Wayne Koestenbaum Lyric Essay Assignments
DISCUSSED: The Jewish Analysis of Reality, The Line Between Fiction and Nonfiction, Capturing Reality in Art, Destroying Genres, Lyric Essays, Hamlet, Self as Art, The Collective Consciousness, Beckett, The Veil of Lets Pretend, Life as Art
The world exists. Why recreate it? I want to think about it, try to understand it. What I am is a wisdom junkie, knowing all along that wisdom is, in many ways, junk. I want a literature built entirely out of contemplation and revelation. Who cares about anything else? Not me.
Verboten thematic: secular Jews, laureates of the real, tend, anyway, to be better at analyzing reality than recreating it. Recently, for example, Lauren Slater, Lying; Harold Brodkey, most of the essays; Phillip Lopate’s introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay; Vivian Gornick, pretty much everything; Leonard Michaels, nearly everything; Bernard Cooper, Maps to Anywhere; Melanie Thernstrom, The Dead Girl; Wallace Shawn, My Dinner with André; Jonathan Safran Foer, “Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease”; Salinger’s later, consciousness-drenched work (I know I’ll love the Buddhist-inspired meditations he’s been writing the last forty years in his bunker). Less recently, e.g., Marx, Proust, Freud, Wittgenstein, Einstein.
Michel de Montaigne famously asked, “What do I know?”—thereby forming and backforming a tradition. Lucretius, On the Nature of Things. St. Augustine, Confessions. Pascal, Pensées. Rousseau, Confessions. Rochefoucauld, Maxims.
Yeats, though, said, “It must go further still: that soul must become its own betrayer, its own deliverer, the one activity, the mirror turn lamp.” Which could and should serve as epigraph to all of Nietzsche and all of E. M. Cioran; Alphonse Daudet, In the Land of Pain; Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquietude; Michel Leiris, Manhood: A Journey from Childhood into the Fierce Order of Virility. Leiris: “I bear in my hands the disguise by which I conceal my life. A web of meaningless events, I dye it with the magic of my point of view.”
Which is what I love—the critical intelligence in the imaginative position. Nicholson Baker, U & I. Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage. Terry Castle, “My Heroin Christmas.” Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave. Jonathan Lethem, The Disappointment Artist. Richard Stern’s “orderly miscellanies.” Roland Barthes, S/Z. Wayne Koestenbaum, The Queen’s Throat. Nabokov, Gogol. Beckett, Proust. Proust, all. William James, Varieties of Religious Experience.
Sister Mary Ignatius, in other words, explaining it all for you—les belles dames sans merci: Joan Didion, all the essays. Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights. Pauline Kael, all. Renata Adler, Speedboat.
So, too, on another track: Sandra Bernhard, Without You I’m Nothing. Sarah Silverman, Jesus Is Magic.
Then the train going in the opposite direction: Chris Rock, Bring the Pain. Denis Leary, No Cure for Cancer. Rick Reynolds, Only the Truth Is Funny. Spalding Gray, nearly everything. Art Spiegelman, Maus. Ross McElwee, all.
What is it about this work I like so much? The confusion between field report and self-portrait; the confusion between fiction and nonfiction; the author-narrators’ use of themselves, as personae, as representatives of feeling-states; the antilinear, semi-grab-bag nature of their narratives; the absolute seriousness phrased as comedy; the violent torque of their beautifully idiosyncratic voices.
Rhapsodizing about Frank Sinatra, William Carlos Williams said, “Look, whether we’re young, or we’re all grown up and just starting out, or we’re getting old and getting so old there’s not much time left, we’re human beings—we’re looking for company, and we’re looking for understanding: someone who reminds us that we’re not alone, and someone who wonders out loud about things that happen in this life, the way we do when we’re walking or sitting or driving, and thinking things over.”
Every artistic moment from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art. Braque’s goal: “To get as close as I could to reality.” Zola: “Every artist is more or less a realist according to his eyes.” Whitman: “The true poem is the daily paper.” Cf. Chekhov’s diaries, E. M. Forster’s Commonplace Book, Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up, Cheever’s posthumously published journals, Alan Bennett’s Writing Home, Edward Hoagland’s diaries.
Steve Martin told an interviewer, “That person over there? He’s doing one thing, thinking something else. Life is never false, and acting can be. Any person who comes in here as a customer is not phony, whereas if a guy comes in posing as a customer, there might be something phony about it, and the reason it’s phony is if he’s really thinking, ‘How am I doing? Do they like me?’”
