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Writing Without Limits: Understanding the Lyric Essay

Sean Glatch  |  February 28, 2023  |  7 Comments

lyric essay definition

In literary nonfiction, no form is quite as complicated as the lyric essay. Lyrical essays explore the elements of poetry and creative nonfiction in complex and experimental ways, combining the subject matter of autobiography with poetry’s figurative devices and musicality of language.

For both poets and creative nonfiction writers, lyric essays are a gold standard of experimentation and language, but conquering the form takes lots of practice. What is a lyric essay, and how do you write one? Let’s break down this challenging CNF form, with lyric essay examples, before examining how you might approach it yourself.

Want to explore the lyric essay further? See our lyric essay writing course with instructor Gretchen Clark. 

What is a lyric essay?

The lyric essay combines the autobiographical information of a personal essay with the figurative language, forms, and experimentations of poetry. In the lyric essay, the rules of both poetry and prose become suggestions, because the form of the essay is constantly changing, adapting to the needs, ideas, and consciousness of the writer.

Lyric essay definition: The lyric essay combines autobiographical writing with the figurative language, forms, and experimentations of poetry.

Lyric essays are typically written in a poetic prose style . (We’ll expand on the difference between prose poetry and lyric essay shortly.) Lyric essays employ many of the poetic devices that poets use, including devices of repetition and rhetorical devices in literature.

That said, there are few conventions for the lyric essay, other than to experiment, experiment, experiment. While the form itself is an essay, there’s no reason you can’t break the bounds of expression.

One tactic, for example, is to incorporate poetry into the essay itself. You might start your essay with a normal paragraph, then describe something specific through a sonnet or villanelle , then express a different idea through a POV shift, a list, or some other form. Lyric essays can also borrow from the braided essay, the hermit crab, and other forms of creative nonfiction .

In truth, there’s very little that unifies all lyric essays, because they’re so wildly experimental. They’re also a bit tricky to define—the line between a lyric essay and the prose poem, in particular, is very hazy.

Rather than apply a one-size-fits-all definition for the lyric essay, which doesn’t exist, let’s pay close attention to how lyric essayists approach the open-ended form.

There are few conventions for the lyric essay, other than to experiment, experiment, experiment

Personal essay vs. lyric essay: An example of each

At its simplest, the lyric essay’s prose style is different from that of the personal essay, or other forms of creative nonfiction.

Personal essay example

Here are the opening two paragraphs from Beth Ann Fennelly’s personal essay “ I Survived the Blizzard of ’79. ”

“We didn’t question. Or complain. It wouldn’t have occurred to us, and it wouldn’t have helped. I was eight. Julie was ten.

We didn’t know yet that this blizzard would earn itself a moniker that would be silk-screened on T-shirts. We would own such a shirt, which extended its tenure in our house as a rag for polishing silver.”

The prose in this personal essay excerpt is descriptive, linear, and easy to understand. Fennelly gives us the information we need to make sense of her world, as well as the foreshadow of what’s to come in her essay.

Lyric essay example

Now, take this excerpt from a lyric essay, “ Life Code ” by J. A. Knight:

“The dream goes like this: blue room of water. God light from above. Child’s fist, foot, curve, face, the arc of an eye, the symmetry of circles… and then an opening of this body—which surprised her—a movement so clean and assured and then the push towards the light like a frog or a fish.” 

The prose in Knight’s lyric essay cannot be read the same way as a personal essay might be. Here, Knight’s prose is a sort of experience—a way of exploring the dream through language as shifting and ethereal as dreams themselves. Where the personal essay transcribes experiences, the lyric essay creates them.

Where the personal essay transcribes experiences, the lyric essay creates them.

For more examples of the craft, The Seneca Review and Eastern Iowa Review both have a growing archive of lyric essays submitted to their journals. In essence, there is no form to a lyric essay—rather, form and language are experimented with interchangeably, guided only by the narrative you seek to write.

Lyric Essay Vs Prose Poem

Lyric essays are commonly confused with prose poetry . In truth, there is no clear line separating the two, and plenty of essays, including some of the lyric essay examples in this article, can also be called prose poems.

Well, what’s the difference? A prose poem, broadly defined, is a poem written in paragraphs. Unlike a traditional poem, the prose poem does not make use of line breaks: the line breaks simply occur at the end of the page. However, all other tactics of poetry are in the prose poet’s toolkit, and you can even play with poetry forms in the prose poem, such as writing the prose sonnet .

Lyric essays also blend the techniques of prose and poetry. Here are some general differences between the two:

  • Lyric essays tend to be longer. A prose poem is rarely more than a page. Some lyric essays are longer than 20 pages.
  • Lyric essays tend to be more experimental. One paragraph might be in prose, the next, poetry. The lyric essay might play more with forms like lists, dreams, public signs, or other types of media and text.
  • Prose poems are often more stream-of-conscious. The prose poet often charts the flow of their consciousness on the page. Lyric essayists can do this, too, but there’s often a broader narrative organizing the piece, even if it’s not explicitly stated or recognizable.

The two share many similarities, too, including:

  • An emphasis on language, musicality, and ambiguity.
  • Rejection of “objective meaning” and the desire to set forth arguments.
  • An unobstructed flow of ideas.
  • Suggestiveness in thoughts and language, rather than concrete, explicit expressions.
  • Surprising or unexpected juxtapositions .
  • Ingenuity and play with language and form.

In short, there’s no clear dividing line between the two. Often, the label of whether a piece is a lyric essay or a prose poem is up to the writer.

Lyric Essay Examples

The following lyric essay examples are contemporary and have been previously published online. Pay attention to how the lyric essayists interweave the essay form with a poet’s attention to language, mystery, and musicality.

“Lodge: A Lyric Essay” by Emilia Phillips

Retrieved here, from Blackbird .

This lush, evocative lyric essay traverses the American landscape. The speaker reacts to this landscape finding poetry in the rundown, and seeing her own story—family trauma, religion, and the random forces that shape her childhood. Pay attention to how the essay defies conventional standards of self-expression. In between narrative paragraphs are lists, allusions, memories, and the many twists and turns that seem to accompany the narrator on their journey through Americana.

“Spiral” by Nicole Callihan

Retrieved here, from Birdcoat Quarterly . 

Notice how this gorgeous essay evolves down the spine of its central theme: the sleepless swallows. The narrator records her thoughts about the passage of time, her breast examination, her family and childhood, and the other thoughts that arise in her mind as she compares them, again and again, to the mysterious swallows who fly without sleep. This piece demonstrates how lyric essays can encompass a wide array of ideas and threads, creating a kaleidoscope of language for the reader to peer into, come away with something, peer into again, and always see something different.

“Star Stuff” by Jessica Franken

Retrieved here, from Seneca Review .

This short, imagery -driven lyric essay evokes wonder at our seeming smallness, our seeming vastness. The narrator juxtaposes different ideas for what the body can become, playing with all our senses and creating odd, surprising connections. Read this short piece a few times. Ask yourself, why are certain items linked together in the same paragraph? What is the train of thought occurring in each new sentence, each new paragraph? How does the final paragraph wrap up the lyric essay, while also leaving it open ended? There’s much to interpret in this piece, so engage with it slowly, read it over several times.

5 approaches to writing the lyric essay

This form of creative writing is tough for writers because there’s no proper formula for writing it. However, if you have a passion for imaginative forms and want to rise to the challenge, here are several different ways to write your essay.

1. Start with your narrative

Writing the lyrical essay is a lot like writing creative nonfiction: it starts with getting words on the page. Start with a simple outline of the story you’re looking to write. Focus on the main plot points and what you want to explore, then highlight the ideas or events that will be most difficult for you to write about. Often, the lyrical form offers the writer a new way to talk about something difficult. Where words fail, form is key. Combining difficult ideas and musicality allows you to find the right words when conventional language hasn’t worked.

Emilia Phillips’ lyric essay “ Lodge ” does exactly this, letting the story’s form emphasize its language and the narrative Phillips writes about dreams, traveling, and childhood emotions.

2. Identify moments of metaphor and figurative language

The lyric essay is liberated from form, rather than constrained by it. In a normal essay, you wouldn’t want your piece overrun by figurative language, but here, boundless metaphors are encouraged—so long as they aid your message. For some essayists, it might help to start by reimagining your story as an extended metaphor.

A great example of this is Zadie Smith’s essay “ The Lazy River ,” which uses the lazy river as an extended metaphor to criticize a certain “go with the flow” mindset.

Use extended metaphors as a base for the essay, then return to it during moments of transition or key insight. Writing this way might help ground your writing process while giving you new opportunities to play with form.

3. Investigate and braid different threads

Just like the braided essay , lyric essays can certainly braid different story lines together. If anything, the freedom to play with form makes braiding much easier and more exciting to investigate. How can you use poetic forms to braid different ideas together? Can you braid an extended metaphor with the main story? Can you separate the threads into a contrapuntal, then reunite them in prose?

A simple example of threading in lyric essay is Jane Harrington’s “ Ossein Pith .” Harrington intertwines the “you” and “I” of the story, letting each character meet only when the story explores moments of “hunger.”

Whichever threads you choose to write, use the freedom of the lyric essay to your advantage in exploring the story you’re trying to set down.

4. Revise an existing piece into a lyric essay

Some CNF writers might find it easier to write their essay, then go back and revise with the elements of poetic form and figurative language. If you choose to take this route, identify the parts of your draft that don’t seem to be working, then consider changing the form into something other than prose.

For example, you might write a story, then realize it would greatly benefit the prose if it was written using the poetic device of anaphora (a repetition device using a word or phrase at the beginning of a line or paragraph). Chen Li’s lyric essay “ Baudelaire Street ” does a great job of this, using the anaphora “I would ride past” to explore childhood memory.

When words don’t work, let the lyrical form intervene.

5. Write stream-of-conscious

Stream-of-consciousness is a writing technique in which the writer charts, word-for-word, the exact order of their unfiltered thoughts on the page.

If it isn’t obvious, this is easier said than done. We naturally think faster than we write, and we also have a tendency to filter our thoughts as we think them, to the point where many thoughts go unconsciously unnoticed. Unlearning this takes a lot of practice and skill.

Nonetheless, you might notice in the lyric essay examples we shared how the essayists followed different associations with their words, one thought flowing naturally into the next, circling around a subject rather than explicitly defining it. The stream-of-conscious technique is perfect for this kind of writing, then, because it earnestly excavates the mind, creating a kind of Rorschach test that the reader can look into, interpret, see for themselves.

This technique requires a lot of mastery, but if you’re keen on capturing your own consciousness, you may find that the lyric essay form is the perfect container to hold it in.

Closing thoughts on the lyric essay form

Creative nonfiction writers have an overt desire to engage their readers with insightful stories. When language fails, the lyrical essay comes to the rescue. Although this is a challenging form to master, practicing different forms of storytelling could pave new avenues for your next nonfiction piece. Try using one of these different ways to practice the lyric craft, and get writing your next CNF story!

[…] Sean “Writing Your Truth: Understanding the Lyric Essay.” published 19 May, 2020/ accessed 13 Oct, […]

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I agree with every factor that you have pointed out. Thank you for sharing your beautiful thoughts on this. A personal essay is writing that shares an interesting, thought-provoking, sometimes entertaining, and humorous piece that is often drawn from the writer’s personal experience and at times drawn from the current affairs of the world.

[…] been wanting to learn more about lyric essay, and this seems a natural transition from […]

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thanks for sharing

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Thanks so much for this. Here is an updated link to my essay Spiral:

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the lyric essay

Writing From the Margins: On the Origins and Development of the Lyric Essay

Zoë bossiere and erica trabold consider essay writing as resistance.

Once, the lyric essay did not have a name.

Or, it was called by many names. More a quality of writing than a category, the form lived for centuries in the private zuihitsu journals of Japanese court ladies, the melodic folktales told by marketplace troubadours, and the subversive prose poems penned by the European romantics.

Before I came to lyric essays, I came to writing. When my teacher asked the class to write a story for homework , I couldn’t believe my luck. But in response to my first attempt, she wrote in the margins: this is cliché .

As a first-generation college student, I was afraid I didn’t know how to tell a story properly, that my mind didn’t work that way. That I didn’t belong in a college classroom, wasn’t a real writer.

And yet, language pulled me. Alone in my dorm room, I arranged and rearranged words, whispered them aloud until the cadences pleased me, their smooth sounds like prayers. I had no name for what I was writing then, but it felt like a style I could call my own.

While the origins of the lyric essay predate its naming, the most well-known attempt to categorize the form came in 1997, when writers John D’Agata and Deborah Tall, coeditors of Seneca Review , noticed a “new” genre in the submission queue—not quite poetry, but neither quite narrative.

This form-between-forms seemed to ignore the conventions of prose writing—such as a linear chronology, narrative, and plot—in favor of embracing more liminal styles, moving by association rather than story, dancing around unspoken truths, devolving into a swirling series of digressions.

D’Agata and Tall’s proposed term for this kind of writing, “the lyric essay,” stuck, and in the ensuing decade the word would be adopted by many essayists to describe the kind of writing they do.

As a genderfluid writer and as a writing teacher, I’ve always appreciated the lyric essay as a literary beacon amid turbulent narrative waves. A means to cast light on negative space, to illuminate subjects that defy the conventions of traditional essay writing.

Introducing this writing style to students is among my favorite course units. Semester after semester, the students most drawn to the lyric essay tend to be those who enter the classroom from the margins, whose perspectives are least likely to be included on course reading lists.

Since its naming, the lyric essay has existed in an almost paradoxical space, at once celebrated for its unique characteristics while also relegated to the margins of creative nonfiction. Perhaps because of this contradiction, much of the conversation about the lyric essay—the definition of what it is and does, where it fits on the spectrum of nonfiction and poetry, whether it has a place in literary journals and in the creative writing classroom—remains unsettled, extending into the present.

I thought getting accepted into a graduate program meant I had finally opened the gilded, solid oak doors of academia—a place no one in my family, not a parent, an aunt or uncle, a sibling or cousin, had ever seen the other side of.

