Sunday, October 11, 2009

Creating the Lyric Essay

By Lisa Lopez Snyder

I recently discovered the lyric essay, which, as The Seneca Review defined it in 1997, is a “sub-genre that straddles the essay and the lyric poem.” The lyric essay, according to The Review, takes “an allegiance to facts” and merges it with poetic metaphor to describe an object, person or moment that is quotidian. For example, you might focus on a particular type of flower, a piece of animal bone in the desert, or like writer Joni Tevis does in the example below, a fossil.

With lyric essay, you’re essentially thinking and writing by association—as with poetry—and observing a symbolic act or observation, or a moment of epiphany. Outside of that it doesn’t conform to any standards, which, in my opinion, makes it very liberating.

As a writer who focuses on mostly fiction and thinks in terms of conflict and story arc, I have to admit, the lyric essay initially left me feeling a little like I was walking down a flight of stairs without rails. Unsteady, I was wondering, “Where am I going with this?” “Is this right?”

But after giving this form a try and studying some of the writers best known for this genre, I’ve come to enjoy putting motifs, images and metaphors together in a way that signifies a larger image rather than organizing words or images that “spell it out.”

Okay, so here are some examples, a couple of my favorite excerpts. Now, keep in mind, I don’t think these excerpts do lyric essay full justice, for, at least in my opinion, this type of prose is sometimes best appreciated when read in full—and out loud or in a whisper:

A fern’s dark print on shale. Ribbed clamshells pressed into a cliff of pale limestone. The compliant trilobite in all its variations, every bump and ridge preserved these two hundred million years, yet still capable of revelation, like a pair of sneakers hanging from the power line, pedaling the silent air.

-- “Fossil,” from The Wet Collection, Joni Tevis

Dark. Dark, but alive. Energized, expectant. Turbo-charged darkness. When does the first note of precolor appear?…Flemish grays and now, almost, a blue, where two fat stars hang in the east—companions at the slow birth of day, midwives—I should know their names.

-- “July 9, 5 a.m.,” from Seven Notebooks, Campbell McGrath

Give it a try sometime, then check out Brevity ( and The Collagist (, which both accept this intriguing form of prose.


Matt Bell said...

Hi Lisa! Thanks for linking to us at The Collagist, and please keep encouraging people to submit. Non-fiction is the genre we receive the least submissions in, and we're always looking for innovative, well-written entries in the genre. Good luck to you and the rest of your workshop!

Anonymous said...

An interesting topic. There's so much blending of poetry and prose today that the forms overlap in many ways. Poetry has the most to lose in this trend and in many respects has already lost rhyme and meter. When does prose become poetry or vice versa?

Bonnie Stanard

Lisa Lopez Snyder said...

Hi Matt,
You're most welcome! I've come to really appreciate the lyric essay and have been enjoying creating it(as well as the longer lyric collage). I've been encouraging colleagues to submit to The Collagist, which I learned about in my non-fiction class (from Prof. Jim Barilla--MFA program, Univ of SC). Thanks for your comments! Lisa

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David Bernardy said...

Hello Lisa,
Thanks for your post and for sharing a sample of Joni Tevis's work.

(I'm Joni's husband, I should say, by way of full disclosure.)

Like you, I am more of a fiction writer, but I am constantly amazed and intrigued by the places the lyric essay as a form allows the reader (and writer) to explore. I think your metaphor of the rail-less stairway is a good one--though I think as you (we) get more accustomed to exploring in the genre, that sense of fear or trepidation gets replaced by fascination and a real sort of intellectual freedom. That is, the form allows one to follow his or her own thoughts, own discoveries, own preoccupations, (hopefully) in a way that ultimately is beautiful, or as the name implies, lyrical.

Anyway, I ramble.
If you are interested in more of Joni's work, both lyric essays and some more-traditional essays, folks should check out her website: There are links to other works, and even a link to a place where you can listen to her read.

Thanks again for the post.