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  • Prose, Essay, Lyric
  • Desirae Matherly (bio)

Once I asked my teacher what he called what he wrote, and he said "prose." I still think that's a classy answer.

A Google search tells me that in the time of the Romans, prose meant "straightforward discourse," prosa oratio.

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Various online dictionaries will define prose in similar terms: "written or spoken language in its ordinary form, without metrical structure," or "commonplace expression or quality." Merriam-Webster goes further, offering clarification for writerly types who might be wrinkling their brows:

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[End Page 157]

"Greater irregularity and variety of rhythm" is different from having no meter at all. In this definition, prose shares a closer correspondence with the patterns of everyday speech, which is nothing if not musical in the way it is performed, explored, and understood. Consider a word's register, its articulation and delivery. Think of words that are fun to say aloud. Ponder the ways we love to talk, about anything, to anyone kind enough to listen, and how, when someone is especially attentive, we invest "a greater irregularity and variety of rhythm" in our utterances and sentences.

Writing is often my indulgence in the belief that someone is on the other side of the page and I am thinking and speaking through it. Fortunately, when I write I am able to spend more time thinking about what I am going to say than when I speak. When we speak, the mood, the environment, the audience, the situation . . . all of these influence how our voices sound, and the emphasis we place on certain words.

If all writing were spoken aloud in its execution, we would most certainly not need punctuation. We would deliver our essays as oratories and epic poems aloud in auditoriums and taverns. Prose syntax and meter, were they transcribed, would have all of the flavor and intermittent opacity of Beowulf, the Vedas, and The Iliad. They would grandly involve their hearers, but confound their readers. We would, no doubt, elevate the sound qualities of words, and employ strategies to help the hearer make meaning of the words heard only once. And I would not be surprised if our prose would compress, become more like the half-lines and long-lines of spoken dialogue between intimates and close kin.

But composed language is considered, does not wander nearly so much as small talk in the household. A story told about last night's party will move elliptically into form, iterating and repeating lines for emphasis, lengthening phonemes in places where the semantic value should be underscored. Prose is more or less metrical, dependent upon content and audience.

General dictionaries will not offer a definition appropriate to serious consideration by fellow writers, but the one I find on might work for most: [End Page 158]

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I'm content with this definition because there is a direct comparison being made with poetry, which is presented as its opposite, except in the case of this hybrid thing, "prose poetry." I say hybrid, but notice that its surname is poetry. Even when given the grammatical structure of prose, it is still poetry.

Wikipedia's entry on the "lyric essay" remarks that "Proponents of the lyric essay classification insist it differs from prose poetry in its reliance on association rather than line breaks and juxtaposition."

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This sentence referenced a missing page on Seneca Review's website, which I quickly located and corrected, so there is now a temporary public marker that on this day I read the description offered for a "lyric essay," perhaps for the very first time. That's a little embarrassing to admit. Faintly in the back of my mind I knew the approximate origin of the term, had heard it mentioned in graduate workshops or in conversation with my cronies, or more recently, recalled its mention in Eula Biss's "It Is What It Is" in Bending Genre. [End Page 159]

In this fragmented, braided essay, Biss describes how she explains to her students that there isn't always a...


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