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Writing Creative Nonfiction: The Lyrical Essay

Monday July 22, 2013
By Dave Hood

The lyrical essay is a subgenre of the personal essay. It is based on images and ideas of a particular theme. For instance, Eula Biss crafts a lyrical essay about pain called “The Pain Scale,” which has appeared in Harper’s magazine. The writer of the literary essay constructs images with sensory details. The writer also uses poetic language, such as alliteration and assonance. The lyrical essay combines both prose and poetry, sometimes found objects of writing to create the lyrical essay. The essay is created with fragments of details, and each fragmented is separated with white space, asterisk, or number. The writer presents questions and relies on the reader to provide the answers. The lyrical essay encourages the reader to ponder and meditate while reading the essay.

In this article, I will discuss the lyrical essay. The following will be covered:
• Definition and features of the lyrical essay
• Categories of lyrical essays-prose poem, braided essay, collage, and “hermit crab” essay
• Techniques for writing the lyrical essay
• Creative Writing Style
• Additional reading

Definition of a Lyrical Essay

The lyrical essay is a type of personal essay that combines both prose and poetry. It is often crafted like a prose poem. The writer uses a series of image or ideas, not narrative or argument, to craft the essay. The image can be of a person, place, thing, or object. The idea can be anything. The writer attempts to recreate the experience and evoke emotion in the reader by using sensory details, description that expresses what the writer sees, hears, smells, tastes, touches, and feels. The lyrical essay is not organized as a narrative, with one event unfolding after the next. Nor is it organized in chronological order. Instead the writer creates a series of fragmented images using poetic language, such as alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme, and rhythm.

In 1997, The Seneca Review created the lyrical essay. This literary journal, publishing twice a year, defines the literary essay as follows:
• Combines prose and poetry
• Constructed from a distillation of ideas
• Mentions but doesn’t expound
• Suggestive but not exhaustive
• Relies on associations, imagery, and connotation
• Makes reference to other genres, such as film, music, literature
• Arranged in fragments as a mosaic
• Based on stories that are metaphors
• Based on intimate voice
• Crafted with lyrical language

The lyrical essay is usually fragmented. The writer creates a series of images using sensory details. Each image represents a fragment of detail, which are separated by double spaces, asterisk, or numbers. It is also suggestive. The writer implicitly suggests meaning. It is meditative. The reader ponders the words and emotion expressed in those words. It is often inconclusive. The writer provides no final point for the reader to take away. If you are interested in reading examples of a lyrical essay, visit The Seneca Review.

Categories of the Lyrical Essay

Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, in “Tell IT Slant,” identify four categories of lyrical essay:
• The prose poem or flash nonfiction essay
• The collage essay
• The braided essay
• The “Hermit Crab” essay

The Prose Poem. It is crafted like prose but reads like a poem. It is written in sentences, not verse. The writer uses poetic devices, such as imagery, symbolism, simile, metaphor to create a prose poem of one or more paragraphs. The writer also uses literary prose by using alliteration, assonance, and internal rhyme.

The Collage Essay. Like the art collage, the collage of a lyrical essay is based on a collection of fragments from different sources. For instance, prose, poetry, quotation might be combined. The use of juxtaposition is used. The writer separates each section with white space, an asterisk, subtitles, epigraph.

The Braided Essay. It relies on the lyrical examination of a particular topic. The writer uses fragments of detail from different sources . According to Brenda Miller in “Tell IT Slant”, the writer fragments the essay into separate pieces that repeat throughout the essay. There is a weaving of different ideas, such as quotations, descriptions, facts, lists, poet language, imagery. This essay also allows for an outside voice to provide details, along with the writer’s voice and experiences. The purpose of the outside voice is to shadow the writers voice, according to Brenda Miller in “Tell IT Slant.”

The “Hermit Crab” Essay. This type of lyrical essay is created from the shell of another, like the hermit crab that lives the life within the shell of another mollusk or snail. It borrows from fiction, poetry, description, personal narrative, instructions, questions and answers, diary, itinerary, table of contents, songs, recipes, collection of favorite CDs, that are used as a shell to construct something new.

For additional information about the lyrical essay, you can read “Tell It Slant”, a short text on writing creative nonfiction, focusing on the personal essay, and its various subgenres. To read examples of the lyrical essay, visit the Seneca Review.

The lyrical essay has these features:
1. The writer crafts sentences that have rhythm, like a prose poem. Paces and stressed syllables determine rhythm. Iambic pentameter is the most common type of rhythm. It is based on a pattern of five iambic feet. Yet, writers often just count the number of stressed syllables in a line to determine the rhythmic structure of their prose. A short sentence speeds up the pace. A long sentence slows down the pace.
2. The writer creates lyrical prose that sound musical by using alliteration, assonance, and internal rhyme.
3. The writer constructs the essay with fragments of detail. Each fragment is separated by white space, asterisk, title, or number.
4. The essay is often inclusive. Instead the writer focuses on evoking emotion in the reader, and the reader must draw his or her own conclusion.