But at my cohort’s first meeting in a state a thousand miles from home, I understood I was still on the outside of something.

“Are you sure you write lyric essays?” the other writers asked. “What does that even mean?”

The acceptance of the lyric form seems to depend largely on who is writing it. The essays that tend to thrive in dominant-culture spaces like academia and publishing are often written by writers who already occupy those spaces. This may be part of why, despite its expansive nature, many of the most widely-anthologized, widely-read, and widely-taught lyric essays represent a narrow range of perspectives: most often, those of the center.

To name the lyric essay—to name anything—is to construct rules about what an essay called “lyric” should look like on the page, should examine in its prose, even who it should be written by. But this categorization has its uses, too.

Much like when a person openly identifies as queer , identifying an essayistic style as “lyric” provides a blueprint for others on the margins to name their experiences—a form through which to speak their truths.

The center is, by definition, a limited perspective, capable of viewing only itself.

In “Marginality as a Site of Resistance,” bell hooks positions the margins not as a state “one wishes to lose, to give up, or surrender as part of moving into the center, but rather as a site one stays on, clings to even, because it nourishes one’s capacity to resist.”

To write from the margins is to write from the perspective of the whole—to see the world from both the margins and the center.

I graduated with a manuscript of lyric essays, one that coalesced into my first book. That book went on to win a prize judged by John D’Agata and named for Deborah Tall. I had finally found my footing, unlocked that proverbial door. But skepticism followed me in.

On my book tour, I was invited to read at my alma mater alongside another writer whose nonfiction tackled pressing social issues with urgency, empathy, and wit. I read an essay about home and friendship, about being young and the hard lessons of growing up.

After the reading, we fielded a Q&A. The Dean of my former college raised his hand.

“I can see what work the other writer is doing quite clearly,” he said to me. “But what exactly is the point of yours?”

Writing is never a neutral act. Although a rallying slogan from a different era and cause, the maxim “the personal is political” still applies to the important work writers do when they speak truth to power, call attention to injustice, and advocate for social change.

Because the lyric essay is fluid, able to occupy both marginal and center spaces, it is a form uniquely suited to telling stories on the writer’s terms, without losing sight of where the writer comes from, and the audiences they are writing toward.

When we tell the stories of our lives—especially when those stories challenge assumptions about who we are—it is an act of resistance.

Many of the contemporary LGBTQIA+ essayists I teach in my classes write lyrical prose to capture queer experience on the page. Their works reckon with nonbinary family building and parenthood, the ghosts of trans Midwestern origin, coming of age in a queer Black body, the over- whelming epidemic of transmisogyny and gendered violence.

The lyric essay is an ideal container for these stories, each a unique prism reflecting the ambiguous, messy, and ever-evolving processes through which we as queer people come to understand ourselves.

Lyric essays rarely stop to provide directions, instead mapping the reader on a journey into the writer’s world, toward an unknown end. Along the way, the reader learns to interpret the signs, begins to understand that the road blocks and potholes and detours—those gaps, the words left unspoken on the page—are as important as the essay’s destination.

The lyric essays that have taught me the most as a writer never showed their full hand. Each became its own puzzle, with secrets to unlock. When the text on a page was obscured, the essay taught me to fill in the blanks. When the conflict didn’t resolve, I realized irresolution might be its truest end. When the segments of the essay seemed unconnected, I learned to read between the lines.

The most powerful lyric essays reclaim silence from the silencers, becoming a space of agency for writers whose experiences are routinely questioned, flattened, or appropriated.

Readers from the margins, those who have themselves been silenced, recognize the game.

The twenty contemporary lyric essays in this volume embody resistance through content, style, design, and form, representing of a broad spectrum of experiences that illustrate how identities can intersect, conflict, and even resist one another. Together, they provide a dynamic example of the lyric essay’s range of expression while showcasing some of the most visionary contemporary essayists writing in the form today.


the lyric essay

Excerpted from The Lyric Essay as Resistance: Truth from the Margins , edited by Zoë Bossiere and Erica Trabold. Copyright © 2023. Available from Wayne State University Press.

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Zoë Bossiere and Erica Trabold

Zoë Bossiere and Erica Trabold

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A Guide to Lyric Essay Writing: 4 Evocative Essays and Prompts to Learn From

Poets can learn a lot from blurring genres. Whether getting inspiration from fiction proves effective in building characters or song-writing provides a musical tone, poetry intersects with a broader literary landscape. This shines through especially in lyric essays, a form that has inspired articles from the Poetry Foundation and Purdue Writing Lab , as well as become the concept for a 2015 anthology titled We Might as Well Call it the Lyric Essay.  

Put simply, the lyric essay is a hybrid, creative nonfiction form that combines the rich figurative language of poetry with the longer-form analysis and narrative of essay or memoir. Oftentimes, it emerges as a way to explore a big-picture idea with both imagery and rigor. These four examples provide an introduction to the writing style, as well as spotlight tips for creating your own.

1. Draft a “braided essay,” like Michelle Zauner in this excerpt from Crying in H Mart .

Before Crying in H Mart became a bestselling memoir, Michelle Zauner—a writer and frontwoman of the band Japanese Breakfast—published an essay of the same name in The New Yorker . It opens with the fascinating and emotional sentence, “Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart.” This first line not only immediately propels the reader into Zauner’s grief, but it also reveals an example of the popular “braided essay” technique, which weaves together two distinct but somehow related experiences. 

Throughout the work, Zauner establishes a parallel between her and her mother’s relationship and traditional Korean food. “You’ll likely find me crying by the banchan refrigerators, remembering the taste of my mom’s soy-sauce eggs and cold radish soup,” Zauner writes, illuminating the deeply personal and mystifying experience of grieving through direct, sensory imagery.

2. Experiment with nonfiction forms , like Hadara Bar-Nadav in “ Selections from Babyland . ”

Lyric essays blend poetic qualities and nonfiction qualities. Hadara Bar-Nadav illustrates this experimental nature in Selections from Babyland , a multi-part lyric essay that delves into experiences with infertility. Though Bar-Nadav’s writing throughout this piece showcases rhythmic anaphora—a definite poetic skill—it also plays with nonfiction forms not typically seen in poetry, including bullet points and a multiple-choice list. 

For example, when recounting unsolicited advice from others, Bar-Nadav presents their dialogue in the following way:

I heard about this great _____________.

a. acupuncturist

b. chiropractor

d. shamanic healer

e. orthodontist ( can straighter teeth really make me pregnant ?)

This unexpected visual approach feels reminiscent of an article or quiz—both popular nonfiction forms—and adds dimension and white space to the lyric essay.

3. Travel through time , like Nina Boutsikaris in “ Some Sort of Union .”

Nina Boutsikaris is the author of I’m Trying to Tell You I’m Sorry: An Intimacy Triptych , and her work has also appeared in an anthology of the best flash nonfiction. Her essay “Some Sort of Union,” published in Hippocampus Magazine , was a finalist in the magazine’s Best Creative Nonfiction contest. 

Since lyric essays are typically longer and more free verse than poems, they can be a way to address a larger idea or broader time period. Boutsikaris does this in “Some Sort of Union,” where the speaker drifts from an interaction with a romantic interest to her childhood. 

“They were neighbors, the girl and the air force paramedic. She could have seen his front door from her high-rise window if her window faced west rather than east,” Boutsikaris describes. “When she first met him two weeks ago, she’d been wearing all white, buying a wedge of cheap brie at the corner market.”

In the very next paragraph, Boutskiras shifts this perspective and timeline, writing, “The girl’s mother had been angry with her when she was a child. She had needed something from the girl that the girl did not know how to give. Not the way her mother hoped she would.”

As this example reveals, examining different perspectives and timelines within a lyric essay can flesh out a broader understanding of who a character is.

4. Bring in research, history, and data, like Roxane Gay in “ What Fullness Is .”

Like any other form of writing, lyric essays benefit from in-depth research. And while journalistic or scientific details can sometimes throw off the concise ecosystem and syntax of a poem, the lyric essay has room for this sprawling information.

In “What Fullness Is,” award-winning writer Roxane Gay contextualizes her own ideas and experiences with weight loss surgery through the history and culture surrounding the procedure. 

“The first weight-loss surgery was performed during the 10th century, on D. Sancho, the king of León, Spain,” Gay details. “He was so fat that he lost his throne, so he was taken to Córdoba, where a doctor sewed his lips shut. Only able to drink through a straw, the former king lost enough weight after a time to return home and reclaim his kingdom.”

“The notion that thinness—and the attempt to force the fat body toward a state of culturally mandated discipline—begets great rewards is centuries old.”

Researching and knowing this history empowers Gay to make a strong central point in her essay.

Bonus prompt: Choose one of the techniques above to emulate in your own take on the lyric essay. Happy writing!


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An Introduction to the Lyric Essay

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Rebecca Hussey

Rebecca holds a PhD in English and is a professor at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. She teaches courses in composition, literature, and the arts. When she’s not reading or grading papers, she’s hanging out with her husband and son and/or riding her bike and/or buying books. She can't get enough of reading and writing about books, so she writes the bookish newsletter "Reading Indie," focusing on small press books and translations. Newsletter: Reading Indie Twitter: @ofbooksandbikes

View All posts by Rebecca Hussey

Essays come in a bewildering variety of shapes and forms: they can be the five paragraph essays you wrote in school — maybe for or against gun control or on symbolism in The Great Gatsby . Essays can be personal narratives or argumentative pieces that appear on blogs or as newspaper editorials. They can be funny takes on modern life or works of literary criticism. They can even be book-length instead of short. Essays can be so many things!

Perhaps you’ve heard the term “lyric essay” and are wondering what that means. I’m here to help.

What is the Lyric Essay?

A quick definition of the term “lyric essay” is that it’s a hybrid genre that combines essay and poetry. Lyric essays are prose, but written in a manner that might remind you of reading a poem.

Before we go any further, let me step back with some more definitions. If you want to know the difference between poetry and prose, it’s simply that in poetry the line breaks matter, and in prose they don’t. That’s it! So the lyric essay is prose, meaning where the line breaks fall doesn’t matter, but it has other similarities to what you find in poems.

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Lyric essays have what we call “poetic” prose. This kind of prose draws attention to its own use of language. Lyric essays set out to create certain effects with words, often, although not necessarily, aiming to create beauty. They are often condensed in the way poetry is, communicating depth and complexity in few words. Chances are, you will take your time reading them, to fully absorb what they are trying to say. They may be more suggestive than argumentative and communicate multiple meanings, maybe even contradictory ones.

Lyric essays often have lots of white space on their pages, as poems do. Sometimes they use the space of the page in creative ways, arranging chunks of text differently than regular paragraphs, or using only part of the page, for example. They sometimes include photos, drawings, documents, or other images to add to (or have some other relationship to) the meaning of the words.

Lyric essays can be about any subject. Often, they are memoiristic, but they don’t have to be. They can be philosophical or about nature or history or culture, or any combination of these things. What distinguishes them from other essays, which can also be about any subject, is their heightened attention to language. Also, they tend to deemphasize argument and carefully-researched explanations of the kind you find in expository essays . Lyric essays can argue and use research, but they are more likely to explore and suggest than explain and defend.

Now, you may be familiar with the term “ prose poem .” Even if you’re not, the term “prose poem” might sound exactly like what I’m describing here: a mix of poetry and prose. Prose poems are poetic pieces of writing without line breaks. So what is the difference between the lyric essay and the prose poem?

Honestly, I’m not sure. You could call some pieces of writing either term and both would be accurate. My sense, though, is that if you put prose and poetry on a continuum, with prose on one end and poetry on the other, and with prose poetry and the lyric essay somewhere in the middle, the prose poem would be closer to the poetry side and the lyric essay closer to the prose side.

Some pieces of writing just defy categorization, however. In the end, I think it’s best to call a work what the author wants it to be called, if it’s possible to determine what that is. If not, take your best guess.

Four Examples of the Lyric Essay

Below are some examples of my favorite lyric essays. The best way to learn about a genre is to read in it, after all, so consider giving one of these books a try!

Don't Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine cover

Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen counts as a lyric essay, but I want to highlight her lesser-known 2004 work. In Don’t Let Me Be Lonely , Rankine explores isolation, depression, death, and violence from the perspective of post-9/11 America. It combines words and images, particularly television images, to ponder our relationship to media and culture. Rankine writes in short sections, surrounded by lots of white space, that are personal, meditative, beautiful, and achingly sad.

Calamities by Renee Gladman cover

Calamities by Renee Gladman

Calamities is a collection of lyric essays exploring language, imagination, and the writing life. All of the pieces, up until the last 14, open with “I began the day…” and then describe what she is thinking and experiencing as a writer, teacher, thinker, and person in the world. Many of the essays are straightforward, while some become dreamlike and poetic. The last 14 essays are the “calamities” of the title. Together, the essays capture the artistic mind at work, processing experience and slowly turning it into writing.

The Self Unstable Elisa Gabbert cover

The Self Unstable by Elisa Gabbert

The Self Unstable is a collection of short essays — or are they prose poems? — each about the length of a paragraph, one per page. Gabbert’s sentences read like aphorisms. They are short and declarative, and part of the fun of the book is thinking about how the ideas fit together. The essays are divided into sections with titles such as “The Self is Unstable: Humans & Other Animals” and “Enjoyment of Adversity: Love & Sex.” The book is sharp, surprising, and delightful.

Cover of Maggie Nelson Bluets

Bluets by Maggie Nelson

Bluets is made up of short essayistic, poetic paragraphs, organized in a numbered list. Maggie Nelson’s subjects are many and include the color blue, in which she finds so much interest and meaning it will take your breath away. It’s also about suffering: she writes about a friend who became a quadriplegic after an accident, and she tells about her heartbreak after a difficult break-up. Bluets is meditative and philosophical, vulnerable and personal. It’s gorgeous, a book lovers of The Argonauts shouldn’t miss.

It’s probably no surprise that all of these books are published by small presses. Lyric essays are weird and genre-defying enough that the big publishers generally avoid them. This is just one more reason, among many, to read small presses!

