Joni Tevis: A Paperback Cabinet of Wonder: Unlocking the Long Lyric Essay
I’m thinking today about the challenges of the long lyric essay, which I’m defining as anything from about forty pages to book-length. For me, a lyric essay works like a poem can, with pressurized language and associative leaps, and although it may contain narrative, story is not the main engine pulling the reader through the material.
My first example—Joan Didion’s essay, “The White Album”
Didion’s essay demonstrates one of what I believe to be the lyric essay’s natural strengths: while clearly art, it feels more realistic than a strictly plotted narrative would. And with that strength, a question follows: Is this a peculiarly postmodern form, fixated on fragments? Not for me. I appreciate its affinity for fragments, because oftentimes, that’s what we find—shards of pottery or a few words of chalked graffiti. But I want the reader to have an intellectual and emotional payoff at the end. If not a conclusion, then a resolution, and Didion’s essay provides that.
My second example is Anne Carson’s “Very Narrow—Just for the Thrill”
Two shapes corset the material. The first shape, told via travel diary, is that of a cross-country drive and camping trip the narrator takes with her soon-to-be former lover, a scholar of Chinese wisdom. The second shape is a list of places, with names such as Cross-Fire Zone, Ten-Heart Hermitage, and Flesh and Blood Bridge, mentioned on an historical map made by a royal courtesan in 1553. There are 67 items on the map list; there are 67 sections in the travel diary. Matching each item from the map with its corresponding entry in the travel diary provides sparks of meaning. Like a terrific last line in a poetry collection, the map slingshots you back into the beginning, so that you reread the piece with that new revelation in mind.
My last example is A.R. Ammons’s book-length poem, Garbage
Part of what ties this book together is the act of writing itself, as in lines where the narrator calls our attention to the process:
…how to write this
poem, should it be short, a small popping of
duplexes, or long, hunting wide, coming home
late, losing the trail and recovering it.
And here I see a third natural strength of the long lyric: the particular pleasure it takes in rigorous language. Each word and its placement count. It comes to its conclusion in its own good time, and its realizations bubble along, almost subterranean, until they break upon the reader, who seems to get it at the same time the narrator does.
As the most determined readers of my blog know, I am constantly struggling/playing with form in my own writing, having for the time being landed on the edge between poetry and essay (unsure if the two genres ever meet), and then this new possibility suddenly comes floating along: The Lyric Essay – how come I’ve never thought about this???