Toward a Definition of the Lyric Essay: Observations on The Seneca Review


This article is probably more for my own understanding than anything else, but if it helps a few people down the road, then that makes it even more meaningful, magical.

I stumbled across lyric essays a few years ago when reading works by Michael Martone, Brian Oliu, Lia Purpura, John D’Agata and others whose names are slipping at the present moment (feel free to list your favorites in the comments section, esp. links to great online pieces).

It was the way those essays swerved and cut, turned in on themselves or shot out down so many lost highways that pulled me in. It was the focus on how the essay was as opposed to what it was trying to convey. Also, I was a high school English teacher, so most of the essays we did in the classroom were standard five paragraph essays: persuasive, research, comparative, personal narrative. After spending time with the above-mentioned writers and digging a little below the surface, I was taken in by this most gratifying form of the lyric essay and now, some years later, continue to grow, question, fail, write, learn, listen.

From what I can gather, this article from The Seneca Review is a solid entrance into a working definition of the lyric essay. Let’s dig in:

These “poetic essays” or “essayistic poems” give primacy to artfulness over the conveying of information. They forsake narrative line, discursive logic, and the art of persuasion in favor of idiosyncratic meditation.

1. The form (artfulness) of the essay takes prevalence over content or traditional introduction-body, conclusion structure. Information is not just conveyed, it is shaped.

1.1. What are specific examples of this artfulness? Failures? Successes?

2. “Idiosyncratic meditation:” the lyric essay is a place to ruminate, to ponder, to wander.

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.

2.1. Form///Density///Shapeliness///Distillation///

7.1. Language///Weight///Engagement///Imaginative///

It might move by association, leaping from one path of thought to another by way of imagery or connotation, advancing by juxtaposition or sidewinding poetic logic. Generally it 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.

3.2. Associate: apple, red, blood, body, human, word, tongue, Eve, Eva Mendes, mend, stitch, needle, poodle, stick, leap, gorge, gurgle, the way spit sticks to the roof of the mouth.

3.3. Form Notes: Concise, Punchy, Meander, Recombinant, Fiction, Drama, Journalism, Song, Film

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.

4.0. How does a piece spiral? What does it mean to circle the core? Are we assuming there is a thesis?

4.1. Stalker: Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers, Freddy Kreuger, Leatherface, Scream

4.-0. How does one express the form of a dance through a piece of writing?

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.

5.5. “Uncharted course,” “Interlocking,” “Circumstance,” “Questioning,” “Quest.”

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.

666. Music like: Sensational, Danny Brown, Secret Chiefs 3, David Sylvian, Kool Keith, Will Oldham, Frank Sinatra, Scott Walker, Fear of God, Pig Destroyer, Scelsi, Harold Budd, Claude Young, The Locust.

“…there are new worlds to be found.”

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