Jonathan Goldstein: “Life isn’t about saying the right thing, and it’s certainly not about tape-recording everything so you have to endure it more than once. Life is about failing. It’s about letting the tape play.” Boswell, Life of Johnson. Jean Stein, Edie.
The Autobiography of Henry Adams. Geoffrey Wolff, The Duke of Deception. Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot.
Eliot: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” Eduardo Galeano, The Book of Embraces. Richard Brautigan, Trout Fishing in America.
Walter Benjamin: “All great works of literature found a genre or dissolve one.” V. S. Naipaul, A Way in the World. Joe Wenderoth, Letters to Wendy’s.George W.S. Trow, Within the Context of No Context. Brian Fawcett, Cambodia: A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow. Jean Toomer, Cane. Edmund Carpenter, Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me! Gilbert Sorrentino, “The Moon in Its Flight.” James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Michael Lesy, Wisconsin Death Trip. Genre is a minimum-security prison. Dylan: “I may look like Robert Frost, but I feel like Jesse James.” Suzan-Lori Parks: “I don’t explode the form because I find traditional plays boring—I don’t really. It’s just that those structures never could accommodate the figures that take up residence inside me.” You can always recognize the pioneers by the number of arrows in their back. The indivisibility of the varieties of expression.
Ben Marcus: “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. ‘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 to do whatever you very well please. Fiction writers, take note. Some of the best fiction is these days being written as nonfiction”—e.g., Hilton Als, The Women; Kathryn Harrison, The Kiss; W. G. Sebald, The Emigrants.
Sebald: “There is so often about the standard novel something terribly contrived; you can always feel the wheels grinding. My medium is prose, not the novel.” What the lyric essay gives you—what fiction doesn’t, usually—is the freedom to emphasize its aboutness, its metaphysical meaningfulness. There’s plenty of drama, but it’s subservient to the larger drama of mind.
Hamlet is, more than anything else, Hamlet talking about a multitude of different topics. I find myself wanting to ditch the tired old plot altogether and just harness the voice, which is a processing machine, taking input and spitting out perspective—a lens, a distortion effect. Hamlet’s very nearly final words: “Had I but the time… O, I could tell you.” He would keep riffing forever if it weren’t for the fact that the plot needs to kill him.
The real story isn’t in the drama of what happens; it’s what we’re thinking about while nothing, or very little, is happening. The singular obsessions, endlessly revised. The sound of one hand clapping. The sound of a person sitting alone in the dark, thinking. Great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings.
I’m not interested, though, in self per se; I’m interested in self as theme-carrier, as host.What I want is the sound of a person sitting alone in the dark, thinking about life—e.g., Hawthorne, “The Custom-House”; Borges, Other Inquisitions; Stendhal, On Love; Baldwin, the early essays. The sound of one hand clapping.
One of my favorite things anyone has ever said about something I’ve written was, “It’s all about you and yet somehow it’s not about you. How can that be?” Montaigne: “Every man has within himself the entire human condition.” Emerson: “He then learns that in going down into the secrets of his own mind he has descended into the secrets of all minds. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”
John D’Agata: “The poem and the essay are more intimately related than any two genres, because they’re both ways of pursuing problems, or maybe trying to solve problems.” Berryman, The Dream Songs. Vonnegut’s prologue to Slaughterhouse-Five. Philip Larkin, all. Anne Carson, pretty much everything. Annie Dillard, For the Time Being. “Maybe the works succeed, maybe they fail, but at least what they both do is clarify the problem at hand. They’re both journeys. They’re both pursuits of knowledge. One could say that fiction, metaphorically, is a pursuit of knowledge, but ultimately it’s a form of entertainment. I think, at least, essays and poetry are more directly and more urgently about figuring something out about the world. Fiction may do that, too, but not in the fiction I’ve read.” Which is why I can’t read or write novels anymore, with very few exceptions, the exceptions being those novels so meditative they’re barely disguised essays. David Markson, This Is Not a Novel. J. M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello. Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Michel Houellebecq, pretty much everything. E. L. Doctorow, The Book of Daniel. Benjamin Constant, Adolphe. Lydia Davis, pretty much everything.