If you’re looking for more essay recommendations, check out our list of 100 must-read essay collections and these 25 great essays you can read online for free .

the lyric essay

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Consider the Platypus: Four Forms—Maybe—of the Lyric Essay

the lyric essay

What is a lyric essay? Lyric comes from the late sixteenth century: from French lyrique or Latin lyricus, from Greek lurikos, from lura ‘lyre.’

To the ear, “lyre” and “liar” sound the same, which I resist because I do not condone lying in essays, lyric or otherwise. But mythology tells us that the origins of the lyre come from a kind of lie.

Hermes, the gods’ messenger and something of a trickster, stole Apollo’s sacred cattle. Hermes tried to deny his theft but ultimately confessed. In atonement, he gave Apollo a new way to make music: the lyre. Later Apollo taught Orpheus how to play the lyre and Orpheus became the best musician and poet known to humankind. He charmed trees, rocks, and rivers. While sailing with the Argonauts he overpowered the Sirens with his songs, allowing the ship and its crew to pass safely on their quest to find the Golden Fleece. And when his wife died, he sang his way into the underworld to retrieve her. His music was so powerful it could almost—almost—raise the dead.

Lyric essays have the same power to soothe, to harrow, to persuade, to move, to raise, to rouse, to overcome.

Like Orpheus and his songs, lyric essays try something daring. They rely more on intuition than exposition. They often use image more than narration. They question more than answer. But despite all this looseness, the lyric essay still has the responsibilities of any essay: to try to figure something out, to play with ideas, to show a shift in thinking (however subtle). The whole of a lyric essay adds up to more than the sum of its parts.

I came to define a lyric essay as:

a piece of writing with a visible / stand-out / unusual structure that explores / forecasts / gestures to an idea in an unexpected way

But about that visible / stand-out / unusual structure, that unexpected idea: Lyric essays are tricky. If you try to mount one to a spreading board, it’s likely to dodge the pin and fly away. If you try to press one between two slides, it might find a way to ooze down your sleeve. And if you try to set it within a taxonomy, it will pose the same problems as the platypus—a mammal, but one that lays eggs; semiaquatic, living in both water and on land; and venomous, a trait that belongs mostly to reptiles and insects. It will run away if on land—its gait that of a furry alligator—or swim off in the undulating way of beavers. Either way it can threaten you with a poisoned spur before it ripples off.

Despite its resistance to categorization, there are four broad forms of the lyric essay that are worth trying to define:

Flash Essays

origin Middle English (in the sense ‘splash water about’): probably imitative; compare with flush and splash

I define flash essays as being one thousand words or fewer. They are short, sharp, and clarifying. The shortest ones illuminate a moment or a realization the way a flash of light can illuminate a scene. Longer ones may take a little more time but regardless of their length, the meaning of the essay resonates more strongly than its word count might suggest.

Lightning flashes, as do cameras, flares, signals, and explosions; all show a brief moment in a larger scene. A small syringe can deliver a powerful drug. A capsule can too—unless it dissolves in a glass of water to reveal a paper flower. Regardless of their content, flash essays are imitative of their form. They give the reader a splash of a moment and leave us flushed with emotion and meaning.

Segmented Essays

origin late sixteenth century (as a term in geometry): from Latin segmentum, from secare ‘to cut’

Segmented essays are divided into segments that might be numbered or titled or simply separated with a space break.

These spaces—white space, blank space—allow the reader to pause, think, consider, and digest each segment before moving on to the next. Each section may contain something new, but all still belong cogently to the whole.

Segmented essays are also known as

(origin late Middle English: from French, or from Latin fragmentum, from frangere ‘to break’)

(origin mid-nineteenth century: from Greek parataxis, from para- ‘beside’ + taxis ‘arrangement’; from tassein ‘arrange’)

(origin early twentieth century: from French, literally ‘gluing’)

(origin late Middle English: from French mosaïque, based on Latin musi(v)um ‘decoration with small square stones,’ perhaps ultimately from Greek mousa ‘a muse’)

How you think of an essay may influence how you write it. Citrus fruits come in segments; so do worms. Each segment is part of an organic whole. But a fragmented essay may be broken on purpose and a collage deliberately glued together.

Braided Essays

origin Old English bregdan ‘make a sudden movement,’ also ‘interweave,’ of Germanic origin; related to Dutch breien (verb)

Braided essays are segmented essays whose sections have a repeating pattern—the way each strand of a braid returns to take its place in the center.

the lyric essay

Each time a particular strand returns, its meaning is enriched by the other threads you’ve read through.

You can braid hair for containment or ornamentation. You can braid fibers into a basket to carry something or into a rope to tie something. Maybe it’s something you want to hold fast. Or maybe it’s to tense a kite against the wind—to fly.

Hermit Crab Essays

origin Middle English: from Old French hermite, from late Latin eremita, from Greek eremites, from eremos ‘solitary’
origin late sixteenth century (referring to hawks, meaning ‘claw or fight each other’): from Low German krabben

Hermit crab essays, as Brenda Miller named them in Tell It Slant , borrow another form of writing as their structure the way a hermit crab borrows another’s shell. These extraliterary structures can protect vulnerable content (the way the shell protects the crab), but they can also act as firm containers for content that might be intellectually or emotionally difficult, prodigious, or otherwise messy.

In life hermit crabs aren’t hermits at all; they’re quite social. And in a way hermit crab essays are too, because they depend on a network of other extraliterary forms of writing—recipes, labels, album notes—and what we already know of them.

I’ve always thought that a hermit crab’s front looks like a hand reaching out of the shell, a gesture that draws the onlooker inwards. Instead of needing a shell that protects, the contents of a hermit crab essay might lie in wait—like the pellets in a shotgun shell or a plumule of a seed—ready to burst beyond the confines of the form and take root in the reader’s mind.

But some of these forms overlap. A lyric essay can be many things at once—flash and braided, segmented and hermit crab—the way a square is also a rectangle, a parallelogram, a quadrilateral. One shape, but many ways of naming it.

Orpheus’s lyre accompanied him through all sorts of adventures. It traveled with him as deep as the underworld and after his death was sent by Zeus to live among the stars. You can see its constellation—Lyra—in the summer months if you live in the Northern Hemisphere, the winter months if you live in the Southern. This feels like an apt metaphor for the lyric essay: The stars are there, but their shape is what your mind brings to them.

A version of this essay was published as the introduction to A Harp in the Stars: An Anthology of Lyric Essays .

Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her collection  Be with Me Always   was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2019 and her anthology of lyric essays,  A Harp in the Stars ,  was published by Nebraska in 2021. Other work has appeared in the Modern Love column of  The New York Times, The Rumpus, Brevity,  and  Creative Nonfiction . Currently she is the founding editor of the online literary magazine  After the Art and teaches in West Virginia Wesleyan’s Low Residency MFA Program and Goucher’s MFA in Nonfiction Program. You can read more at her website, .


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Flash: Any! But especially “Gyre” by Diane Seuss

Segmented: “Bear Fragments” by Christine Byl

Braided: “Why I Let Him Touch My Hair” by Tyrese L. Coleman

Hermit crab: “The Heart as a Torn Muscle”

(“Gyre,” “Hair,” and “Heart” are in my anthology A HARP IN THE STARS; this craft essay was excerpted from its introduction.)

You can also sift for a particular kind of essay through Brevity’s excellent archives:

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Lyric Essays

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Because the lyric essay is a new, hybrid form that combines poetry with essay, this form should be taught only at the intermediate to advanced levels. Even professional essayists aren’t certain about what constitutes a lyric essay, and lyric essays disagree about what makes up the form. For example, some of the “lyric essays” in magazines like The Seneca Review have been selected for the Best American Poetry series, even though the “poems” were initially published as lyric essays.

A good way to teach the lyric essay is in conjunction with poetry (see the Purdue OWL's resource on teaching Poetry in Writing Courses ). After students learn the basics of poetry, they may be prepared to learn the lyric essay. Lyric essays are generally shorter than other essay forms, and focus more on language itself, rather than storyline. Contemporary author Sherman Alexie has written lyric essays, and to provide an example of this form, we provide an excerpt from his Captivity :

"He (my captor) gave me a biscuit, which I put in my

pocket, and not daring to eat it, buried it under a log, fear-

ing he had put something in it to make me love him.




"I remember your name, Mary Rowlandson. I think of you now, how necessary you have become. Can you hear me, telling this story within uneasy boundaries, changing you into a woman leaning against a wall beneath a HANDICAPPED PARKING ONLY sign, arrow pointing down directly at you? Nothing changes, neither of us knows exactly where to stand and measure the beginning of our lives. Was it 1676 or 1976 or 1776 or yesterday when the Indian held you tight in his dark arms and promised you nothing but the sound of his voice?"

Alexie provides no straightforward narrative here, as in a personal essay; in fact, each numbered section is only loosely related to the others. Alexie doesn’t look into his past, as memoirists do. Rather, his lyric essay is a response to a quote he found, and which he uses as an epigraph to his essay.

Though the narrator’s voice seems to be speaking from the present, and addressing a woman who lived centuries ago, we can’t be certain that the narrator’s voice is Alexie’s voice. Is Alexie creating a narrator or persona to ask these questions? The concept and the way it’s delivered is similar to poetry. Poets often use epigraphs to write poems. The difference is that Alexie uses prose language to explore what this epigraph means to him.

On the Lyric Essay

by Ben Marcus

First published in The Believer, July, 2003.

The Genre Artist

If a story takes place, as we are told stories do, then who or what does it take that place from, and why is an acquisition verb—take—necessary to describe the activity of stories? Maybe it’s an unfair, literalizing question. Not all figures of speech need to be prodded for accuracy (although shouldn’t a phrase relating to stories, which are made of language, have some passing precision?). Stories would keep taking place whether or not we worried about what it meant for them to do so, or worried about what stories actually did instead. But if we poked at this strange phrase, which suggests a theft of setting in order for narrative to occur, we might also deduce that if a place is taken for something to happen in it, then this taking must happen at a specific time (that’s what the word “happen” asks us to believe, anyway). The verb “take” presumes duration, implies a moment (unless we  take a break from time or  take the opportunity to no longer experience time , options that are difficult, at best, to secure, unless we die). It is this specific time that is meant to concern us when we encounter what is likely the most well known (i.e., terrifying) story opener of all: once upon a time.

Imbedded in this innocent phrase, which I would like to prod for the rest of this paragraph until it leaks an interesting jelly, is a severally redundant claim of occurrence, perhaps the first thing a reader, or listener, must be promised (reader: consumer of artificial time). For the sake of contrast, to look at a more rigorously dull example, the opener “I have an idea” does not offer the same hope, or seduction, or promise (particularly if I am the “I”). Even the verb is static and suggests nothing approximating a moment. Time is being excluded, and look at all the people already falling asleep. “Once upon a time” is far more promising (something happened, something happened!). We might need to believe that the clock is ticking before we begin to invest our sympathies, our attentions, our energy.

Fiction has, of course, since dropped this ingratiating, hospitable opener in favor of subtler seductions, gentler heraldings of story. But it is rare not to feel the clock before the first page is done, a verb moving the people and furniture around (whereas “having an idea” does not allow us to picture anything, other than, possibly, a man on a toilet). The physical verbs are waiting to assert themselves, to provide moments that we are meant to believe in, and verbs, traditionally, are what characters use to stir up the trouble we call fiction. Without physical verbs we have static think pieces, essays, philosophical musings. There is no stirring, because generally there is nobody there holding a spoon. This will be an interesting distinction to remember.

Maybe this is as it should be, since Proust said the duty of the literary artist was to tell the truth about time. Aside from blanching at the notion of duty, which is one of the required notions to blanch at, it seems clear to me that Proust’s edict, interpreted variously, has served as a bellwether for most thriving traditions of fiction (which held true, of course, before Proust articulated it). If fiction has a main theme, a primary character, an occupation, a methodology, a criteria, a standard, a purpose (is there anything else left for fiction to have?), it would be time itself. Fiction is the production of false time for readers to experience. Most fiction seeks to  become time . Without time, fiction is nonfiction. Yes, that’s arguable—we have Borges, Roussel, Christine Brooke-Rose, and Robbe-Grillet, after all, among others, to tell us otherwise, and it is in part their legacy, their followers (witting or not), whose pages will be shaken here until we have something that counts for a portrait of this anti-story tradition.

One basic meaning of narrative, then: to create time where there was none. A fiction writer who tells stories is a maker of time. Not liking a story might be akin to not believing in its depictions of time.

It sounds facile to say that stories occur, but it is part of the larger, relentless persuasion that time both is and envelops the practice we call story. We cannot easily separate the two. Yet if time is the most taken-for-granted aspect of fiction writing, it would seem precisely like the good hard wall a young, ambitious writer would want to bang his head against, in order to walk and talk newly in the world of fiction (that’s still the desire, right?). To the writer searching for the  obstacle to surpass , time would look plenty worthy a hurdle. If something must be overcome, ruined, subverted in order for fiction to stay matterful (yes, maybe the metaphor of progress in literary art is pretentious and tired  at this point (there’s time again, aging what was  once such a fine idea)), then time would be the thing to beat, the thing fiction seemingly cannot do without, and therefore, to grow or change, must.

Time must die.

John Haskell is among an intriguing new group of writers chiseling away at the forms of fiction writing without appearing exhaustingly experimental (read: unreadable). Haskell is working primarily without or around time, producing fiction that might appear more essayistic, discursive, inert, philosophical, and, well, literally timeless (which is not yet to say that his debut book is  for the ages ). Yes, I said “inert,” because things do not have to move to be interesting. Think mountain. Think dead person. Think thought. I say “think,” because Haskell is a thinker, and although he writes often about film, you could not film what he writes.