Writers who have popularized the lyrical essay are:
• Eula Biss, author of “No Man’s Land” and many lyrical essays, including “The Pain Scale” which can be read online. (Conduct a Google Search)
• David Shields, author of the book “Reality Hunger.”
• John D’Agata, author of the book “The Lifespan of Fact”
• The Seneca Review, a literary journal that publishes lyrical essays.

Techniques for Crafting the Lyrical Essay

The lyrical essay is a subgenre of the personal essay. The writer creates the essay in prose using lyrical language. As well the writer uses an intimate voice, often by using the first person POV (I). Writers can use the following techniques to create a lyrical essay:
• Poetic language. The writer relies on alliteration and assonance and internal rhyme. Sometimes the writer will create fragments of prose poetry.
• Figurative language. The writer make comparisons with metaphor and simile.
• Imagery. The writer creates images of people, places, things, objects, ideas with sensory details, prose that appeal to the writer’s sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing.
• Connotation. The writer expresses meaning through connotation, not explicit expression of the details.
• Questions. The writer poses questions to the reader who must answer them.
• Juxtaposition. The writer often juxtaposes different fragments of detail, which have implied meaning.
• Association. The writer expresses meaning through association of different things by using simile and metaphor.
• Prose and poetry. The writer crafts sentences in prose using poetic language and rhythm.
• Reference. The lyrical essay often mentions something without elaborating.
• Rhythm. The writer creates emotion by using rhythmic prose.
• Fragmented. White space or an asterisk or subtitles or epigraph are used by the writer to separate each sections of the essay.
• Intimate POV. The writer often write in the first person POV (I) and shares intimate details, such as emotional truth. It answers the question: Who does it feel?
• Inconclusive ending. The lyrical essay often ends without answering the questions posed in the essay.

The writer creates a lyrical essay based on some theme. For instance, Eula Biss crafts an essay on “The Pain Scale.” The themes are pain and how to measure pain. She crafts this lyrical essay by using poetic language and rhythmic sentences. She writers in the first person POV (I) and feelings of emotion. She writes fragments of detail, and each fragmented is separated by white space or asterisk or number. The meaning is constructed by the accumulation of detail.

Creative Writing Style

To write the lyrical essay, use the following writing style:

1. Tone. A friendly and conversational tone.
2. Word choice. Fresh and original, short rather than long, familiar instead of unfamiliar words.
3. Lyrical language. Use of alliteration and assonance and rhythm.
4. Sentence variety. Use of a variety of sentence patterns, such as the balanced sentence, the cumulative sentence, and the periodic sentence.
5. Intimate POV. Use of first person POV (I) and sharing of personal thoughts and feelings and reflections.

Additional Reading

To learn more about writing the lyrical essay, read the following:
• Hall of Fame by John D’Agata
• Plain Water by Anne Carson
• The Art of the Personal Essay, edited by Philip Lopate
• Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine
• Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
• Words Overflown by Stars, Edited by David Jauss
• The Seneca Review (http://www.hws.edu/academics/senecareview/lyricessay.aspx )
• “Essaying the Thing: An Imagist Approach to the Lyrical Essay” by Joey Franklin. (The Writer’s Chronicle magazine, September 2012)
• Reality Hunger by David Shields
• No Man’s Land by Eula Biss
• The Life Span of Fact by John D’Agasta

Writing Free Verse Poetry: Adding Sound Effects

By Dave Hood

When writing a poem, a good poet will choose words for their meaning and their sound. Memorable poems have a pleasing sound. A pleasing sound is like music to the ear. The poet who composes free verse can select several poetic devices to create a pleasing sound, such as alliteration, assonance, rhyme, repetition. The best writers also use these poetic when writing fiction or creative nonfiction. In this post, I will discuss the poetic devices poets (and writers) use to create a pleasing sound. The following will be covered:

  • Alliteration
  •  Assonance
  •  Onomatopoeia
  •  Rhyme
  •  Repetition/refrain

Alliteration

It refers to the poetic technique of repeating the initial consonant sound in two or more words on a line. Here is an example of alliteration from Jane Kenyon’s poem This Morning: “…Sunflower seed and bits of bread scattered on the snow.” The words “sunflower”, “seed”, “scattered”, “snow” begin with the consonant “s.” She also uses the words “bits” and “bread.”