Cioran: “Only the suspect artist starts from art; the true artist draws his material elsewhere: from himself. There is only one thing worse than boredom, and that is the fear of boredom.And it this fear I experience each time I open a novel. I have no use for the hero’s life, don’t attend to it, don’t even believe in it. The genre, having squandered its substance, no longer has an object. The character is dying out; the plot, too. It is no accident that the only novels deserving of interest today are precisely those novels in which, once the universe is disbanded, nothing happens.” Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy. Thomas Bernhard, pretty much everything. Camus, The Fall. Marguerite Duras, The Lover. Barry Hannah, Boomerang.
Hannah: “I love biography because there’s not the veil of ‘let’s pretend.’ That’s the thing that’s wrong with art. I don’t like to be carried into purely fanciful circumstances. Fancifulness is just not for me. The never-never lands of the imagination have not interested me that much. The thing that puts you there, but puts you in a special space that you cannot get anywhere else but the page—that’s what I’m interested in. This is what Beckett is all about: he decided that everything was false to him, almost, in art, with its designs, with its formulas. And yet he wanted art. But he wanted it right from life. He didn’t like, finally, that Joycean voice that was too abundant, too Irish, endlessly lyrical, endlessly allusive. He went into French to cut down. And he bores the hell out of a lot of people because he wants to talk about desperate individual existence. But he made a kind of joy out of depression. I find him a joyous writer; his stories read like prayers. You don’t have to think about literary allusions, but your dead-on experience itself. That’s what I want from the voice. I want it to transcend artiness. I want the veil of ‘let’s pretend’ out.”
When I was eighteen, I wanted a life consecrated to art. I imagined a wholly committed art-life: every gesture would be an aesthetic expression or response. That got old fast because, unfortunately, life is filled with allergies, credit card bills, tedious commutes, etc. Life is, in large part, rubbish. The beauty of reality-based art—art underwritten by reality-hunger—is that it’s perfectly situated between life itself and (unattainable) “life as art.” Everything in life, turned sideways, can look like—can be—art. Art suddenly looks and is more interesting, and life, astonishingly enough, starts to be livable.
David Shields, a current Guggenheim fellow, is the author of eight books, including Black Planet, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Remote, winner of the PEN/Revson Award.
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On Lyric Essays
There's a vase of daffodils on my table, and snow on the ground outside: welcome to DC's confused, confusing spring. One of my students in the University of Tampa's low-residency MFA program is interested in using the "lyric essay" as a drafting mode. In rounding up resources to help her out, I thought I'd share my findings here as well.
To begin, where does the term originate? Although both "lyric" and "essay" are concepts visited by generations of many writers past, the coinage conflating the two appears definitively in a 1997 issue of the Seneca Review. In an introduction, editor Deborah Tall and associate editor John D'Agata elaborated on the phrase this way:
The recent burgeoning of creative nonfiction and the personal essay has yielded a fascinating sub-genre that straddles the essay and the lyric poem. These "poetic essays" or "essayistic poems" give primacy to artfulness over the conveying of information. They forsake narrative line, discursive logic, and the art of persuasion in favor of idiosyncratic meditation.
The lyric essay partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language. It partakes of the essay in its weight, in its overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative form.
The lyric essay does not expound. It may merely mention. As Helen Vendler says of the lyric poem, "It depends on gaps. . . . It is suggestive rather than exhaustive." It might move by association, leaping from one path of thought to another by way of imagery or connotation, advancing by juxtaposition or sidewinding poetic logic. Generally it is short, concise and punchy like a prose poem. But it may meander, making use of other genres when they serve its purpose: recombinant, it samples the techniques of fiction, drama, journalism, song, and film.
I would summarize thus: The lyric essay values the tension of juxtaposing objective and subjective material. The lyric essay emphasizes language as a means of engagement, equal to or exceeding its value in conveying information. The lyric essay does not emphasize argument or traditional closure.
Given its genre mingling, the lyric essay often accretes by fragments, taking shape mosaically - its import visible only when one stands back and sees it whole. The stories it tells may be no more than metaphors. Or, storyless, it may spiral in on itself, circling the core of a single image or idea, without climax, without a paraphrasable theme. The lyric essay stalks its subject like quarry but is never content to merely explain or confess. It elucidates through the dance of its own delving.
Since I published first in the genre of poetry, then in nonfiction, I am sensitive to the explanation the lyric essay is merely a compromise or indulgence--a "poet's version of prose." It's true that in moments when others report, poets meditate. Poets such as Sarah Manguso and Nick Flynn have written masterpieces of the lyric memoir. But that's a choice, not a default. Plenty of poets have written cogent, journalistic pieces or chronologically coherent personal essays over the years.