I Am Not Jackson Pollock contains some storylike moments, but it is primarily a new kind of fiction, one that, curiously, hardly seems interested in fiction at all (which is not to suggest that it reads autobiographically—the opposite is true, which makes a great case for secret-keeping). Haskell might be indebted to Borges, but not in the way most so-called imaginative writers are. There’s no obsession with infinity and worlds within worlds, no conceptual masterminding at work to showcase a stoner’s tripped-out, house-of-Escher mentality, not much that would qualify as being made up. Haskell is more interested in using modest, unassuming forms of nonfiction, as did Borges or Sterne (albeit Haskell does not perpetrate extravagant untruths): the essay, the report, the biographical sketch, the character analysis (this last is Haskell’s favorite, from  real people like Glenn Gould and Jackson Pollock, to film characters like Anthony Perkins’s innkeeper in  Psycho , to Topsy, the first elephant executed by electricity). Haskell does not write characters so much as he writes about them, and it is this willful instinct toward exposition that is so curiously distinctive and unusual in the story-driven world of most new fiction.

A fair question here might be this: where is the fiction in this, if these “stories” of Haskell’s refuse story and then faithfully essay to supply information, respectable information, analysis, and reflection, just as nonfiction might? And one fair answer might be: John Haskell’s primary fiction, overriding his entire project, the place where his fiction is located, is precisely in his puzzling gesture of calling these pieces fiction in the first place. He is fictionalizing his genre. Or, in other words, his fiction is genre itself. Haskell is not an artist in a particular genre, he is an artist  of genre.

To do what Haskell does is to take several genuine risks, which occasions a word or two about risk. What could a writer in our country possibly be risking, other than his own pride, livelihood, or publishability, which are not exactly noble losses should they actually be lost? (Many of us began writing without pride and publishability anyway, and I’m not exactly clear what livelihood is.) Yet risk is the most urgent exhortation of what we are supposed to take when we write fiction (which is somehow different from the kind of taking a story does when it takes place). Fiction is praised when it is called “risky,” but this sort of risk usually involves shattering, shameful disclosures. (I could fill the rest of this essay with examples of shattering, shameful disclosures, but maybe just one will do: while wrestling with my dog, experimenting on a new hold called “the Sumatra,” we ended up horizontal on the lawn, head to toe, and thereupon commenced a directed nuzzling, a purposeful mouth-to-balls activity, that in some quarters of academe is referred to as the sixty-nine, which then became a standard “variation” on the “Sumatra,” well into adulthood (especially into adulthood)). With secret-telling having become its own lucrative industry, it’s hard to fathom what a risk of subject-matter might be (though I’m certain better, scarier secrets are approaching in next season’s books, however ill-equipped my imagination is to conceive them).

Risks of form, on the other hand, might seem more provocative, more inherently interesting to those attuned to the established modes and means of fiction writing (Hey, you guys!), but the risk more often cited in these cases is the financial sort that a publisher takes in publishing such work. They risk not selling enough books. And they are sorry but they cannot take that risk (it is interesting that the writer is supposed to be risky while the publisher is not). Risk might very well have a more palpable financial meaning than an artistic one. So while it is no longer clear what literary risk is—perhaps the term has been molested to death, like those other harassed words: edgy, innovative, startling, stunning—it could be more appropriate to say that within the larger, hapless chance-taking of writing at all (when indifference is about the scariest, and likeliest, response most of us might face), writing fiction without story seems especially curious, willfully self-marginalizing, and therefore very much worth considering. (No, not all obscure literary gestures are “interesting,” but something akin to playing golf without one’s body, as John Haskell might be doing, is.)

The shopworn adage “show-don’t-tell” reinforces the ethos that fiction must have a story, and warns a writer away from discursive, essayistic moments and exposition, which apparently amount to a kind of quicksand for the writer (a statement that presupposes motion as a valuable aspect of fiction writing). Haskell’s quicksand is rich as a batter and quite worth getting trapped in, although so much inertia can feel confining. If we are to be cast in mud, and then smothered, we want our demise to be fascinating. Telling is supposedly insufficient, it cannot produce a quality demise, since it does not dramatize a moment, or in fact does not even supply a moment at all. Telling is stingy with time. Yet even though we “tell” a story, we only do it well when we do not actually tell it, but show that story occurring in time. Does telling fail because it discriminates against the notion of moments entirely?

Take this paragraph in Haskell’s story, “The Faces of Joan of Arc.”

Hedy Lamarr, through most of the movie, takes the side of those in authority, which is not the same as having authority. Obedience is a way of reconciling oneself to a lack of authority or a lack of choice. But it’s not the only way.

This is a funny (read: not-so-funny) way to start a section in a story, but this is Haskell in his psychological mode, and it’s a tone he turns to frequently, which can make parts of this book sound eerily similar to the  DSM-IV-TR Case Studies: A Clinical Guide to Differential Diagnosis . His exposition is dutiful and persistent, but he oddly does not seem to be using it to generate sympathy, which is what a narrative writer might hope for after disclosing details of character. Minimalism in fiction, which at its best extracted psychology purely from surfaces, would be anathema to Haskell. One of his favorite things to do, his pet point throughout the book, is to probe the interior conflicts  within a character, but the effect is rather more coldly intellectual than warmly empathic:

She creates a space between what she does and who she feels she is, so at least she can live with a little peace.He wanted to let whatever it was inside of him come out, and then change it, and by changing that he was hoping everything else would change. Inside that bubble he could relax and let who he was come out. She waited until what the camera wanted was fairly close to what she wanted, and although this wasn’t a perfect arrangement, she could pretend to stand it. … the man wanted to bring out whatever it was inside the boy.

Haskell is expert at clarifying the moments when his characters feel estranged from themselves. The defiance of Haskell’s title is a form of self-denial echoed throughout most of these stories. He is so shrewd at depicting this sort of moment, that for him it is apparently sufficient to carry whole stories. Once he has achieved the revelation, he seems ready to end his story. If he has a deficiency, it’s his inability to convert his fascinations into whole pieces of writing that prove the artistic adequacy of his idea. If Haskell is desperate to show us how people hide from themselves and conspire against their own better interests, working as multiple identities in agonizing contexts—which is, after all, a familiar enough idea routinely explored, or dramatized, by many writers—then it’s upon him to make our experience of this idea immediate, visceral, and potently refreshed. Maybe it’s not  upon him , but when the idea is centralized, as it is in Haskell’s work, and narrative is deliberately excluded, there is a risk when that idea does not seem novel.

To be fair, Haskell has no real comforting tradition to fall back on, to guide him in his efforts, so he must invent for himself what an ending, in this sort of writing, might look like. It’s an original path he has chosen, and it will be rewarding to watch this exceptional writer as he navigates this new territory for fiction.

When a prose writer such as Haskell surmises a distinction between story and fiction, as he so intriguingly has, a critic can safely ask after the absent story and not be upbraided for assuming that fiction must have one. A writer thus interested anyway in dividing the two projects risks an error of category, or at the least risks being read incorrectly (not that reading correctly sounds like a very compelling thing to be doing). But when, for example, David Markson, an expository novelist who fired the starting gun for fictions of information and proved that pure exposition can be alarmingly moving, who purposefully  tells instead of shows, is dismissed in  The New York Times for failing to provide a story in his novel  Reader’s Block , no discussion follows about why, exactly, fiction must have one (at 150 words in the book review, how could any discussion follow?). Nor do we learn what a story might have looked like in such an exquisitely felt book that, to summarize, catalogs the various ways historical figures have hated whole races of people and/or died by their own hands. (Yes, you should read this book.)

Markson should have presumably, under the  fiction-must-have-a-story criteria , zeroed in on one of his hundreds of characters and gone deep, doing that good old-time psychological work, the person-making stuff, dramatizing how such an interesting fellow had gone on to hate Jews and/or kill himself. Markson should have used more words like “then.” He should have sequenced. He seems to have forgotten that literature is supposedly a  time-based art.

Markson’s amnesia is one of the happy accidents of the last decade of fiction writing. By eschewing a fetishistic, conventional interest in character, or a dutiful allegiance to moment creation, to occurrence itself, Markson accomplishes what a story, slogging through time and obedient to momentum, arguably could not: a commanding, obsessive portrait of single behaviors throughout history, a catalog of atrocity that overwhelms through relentless example. In truth, it’s a novel that can be read as an essay, but unlike most essays, it’s lyrically shrewd, poetry in the form of history, and it’s brave enough to provide creepy, gaping holes where we normally might encounter context (the burden of the conventional essayist).

This might explain a new category of writing, the lyric essay, swelling special issues of literary magazines (such as  The Seneca Review ) and, in particular, a new, provocative anthology:  The Next American Essay , edited (orchestrated, masterminded, realized) by John D’Agata, the form’s single-handed, shrewd champion. The lyric essayist seems to enjoy all of the liberties of the fiction writer, with none of a fiction writer’s burden of unreality, the nasty fact that  none of this ever really happened that a fiction writer daily wakes to. One can never say of the lyric essayist’s work that “it’s just fiction,” a vacuous but prevalent dismissal akin to criticizing someone with his own name. The lyric essay is a rather ingenious label, since the essayist supposedly starts out with something real, whereas the fiction writer labors under a burden to prove, or create, that reality, and can expect mistrust and doubt from a reader at the outset. In fiction, lyricism can look like evasion, special pleading, pretension. In the essay, it is apparently artistic, a lovely sideshow to The Real that, if you let it, will enhance what you think you know. The implied secret here is that one of the smartest ways to write fiction today is to say that you’re not, and then do whatever you very well please. Fiction writers take note. Some of the best fiction is these days being written as nonfiction.

The Next American Essay proceeds chronologically from 1975 to 2003, from John McPhee (a re-animated Monopoly game) to Jenny Boully (all footnotes, no text), with D’Agata practicing his own artful transitions before each piece, waxing witty, smart, personal, mute, cleverly obtuse, passionate, lucid, myopic. D’Agata’s transitions alone, which show how alive an anthology can be, and would make any editor envious, provide a toolbox of categorically adulterous leapfrogs that could outfit a whole new generation of writers with the skills to launch an impressive and relevant movement of writing. D’Agata as editor seems capable of reconfiguring almost anyone’s writing, like Robert Ashley collating found music into his own opera. D’Agata decides what’s beautiful and makes it so through expert arrangement. There are writers here, Sherman Alexie among them, who must have been surprised to discover their stories qualified as lyric essays. D’Agata justifies the choice of Alexie by claiming that fiction is a protective term, providing shelter for difficult material, which is really essayistic in nature. All fiction writers should be so lucky.

The flagship practitioner of the lyric essay, who seems early on to have inspired D’Agata’s editorial imagination, is the Canadian poet Anne Carson. Under the banner of poetry, Carson has produced some of the most rigorously intelligent and beautiful writing of the last ten years: essays, stories, arguments, poems, most provocatively in her early collection,  Plainwater . Her piece, “Short Talks,” which she describes as one-minute lectures, and which moves through the history of philosophy like a flip-book of civilization, offering stern commandments and graceful fall-aways, simultaneously qualifies as fiction, poetry, and essay, and is championed protectively by ambassadors from each genre.

The loose criteria for the lyric essay seems to invoke a kind of nonfiction not burdened by research or fact, yet responsible (if necessary) to sense and poetry, shrewdly allegiant to no expectations of genre other than the demands of its own subject. If that sounds strangely like fiction, several of the writers included here, Harry Mathews, Carole Maso, and Lydia Davis among them, first published their pieces in that genre, and will no doubt continue to. Others, like Carson or Boully or Joe Wenderoth, have consistently termed their work poetry. Thalia Field has published her singular writing under the label of fiction, although it seems better read as poetry. Here, of course, it is an essay, as are works of autobiography. David Antin shows up with more of his astonishingly boring diaries, continuing his decades-long ruse of consequence. Thankfully he cannot single-handedly ruin an anthology. David Shields provides a Lishian catalog of clichés that accrue curious meanings and expose how revealing banal language can actually be. And stalwarts like Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace, and Susan Sontag throw in with fierce, ambitious contributions that actually always were essays, although this lack of genre-hopping is in the minority.

Sadly absent from what is otherwise one of the most significant anthologies published in years are a few true voices of the essay who would have fit right in with these other inspired eccentrics, among them: Daniel Harris, Lawrence Weschler, Joy Williams, and Dallas Wiebe.

One instantly wonders how the chosen genre appellation liberates or constricts the writer, and whether or not John Haskell, absent from D’Agata’s all-star selection, would have fared better (whatever that might mean) under a different label, with someone like D’Agata warming-up for him. Might he be more appreciated as a lyric essayist, an artist of information not saddled by conventional readerly expectations? I ask because Haskell seems to suffer slightly when evaluated as a fiction writer, when one brings hopes of story to his book, which are hard not to bring. There’s the implied tedium of fiction not driven by story, particularly if a reader is expecting one (of course tedium, as Robbe-Grillet showed, can have its thrills). With storyless fiction, one suspects an intellectual lesson is at hand, instead of entertainment (this must either be fun or it must be good for me), with a reader’s pleasure not high on the author’s agenda. Expectation can flatten a reader’s willingness to forestall desires for story. It is similar to feeling forever trapped in a flashback, waiting for the current scene. A reader saves attention and energy if he senses that what he’s reading is not primary, the thing itself, and that  the real story is ahead, and attention is the commodity the writer is striving to create, at all costs. Haskell’s book could very nearly be shelved uncontested in the film studies section of the bookstore, and here it might perform its rogue fictionalizations with more astonishment, reversing his style of ambush, so to speak, since it is much more a collection of film studies with bursts of unreality, than it is a burst of unreality with moments of film studies.

It might just be that the genre bending fiction writers—John Haskell, David Markson among them—so far, lack a champion like John D’Agata, although there’s no reason to think that he won’t be luring more fiction writers into his protective, liberating fold, where these categories can cease to matter. Once upon a time there will be readers who won’t care what imaginative writing is called and will read it for its passion, its force of intellect, and for its formal originality.

Tags: Ben Marcus , Essay

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the lyric essay

Rebirth. Sandra Shugart. The Eckleburg Gallery. 2013.

