- On Lyric Essays and Dancing in Sequined Pants
We can dance if you want to. We can leave your friends behind. ’Cause your friends don’t dance and if they don’t dance, well they’re no friends of mine.—Men Without Hats
When I give public readings of my nonfiction, occasionally afterward someone will approach me to say that they liked my “poems.”
While I appreciate the kind words, I often feel compelled to inform them that I don’t write poems. I write essays. If I’m feeling particularly prickly, I will hold up the pages. “See? No line breaks.” And sometimes they’ll argue with me and tell me that my essay “just sounds like a poem,” to which I usually nod and smile and say thank you.
But I die a little bit on the inside.
Students in my graduate nonfiction workshop are forbidden from saying [End Page 173] of an essay, “This sounds like poetry.” If a student utters this phrase, he’ll usually only say it once . . . not because he will incur some horrible, draconian punishment (which is sort of redundant anyway in the gulag of a graduate writing workshop), but simply because I will ask, ever so politely, for him to explain precisely what he means by such a statement. I might ask him to read the section aloud and explain why it “sounds like poetry.”
It’s not that I don’t like poetry. It’s just that such comparisons, one, don’t seem to respect well-written prose and, two, feel entirely too reductive and simplistic to be helpful in understanding the difference (if there is a relevant one) between a poem and an essay.
The lyric essay, which posits itself as the cool compromise between the two, I’ve realized, is the skinny-jeans-wearing, ironically messy “hipster” of nonfiction writing—the leader of a movement dedicated to merging nonfiction and poetry, committed to promoting writing that lives between classifications and on the fringe of the status quo. And I like this new prose stylist with his chunky black-frame lenses, his odd juxtapositions of patterns and stripes, and his cool cardigan-sweater, singer-songwriter vibe.
I appreciate the lyric essay movement (and it is a movement with all of the requisite prophets, acolytes, and haters) not because it seems ultra-cool and hip and fresh, but for the way it has opened up the discussion of nonfiction and pushed the emphasis away from confessional memoir back toward a critical appreciation of the essay’s flexibility and reach. I like it for the way it has tried to bridge the gap between genre provinces in MFA programs and in publishing, and for the way it has even forced us to expand our understanding of narrative. What troubles me (though I’ve been guilty of it myself) is what I see as the attendant drive, the almost colonial push to plant a flag in any prose or other territory that pays attention to or emphasizes language, calling it “lyrical” or “poetic.”
In the Autumn House anthology Between Song and Story: Essays for the Twenty-first Century, editors Sheryl St. Germain and Margaret Whitford take a stab at defining the lyric essay, offering up a clearly articulated editorial aesthetic and, [End Page 174] more importantly for teachers, students, readers, and writers of nonfiction, an outstanding collection of contemporary essay models.
One look at the table of contents and the essay nerd in each of us will recognize numerous examples of the breadth and depth of contemporary nonfiction writing. With fine selections from Ander Monson, Toi Derricotte, Lia Purpura, Debra Marquardt, Brenda Miller, Brian Doyle, David Gessner, Dinty W. Moore, Michelle Morano, and many others, this is perhaps the best collection of nonfiction I’ve seen in a long time. I’ve excitedly told more than one colleague or friend about it, giving them what is probably the highest compliment I can...