Saturday, December 14, 2019

Lyric Essay and Let's Forget the Traditional Essay

by Kaye Linden

The lyric essay is one of my favorite hybrid forms. One way to understand the lyric essay is to think prose poetry and flash nonfiction mixed up in essay form. The lyric essay reflects something about its author in a personal way, expressed with the author's unique writing style.

The term "lyrical" refers to music or, specifically, the lyre of ancient times. Musical in its rhythm and sound, the lyric essay relies on the rhythm and song of language. It derives much of its quality from the use of poetic devices such as imagery, implication, allusion, metaphor, alliteration, assonance, memory fragments, memory juxtaposition, the structural use of white space and experimentation in style.

An essay generally implies a logical format, a commentary, an argument, a reportage, or a creative nonfiction critique. Examples include memoir essays with a dive into the author's past, or the reflective essay (Montaigne) with focused attention on a subject, object, or specific idea. Contemporary nonfiction essays move along the lines of traditional nonfiction structure and reportage. For examples, essays by John Krakauer (Essays on Wilderness and Risk).

Contemporary lyric essay authors incorporate non-traditional styles and poetic influence. For example, the lyric essay below by Lisa Allen and those of Joan Didion, Anne Carson, Michael Ondaatje, Sarah Manguso, and John D'Agata.

In our 2019 edition of Bacopa Literary Review, we published Lisa Allen's "My Father Explains My Broken Womb." This piece is a fine example of a lyric essay. The author utilizes white space to allow us to pause in between the emotional intensity. I especially admire her deft handling of language and the lack of traditional grammar and punctuation. The total effect is a unique "Lisa Allen" writing style:
When he says broken, he means not going to church anymore means saying their instead of she means boys not liking girls and the other way around means different, and your kind of different is the worst kind.
Notice the lack of punctuation and non-traditional grammar. The following is an example of Allen's use of imagery, alliteration and creative word choice ("wet whiskey of his voice"):
like a newborn reaching for their mother's smile . . . blew raspberries on your Buddha belly . . . can still hear the susurrus of your curled fists on his stubbled chin.

Now your fists whip the air as you twirl from one mucky leaf to another, hopscotching your way through this wreckage. I close my eyes and offer thanks for my good fortune for your contagious joy for his warm hand on my shoulder. He leans in, the wet whiskey of his voice a swarm of bees I cannot swat away: it's not the child I blame--something in you must've made her this way.
Read the whole piece and enjoy the rhythm of the language, the author's unique style and treatment of her theme. Perhaps, consider examining a photograph of your family and write a short one-page essay about your interaction with one or two of the characters in that photo. Lose the rules and write with abandon. Incorporate poetic device and rhythmic language. Above all, as with any writing, have fun!

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Lisa Allen's work has been published in Bacopa Literary Review, Lily Poetry Review, Midway Journal (which nominated her for a Pushcart Prize in 2019), and several anthologies. She holds two MFAs from the Solstice Low-Residency Program at Pine Manor College--in Creative Nonfiction and in Poetry--and is an editor of the anthology series Maximum Tilt.

Read Lisa Allen's lyric essay and other works
in Bacopa Literary Review 2019 (Print Edition or Digital Format).