Lyric Essay

The lyric Essay A moderately brief prose discussion of a restricted topic. A basic and very useful division can, however, be made: formal and informal. <strong>Informal Essay: </strong>Includes aphoristic essays such as Bacon's <em>Periodical Essays.... </em>Qualities that make an essay informal include: the personal element, humor, graceful style, rambling structure, unconventionality or novelty, freedom from stiffness and affectation, incomplete or tentative treatment of topic. <strong>Formal Essay: </strong>Qualities include serious purpose,(...) Term details " >essay is a hybrid form in creative nonfiction that focuses on Cadence The rhythm established in the sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables in a phrasal unit. In a third and broader sense it is the rhythmical movement of writing when it is read aloud, the modulation produced by the rise and fall of the voice, the rhythm that sounds the "inner" tune" of a sentence or a line. Cadence is customarily used to refer to a larger and looser group of syllabus than the formal, metrical movement of regular accentual-syllabic verse. Modern poets, such as Ezra(...) Term details " >rhythm and Cadence The rhythm established in the sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables in a phrasal unit. In a third and broader sense it is the rhythmical movement of writing when it is read aloud, the modulation produced by the rise and fall of the voice, the rhythm that sounds the "inner" tune" of a sentence or a line. Cadence is customarily used to refer to a larger and looser group of syllabus than the formal, metrical movement of regular accentual-syllabic verse. Modern poets, such as Ezra(...) Term details " >cadence as much as context, often employing Poetry "Poetry is one of the three major genres of imaginative literature, which has its origins in music and oral performance and is characterized by controlled patterns of rhythm and syntax (often using meter and rhyme); compression and compactness and an allowance for ambiguity; a particularly concentrated emphasis on the sensual, especially visual and aural, qualities and effects of words and word order; and especially vivid, often figurative language." (<em>The Norton Anthology of World(...)</em> Term details " >poetic devices to create repetition and layered meanings.

A brief subjective Poetry "Poetry is one of the three major genres of imaginative literature, which has its origins in music and oral performance and is characterized by controlled patterns of rhythm and syntax (often using meter and rhyme); compression and compactness and an allowance for ambiguity; a particularly concentrated emphasis on the sensual, especially visual and aural, qualities and effects of words and word order; and especially vivid, often figurative language." (<em>The Norton Anthology of World(...)</em> Term details " >poem strongly marked by imagination, melody, and emotion, and creating a single, unified impression. ( A Handbook to Literature )

Originally, a Poetry "Poetry is one of the three major genres of imaginative literature, which has its origins in music and oral performance and is characterized by controlled patterns of rhythm and syntax (often using meter and rhyme); compression and compactness and an allowance for ambiguity; a particularly concentrated emphasis on the sensual, especially visual and aural, qualities and effects of words and word order; and especially vivid, often figurative language." (<em>The Norton Anthology of World(...)</em> Term details " >poem meant to be sung to the accompaniment of a lyre; now, any relatively short Poetry "Poetry is one of the three major genres of imaginative literature, which has its origins in music and oral performance and is characterized by controlled patterns of rhythm and syntax (often using meter and rhyme); compression and compactness and an allowance for ambiguity; a particularly concentrated emphasis on the sensual, especially visual and aural, qualities and effects of words and word order; and especially vivid, often figurative language." (<em>The Norton Anthology of World(...)</em> Term details " >poem in which the speaker expresses his or her thoughts and feelings in the first person rather than recounting a narrative or portraying a dramatic situation. ( Norton )

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the lyric essay

“Cogito et Histoire de la Folie.” Jacques Derrida.

Cognitive Neuropsychology Section, Laboratory of Brain and Cognition .

the lyric essay

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The Edinburgh Companion to the Essay

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The Edinburgh Companion to the Essay

23 The Lyric Essay: Truth-Telling Through Reader Participation

  • Published: October 2022
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This chapter asks what it means to label an essay ‘lyric’, and it makes a case for why the lyric essay is both distinct and essential in the nonfiction canon. Though the term ‘lyric essay’ has been in wide circulation for over twenty years, not unlike the larger genre of the essay itself, the subgenre has had a complicated and sometimes contentious history. The chapter begins with the history of the term ‘lyric essay’, locating it in both lyric poetry and the traditional essay traditions. It ascribes a series of formal qualities and conventions to lyric essays: a move towards poetic rather than fictional techniques; juxtaposition and association in lieu of direct denotation; and the use of form to mirror and inform content. Finally, offering a range of textual examples, the chapter argues for the lyric essay as particularly generative of truth-telling when there are complex and fragmented situations; when there are gaps in knowledge, memory or experience; and when the reader’s perceptions, rather than the writer’s, must be centered.

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What is poetry the best words in the best order the degrees of poetry paradise lost what is lyric the classification of poetry lyric forms song the popularity of lyric conclusion, what is poetry.

     If you were to ask twenty intelligent people, "What is the Thames?" the answer due to you from each would be—"a river." And yet this would hardly be matter to satisfy your enquiring mind. You would more probably say, "What do you know of the Thames?" or, "Describe the Thames to me." This would bring you a great variety of opinions, many dissertations on geological and national history, many words in praise of beauty, many personal confessions. Here would be the revelation of many minds approaching a great subject in as many manners, confirming and contradicting each other, making on the whole some impression of cumulative judgment, giving you many clues to what might be called the truth, no one of them by itself coming near to anything like full knowledge, and the final word would inevitably be left unsaid.

     The question, "What is poetry?" has been answered innumerable times, often by the subtlest and clearest minds, and as many times has it been answered differently. The answer in itself now makes a large and distinguished literature to which, full as it is of keen intelligence and even of constructive vision, we can return with unstaling pleasure. The very poets themselves, it is true, lending their wits to the debate, have left the answer incomplete, as it must—not in the least unhappily—always remain. And yet, if we consider the matter for a moment, we find that all this wisdom, prospering from Sidney's Apology until to-day, does not strictly attempt to answer the question that is put. It does not tell us singly what poetry is, but it speculates upon the cause and effect of poetry. It enquires into the impulse that moves the poet to creation and describes, as far as individual limitations will allow, the way in which the poet's work impresses the world. When Wordsworth says "poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge," he is, exactly, in one intuitive word, telling us how poetry comes into being, directing us with an inspired gesture to its source, and not strictly telling us what it is; and so Shelley tells us in his fiery eloquence of the divine functions of poetry. But poetry is, in its naked being and apart from its cause and effect, a certain use of words, and, remembering this simple fact, there has been one perfect and final answer to the question, "What is poetry?" It was Coleridge's: "Poetry—the best words in the best order."


     This is the fundamental thing to be remembered when considering the art of poetry as such. The whole question of what causes a poet to say this or that and of the impression that is thence made upon us can be definitely narrowed down to the question "How does he say it?" The manner of his utterance is, indeed, the sole evidence before us. To know anything of a poet but his poetry is, so far as the poetry is concerned, to know something that may be entertaining, even delightful, but is certainly inessential. The written word is everything. If it is an imperfect word, no external circumstance can heighten its value as poetry. We may at times, knowing of honourable and inspiriting things in a poet's life, read into his imperfect word a value that it does not possess. When we do this our judgment of poetry is inert; we are not getting pleasure from his work because it is poetry, but for quite other reasons. It may be a quite wholesome pleasure, but it is not the high æsthetic pleasure which the people who experience it generally believe to be the richest and most vivid of all pleasures because it is experienced by a mental state that is more eager and masterful than any other. Nor is our judgment acute when we praise a poet's work because it chimes with unexpected precision to some particular belief or experience of our own or because it directs us by suggestion to something dear to our personal affections. Again the poet is giving us delight, but not the delight of poetry. We have to consider this alone—the poet has something to say: does he say it in the best words in the best order? By that, and by that alone, is he to be judged.

     For it is to be remembered that this achievement of the best words in the best order is, perhaps, the rarest to which man can reach, implying as it does a coincidence of unfettered imaginative ecstasy with superb mental poise. The poet's perfect expression is the token of a perfect experience; what he says in the best possible way he has felt in the best possible way, that is, completely. He has felt it with an imaginative urgency so great as to quicken his brain to this flawless ordering of the best words, and it is that ordering and that alone which communicates to us the ecstasy, and gives us the supreme delight of poetry. It should here be added that poetry habitually takes the form of verse. It is, perhaps, profitless to attempt any analysis of the emotional law that directs this choice, nor need it arbitrarily be said that poetry must of necessity be verse. But it is a fact, sufficiently founded on experience, that the intensity of vision that demands and achieves nothing less than the best words in the best order for its expression does instinctively select the definitely patterned rhythm of verse as being the most apt for its purpose. We find, then, that the condition of poetry as defined by Coleridge implies exactly what the trained judgment holds poetry to be. It implies the highest attainable intensity of vision, which, by the sanction of almost universal example, casts its best ordering of the best words into the form of verse. Ruskin wrote, with fine spiritual ardour—

     "... women of England! not think your daughters can be trained to the truth of their own human beauty, while the pleasant places, which God made at once for their schoolroom and their playground, lie desolate and defiled. You cannot baptize them rightly in those inch-deep founts of yours, unless you baptize them also in the sweet waters which the great Lawgiver strikes forth for ever from the rocks of your native land—waters which a Pagan would have worshipped in their purity, and you worship only with pollution. You cannot lead your children faithfully to those narrow axe-hewn church altars of yours, while the dark azure altars in heaven—the mountains that sustain your island throne—mountains on which a Pagan would have seen the powers of heaven rest in every wreathed cloud—remain for you without inscription; altars built, not to, but by an unknown God."

     Here we have, we may say, words in their best order—Coleridge's equally admirable definition of prose. It is splendid prose, won only from great nobility of emotion. But it is not poetry, not the best words in the best order announcing that the feeling expressed has been experienced with the highest intensity possible to the mind of man. The tenderness for earth and its people and the heroic determination not to watch their defilement in silence, have been deeply significant things to Ruskin, moving him to excellent words. But could they be more strictly experienced, yet more deeply significant, shaping yet more excellent words? Blake gives us the answer:

     It may be suggested that, for their purpose, Ruskin's words are perfectly chosen, that as a direct social charge they achieve their purpose better than any others that could have been shaped. Even if we allow this and do not press, as we very reasonably might, the reply that merely in this direction Blake's poem working, as is the manner of all great art, with tremendous but secret vigour upon the imagination of the people, has a deeper and more permanent effect than Ruskin's prose, we still remember that the sole purpose of poetry is to produce the virile spiritual activity that we call æsthetic delight and that to do this is the highest achievement to which the faculties of man can attain. If by "the best words" we mean anything, we must mean the best words for the highest possible purpose. To take an analogy: if we say that a democratic government is the best kind of government, we mean that it most completely fulfills the highest function of a government—the realisation of the will of the people. But it is also a function of government to organise the people and—although, just as we may think that Blake's poem finally beats Ruskin's prose on Ruskin's own ground, we may think, too, that the government that best represents the people will finally best organise the people—it may quite plausibly be said that in this business an aristocratic or militant government will, in an imperfectly conditioned civilisation (such as that of the world to-day), excel a democratic government. Nevertheless, we still say with an easy mind that a democratic government is the best government, without qualification, since it excels in the highest purpose of government. Clearly Coleridge implies, and reasonably enough, an elaboration such as this in his definition—the best words in the best order. To say that Blake and Ruskin, in those passages, were giving expression to dissimilar experiences is but to emphasise the distinction between prose and poetry. The closest analysis discovers no difference between the essential thought of the one and the other. But Blake projected the thought through a mood of higher intensity, and, where Ruskin perfectly ordered admirable words, he perfectly ordered the best words. It is the controlling mood that differs, not the material controlled. Hence it is that still another mind, starting from the same radical perception, might transfigure it through a mood as urgent as Blake's and produce yet another poem of which it could strictly be said that here again were the best words in the best order. We should then have three men moved by the same thought; in the one case the imaginative shaping of the thought would fail to reach the point at which the record and communication of ecstasy become the chief intention, and the expression would be prose; in each of the other cases the shaping would pass beyond that point, and there would be two separate moods expressed, each in the terms of poetry.

     One further qualification remains to be made. By words we must mean, as Coleridge must have meant, words used for a purpose which they alone can serve. Poetry is the communication through words of certain experiences that can be communicated in no other way. If you ask me the time, and I say—it is six o'clock, it may be said that I am using the best words in the best order, and that, although the thought in my mind is incapable of being refined into the higher æsthetic experience of which we have spoken, my answer is, if Coleridge was right, poetry. But these are not, in our present sense, words at all. They have no power which is peculiar to themselves. If I show you my watch you are answered just as effectively.

     That there is no absolute standard for reference does not matter. All æsthetic appreciation and opinion can but depend upon our judgment, fortified by knowledge of what is, by cumulative consent, the best that has been done. There can be no proof that Blake's lyric is composed of the best words in the best order; only a conviction, accepted by our knowledge and judgment, that it is so. And the conviction is, exactly, the conviction that the mood to which the matter has been subjected has been of such a kind as to achieve an intensity beyond which we cannot conceive the mind as passing, and it follows that there may be—as indeed there are—many poems dealing with the same subject each of which fulfills the obligations of poetry as defined by Coleridge. For while the subjects of poetry are few and recurrent, the moods of man are infinitely various and unstable. It is the same in all arts. If six masters paint the same landscape and under the same conditions, there will be one subject but six visions, and consequently six different interpretations, each one of which may, given the mastery, satisfy us as being perfect; perfect, that is, not as the expression of a subject which has no independent artistic existence, but as the expression of the mood in which the subject is realised. So it is in poetry. All we ask is that the mood recorded shall impress us as having been of the kind that exhausts the imaginative capacity; if it fails to do this the failure will announce itself either in prose or in insignificant verse.


     The question that necessarily follows these reflections is—Are there degrees in poetry? Since a short lyric may completely satisfy the requirements of poetry as here set down, announcing itself to have been created in a poetic or supremely intensified mood, can poetry be said at any time to go beyond this? If we accept these conclusions, can a thing so slight, yet so exquisite, so obviously authentic in source as:

be said to be less definitely poetry than Paradise Lost or in any essentially poetic way below it? The logical answer is, no; and I think it is the right one. In considering it we should come to an understanding of the nature of lyric, the purpose of this essay. But first let us see how far it may be justifiable.