So why turn to the lyric essay? On a pragmatic level, here are some circumstances in which the lyric essay might prove advantageous:
-The essay concerns a personal episode in which the author lacked power. Lyric moves, particularly fragmentation and passive voice, enact a lack of agency on the page.
-The goal is to use a received form or numerical formula, e.g. The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous or the Five Stages of Grief, and comment on its efficacy.
-The author does not have access to sources for key aspects of the traditional "story." Lyric moves, particularly litany and stimulative truth, bridge these troublesome gaps.
-The language and images are the driving motivation of the piece, and stream-of-consciousness observation, sacrificing traditional narrative, is the only way to go.
And there's the simple--not to be underestimated--sway of aesthetic appeal. Lyric essays offer a space in which an author can weigh a topic without passing judgment. The critical thing is that adopting the mode not be seen as a kind of "almost poem," nor a "pseudo-essay." I like Lia Purpura's take in this interview for Smartish Pace:
Laura Klebanow: It seems you came to write poetry first, and prose poetry and essays next. Is this correct, or has your work in each genre developed less compartmentally? For example, do you ever start a poem and watch it become a prose poem or essay, or vice versa?
In the last fifteen years, lyric essays have come to be more accepted in mainstream publishing, and as they have become a more frequent sight at the workshop level. Subsequently, teachers and editors have developed a vocabulary surrounding their craft. These are some of the models I consider most useful when recognizing a lyric essay:
Lia Purpura: The issue of how one discernible genre grows from another is utterly mysterious to me. I’m certain that I’m writing prose, though my essays are called “lyric essays.” In fact, I’ve just written an essay titled “What is a Lyric Essay?” for Seneca Review. In it, I’m making a plea for allowing the form to remain as mysterious as possible. I do mean “mysterious” though in the best way – challenging and magical and able to work on a reader and knit up above the page. I don’t mean at all “unclear” or “sloppy”. The language ought to be as precise as possible in order to affect the most unlikely moves. When I’m writing, an impulse makes itself known as a prose itch or poem-itch. Some failed poems have extended out into prose and found their musculature that way. I don’t think a derailed essay has ever turned itself into a poem.
-The Collaged Essay - Collages embody an emotional, intellectual, or historical experience without unifying explanation. They may freely incorporate photographs, poems, maps, or other multimedia modes, including texts "found" elsewhere, e.g. Reality Hunger by David Shields. Asterisks often denote section breaks.
-The Braided Essay - Unrelated topics, perhaps set in different eras, develop a common theme. Brenda Miller's "A Braided Heart: Shaping the Lyric Essay" is an apt explication. I like her analogy to french braids, in which patterning renders slippery, homogenous materials--e.g, strands of hair--more interesting by adding texture.
-The Hermit Crab Essay - An author responds to an external cultural product (a well loved album), but gradually reveals an internal landscape (the relationship that corresponded to that album). As Dave Hood says, "This type of lyrical essay is created from the shell of another." These essays are sometimes masked as reviews.
These are trends, not sole categories. Lyric essays also tend to be particularly rich in litany, parallel structure, and what I call "stipulative truths," which include imperative voice, grafted images, or invented tableaus.
Below are some favorite or oft-cited examples of authors working in the mode of lyric essay. I'd recommend them to any student looking to assemble their toolbox.
- Michael Martone's "More or Less: the Camouflage Schemes of the Fictive Essay" - This essay toggles between iterations of camouflage and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five; the sections are described as being in "arbitrary order" and in a signature move, the author's bio is a contributing creative text.
- Priscilla Long's "Genome Tome" - This essay uses a received form (the 23 pairs of chromosomes that make up a typical DNA strand) to structure Long's mediation on personal and inherited identity, weaving in scientific case studies.
- László Krasznahorkai's "Someone’s Knocking at My Door" - This essay uses a circular structure, with slippage between observer and observed, to enact the state of anxiety or, as he put it, the "terrible meeting between boorishness and aggressiveness."
- Maggie Nelson's Bluets - This book-length work itemizes meditations on "blue" as a color, a term, even a musical mode, looking across cultures and time periods.
- Eula Biss's "The Pain Scale" - This essay uses a visual construction (advancing from 0 to 10) to pace her exploration of suffering; Biss spikes a particular domestic setting with outside references to Anders Celsius, Dante, and Galileo Galilei.
