My journey into the expanse of the lyric essay began when I opened Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. At that time, I had been writing poetry for over ten years, exploring motherhood, mental health, and my Asian American heritage. I saw my work as lyric poetry that drew from the bloodlines of my first love, Sharon Olds, and her transformative poem, “Monarchs.”
Until Bluets, I had viewed the essay through the lens of my high school and undergraduate education: as a rigid box that enclosed a thesis supported by three or more paragraphs of argument sealed in by the packing tape of a conclusion. To me, there was no similarity between poetry’s lush landscape and the corrugated angles of prose.
But fifteen years after graduation from college, I sat on a worn chenille sofa in my living room with Bluets in my hands. I read Nelson’s first lines: “Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color. Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession . . .” The slim book fell from my fingers as a chord reverberated within me. My body knew that Nelson’s work was more than strict, formal prose. Within my marrow, Bluets sang and shifted; its music, undeniable. Why, when I read her prose, did my breath quicken, and my chest throb as if I was reading a poem? Where was Nelson’s thesis? Where were her essay’s harsh lines?
That was my introduction to the American lyric essay. A transmutable beast, the lyric essay roams a borderless landscape. I ride on its slick back, scanning the rolling hillsides. Prairie grass brushes against my thighs, sunlight ebbing in and out of towering clouds. The fragrance of honeysuckle weaves into the upturned earth’s musk. The lyric essay ambles and leaps, circling fields blue with cornflower.
In “Out of and Back into the Box: Redefining Essays and Options,” Melissa A. Goldthwaite explores the landscape of the essay. “The page,” she writes, “is an open field, not a box to fill with other box-like structures . . . There are few, if any, right angles in nature. I can think of no natural squares—just hills and uneven slopes, rounded flower petals, curved riverbank, beautifully twisted trees.” To Goldthwaite, the essay resides in many forms: “a tree, a glove, a fish, a fist, a container, an alternative, a poem, a story, and question.”
If an essay flows from form to form, how can it be contained? How can the lyric essay be defined? In my correspondence with Goldthwaite, she answered: there is always the desire to hem in prose, to categorize or label. Even the lyric essay can be “taught [or defined] in rigid ways.”
Perhaps my desire for a concrete answer stems from my training as a chemist and molecular biologist. In the laboratory, I titrated analytes to determine their concentration down to two decimal places. I swelled with satisfaction as I studied the immutable code for DNA strictly defined by the pairings of nucleic acids: adenine with thymine and guanine with cytosine. Though I left the scientific world nearly twenty years ago to become an artist and writer, the desire for precise measurements and definitions still lingers.
In my conversation with the poet Jos Charles, we ruminated on the question again: what is the lyric essay? Perhaps as Charles proposes, the definition of the lyric essay is a Western invention, one that readers try to impose on prose works. Am I trying to cram a mountain into the form of a dogwood blossom? When does the search for definitive truth end in the marring of beauty and wonder?
Werner Heisenberg, a leader in the field of quantum mechanics, proposed that it was impossible to pinpoint the precise location of an electron in space and also determine its momentum. From the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the shapes of electron orbitals were born. These orbitals take the form of spheres or intricate petals extending from an atom’s nucleus, showing the possible position of an electron at any given time. Perhaps Heisenberg’s principle can be applied to the lyric essay, so that its essence resides in an approximate form, a form that shifts according to time and space.
The term “lyric essay” was introduced by Deborah Tall and John D’Agata in the Seneca Review in 1997. This “dense” and “shapely form,” write Tall and D’Agata, “straddles the essay and the lyric poem . . . forsak[ing] narrative line, discursive logic, and the art of persuasion in favor of idiosyncratic meditation.” In this way, the lyric essay “spirals in on itself, circling a single image or idea . . . [it] stalks its subject like quarry but is never content to merely explain or confess.”
In her 2007 essay, “Mending Wall,” Judith Kitchen writes that “the job of the lyric essayist is to find the prosody of fact, finger the emotional instrument, play the intuitive and the intrinsic, but all in service to the music of the real. Even if it’s an imagined actuality. The aim is to make of, not up.” The musical lyric essay is a “lyre, not a liar.”
