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Essays come in a bewildering variety of shapes and forms: they could be the five paragraph essays you wrote in school – maybe for or against gun control or the symbolism in it. Gatsby the magnificent. Essays can be personal stories or argumentative pieces that appear on blogs or in newspaper editorials. It can be funny shots of modern life or works of literary criticism. They can even be the length of a book instead of being short. Trials can be so many things!
Perhaps you have heard the term “lyric essay” and wonder what it means. I am here to help.
What is the lyric essay?
A quick definition of the term “lyric essay” is that it is a hybrid genre that combines essay and poetry. The lyric essays are prose, but written in a way that might remind you of reading a poem.
Before going any further, let me go back with a few more definitions. If you want to know the difference between poetry and prose, it’s just that in poetry, line breaks matter, and not in prose. That’s it! So the lyric essay is prose, which means it doesn’t matter where the line breaks fall, but it has other similarities to what you find in poems.
The lyric essays have what we call “poetic” prose. This kind of prose draws attention to its own use of language. Lyrical essays aim to create certain effects with words, often, but not necessarily, aimed at creating beauty. They are often condensed in the manner of poetry, conveying depth and complexity in a few words. Chances are, you take your time to read them, to fully absorb what they are trying to say. They can be more suggestive than argumentative and communicate multiple, perhaps even contradictory, meanings.
Lyric essays often have a lot of white space on their pages, as do poems. Sometimes they use page space creatively, arranging pieces of text differently from normal paragraphs, or using only part of the page, for example. They sometimes include photos, drawings, documents or other images to add (or have some other connection with) the meaning of the words.
Essays can be on any topic. Often they are memorials, but they don’t have to be. They can be philosophical or about nature, history or culture, or any combination of those things. What sets them apart from other essays, which can also be on any subject, is their increased attention to language. Also, they tend to underestimate carefully considered arguments and explanations of the kind you find in exposure tests. Lyrical essays can argue and use research, but they are more likely to explore and suggest than to 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 mixture of poetry and prose. Prose poems are pieces of poetic writing with no line breaks. So what is the difference between the lyric essay and the prose poem?
Honestly, I am not sure. You can call some writings either term and both would be correct. My feeling, however, is that if you put prose and poetry on a continuum, with prose on one side and poetry on the other, and with prose poetry and the lyric essay somewhere in the middle, the prose poem would be closer to poetry. side and the lyric essay closer to the prose side.
However, some writings simply defy categorization. Ultimately, I think it’s best to call a work what the author wants it to be called, if it’s possible to determine what it is. Otherwise, make your best guess.
Four examples of the lyric essay
Below are some examples of my favorite lyric essays. After all, the best way to learn more about a genre is to read it, so consider trying one of these books!
Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: an American song by Claudia Rankine
Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen counts as a lyrical essay, but I want to highlight his lesser known work from 2004. In Don’t let me be alone, Rankine explores isolation, depression, death and violence from the perspective of post 9/11 America. It mixes words and images, especially television, to question our relationship to the media and culture. Rankine writes in short sections, surrounded by lots of white space, which are personal, meditative, beautiful, and painfully sad.
Calamities by Renée Gladman
Calamities is a collection of lyrical essays exploring language, imagination and the life of writing. All the pieces, up to the last 14, open with “I started the day…” and then describe what she thinks and experiences as a writer, teacher, thinker and person in the world. Most of the essays are straightforward, while some become dreamlike and poetic. The last 14 tries are the “catastrophes” of the title. Together, the essays capture the artistic spirit at work, process the experience and slowly transform it into writing.
The unstable auto by Elisa Gabbert
The unstable auto is a collection of short essays – or are they prose poems? – each one the length of a paragraph, one per page. Gabbert’s sentences read like aphorisms. They’re 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 and Other Animals” and “The Pleasure of Adversity: Love and Sex”. The book is sharp, surprising and delicious.
Blueberries by Maggie Nelson
Blueberries is composed of short essayist and poetic paragraphs, organized in a numbered list. Maggie Nelson’s topics are numerous and include the color blue, in which she finds so much interest and meaning that it will take your breath away. It is also suffering: she tells the story of a friend who became quadriplegic following an accident, and she tells of her grief after a difficult breakup. Blueberries is meditative and philosophical, vulnerable and personal. It’s beautiful, a book in love with The Argonauts should not be missing.
It is probably not surprising that all of these books are published by small presses. Lyric essays are weird enough and challenge genres that major publishers usually avoid them. This is just one more reason, among many others, to read the small press!
If you’re looking for more essay recommendations, check out our list of 100 Must-Read Essay Collections and These 25 Excellent Essays You Can Read Online For Free.