- Kiese Laymon's "How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: A Remembrance" - This essay juxtaposes the author's own experiences against news stories of black youths killed under questionable circumstances; note the rhythmic use of standalone sentences, defiant of normal paragraph organization.
- Ander Monson's Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir - This book-length work interrogates the privilege of fact versus fiction; Monson's website complicates the notion of "reading" as a linear act, and includes the wonderful "Essay as Hack."
- Jenny Boully's The Body - This book-length work's text is posited entirely via footnotes that might take the form of assertions, postcards, Mad Libs, and so on.
- Roxane Gay's "What We Hunger For" - This essay opens in response to The Hunger Games before accessing a harrowing, firsthand experience of gang rape.
- David Foster Wallace's "Ticket to the Fair" - This essay's structure is a variant on journalistic chronology, but what distinguishes it is the extravagances of DFW's attention; he freely telescopes between minute details and vast cultural intuitions.
Subsequent proponents of the form have not always agreed with the terminology. At the most recent AWP Conference in Seattle, Kathleen Rooney argued for the phrase "Open Form Essay." In a 2012 Black Warrior Review interview, Maggie Nelson resisted the label in part because of its connotations with "pretty" writing:
BWR: You are a writer that is often associated with the Lyric Essay. I find that term to be quite useful, but I’ve come to realize that many people use that term to mean wildly different things. Do you use Lyric Essay to describe your, or other’s, writing? If so, how do you characterize it?
It might be counterintuitive to include a quotation that questions the very usefulness of the phrase. But "lyric essay" is admittedly a fledgling term. In the absence of rules, the author of lyric essays must summon more self-discipline, not less. Each word choice counts, because you've asked your reader to be primed for every conceivable motif, pattern, tense shift, found text, or other linguistic switcheroo. Traditional indicators of priority on the page have been stripped away. I'm wary of the lyric essay draft in which stylistic meandering is costumed as "figuring it out." That's laziness. Even if the writing suspends judgment, the writer must have clarity in his or her understanding.
MN: I don’t use it to describe my work, because I’ve never written anything that I thought of explicitly as an essay. (I’m trying to write more essay-like things now – it’s very different, and I don’t really have a clue how to do it.) On the other hand, I conceived of both my books The Red Parts and Bluets as continuous flows, albeit jagged up into titled or numbered pieces, and so treating them each as one long essay also seems kind of right. I don’t mind if anyone calls my work “lyric essay”; I don’t care much about classification, as it comes after the fact of the writing. “Lyric essay” likely covers a lot of writing that I like, but honestly, and I’m just speaking personally here, the words themselves kind of bug me. They make it sound like the pieces have to be self-contained and pretty, song-like. Whereas some of the work I like the most is more chafing, awkward—ugly, even. And sometimes sprawling—think of Wayne Koestenbaum’s recent Anatomy of Harpo, for example. That’s why I usually stick with the broader, albeit pretty boring, moniker, “creative nonfiction.”
Do we need this term? One of the clearest distinctions between poetry and prose, in my mind, has always been that prose is assigned a truth value--fiction or nonfiction--while poetry is not categorized in such terms. Does attaching the "lyric" modifier shift our expectations, allowing the essay to straddle truth values? Can an essay contain fictional conventions, or does that mean it has become a short story, albeit one rooted in fact? Readers of John D'Agata's The Lifespan of a Fact or John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead, specifically "Violence of the Lambs," might find this a resonant question, and in a brief piece for The Lit Pub, Roxane Gay argued that the perceptible "playfulness and manipulation of a world" is at the very core of the lyric essay's appeal.
In poetry, we use the word lyric to denote a particular attention to the "I"; the speaker's thoughts and perceptions are the central draw, rather than the culmination of a story. The poem's energy spins around a fixed point, rather than arc-ing from A to Z. Is a blurring of reportable fact the inevitable consequence of emphasizing the "lyric" in an essay?
I'm fascinated by the texture of truth, the way we establish authenticity and authority on the page. Regardless of whether the "lyric essay" is taught one hundred years from now, the term is a potent description of contemporary American aesthetics toward the last two decades of personal writing and, I suspect, for at least the next decade to come. All the writers mentioned above are worth your time, consideration, and consternation. I'll leave it at that; these are just some notes toward a larger discussion.