Finding A Way In: Teaching the Lyric Essay
I became hooked on lyric essays after reading Harrison Candelaria Fletcher’s article, “Writing a Shadowbox: Joseph Cornell and the Lyric Essayists” (The AWP Writer’s Chronicle, March/April 2008). Fletcher’s article—and by way of him, Charles
Simic’s essays—challenged me to work with an atypical eye. Simic, our fifteenth Poet Laureate, writes elastic, anomalous essays, the kind that make readers climb inside the prose and inhabit his language’s prismatic flavors.
I remember when lyric essays were ghettoized within the prose landscape, considered the purview of belles lettres. In the past fifteen years or so, the lyric essay has enjoyed a rapid ascent, becoming a highly popular genre in multiple disciplines from journalism to the personal essay. But what is this form exactly? Poetic essay, essayistic poem, both, or neither?
As with flash fiction, the definition of lyric essay depends in part on whom you ask. If you’re asking me, I’ll say that the form employs a series of images or ideas, rather than chronicle or argument, to sculpt a narrative. Often inconclusive, lyric essays reach beyond archetypal classical frames to a meditative sense of place and displacement. They evidence particulars that seem disparate, but are connected before the close. Some of the best exemplars combine protocols and properties of several different genres, working very much at the junction of essay and poetry. Essayist and Seneca Review editor John D’Agata has said that a lyric essay is “what happens when an essay begins to behave less like an essay and more like a poem.”
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