     It is commonly asserted and accepted that Paradise Lost is among the two or three greatest English poems; it may justly be taken as the type of supreme poetic achievement in our literature. What are the qualities by virtue of which this claim is made, and allowed by every competent judge? Firstly there is the witness of that ecstasy of mood of which we have spoken.

     This note of high imaginative tension is persistent throughout the poem, and that it should be so masterfully sustained is in itself cause for delighted admiration. But to be constant in a virtue is not to enhance its quality. Superbly furnished as Paradise Lost is with this imaginative beauty, the beauty is as rich and unquestionable in the few pages of Lycidas ; there is less of it, that is all. And who shall say that it is less ecstatic or less perfect in the little orison to Saint Ben? You may prefer Milton's manner, but then you may, with equal reason, prefer Herrick's, being grateful for what Keats announced to be truth, in whatever shape you may find it. In any case we cannot, on this ground, assign a lower place to the poet who could order those words "religion's," "Saint Ben," "Psalter" and the rest of them, with such inspired good fortune. And yet we know that Paradise Lost is a greater work than this little flight of certain song, greater, too, than the poet's own elegy. There is an explanation.

     Of all the energies of man, that which I will anticipate my argument by calling the poetic energy, the energy that created Herrick's song and the distinguishing qualities of that passage from Milton, is the rarest and the most highly, if not the most generally, honoured; we have only to think of the handful of men who at any time out of all the millions can bring this perfect expression to a mood of the highest imaginative intensity, to know that the honour is justly bestowed. So splendid a thing is success in this matter that failure, if it is matched with a will for sincerity and intelligence of purpose, will often bring a man some durable fame. But the energies of man are manifold, and while we rightly set the poetic energy above the rest, there are others which are only less rare, and in their most notable manifestations yielding to it alone in worthiness of homage which will, indeed, often be more generally paid. Such an energy is the profound intellectual control of material, as distinct from profound emotional sensitiveness to material; the capacity for ordering great masses of detail into a whole of finely balanced and duly related proportions. Cæsar and Napoleon had it, marshalling great armies to perfectly conceived designs; Fielding had it, using it to draw a multitude of character and event into the superbly shaped lines of his story; the greatest political leaders have had it; Cromwell had it, organising an enthusiasm; Elizabeth, organising a national adventure.[1] Again, there is the energy of morality, ardently desiring justice and right fellowship, sublimely lived by men who have made goodness great, like Lincoln, sublimely spoken by men who made sermons passionate, like Ruskin and Carlyle. To take one other instance, there is the highly specialised energy that delights in the objective perception of differentiations of character, the chief energy of the deftest wits such as Samuel Johnson and the best comic dramatists.

        1: It may be necessary to point out that while the poetic energy does not include this architectural power, the intellectual co-ordination of large masses of material, it does, of course, include the shapely control of the emotion which is its being. It is, indeed, difficult to see precisely what can be meant by the suggestion that is often made that the emotions can ever be translated into poetic form wholly without the play of intellect. If the emotion is intense enough for the creation of poetry at all, it will inevitably call up the intellectual power necessary to its shaping, otherwise it would be ineffectually diffused. Mr. John Bailey, in his masterly if sometimes provoking essay on Milton says, in the midst of some admirable remarks on this subject, "It has been said by a living writer that 'when reason is subsidiary to emotion verse is the right means of expression, and, when emotion to reason, prose.' This is roughly true, though the poetry of mere emotion is poor stuff." I would suggest that poetry of emotion, in this sense, does not and could not exist. Bad verse is merely the evidence of both emotion and intellect that are, so to speak, below poetic power, not of emotion divorced from intellect, which evaporates unrecorded.

     Any one of these energies, greatly manifested, will compel a just admiration; not so great an admiration as the poetic energy, which is witness of the highest urgency of individual life, of all things the most admirable, but still great. If, further, we consider any one of these energies by itself, we shall see that if it were co-existent with the poetic energy, the result would be likely to be that, in contact with so masterful a force, it would become yet more emphatic, and so a thing arresting in itself would become yet more notable under its new dominion. And so it is. Fielding's architectural power is a yet more wonderful thing in Sophocles, where it is allied to poetic energy; Ruskin's moral fervour is, for all its nobility, less memorable than Wordsworth's and Ben Jonson defines character more pungently than Sheridan. These energies remain, nevertheless, distinct from the poetic energy. When, however, a poet is endowed not alone with his own particular gift of poetry, but also with some of these other energies—of which there are many—his work very rightly is allowed an added greatness. It is so with Paradise Lost . Of the three energies other than the poetic that I have mentioned, Milton had rich measure of two and something of the third. No man has ever excelled him either in power of intellectual control or in moral passion, and he was not without some sense of character. Consequently we get in his great poem, not only the dominating poetic quality which is the chief thing, enabling the poet to realise his vision (or mood) perfectly, but also the spectacle of a great number of perfectly realised visions being related to each other with excellent harmony; we get, further, a great moral exaltation—again perfectly realised by the poetic energy, and we get, finally, considerable subtlety—far more than is generally allowed—of psychological detail. From all these things, the architectonics, the zeal for justice and the revelation of character, we get an added and wholesome delight which gives Milton's work a place of definitely greater eminence than Herrick's song in the record of human activity. In effect, Milton besides being a poet, which is the greatest of all distinctions, becomes, by possession of those other qualities, a great man as well, and I think that this is really what we mean when we speak of a great poet. Without his poetic faculty, although he would fall in the scale of human distinction, which is not at all the same thing as renown, below, say, so humble a personality yet so true a poet as John Clare[2], Milton would still be a great man, while Herrick without his poetry would be indistinguishable from the crowd. And the great man is as clearly evident in Milton's poetry as he is clearly not evident in Herrick's.

        2: It may be asked: "Do you really think that a poet who has left no other record of himself than a page or two of songs, even perfect songs, can claim a greater distinction than a great man who is not a poet?" Let me say, once for all, that I do think so. To have written one perfect song is to have given witness and the only kind of witness (in common with the media of other arts) that is finally authoritative, that at least one supremely exacting mood has been perfectly realised; that is to say, one moment of life has been perfectly experienced. And since, with our human conception, we can see no good or desirable end beyond the perfect experience of life, the man who proves to us that he has done this, no matter though it has been but for a moment, is more distinguished—that is, more definitely set apart in his own achievement—than the man who, with whatever earnestness and nobility, has but proved to us that he desired this perfection of experience, even though the desire is exalted by the most heroic altruism.


     And so we have Milton and Herrick, both poets, the one a great man, the other not. It is a wide difference. Great men are rare, poets are rarer, but the great man who is a poet, transfiguring his greatness, is the rarest of all events. Milton is one of perhaps a dozen names in the history of the world's literature, Herrick—still with a fine enough distinction—one of something under two hundred in the history of our own. And yet they are left on equal terms in the possession of the purely poetic energy. Milton's achievement outweighs Herrick's, but for the reasons that I have mentioned, and not because poetry grows better by accumulation or because it is possible to prove, or even to satisfy any considerable majority of good judges, that—

is inferior, in specifically poetic quality, to

     We come, then, to the consideration of this specific quality that distinguishes what we recognise as poetry from all other verbal expression. Returning for a moment to Paradise Lost , we find that here is a work of art of which the visible and external sign is words. That it has three qualities—there may be more, but it is not to the point—architectural power, moral exaltation and a sense of character, each of which, although it may be more impressive when presented as it were under the auspices of the poetic quality, can exist independently of it, as in Tom Jones , Unto This Last , and The School for Scandal respectively; that there remains a last and dominating quality, which is not related to intellectual fusion of much diverse material, as is the first of those other qualities, or to the kind of material, as are the other two, but to extreme activity of the perceptive mood upon whatever object it may be directed, remembering that this activity is highly exacting as to the worthiness of objects in which it can concern itself. We find, further, that this is a quality which it has in common not with Tom Jones or Unto This Last , but with a thing so inconsiderable in all other respects as those songs of Herrick's. And in each case we find that the token of this quality is a conviction that here are words that could not have been otherwise chosen or otherwise placed; that here is an expression to rearrange which would be to destroy it—a conviction that we by no means have about the prose of Fielding and Ruskin, admirable as it is. We find, in short, that this quality equals a maximum of imaginative pressure freeing itself in the best words in the best order. And this quality is the specific poetic quality; the presence or absence of which should decide for us, without any other consideration whatever, whether what is before us is or is not poetry. And it seems to me, further, that what we have in our minds when we speak of lyric is precisely this same quality; that lyric and the expression of pure poetic energy unrelated to other energies are the same thing.


     It is not yet the place to discuss the question of lyric forms—to consider what kind of thing it is that people mean when they speak of "a lyric." First we must consider the commonly accepted opinion that a lyric is an expression of personal emotion, with its implication that there is an essential difference between a lyric and, say, dramatic or narrative poetry. A lyric, it is true, is the expression of personal emotion, but then so is all poetry, and to suppose that there are several kinds of poetry, differing from each other in essence, is to be deceived by wholly artificial divisions which have no real being. To talk of dramatic poetry, epic poetry and narrative poetry is to talk of three different things—epic, drama and narrative; but each is combined with a fourth thing in common, which is poetry, which, in turn, is in itself of precisely the same nature as the lyric of which we are told that it is yet a further kind of poetry. Let us here take a passage from a play and consider it in relation to this suggestion:

CLOWN.           I wish you all joy of the worm. CLEOPATRA.   Farewell. CLOWN.           You must think this, look you, that the worm will do his kind. CLEOPATRA.   Ay, ay; farewell. CLOWN.           Look you, the worm is not to be trusted but in the keeping of wise people; for indeed there is no goodness in the worm. CLEOPATRA.   Take thou no care; it shall be heeded. CLOWN.           Very good. Give it nothing, I pray you, for it is not worth the feeding. CLEOPATRA.   Will it eat me? CLOWN.           You must not think I am so simple but I know the devil himself will not eat a woman; I know that a woman is a dish for the gods, if the devil dress her not. But, truly, these same whoreson devils do the gods great harm in their women, for in every ten that they make the devils mar five. CLEOPATRA.   Well, get thee gone; farewell. CLOWN.           Yes, forsooth; I wish you joy of the worm.              Re-enter IRAS. CLEOPATRA.   Give me my robe, put on my crown;                            I have Immortal longings in me; now no more                            The juice of Egypt's grape shall moist this lip.                            Yare, yare, good Iras; quick. Methinks I hear                            Antony call; I see him rouse himself                            To praise my noble act; I hear him mock                            The luck of Cæsar, which the gods give men                            To excuse their after wrath; husband, I come:                            Now to that name my courage prove my title!                            I am fire and air; my other elements                            I give to baser life. So; have you done?                            Come then, and take the last warmth of my lips.                            Farewell, kind Charmian; Iras, long farewell.

     I have chosen this passage not because of its singular beauty, but because it is peculiarly to our present purpose. In the first place, Shakespeare, by using both prose and verse—which he by no means always does under similar circumstances—makes a clear formal division between what is poetry and what is not. It is all magnificently contrived drama, but down to the Clown's exit it is not poetry. The significance of the Clown does not demand of Shakespeare's imaginative mood that highest activity that would force him to poetry. The short dialogue has great excellence, but not this kind of excellence. The fact that it occurs in what we call a poetic drama does not make it poetry; its fine dramatic significance does not give it poetic significance. We are living in a world of dramatic poetry, and yet we have here a perfectly clear distinction between the drama and the poetry, since we definitely have the one without the other. Then, when Cleopatra begins her farewell speech, we have the addition of poetry and a continuance of the drama. And this speech illustrates perfectly the suggestion that the quality which is commonly said to be exclusively lyric is the quality of all poetry. It illustrates it in a particularly emphatic way. For not only is it unquestionably poetry, but it is also unquestionably dramatic. Very clearly the poet is not here speaking out of his own actual experience; it is a woman speaking, one who is a queen: who is wrecked upon the love of kings: who knows that she is about to die a strange and sudden death. So that if the impulse of the poetry in poetic drama were essentially different from the impulse of lyric, if the personal experience which is said to be this latter were something differing in kind from the experience which is the source of what is called dramatic poetry, then here is a case where the essential difference could surely be perceived and defined. It cannot be defined, for it does not exist. It is a fallacy to suppose that experience is any the less personal because it is concerned with an event happening to someone else. If my friend falls to a mortal sickness my experience, if my imaginative faculty is acute, is as poignant as his; if he achieves some great good fortune, my delight is as vigorous as his. And if I am a poet, and choose to express the grief or pleasure as if it were his concern and not mine, the experience does not become one whit less personal to me. You may, if it is convenient, call the result lyric if I speak as though the experience is my own and dramatic poetry if I speak of it as being his, but what you are really saying is that in the one case I am producing pure poetry, and in the other I am producing poetry in conjunction with dramatic statement. The poetic quality is the same in either case. Cleopatra's speech is notable for two things: its dramatic significance, which is admittedly contrived by Shakespeare, and its poetry which springs from an intensity of experience which is clearly, unless we juggle with words, Shakespeare's and not Cleopatra's. The fact that the material upon which the poet's mood has worked has not been confined to some event that has happened to himself but has included the condition of an imagined being does not alter the radical significance of his experience or influence the essential nature of its product. The poetic energy may operate on many things through a million moods, but the character of the energy is immutable. And when we speak of lyric, thinking of the direct and simple activity of this energy unmodified by the process of any other energies, we shall, if we get our mind clear about it, see that we mean pure poetry, and we shall recognise this poetry as being constant in its essential properties in whatever association we may henceforth find it.

