Back to Glossary Lyric essay is a term that some writers of creative nonfiction use to describe a type of creative essay that blends a lyrical, poetic sensibility with intellectual engagement. Although it may include personal elements, it is not a memoir or personal essay, where the primary subject is the writer's own experience. Not all creative essayists have embraced the term, however, which makes it a problematic classification in this community.
Something like water, or the color blue. Like music, lyric paragraphs make use of silence. They draw attention to their own density. In navigating them, the reader perhaps confused, perhaps delighted becomes a stakeholder in their meaning.
What do the white spaces signify?
What does their silence say? In the introduction to a issue specially dedicated to the term, they write: It may merely mention. It is suggestive rather than exhaustive. The lyric essay, though it unfolds over a longer span of time, might be seen as accomplishing something similar: Plurality is one consequence of fragmentation.
The white spaces might be read as the necessary separations between nodes of a network, or as intervals between distinct voices that together form a lyric essay writers.
Or we might view the recent emergence of networks and rhizomes as evidence that there are more ways of conceiving of structures—more ways of reading—than we might have previously granted.
Productive of what, in this case? Or, well, at least not the front. Maybe lyric slips through a side entrance; maybe it tunnels into the basement; maybe it parachutes onto the roof and slides down the chimney.
Lyric is often defined by what it is not: In a sentence deleted from the essay yet printed and widely circulated later, Mill used an image of spatial marginalization to compare the poet to someone crying out in a solitary prison cell, overheard by the reader on the other side of the wall.
Mill himself admits as much, acknowledging the inherently performative character of lyric: The actor knows that there is an audience present; but if he acts as though he knew it, he acts ill. In Eros the Bittersweet, Anne Carson describes this triangulation as fundamentally erotic: Lovers and readers fantasize about freedom, but require structure.
The category contains everything from journalism to memoir to biography to cookbooks. But it is quite clear about what it refuses. Why is this particular dividing line so bold? Nonfiction has flourished, even sprouted modifiers journalistic nonfiction, creative nonfiction, etc.
Presumably, because the umbrella term has been imposed from the outside, rather than chosen by its practitioners. There is power in naming. Next American Essay is an unusual anthology.In adopting the term “lyric,” the “lyric essay” subtly smuggles in the concept of the “Lyric I”—a term that connotes, among other things, the notion that a poem’s speaker can transcend the boundaries of the poet’s actual, historical self.
Lyric Essay is the girl with the literary lime streak in her hair who bucks conformity. Limits, restrictions, rules: these standard writing constrictions do not exist in the world of the lyric.
Lyric essay is a term that some writers of creative nonfiction use to describe a type of creative essay that blends a lyrical, poetic sensibility with intellectual engagement. Many writers and critics use the two terms interchangeably, or see lyric essay as the sub-genre, but the terms of the turf war between these two generic godfathers themselves are starkly clear: Creative Nonfiction, the journal Gutkind edits, fact-checks assiduously, while Gutkind imagines that D’Agata, on hearing his name used as a synonym.
The lyric essay, by definition, will not easily fit into the category of "grounded" writing. Generally, markets that use the "grounded" terminology when referring to creative nonfiction want narrative, a constructed and followable story, but the lyric essay just wants to play.
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.