Vietnamese lyric essay
Detail from Hanoi Ceramic Road. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Lyric essay is a hybrid creature. It has the legs of memoir, the musculature of a polemic and the wings of poetry. Make it the way you would a mosaic out of fragments, shiny shards of memory and bits of string.

Use a lyric essay to make an argument without ever stating your point or perhaps even knowing in advance what the point is supposed to be. The lyric essay meanders and surprises. It’s been around for a long time.

Writers like Seneca, Bacon, Sei Shōnagon in the tenth century, Montaigne, hundreds of others: all could be said to write essays whose forms were inherently lyric; that is, they did not necessarily follow a linear, narrative line.

Brenda Miller, “A Braided Heart: Shaping the Lyric Essay” in Tell It Slant, ed. Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola

Taking the plunge

The term lyric essay, however, is relatively new. In 1997, the US literary journal Seneca Review chose to popularize the form by issuing a call for submissions. But before they could expect a storm of a response, they had to define what they meant with this new term.

[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.

Deborah Tall and John D’Agata, “The Lyric Essay” in Seneca Review [accessed 20 Feb 2021]

The concept of a lyric essay appeals to me on many levels. There is the long-dormant poet in me who stirs at the prospect of writing in a lyrical register. There is the essayist I have become who wants to achieve more than catalogue what I ate for breakfast today. And there is my novelist self who has stumbled upon an essayist-narrator for my novel-in-progress.

So when a poet friend points me to a writing course on the lyric essay, I sit up. The course is led by the poet and essayist Joanna Penn Cooper: Writing the Lyric Essay: When Poetry and Nonfiction Play. Cooper promises to offer me, as an aspiring essayist, fresh new possibilities to infuse my work.

From Cooper, I learn that the lyric essay has two forms: found and invented. The found form borrows an external frame like a how-to manual, a rejection letter or a dictionary. Another name for it is a hermit crab essay, after the eponymous crustacean that appropriates abandoned shells for their own. A while ago, I tried my hand at writing one in the form of a public service announcement but the result didn’t really work.

Let’s get surreal

Cooper teaches me to stop stuffing my material into the wrong shell. Look at the poet Charles Simic who writes of war-torn Belgrade and Hitler and Stalin, my travel agents, who dictated much of his childhood. Simic leaps lightly from the autobiographical to dive bomb into the surreal.

I am the last Napoleonic soldier. It’s almost two hundred years later and I am still retreating from Moscow. The road is lined with white birch trees and the mud comes up to my knees. The one-eyed woman wants to sell me a chicken, and I don’t even have any clothes on.

The Germans are going one way; I am going the other. The Russians are going still another way and waving good-by. I have a ceremonial saber. I use it to cut my hair, which is four feet long.

Charles Simic, “I am the last” from The World Doesn’t End: Prose Poems (Harcourt 1987)

Does this mean I abandon the hermit crab forever? Not at all. The clue to using the hermit crab, I now know, is to allow the form to follow function. I reforge an old short story into a how-to manual. If Lydia Davis can do it, I can try, too.

Braiding the challah

The braided essay is another common lyric essay form. It’s a way for a writer to allow research and outside voices to intertwine with their own personal narrative. The online creative nonfiction journal Brevity offers this injunction: You can braid as many strands as you like, but just like with hair, more than three is hard and less than three is even harder.

The blog post I wrote last week is a braided essay. My three strands were the history of beheading videos, systematic desensitization therapy and my response to the 2nd impeachment trial of Donald Trump. Glancing away felt like the only way I could approach the US Capitol attack of January 6 and make sense of it. To take a step back in order to see the whole.

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. The life span of a fact is shrinking

Deborah Tall and John D’Agata, “The Lyric Essay” in Seneca Review [accessed 20 Feb 2021]
Korean lyric essay
Gwangju, Korea street art. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Rough edges

In addition to braiding as a technique for the lyric essay, there’s also collage, fragmentation, found essay, spoken word, hyperbole, shifting registers and multiple languages. Cooper gives our class more prose poets and examples of the wild things they do.

My father brought home a zebra from Sinaloa. This house is a zoo, my mother wept. Ay, but this amazing creature is for you, mi vida, he said. You only give me beasts, she sobbed, flinging herself over the bony, swayed back of the zebra. She loosened a new Colorado River of tears, so much water that the zebra’s stripes melted and pooled at his ankles like four beaten prisoners.

Natalie Diaz, “Zoology” from When My Brother Was an Aztec (Copper Canyon Press)

I love the rough and tumble of Diaz’s language, the way she casually moves across the borders of language and reality. Another insanely brilliant poet is Diane Seuss who takes her readers on a rollercoaster ride to hell and back. Cooper sent me a link to one of her essays as an example of what I could do with my own. It’s a breathless mass of images, commentary and seemingly random asides that come together in a magnificent whole entitled I hoisted them, two drug dealers, I guess that’s what they were. I ask myself, is this an essay?

Smashing the pieces

Prior to taking Cooper’s class, I worshiped John McPhee as the god of essays. I still do. But now I know the essay has a skanky cousin called the lyric essay who hangs out in the shadows at family parties, drinks all the beer and pushes her thumb into every deviled egg. For all her rough edges, the lyric essay is awfully attractive.

In 2012, a pair of Australian poets and academics led a research project to examine

the lyric essay’s multiplicity of viewpoints, fragmentation and faceted nature through investigating the mosaic-like nature of its form and content

Paul Hetherington and Rachel Robertson, “Both broken and joined: subjectivity and the lyric essay” in TEXT Special Issue 39: The Essay (April 2017)

Their hypothesis is that the lyric attempts to document an author’s experience but can never express all of that experience. It must suffice with partial memories, compressed memory and inconclusive judgments.

Doing the Gaudí

In other words, the lyric essay resembles the mosaics of Antonio Gaudí. The Catalan architect was looking for joy through happenstance and an organic beauty through spontaneity.

Under his direction, workmen would smash tiles, bottles and dishes and then fit the pieces into bright, abstract patterns. He apparently even smashed up one of [his patron] Guell’s Limoges dinner sets. For Gaudi, the myriad colors resulting from this technique, known as trencadis, reflected the natural world.

Stanley Meisler, “Gaudí’s Gift” in Smithsonian Magazine (July 2002)
Japanese lyric essay
Zawa Zawa Forest by ABE Taisuke. Photo credit: Karen Kao

I like the idea of a lyric essay comprised of found objects like the ones Joseph Cornell collected on his ramblings through New York City in order to build a shadow box. To stumble upon the name of a long-forgotten childhood nemesis and turn that thread of memory into a lyric essay. To weave through found memories a personal narrative meaningful to me and perhaps to the reader, too. Like a mosaic constructed out of old clothing, you can turn anything into a lyric essay.