Shields, author of the book “Reality Hunger.”
• John D’Agata, author of the book “The Lifespan of Fact”
• The Seneca Review, a literary journal that publishes lyrical essays.

Techniques for Crafting the Lyrical Essay

The lyrical essay is a subgenre of the personal essay. The writer creates the essay in prose using lyrical language. As well the writer uses an intimate voice, often by using the first person POV (I). Writers can use the following techniques to create a lyrical essay:
• Poetic language. The writer relies on alliteration and assonance and internal rhyme. Sometimes the writer will create fragments of prose poetry.
• Figurative language. The writer make comparisons with metaphor and simile.
• Imagery. The writer creates images of people, places, things, objects, ideas with sensory details, prose that appeal to the writer’s sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing.
• Connotation. The writer expresses meaning through connotation, not explicit expression of the details.
• Questions. The writer poses questions to the reader who must answer them.
• Juxtaposition. The writer often juxtaposes different fragments of detail, which have implied meaning.
• Association. The writer expresses meaning through association of different things by using simile and metaphor.
• Prose and poetry. The writer crafts sentences in prose using poetic language and rhythm.
• Reference. The lyrical essay often mentions something without elaborating.
• Rhythm. The writer creates emotion by using rhythmic prose.
• Fragmented. White space or an asterisk or subtitles or epigraph are used by the writer to separate each sections of the essay.
• Intimate POV. The writer often write in the first person POV (I) and shares intimate details, such as emotional truth. It answers the question: Who does it feel?
• Inconclusive ending. The lyrical essay often ends without answering the questions posed in the essay.

The writer creates a lyrical essay based on some theme. For instance, Eula Biss crafts an essay on “The Pain Scale.” The themes are pain and how to measure pain. She crafts this lyrical essay by using poetic language and rhythmic sentences. She writers in the first person POV (I) and feelings of emotion. She writes fragments of detail, and each fragmented is separated by white space or asterisk or number. The meaning is constructed by the accumulation of detail.

Creative Writing Style

To write the lyrical essay, use the following writing style:

1. Tone. A friendly and conversational tone.
2. Word choice. Fresh and original, short rather than long, familiar instead of unfamiliar words.
3. Lyrical language. Use of alliteration and assonance and rhythm.
4. Sentence variety. Use of a variety of sentence patterns, such as the balanced sentence, the cumulative sentence, and the periodic sentence.
5. Intimate POV. Use of first person POV (I) and sharing of personal thoughts and feelings and reflections.

Additional Reading

To learn more about writing the lyrical essay, read the following:
• Hall of Fame by John D’Agata
• Plain Water by Anne Carson
• The Art of the Personal Essay, edited by Philip Lopate
• Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine
• Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
• Words Overflown by Stars, Edited by David Jauss
• The Seneca Review (http://www.hws.edu/academics/senecareview/lyricessay.aspx )
• “Essaying the Thing: An Imagist Approach to the Lyrical Essay” by Joey Franklin. (The Writer’s Chronicle magazine, September 2012)
• Reality Hunger by David Shields
• No Man’s Land by Eula Biss
• The Life Span of Fact by John D’Agasta

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Tags:alliteration, assonance, Craft Essay, Creative Nonfiction, David Shields, Eula Biss, Fragmented, Fragmented Essay, Fragments of detail, John D'Agata, lyrical essay, Personal Essay, poetic language, rhythm, Segmented Essay, subgenre, Writing

By Dave Hoodin Creative nonfiction Writing, Creative Writing, Nonfiction, Personal Essay, The Lyrical Essay on .

THE LYRIC ESSAY

"Given its genre mingling, the lyric essay often accretes by fragments, taking shape mosaically - its import visible only when one stands back and sees it whole. The stories it tells may be no more than metaphors. Or, storyless, it may spiral in on itself, circling the core of a single image or idea, without climax, without a paraphrasable theme. 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." - Deborah Tall
"Imagine a warp in time, centuries deep, where writers gather on full-moon nights.  Perhaps it surrounds a Concord bar where in the darkest corner sit Henry David Thoreau and Sylvia Plath.... Years later their progeny Lyric Essay—half-prose and half-poetry—dresses in loose tunics, wears his hair slightly too long to be considered conventional, and whiles away his days wandering through forests and meadows while contemplating metaphors for life and love.  He spends his nights lying in soft grass gazing at the constellations while neighbors gossip across the fence and cluck their tongues at his seeming lack of discipline.  These casual observers never notice that the maze Lyric Essay has worn in the grass is a labyrinthine path; they never notice that Lyric Essay’s wanderings are structuring a carefully crafted border."

