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 (http://www.creativenonfiction.org/brevity/) and The Collagist (http://thecollagist.com/), which both accept this intriguing form of prose.