I believe that the intent of the lyric essay has shifted since “Mending Wall.” Though the lyric essay still searches out truth, it has become more and more uncertain of what the truth is. Its emphasis has changed from navigating a singular truth to reflecting multiple truths.
Why has the lyric essay become more uncertain? It may be, as the essayist Aviya Kushner proposes, that the world itself has become exponentially complex, making it difficult to pinpoint universal truths. Perhaps, the lyric essay reflects humanity’s fragmentation, the exchange of ultimate truths for the truths of individual experiences.
Even the definition of the lyric essay is evasive, the essay’s meaning shifting over time and space. This is where the scientist in me struggles. I dislike this level of uncertainty. The lyric essay shifts under my gaze, glinting like a emerald’s countless facets. I fear that by searching to define the lyric essay, I will become lost within its prism. I feel my way through the dazzling light, the reverberating haze.
I must come to some form of conclusion. How can I speak about something that seems impossible to define? Perhaps, as Jos Charles ponders, the lyric essay evades definition because the lyric essay doesn’t exist as a form. Instead of a lyric essay, perhaps there is, as the scholars Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins propose, a form of “lyric reading,” an agreement between the writer and reader. Perhaps the essay signals to the reader: Approach this piece lyrically. Once the reader enters this agreement, they succumb to the essay’s musicality, rhythm, leaps in logic, and fragmentation.
Though the lyric essay is a wild, changeable beast, attempts have been made to contain it. In the introduction to A Harp in the Stars: An Anthology of Lyric Essays, Randon Billings Noble attempts to outline the lyric essay. The lyric essay, she states, is “a piece of writing with a visible/stand-out/unusual structure that explores/forecasts/gestures to an idea in an unexpected way.” Noble then motions toward some of the current forms of the lyric essay, including the segmented essay, separated into sections through number, title, or white space and the braided essay, with its woven, repeated themes.
In my mind, a pattern emerges, an outline within the mist. Though difficult to define, the lyric essay contains elements that separate it from the rigid forms of my high school and undergraduate years. Unlike the traditional essay that is bound to a thesis, the lyric essay is a cloud of thought hovering around a question. However, as Noble writes, though the lyric essay is “slippery,” it must take on the responsibilities of an essay, “to try to figure something out, to play with ideas, to show a shift in thinking.” An essay, at its heart, is an exploration of truth, a straddling of black and white.
To me, the American lyric essay diverges from the traditional argument of the essay and its narrative counterpart, the personal essay, in three ways. Like a poem, the lyric essay might have honed rhythm and sound. It also diverges from narrative structures and instead revolves around themes. The lyric essay might also transition intuitively from concept to concept.
In this way, the lyric essay sings, circles, and leaps. These elements of the lyric essay can be explored through Lidia Yuknavitch’s Chronology of Water, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, and Chet’la Sebree’s Field Study.
In her extended craft essay, The Art of Syntax, Ellen Bryant Voigt argues that syntax propels the musicality and rhythm of lyric poetry. The language spoken by “ordinary human beings” is elevated to poetry by the “echoes of more regular patterns of song.” By linking verse to “ordinary” spoken language, Voigt bridges the gap between poetry and prose. In this way, I believe, syntax plays the same role in lyric essay as it does in lyric poetry: it drives the musicality of language, thus propelling the essay from beginning to end.
Syntax can be described as the chunking of language in phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. Syntax, Voigt adds, is a “flexible calculus” that creates meaning. Within the lyric essay, syntax unfurls a sonic landscape of expansive rhythm and song.
As the psychologists and researchers Laura Batterink and Helen J. Neville state, the human brain navigates syntax “outside the window of conscious awareness.” Since the areas of the brain that process syntax are adjacent to those that process music, the reader instantaneously experiences the music of lyrical language.