     If it is allowed, as, for the reasons I have attempted to set out, I think it rightly may be, that the purely poetic energy is not a variable quality, that of any given expression of a man's mental activity it can definitely be said that it is or is not poetry, there remains one question to be answered,—Can one poem be better than another, if both are truly poems? Or can one poet, by reason of his poetry, be better than another poet by reason of his? Is Keats, for example, a better poet than Suckling? Every good judge of poetry, if that question were put, would be likely to answer without hesitation—Yes, he is. And yet the answer, although the reason for it may be found and, in a sense, allowed, does not in any way discredit the principle that has been defined. With a passage from each of these poets at his best before us, let us see what we find. This from Keats:

And this from Suckling:

     The poetic energy in Keats is here entirely undisturbed. I do not mean that it is not united to any other energy—though here it happens not to be—as in poetic drama, where it is united to the dramatic energy and is still undisturbed in its full activity, but that it is here freely allowed to work itself out to its consummation without any concession, conscious or unconscious, to any mood that is not non-poetic but definitely anti-poetic, in which case, although unchanged in its nature, it would be constrained in a hostile atmosphere. Keats's words are struck out of a mood that tolerates nothing but its own full life and is concerned only to satisfy that life by uncompromising expression. The result is pure poetry, or lyric. But when we come to Suckling's lines we find that there is a difference. The poetic energy is still here. Suckling has quite clearly experienced something in a mood of more than common intensity. It does not matter that the material which has been subjected to the mood is not in itself very profound or passionate. Another poet, Wither, with material curiously like Suckling's to work upon, achieves poetry as unquestionable if not so luxuriant as Keats's.

     To object that there is an emotional gaiety in this which is foreign to Keats is but to state a personal preference. It is, indeed, a preference which is common and founded upon very general experience. Most of us have, from the tradition and circumstance of our own lives, a particular sympathy with the grave and faintly melancholy beauty which is the most recurrent note in fine poetry throughout the world, but this does not establish this particular strain of beauty as being in any way essential to poetry. It is related to an almost universal condition, but it is a fertile source of poetry, not one with the poetic energy itself. It would be absurd to impugn a man's taste because he preferred Chaucer's poetry, which has scarcely a touch of this melancholy, to Shelley's, which is drenched in it, as it would be absurd to quarrel with it because he obtained strictly imaginative pleasure more readily from           Shall I, wasting in despair than from       Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird! His preference merely shows him to belong to a minority: it does not show him to be insensible to poetry. For Wither's mood, by the evidence of its expression, although it may not be so universal in its appeal nor so adventurous in design, is here active to the degree of poetry no less surely than is Keats's. And yet, while it would be an error of judgment to rate Wither below Keats (by virtue of these illustrations) in pure poetic energy, it would, I think, be quite sound so to rate Suckling by the witness of his lyric. For while Wither's mood, in its chosen activity, is wholly surrendered to the poetic energy, Suckling's is not. It is contaminated by one of those external activities which I have spoken of as being hostile to poetry. Although he perceives his subject with the right urgency, he is unwilling to be quite loyal to his perception. He makes some concession to the witty insincerity of the society in which he lives, and his poetry is soiled by the contact. It is not destroyed, not even changed in its nature, but its gold is left for ever twisted in a baser metal with which it does not suit. What we get is not a new compound with the element that corresponds to poetic energy transmuted, but an ill-sorted mixture, while Keats gives us the unblemished gold. We are right in proclaiming his the finer achievement.

     Keats and Wither will serve as examples with which to finish our argument. In spite of all that has been said Keats takes higher rank as poet than Wither? Yes, certainly, but not because the poetic energy in him was a finer thing than the poetic energy that was in Wither. It was more constant, which is a fact of no little importance; its temper appealed to a much more general sympathy, a circumstance which cannot be left out of the reckoning; it touched a far wider range of significant material. These things give Keats his just superiority of rank, but they do not deprive Wither, at his best moments, of the essential quality which is with Keats, as with all poets, the one by which he makes his proudest claim good. Nor need it be feared that in allowing Wither, with his rare moments of withdrawn and rather pale perfection, this the highest of all distinctions, we are making accession to the title of poet too easy. It remains the most difficult of all human attainments. The difference between the essential quality in those eight fragile lines and that in such verse as, say:       Oft. In the stilly night,         Ere slumber's chain has bound me,       Fond memory brings the light         Of other days around me, may be so elusive as to deceive many people that it does not exist, but it is the difference between the rarest of all energies and a common enough sensibility.


     While, therefore, the term "lyric poetry" would in itself seem to be tautological, and so to speak of lyric forms is, strictly, to speak of all poetic forms, there are nevertheless certain more or less defined characteristics of form that we usually connect in our mind with what we call "a lyric" (or, even less exactly, "lyric poetry") which may be said to be a poem where the pure poetic energy is not notably associated with other energies—with a partial exception to which reference will be made. In examining these characteristics nothing will be attempted in the way of a history or an inclusive consideration of particular forms which are known as lyric, but only, as far as may be, an analysis of their governing principles.

     To say that a lyric (using the word henceforward in its particular sense) is generally short is but to say that poetic tension can only be sustained for a short time. Poe's saying that a long poem is a sequence of short ones is perfectly just. What happens, I think, is this. The poetic mood, selecting a subject, records its perception of that subject, the result is a lyric, and the mood passes. On its recurrence another subject is selected and the process repeated. But if another energy than the purely poetic, the energy of co-ordination of which I have spoken, comes into operation, there will be a desire in the poet to link the records of his recurrent poetic perceptions together, and so to construct many poems into a connected whole. Any long work in which poetry is persistent, be it epic or drama or narrative, is really a succession of separate poetic experiences governed into a related whole by an energy distinct from that which evoked them. The decision that the material used at one occurrence of the poetic mood shall be related to the material used at the next is not in itself an operation of the purely poetic energy, but of another.

     The present purpose is, however, to consider the general character of forms used by poets when they choose to leave each successive record of poetic experience in isolation. I have said that any translation of emotion into poetry—it might be said, into any intelligible expression—necessarily implies a certain co-operation of intellectual control. If we take even a detached phrase so directly and obviously emotional in source as:           I die, I faint, I fail! it is clear that the setting out those words is not merely an emotional act. But intellectual control of this kind is not identical with that intellectual relating of one part to another of which we have been speaking, which we may call co-ordination. Of all energies, however, the co-ordinating energy is the one with which the poetic energy is most instinctively in sympathy, and it is in this connection that I made a partial exception when I said that a lyric was a poem where the pure poetic energy was not notably associated with other energies. When a poet writes a poem of corresponding lines and stanzas or in a form of which the structural outline is decided by a definable law—as in the sonnet—he is in effect obeying the impulse of the co-ordinating energy, and the use of rhyme is another sign of obedience to the same impulse. It so happens that this energy, next to the poetic energy, is the most impressive and satisfying of all mental activities, and while poetry may exist independently of it, the fact remains that it very rarely does so. A very curious fallacy about this matter has sometimes obtained support. The adherents of what is called free verse, not content, as they should thankfully be, if they can achieve poetry in their chosen medium, are sometimes tempted to claim that it is the peculiar virtue of their manner—which, let me say it again, may be entirely admirable—that it enables the structure of verse to keep in constant correspondence with change of emotion. The notion is, of course, a very convenient one when you wish to escape the very exacting conditions of formal control, and have not the patience or capacity to understand their difficulties, and that it is professed by many who do so wish is doubtless. But there are other serious and gifted people, loyally trying to serve a great art, who hold this view, and on their account consideration is due to it. But it is none the less a fallacy, and doubly so. In the first place, the change of line-lengths and rhythms in a short poem written in "free verse" is nearly always arbitrary, and does not succeed in doing what is claimed for it in this direction, while it often does succeed in distressing the ear and so obscuring the sense, though that is by the way. It is not as though given rhythms and line-lengths had any peculiar emotional significance attached to them. A dirge may be in racing anapæsts, laughter in the most sedate iambic measure; a solemn invocation may move in rapid three-foot lines, while grave heroic verse may contain the gayest of humours. In a long work, indeed, variety of structure may be used to give variety of sensation to the ear with delightful and sometimes even necessary effect, though—in English, and I am always speaking of English—it cannot even then be used with any certainty to express change of emotion. But in a lyric the ear does not demand this kind of relief. With many of us, at least, it accepts and even demands an unbroken external symmetry. The symmetry may be externally simple, as in, say, the stanzas of Heraclitus :   They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead;   They brought me bitter news to hear, and bitter tears to shed.   I wept as I remembered how often you and I   Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.   And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,   A handful of grey ashes, long, long ago at rest,   Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales awake,   For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take, or intricate, as in:   Blest pair of Sirens, pledges of Heaven's joy,   Sphere-born harmonious Sisters, Voice and Verse,   Wed your divine sounds, and mixt power employ   Dead things with inbreathed sense able to pierce;   And to our high-raised phantasy present   That undisturbed song of pure content,   Aye sung before the sapphire-colour'd throne         To Him that sits thereon   With saintly shout and solemn jubilee;   Where the bright Seraphim in burning row   Their loud-uplifted angel-trumpets blow;   And the Cherubic host in thousand quires   Touch their immortal harps of golden wires,   With those just Spirits that wear victorious palms,         Hymns devout and holy psalms         Singing everlastingly: in either case there is a formal and easily perceptible relation between one part of the structure and another, and this relation is a positive help to us in understanding the plain sense of the words, while its presence does not involve any loss of emotional significance which its absence would supply. The truth is—and here is the second and chief objection to the claim that we are discussing—that the poetic mood, which is what is expressed by the rhythm and form of verse and may very well be called the emotion of poetry, is not at all the same thing as what are commonly called the emotions—as happiness, despair, love, hate and the rest. Its colour will vary between one poet and another, but in one poet it will be relatively fixed in quality, while these other emotions are but material upon which, in common with many other things, it may work. And being a relatively fixed condition, it is, for its part, in no need of changing metrical devices for its expression, and to maintain that the "emotions," subjects of its activity, should have in their alternation a corresponding alternation of metrical device is no more reasonable than to maintain that other subjects of its activity should be so treated; it is to forget, for example, that when Shakespeare wrote:       Fear no more the heat o' the sun,         Nor the furious winter's rages:       Thou thy worldly task hast done,         Home art gone and ta'en thy wages:       Golden lads and girls all must,         As chimney-sweepers, come to dust, it was his subject-matter that changed from line to line and not the poetic emotion governing it, and to say that he ought to have made the metrical and rhythmic form of the first line in itself suggest heat: of the second, rough weather: of the third, work: of the fourth, wages: and of the fifth and sixth the death of golden lads and girls and of chimney-sweepers respectively, all things manifestly very different from each other, and things which, if it were the function of verbal rhythms and metres to do this sort of thing at all, could not with any propriety have the closely related equivalents that they have here. No; to ask for this kind of effect is really to ask for nothing more valuable than the devotional crosses and altars into which a perverted wit led some of the seventeenth-century poets to contrive their verses in unhappy moments, or Southey's Lodore , in which there is a fond pretence that verbal rhythms are water.[3] It is just as difficult to explain why verbal rhythms will not perform this function as it is to explain why the moon is not a green cheese.

          3: Most poets will occasionally use onomatopoeia with success, but this is a different matter, and even so it is quite an inessential poetic device. One might sometimes suppose from what we are told, that Virgil's chief claim to poetry was the fact that he once made a line of verse resemble the movement of a horse's hoofs.

     But while it is true that the function of the rhythm of poetry is to express the governing poetic emotion, and that, since the emotion in itself is fixed rather than changing, it will best do this not by mere irregularity, but by flexible movement that is contained in an external symmetry, it does not follow at all that the subject-matter which the poetic emotion is controlling, be it the "emotions" or anything else, cannot hope for expression that catches its peculiar properties. To do this in poetry is the supreme distinction not of rhythms, but of words. The preponderance of the five-foot blank-verse line in the work of, say, Shakespeare and Milton, is so great that we can safely say that their rank as poets would not be lower than it is if they had written nothing else. Clearly their constancy to this metre was not the result of any technical deficiency. Even if Milton had not written the choruses of Samson Agonistes and Shakespeare his songs, nobody would be so absurd as to suggest that they adopted this five-foot line and spent their mighty artistry in sending supple and flowing variety through its external uniformity, because they could not manage any other. They used it because they found that its rhythm perfectly expressed their poetic emotion, and because the formal relation of one line to another satisfied the instinct for co-ordination, and for the full expression of the significance of their subject-matter they relied not upon their rhythms, but upon their choice of words. The belief that when a poem is written there is one and only one metrical scheme that could possibly be used for that particular occasion is an amiable delusion that should be laid aside with such notions as that the poet makes his breakfast on dew and manna. Once the poem is written we may feel indeed, if it be a good one, that any change in the form is impossible, but when the poet was about to write it we may be sure that he quite deliberately weighed one form against another before making his choice. It may even be true that he will sometimes find the shape of his poem running to his tongue as it were unbidden, but this certainty of selection is really in itself the result of long and, perhaps, subconscious deliberation. The point is that the chosen form must in any case express the poetic emotion, but that its particular election is a personal whim, wholly satisfactory in its result, rather than a divine necessity. The Ode to the West Wind and the Stanzas written in Dejection are both superb poems, but who shall say that Shelley might not have written the former in the short-measured nine-line stanzas and the latter in his terza-rima , and yet have embodied his poetic emotion as completely as he has done? It need hardly be added that it does not follow that, because a simple metrical outline may easily and justly be chosen, it can easily be used. So plain a measure as the six-line octo-syllabic stanza may be the merest unintelligent jog-trot, or it may be:       I wander'd lonely as a cloud       That floats on high o'er vales and hills,       When all at once I saw a crowd,       A host, of golden daffodils;       Beside the lake, beneath the trees,       Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

     We may now consider this question of the subject-matter and its expression in words. When the poet makes his perfect selection of a word, he is endowing the word with life. He has something in his mind, subjected to his poetic vision, and his problem is to find words that will compel us to realise the significance of that something. To solve this problem is his last and most exacting difficulty, demanding a continual wariness and the closest discipline. When Homer nodded, another man's word came to his lips, and when that happens the poet may as well be silent. No poet has been wholly blameless of this relaxation or escaped its penalties, but it is by his vigilance in this matter that we measure his virility.