"Like our fictitious 'wild child,' a progeny of poetry and prose, the literary lyric essay is often misunderstood, considered a self-indulgent, willy-nilly collection of disjointed thoughts and sentences that lead nowhere.  But a careful study of lyric essays will reveal a cornucopia of connectors and structures rooted in both poetry and prose—mythology, reflection, irony, repetition, spiraling perspective, lists, sensory details, voltas—binding the fragmented imagery within braided, hermit crab, collage, and elegy structures—bringing order to apparent literary chaos and allowing lyric essayists the freedom to push and prod poetic prose until an emotional message pops from the page. - Diana Wilson
"Loyal to that original sense of essay as a test or a quest, an attempt at making sense, 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. While it is ruminative, it leaves pieces of experience undigested and tacit, inviting the reader's participatory interpretation. Its voice, spoken from a privacy that we overhear and enter, has the intimacy we have come to expect in the personal essay. Yet in the lyric essay the voice is often more reticent, almost coy, aware of the compliment it pays the reader by dint of understatement."

and

"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. But we must be willing to go out on an artistic limb with these writers, keep our balance on their sometimes vertiginous byways. Anne Carson, in her essay on the lyric, 'Why Did I Awake Lonely Among the Sleepers' (Published in Seneca Review Vol. XXVII, no. 2) quotes Paul Celan. What he says of the poem could well be said of the lyric essay: The poem holds its ground on its own margin.... The poem is lonely. It is lonely and en route. Its author stays with it. If the reader is willing to walk those margins, there are new worlds to be found." - both excerpts from Deborah Tall

"I would summarize thus: The lyric essay values the tension of juxtaposing objective and subjective material. The lyric essay emphasizes language as a means of engagement, equal to or exceeding its value in conveying information. The lyric essay does not emphasize argument or traditional closure.So why turn to the lyric essay? On a pragmatic level, here are some circumstances in which the lyric essay might prove advantageous:

-The essay concerns a personal episode in which the author lacked power. Lyric moves, particularly fragmentation and passive voice, enact a lack of agency on the page. ...

-The author does not have access to sources for key aspects of the traditional "story." Lyric moves, particularly litany and stimulative truth, bridge these troublesome gaps. 

-The language and images are the driving motivation of the piece, and stream-of-consciousness observation, sacrificing traditional narrative, is the only way to go." -  Sandra Beasley
"Although it does feature subjective consciousness, the lyric essay is not the same as a personal or memoir essay, in that its main purpose is not to narrate the personal experience of the writer. Instead of experience, the lyric essay engages primarily with ideas or inquiries, lending it an aspect of intellectual engagement that is not usually foregrounded in the personal essay. The tension comes when such engagement is blended with a poetic, subjective sensibility." - Laura Tetreault
“This past year, I attended a reading of 'lyric essays,' and nothing I heard was, to my mind, lyric. My ears did not quicken. My heart did not skip. What I heard was philosophical meditation, truncated memoir, slipshod research, and just-plain-discursive opinion. A wall of words. But not a lyric essay among them. The term had been minted (brilliantly, it seems to me) by Deborah Tall, then almost immediately undermined. Not all essays are lyric. Repeat. Not all essays are lyric. Not even all short essays are lyric. Some are merely short. Or plainly truncated. Or purely meditative. Or simply speculative. Or. Or. Or. But not lyric. Because, to be lyric, there must be a lyre.” - Judith Kitchen
"Writing the lyric essay offers the author a frolic in the pool of memoir, biography, poetry and personal essay mixed with a sprinkling of experimental. Sound confusing? It can be. .. In lyric essay the narrative might break up into sections, evolve and trail away into white space, poetry and often, repetition.The author’s imagination can explode with the possibilities. ...Lyric essay flourishes with the braiding of multiple themes, a back and forth weave of story and implication, the bending of narrative shape and insertion of poetic device such as broken lines, white space and repetition. There is a similarity between this form and flash fiction or prose poetry. In this genre, the author must offer his/her truth, a unique perspective, whatever that might be." - Kaye Linden
"A snippet of image here, a stray bit of dialog there, nested in the telling: the logic of the traditional story reversed. It purposefully avoids a steady progression towards meaning, a predictable arc of exposition, climax, revelation, and denouement, preferring instead allusive, anecdotal, and abstract swipes at an opaque theme. ...It is, in other words, a mash-up: borrowing from all, beholden to none. It likes to betray the genres from which it borrows, making wily little jabs at their most dearly held conventions. It mocks creative nonfiction in its manipulation of facts: sometimes reinventing them for the sake of “art,” sometimes subverting their claim to objective truth by repeating or removing them from context. It mocks fiction in using these untruths, these distorted or altered facts, not as story but as dry, lyrically stylized information." - Sarah Menkedick [Art for art's sake? And so much more.]
Personal thoughts:
  • An interview at 3288 Review where I opine on the lyric essay.
  • The lyric essay, by definition, will not easily fit into the category of "grounded" writing. Generally, markets that use the "grounded" terminology when referring to creative nonfiction want narrative, a constructed and followable story, but the lyric essay just wants to play. Larger issues can be addressed, are often addressed, in the lyric, but subserviently so. Don't take it too seriously; look for the playfulness in it; hear the music and dance.  
  • The first line(s) of a lyric essay should surprise the reader with its language or new idea or twist of thought, as should points between beginning and end. But of course this should be true of any genre. 
  • Maybe, in some ways, the lyric essay is but a playful, experimental, creative nonfiction essay hoping to contrive an entirely new tune using one of a variety of word instruments.
Favorite lyric essays, and those which we perceive to be truest to the lyric form:

Judith Kitchen's Circus Train

The 3 essays that comprise Annie Dillard's Holy the Firm. (Online excerpt.)
The essays that comprise Annie Dillard's Teaching a Stone to Talk. Online, find one of them: "Living Like Weasels."
Dillard's "Total Eclipse."
Anne Carson's essays.

Deborah Tall's essay on the lyric essay (link above) is also an excellent example.

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