Robert Frost writes that “the surest way to reach the heart [of the reader] is through the ear . . . By arrangement and choice of words on the part of the poet, the effects of humor, pathos, hysteria, and anger, and in fact all effects, can be indicated or obtained.” When the reader encounters the cloud of the lyric essay, they instantaneously experience its music, its murmuring, electrical hum. This is especially true in Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water, where syntax carries not only the rhythm and sound of her prose, but also its emotional intensity.
In her lyric essay collection, Yuknavitch navigates her chaotic childhood, her passion for swimming, and the power she summons through her transformation into a writer. In her first piece, “The Chronology of Water,” Yuknavitch harnesses the power of syntax. She writes: “The day my daughter was stillborn, after I held the future pink and rose-lipped in my shivering arms, lifeless tender, covering her face in tears and kisses, after they handed my dead girl to my sister who kissed her, then to my first husband who kissed her, then to my mother who could not bear to hold her, then out of the hospital room door, tiny lifeless swaddled thing, the nurse gave me tranquilizers and a soap and sponge.”
Here, Yuknavitch carries the reader through the birth of the speaker’s stillborn daughter through what Voigt refers to as “right-branching” syntax. In this form, phrases extend outward carried by similar language. In this passage, the grammatical chunks are separated by the preposition “after” and the conjunction “then.”
Using right-branching syntax, Yuknavitch describes the scene in which the speaker’s daughter is passed from her to her sister, husband, and mother, and then out of the hospital room. At the end of this extended sentence, the right-branching syntax halts. Yuknavitch crafts the sentence in waves: “after . . . after . . . then . . . then . . . then . . .” until the rhythm breaks on the rocks of the independent clause: “the nurse gave me tranquilizers and a soap and sponge.” The abrupt change in syntax silences the essay’s musicality. There isn’t a miraculous revival; with the passing of her daughter, the speaker is left with grief.
When Yuknavitch’s language carries me away, I must depart from the marching tradition of prose and drift into the lyrical. With her, all I hear is the water and the sounds of mourning. This is the mystic power of the lyric essay: it sweeps the reader up into its wave. The lyric essay becomes the reader, the reader becomes the song.
Frost writes that “a sentence is not interesting merely in conveying a meaning of words. It must do something more: it must convey a meaning by sound.” If the sentence can be seen as the poetic line, then syntax can work in two ways within prose: to complement the sentence’s flow or to be, as Voigt states, in “muscular opposition” to it.
Yuknavitch’s Chronology of Water shows both of these abilities of syntax. In her essay “How to Ride a Bike,” Yuknavitch navigates the harrowing experience of her father forcing her to ride a bike down a steep hill:
Wind on my face my palms sting my knees hurt pressing
backwards speed and speedspeedspeedspeed holding my
breath and my skin tingling like it does in trees terrible spiders
crawling my skin like up high as the grand canyon my head too
hot turnturnturnturnturn I am turning I am braking I can’t feel
my feet I can’t feel my legs I can’t feel my arms I can’t feel my
hands my heart my father’s voice yelling good girl my
father running down the hill my father who did this who
pushed me my eyes closing my limbs going limp my letting go
me letting go so sleepy so light floating floating objects speed
eyes closed violent hitting object crashing nothing.
Here, Yuknavitch has chosen to break each sentence like a poetic line. In doing so, she has created a section of text that reads like a prose poem. The section is void of punctation until Yuknavitch lands on the collision with the “nothing.” In the absence of punctation, syntax governs the rhythm of the lines. The right-branching syntax of the repeated phrases: “. . . my palms sting my knees hurt . . .” in the beginning of the section churns like the pedals of a bike.
The compressed segments, “speedspeedspeedspeed” and “turnturnturnturnturn” act as turns within the prose poem, where syntactical tension matches the increased tension of the narrative. What follows are two right-branching segments: “I am turning I am braking I can’t feel / my feet I can’t feel my legs I can’t feel my arms I can’t feel my / hands my heart . . .” Again, syntax complements the narrative movement. As a reader, I am carried by the syntax, experiencing the speaker’s panic as the world spins out of control.