Assonance

It is the poetic technique of repeating the same vowel sound of words on a line, in order to create a pleasing sound. A vowel is “a, e,i,o, u.” A poet can use long vowels, such as “o” in snow, or use short vowels, such as “u” in lunch. Here is another example of assonance from Jane Kenyon’s poem This Morning: The cats doze near the snow. The words “doze” and “snow” have the same vowel sound. Onomatopoeia
It is the poetic technique of using words that sound like the words they mean. Examples: whir, buzz, moo, thud, crackle, and so on. Poets use these poetic devices less frequently than alliteration or assonance. Example: Under the light of the stars, we roasted hotdogs over a crackling fire.

Rhyme

It is the repetition of the same sound of words in a poem. Three popular types of rhymes are slant or off rhyme, internal rhyme, and end rhyme.

Slant Rhyme or imperfect rhyme
A poetic technique that creates near rhyme or off-rhyme. Emile Dickinson was the first modern poet to use this technique. The poet selects words that have the same consonant sounds and different vowels (e.g. cap and cup), and places them close together on a line. The poet can also select words with the same vowel sound (e.g. talk and walk; snug as a gun) and different constants, and place them close together on a line.

Internal Rhyme
A poetic technique in which one word rhymes with another word on a line. This is a popular type of rhyme for writing free verse.

Example: We talked and walked along the beach.

End Rhyme
A poetic technique in which the poet rhymes the final syllables of words and places them at the end of lines. Here is an example for Robert Frost’s Dust of Snow:

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

You can see how “crow and snow” rhyme, and how “me” and “tree” rhyme.

If you intend to use rhyme in free verse, use it selectively. A good rhyme doesn’t make the reader think “here’s a rhyme.” Instead “good rhyming is a feat of skill with words.” (Western Wind, Page 177) Often, when two words rhyme, the meaning of these two words interact to create something different.

Free verse poetry does not have to adhere to a particular rhyme scheme, such as “ABAB,” which means that lines 1 and 3 rhyme and lines 2 and 4 rhyme. In fact, many free verse poems have no rhyme at all. And yet, poets use rhyme on occasion.

Repetition

It is a poetic technique in which the poet repeat words or phrases in a poem. The poet can repeat words or phrase at the beginning of lines, at the end of lines, in the middle of lines. Repetition is a way to create emphasis. It is a way to create energy. It is a way to draw attention to an idea. It is a way to echo the sound of words.

Poets use two types of repetition: Anaphora and repetend.

Anaphora
The poet repeats the opening words or phrase at the beginning of two or more lines. Here is an example from Mary Oliver’s When Death Comes:

When death comes like a hungry bear in autumn….
When death comes like the measle-pox….
When death comes like an iceberg between the shoulder blades…

Repetend
The poet repeats words or phrases at different locations in a stanza or poem. Repeating a word or phrase gabs the reader’s attention. It is a way to add emphasis to an action, person, place, thing, event, experience.

For instance, James Fenton writes in the poem “In Paris With You.”
…I’m one of your talking wounded. I’m a hostage. I’m wounded…I’ve been bamboozled…I admit I’m..

See how Mary Oliver uses repetition to write in the poem, Spring,:

My life is
with its poems
and its music
and its glass cities,

it is also this dazzling darkness…

Poet, Debra Spencer, uses the device of repetend in “The Discover of Sex”:

We try to be discreet standing in the dark
hallway by the front door. He gets his hands
up inside the front of my shirt and I put mine
down the inside the back of his jeans. We are crazy
for skin, each other’s skin, warm silky skin…

Learning How to Use Sound Devices

You can get into the habit of using sound devices–such as alliteration, or assonance, or repetition ——by learning how they are used and by practising how to use them. Here’s how: On a daily basis, open your writing journal and use these sound devices to describe the things you see, hear, feel, smell, touch, remember. For instance, suppose you passed a stinking sewer during your day, you could write: I strolled past the stinking sewer and wondered where the stench started. (Example of using alliteration)

As well, when reading poetry, short story, essay, or article that you feel is well written, analyze the piece of writing for these poetic device of sound. Answer the question: What poetic devices did the author or poet use to create such a pleasing sound?

How should you add sound effects your own free verse poetry? Some poets compose word by word. Other poets compose line by line. Many write out the entire poem, and then add sound effects during revision. I recommend that you write the first draft, and then revise for alliteration, assonance, repetition. If you also desire to create a few rhymes, add them.

Free verse poetry doesn’t require you use alliteration, assonance, rhyme, repetition. However, if you read the free verse poetry of great poets, such as Mary Oliver, you’ll quickly discover that these poets use these poetic techniques to construct memorable poems, poems that have deep meaning and pleasurable sound when read aloud.

Resources

For additional information on alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, repetition, rhyme, read the following:

  • Good Poems for Hard Times by Garrison Keillor
  • The Poets Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux
  •  Creating Poetry by John Drury
  • The Discovery of Poetry by Frances Mayes
  •  Western Wind by David Mason and John Frederick Nims