     I suppose everyone knows the feeling that sometimes calls us to a life where we fend and cater for ourselves in the fields and rivers, such as William Morris knew when he shot fieldfares with his bow and arrow and cooked them for his supper. Shakespeare knew it too, in the mind of Caliban, and his business was to realise this subject-matter for us in such a way that it could not possibly escape us in vague generalisation. Its appeal to our perceptions must be irresistible. He can do it only by the perfect choice of words, thus:

Every word sings with life, and the whole passage shows perfectly the function of words in poetry. The peculiar delight which we get from such a passage as this comes, I think, apart from its fundamental poetic quality, from the fact that the subject-matter is of such general interest as constantly to tempt incomplete perception to inadequate expression. Consequently when we get an expression which is complete our pleasure has an added surprise. "Show thee a jay's nest"; it is strangely simple, but it is revelation. Or let us take a case where the subject-matter is one of the emotions of which we have spoken; the emotion that marks the pity of parting at death:         I am dying, Egypt, dying: the use of that one word, Egypt, should answer for ever the people who think that the subject-matter of poetry is to be expressed by rhythm.

     Thus we have rhythm expressing the poetic emotion, or intensity of perception, and words expressing the thing that is intensely perceived; so, as the creed of the mystics shows us beauty born of the exact fusion of thought with feeling, of perfect correspondence of the strictly chosen words to the rhythmic movement is born the complete form of poetry. And when this perfect correspondence occurs unaccompanied by any other energy—save, perhaps, the co-ordinating energy of which I have spoken—we have pure poetry and what is commonly in our minds when we think of lyric. If it be objected that some of my illustrations, that speech of Caliban's for example, are taken from "dramatic poetry" and not from "lyric poetry," my answer is that it is impossible to discover any essential difference between those lines and any authentic poem that is known as "a lyric." The kind of difference that there is can be found also between any two lyrics; it is accidental, resulting from difference of personality and subject-matter, and the essential poetic intensity, which is the thing that concerns us, is of the same nature in both cases. Any general term that can fitly be applied to, say, the Ode to The West Wind can be applied with equal fitness to Caliban's island lore. Both are poetry, springing from the same imaginative activity, living through the same perfect selection and ordering of words, and, in our response, quickening the same ecstasy. Although we are accustomed to look rather for the rhymed and stanzaic movement of the former in a lyric than for the stricter economy and uniformity of Caliban's blank verse, yet both have the essential qualities of lyric—of pure poetry.

     It may be protested that after all the peculiar property of lyric, differentiating it from other kinds of poetry, is that it is song. If we dismiss the association of the art of poetry with the art of music, as we may well do, I think the protest is left without any significance. In English, at any rate, there is hardly any verse—a few Elizabethan poems only—written expressly to be sung and not to be spoken, that has any importance as poetry, and even the exceptions have their poetic value quite independently of their musical setting. For the rest, whenever a true poem is given a musical setting, the strictly poetic quality is destroyed. The musician—if he be a good one—finds his own perception prompted by the poet's perception, and he translates the expression of that perception from the terms of poetry into the terms of music. The result may be, and often is, of rare beauty and of an artistic significance as great, perhaps, as that of the poem itself, and the poet is mistaken in refusing, as he often does,[4] to be the cause of the liberation of this new and admirable activity in others. But, in the hands of the musician, once a poem has served this purpose, it has, as poetry, no further existence. It is well that the musician should use fine poetry and not bad verse as his inspiration, for obvious reasons, but when the poetry has so quickened him it is of no further importance in his art save as a means of exercising a beautiful instrument, the human voice. It is unnecessary to discuss the relative functions of two great arts, wholly different in their methods, different in their scope. But it is futile to attempt to blend the two.

      4: His refusal is commonly due to lamentable experience. If a Shelley is willing to lend his suggestions to the musician, he has some right to demand that the musician shall be a Wolf. The condition of his allowing his poem to be used and destroyed in the process is, rightly, that something of equal nobility shall be wrought of its dust.

     As far as my indifferent understanding of the musician's art will allow me I delight in and reverence it, and the singing human voice seems to me to be, perhaps, the most exquisite instrument that the musician can command. But in the finished art of the song the use of words has no connection with the use of words in poetry. If the song be good, I do not care whether the words are German, which I cannot understand, or English, which I can. On the whole I think I prefer not to understand them, since I am then not distracted by thoughts of another art.

     If then from the argument about the lyric that it should "sing," we dismiss this particular meaning of its adaptability to music, what have we left? It cannot be that it peculiarly should be rhythmic, since we have seen that to be this is of the essential nature of all poetry—that rhythm is, indeed, necessary to the expression of the poetic emotion itself. It cannot be that it peculiarly should be of passionate intensity, since again, this we have seen to be the condition of all poetry. In short, it can mean nothing that cannot with equal justice be said of poetry wherever it may be found. To the ear that is worthy of poetry the majestic verse of the great passages in Paradise Lost , the fierce passion of Antony and Macbeth, the movement of the poetry in Sigurd the Volsung , "sing" as surely as the lyrics of the Elizabethans or of Poems and Ballads . Poetry must give of its essential qualities at all times, and we cannot justly demand that at any time it should give us more than these.


     Poetry being the sign of that which all men desire, even though the desire be unconscious, intensity of life or completeness of experience, the universality of its appeal is a matter of course. We often hear people say, sincerely enough, that they feel no response to poetry. This nearly always means that their natural feeling for poetry has been vitiated in some way, generally by contact, often forced upon them, with work that only masquerades as poetry, or by such misgovernment of their lives as dulls all their finer instincts. Unless it be wholly numbed in some such way, the delight of poetry is ready to quicken in almost every man; and with a little use it will quicken only to what is worthy. And lyric being pure poetry, and most commonly found in isolation in the short poems which are called lyrics, these will make the widest appeal of all the forms in which poetry is found. For while sympathy with the poetic energy is almost universal, sympathy with most other great energies is relatively rare. The reason, for example, why twenty people will enjoy Wordsworth's Reaper for one who will enjoy Paradise Lost , is not because Paradise Lost is longer, but because it demands for its full appreciation not only, in common with The Reaper , a sympathy with the poetic energy, which it would obtain readily enough, but also a sympathy with that other energy of intellectual control which has been discussed. This energy being, though profoundly significant, yet far less so than the poetic energy, the response to it is far less general, and many readers of Paradise Lost will find in it not only poetry, which they desire but faintly, while in The Reaper they will find poetry as nearly isolated from all other energies as it can be.

     To summarise our argument, we find that poetry is the result of the intensest emotional activity attainable by man focusing itself upon some manifestation of life, and experiencing that manifestation completely; that the emotion of poetry expresses itself in rhythm and that the significance of the subject-matter is realised by the intellectual choice of the perfect word. We recognise in the finished art, which is the result of these conditions, the best words in the best order—poetry; and to put this essential poetry into different classes is impossible. But since it is most commonly found by itself in short poems which we call lyric, we may say that the characteristic of the lyric is that it is the product of the pure poetic energy unassociated with other energies, and that lyric and poetry are synonymous terms.

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the lyric essay

  • > The Cambridge History of the American Essay
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the lyric essay

Book contents

  • The Cambridge History of the American Essay
  • Copyright page
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Introduction
  • Part I The Emergence of the American Essay (1710–1865)
  • Part II Voicing the American Experiment (1865–1945)
  • Part III Postwar Essays and Essayism (1945–2000)
  • Part IV Toward the Contemporary American Essay (2000–2020)
  • 31 The American Essay Film: A Neglected Genre
  • 32 Literary Theory, Criticism, and the Essay
  • 33 Gender, Queerness, and the American Essay
  • 34 Disability and the American Essay
  • 35 The Radical Hybridity of the Lyric Essay
  • 36 Writing Migration: Multiculturalism, Democracy, and the Essay Form
  • 37 Latinx Culture and the Essay
  • 38 Black Experience through the Essay
  • 39 The Essay and the Anthropocene
  • Recommendations for Further Reading

35 - The Radical Hybridity of the Lyric Essay

from Part IV - Toward the Contemporary American Essay (2000–2020)

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 March 2024

This chapter traces the development in the United States of the lyric essay (and, peripherally, essayistic poetry), with a focus on three contemporary writers: Anne Carson, Annie Dillard, and Maggie Nelson. Beginning with competing definitions of this hybrid genre whose contours are not always easy to discern, the chapter describes the role of American creative writing programs and the poetry classroom in the emergence of this special type of writing, which has gained ground in the early years of the twenty-first century. Examples from the lyric essays of Carson, Dillard, and Nelson are then read closely in an attempt to isolate the features unique to this genre celebrated by John D’Agata and Deborah Tall in their manifesto "New Terrain: The Lyric Essay" (1997).

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  • The Radical Hybridity of the Lyric Essay
  • By Michael Askew
  • Edited by Christy Wampole , Princeton University, New Jersey , Jason Childs
  • Book: The Cambridge History of the American Essay
  • Online publication: 28 March 2024
  • Chapter DOI:

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The Cultural and Musical Significance of “Sweet Home Alabama”

This essay is about the song “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd exploring its themes historical context and cultural significance. It discusses how the song responds to criticisms of the South particularly those made by Neil Young by celebrating Southern pride and identity. The essay addresses the song’s controversial references to Governor George Wallace and its nuanced political stance. It also highlights the song’s enduring legacy as a cultural touchstone that evokes strong emotions and regional pride. Through its lyrics and melody “Sweet Home Alabama” remains a significant piece of American history and culture.

How it works

“Sweet Home Alabama” a song by the American rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd has become an iconic anthem deeply ingrained in the cultural fabric of the United States particularly the South. Released in 1974 it is a track that encapsulates both pride and controversy reflecting the complex socio-political landscape of its time. This essay explores the song’s themes its historical context and its enduring legacy.

At its core “Sweet Home Alabama” is a response to the criticisms of the South particularly those leveled by Neil Young in his songs “Southern Man” and “Alabama.

” Young’s songs highlighted the region’s history of racism and civil rights abuses. In contrast “Sweet Home Alabama” offers a defense of Southern culture and pride. The song opens with the famous lines “Big wheels keep on turnin’ carry me home to see my kin” setting a tone of nostalgia and affection for the Southern way of life. This sentiment resonates with many who have a deep connection to their roots evoking a sense of belonging and identity.

The chorus with its catchy and memorable refrain “Sweet home Alabama where the skies are so blue” emphasizes a positive and idyllic image of the state. It is a celebration of the natural beauty and the sense of community that characterizes the region. However beneath this surface lies a more complex message. The song also addresses political issues of the time including a controversial line referencing Governor George Wallace a staunch segregationist. The line “In Birmingham they love the governor” followed by “Now we all did what we could do” suggests a nuanced stance on the political turmoil of the era. The band has clarified that the song is not an endorsement of Wallace’s policies but rather an acknowledgment of the complicated political realities.

“Sweet Home Alabama” also touches on themes of Southern identity and pride. The South with its rich musical heritage has always been a significant contributor to American culture. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s blend of rock and roll with Southern influences encapsulates this cultural fusion. The song’s iconic guitar riffs and spirited rhythm reflect the energy and resilience of the Southern spirit. It serves as an anthem for those who identify with the region’s distinct cultural identity celebrating its contributions to music cuisine and community values.

The song’s legacy extends beyond its initial release remaining a staple in American popular culture. It has been featured in numerous films commercials and sporting events reinforcing its status as a cultural touchstone. Despite its controversial elements “Sweet Home Alabama” continues to resonate with audiences symbolizing a sense of regional pride and nostalgia. The song’s enduring popularity can be attributed to its ability to evoke strong emotions and its infectious upbeat melody.

Over the years “Sweet Home Alabama” has sparked discussions about the South’s history and identity. While some view it as a simple celebration of Southern life others see it as a reminder of the region’s complexities and contradictions. This duality is part of what makes the song so compelling. It invites listeners to reflect on their own perceptions of the South and to consider the multifaceted nature of regional identity.

In conclusion “Sweet Home Alabama” is more than just a catchy rock song; it is a cultural artifact that captures the essence of a time and place. It speaks to the enduring power of music to reflect and shape societal values and to the unique role that the South plays in the American narrative. Whether celebrated for its musical prowess critiqued for its political implications or cherished for its nostalgic value the song remains a significant piece of American history and culture. Through its lyrics and melody “Sweet Home Alabama” continues to inspire provoke and entertain securing its place in the pantheon of classic rock anthems.

Remember this essay is a starting point for inspiration and further research. For more personalized assistance and to ensure your essay meets all academic standards consider reaching out to professionals at EduBirdie .


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the lyric essay

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Shania Twain, Officially a ‘Legend’

The Glastonbury Festival’s coveted “Legend’s Slot,” at 3:45 p.m. Sunday, was hers and she said she was ready for the “most extraordinary party of my career.”

Shania Twain, wearing a black dress, stands onstage in front of a crowd.

By Alex Marshall

Photographs by Ellie Smith

Reporting from Pilton, England

On a recent Friday, Shania Twain rode a horse through rural terrain in Alberta, Canada, helping a neighbor relocate a herd of Angus cattle. As cows mooed loudly around her, the country-pop star multitasked, chatting on the phone about prepping for an appearance on a famous field an ocean away.

Twain recalled how she started to perform at age 8 in smoky bars where drunk men would sometimes heckle her. As a result, she developed stage fright and hated being in the spotlight until she was about 50, she said, so the idea of performing for more than 200,000 revelers at Britain’s biggest music festival would have been anxiety inducing.

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But on Sunday afternoon, Twain, now 58, walked onstage at the Glastonbury Festival and did just that. Accompanied by a herd of equines (giant hobby horses, this time), Twain kicked off with “ That Don’t Impress Me Much ,” her 1998 megahit about dismissing romantic suitors. Within seconds, the vast crowd was singing along, dozens of women climbing up onto friends’ shoulders, their hands outstretched in front of them.

She was occupying the most coveted slot at Britain’s largest and longest-running music event, the so-called Legend’s Slot, at 3:45 p.m. on the festival’s final day, an appearance she said she expected to be the “most extraordinary party of my career.”

The musician who earns this prized booking — past performers have included Dolly Parton, Diana Ross and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys — not only gets to hear tens of thousands of fans singing their music back to them, but also secures a large live TV audience, which typically results in a boost in record sales and streams.

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