Lyric Essay is a contemporary creative nonfiction form which combines qualities of poetry, essay, memoir, and research writing, while also breaking the boundaries of the traditional five-paragraph essay. As a genre unto itself, the lyric essay tends to combine conventions of many different genres.
Proponents of the lyric essay classification insist it differs from prose poetry in its reliance on association rather than line breaks and juxtaposition.
The lyric essay is a hybrid form, combining formal aspects of poetry and prose. Lyric essays are unique in their reliance on form. Two types of lyric essay forms exist: found form and invented form. Found form borrows the form of an external frame, such as footnotes, indexes, or letters (epistolary form), to bring about the meaning of the essay. Invented form can take any shape and organization which the writer creates to further communicate the essay. Some lyric essays take poetic forms, such as Anne Carson's "The Glass Essay," which is lineated and organized in tercets and quatrains. According to Mary Heather Noble, the lyric essay is open to exploration and experimentation, and allows for the discovery of an authentic narrative voice.
The lyric essay can take on any theme or topic, often containing what Lia Purpura calls "provisional responses," as opposed to certitude. The lyric essay can contain arguments, but typically subversive or subversively argued ones. Lyric essays often rely on research and references, and can be interdisciplinary in their research methods and content. Lyric essays often consist of conversational digressions, due to its lack of a restrictive form. Some lyric essays include vignettes, such as Maggie Nelson's Bluets.
Polyvocality and code-switching play a major role in the lyric essay. Both techniques allow for the lyric essay to be either very personal or to take a more objective tone. An example of this is found in Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric, which the book's publisher classifies as both poetry and creative nonfiction—and is often referred to as work of lyric essays. Rankine code switches between highly personal, diaristic language and formal, academic language—as well as a variety of other types of language.
The most prominent publication focusing on the lyric essay is the Seneca Review under the editorships of Debora Tall and John D'Agata.
Notable lyric essayists
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. I am currently learning to write lyric essay and often trip over my fiction background in presenting my “truth” with a poetic lilt. It takes some practice to “get” this form. However, it is now my favorite genre next to prose poetry and flash fiction. 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.
An excerpt from Anne Carson’s Beauty and the Husband demonstrates how this form lends itself to the wild and experimental. [Editor’s Note: Read the excerpt by following the link and clicking “Read an Excerpt” below the image of the book cover.]
The following lines are a sample from an essay I wrote. It further demonstrates this form’s experimentation with memoir, truth and form.
My father insisted on bringing his best friend—the ginger-haired man he encouraged my mother to see every day. His large frame shadowed the paths along which he walked. He tossed me onto his shoulders and neighed like a horse with beer breath, everyone laughing at his Australian humor. They told me to call him “Uncle.” But he wasn’t a blood uncle, just a “close friend” who should be “respected” like an uncle.
heavily freckled arms
muscled all over
punch worthy body
Here’s an exercise to practice writing a lyric essay.
Take three objects at random from your kitchen or desk drawer. Write a paragraph or a poem about what each one says to you, triggers or suggests. Set the timer for fifteen minutes. At the end, decide what themes connect these memories. Braid them together into a story. Experiment with form, using poetic devices such as repetition, broken lines and white space. Create a memoir byte in the reader’s mind and let them hear your story through this interesting format. Lyric essay can be short or long. Have a friend read what you wrote or post it on your blog.
Enjoy playing with this wild card, the lyric essay.