Sometimes, syntax can be used to restrain the flow of the sentence. In this case, syntax is in “muscular opposition” to the narrative. In “Illness as Metaphor,” Yuknavitch describes the four-week period in which her eleven-year-old self was ill with mononucleosis. During this time, she was under the supervision of her abusive father. Yuknavitch writes:
In my sickbed my father removed my sweat soaked
clothing. My father redressed me in underwear and pretty night-
gowns. My father stroked my hair. Kissed my skin. My father
carried me to the bathtub and laid me down and washed me.
Everywhere. My father dried me off in his arms and redressed
me and carried me back to the bed. His skin the smell of ciga-
rettes and Old Spice cologne. His yellowed fingers. The mountainous
callous on his middle finger from all the years of holding a pen or pencil.
His steel blue eyes. Twinning mine. The word “Baby.”
The syntax of the sentences is uneven, alternating between right-branched strands, such as “My father redressed me in underwear and pretty nightgowns. My father stroked my hair,” and chunks of sentence fragments: “Kissed my skin.”
As a reader, I desire to race through this piercing and troubling description, but Yuknavitch holds me to the page. The syntax of this section restrains the flow of the narrative, challenging me to take in the details one after the other, to experience, as Yuknavitch did, every excruciating moment. As Yuknavitch writes: “It’s language that’s letting me say that the days elongated, as if the very sun and moon had forsaken me. It’s narrative that makes things open up so I can tell this. It’s the yielding expanse of a white page.” With a steady, skilled hand, Yuknavitch holds back the current of the narrative using syntax that suspends the reader within the pain and power of the moment.
In “Mending Wall,” Kitchen makes a distinction between a lyrical essay and its lyric counterpart. “Any essay can be lyrical,” she writes, “as long as it pays attention to the sound of its language or the sweep of its cadences . . . A lyric essay, however, functions as a lyric.” Like the lyric poem, the lyric essay “swallows you . . . until you reside inside it.” In other words, an essay isn’t a lyric just because of its musical language. Rather than creating a linear narrative, the lyric essay encompasses the reader by circling an image or theme.
In some personal essays, the engine is the story. In “Picturing the Personal Essay: A Visual Guide,” Tim Bascom provides pictorial representations of different forms of personal essay. Bascom describes the form, “narrative with a lift,” as a chronology with tension that “forces the reader into a climb.” Jo Anne Beard’s essay “The Fourth State of Matter” is an example of this form. Bascom describes Beard’s essay as “a sequence of scenes [that] matches roughly the unfolding real events, but [has] suspense [that] pulls us along, represented by questions we want answered.”
Bascom also contemplates essays that are a “whorl of reflection.” These essays are “more topical or reflective,” eschewing the linear movement of time for a circling of a topic. This circling occurs organically, “allow[ing] for a wider variety of perspectives—illuminating the subject from multiple angles.”
I believe that some lyric essays are formed as these whorls. Maggie Nelson’s Bluets is an example of elegant circling of image and theme. On the surface, Nelson’s long essay is the study of the color blue. The essay has 240 sections. Each section is interconnected with a focus on blue. “Each blue object,” Nelson muses, “could be a kind of burning bush, a secret code meant for a single agent, an X on a map too diffuse ever to be unfolded in entirety but that contains the knowable universe.”
Nelson finds blue in “shreds of blue garbage bags stuck in brambles,” a lapis lazuli tooth, the eyes of a martyred saint. Nelson also describes the absence of blue: “There is a color inside of the fucking, but it is not blue.” When others ask about Nelson’s fixation on the color, she responds: “We don’t get to choose what or whom we love . . . We just don’t get to choose.”
The image of blue swims within the pages of Bluets, flashing in and out of each condensed section. Nelson’s images are strong and visceral, but by themselves, they would be unable to hold my attention for the entire essay. Under the layered blue images is the theme of grief over the loss of an intimate relationship. Nelson introduces this theme early in the essay, in section 8: “‘We love to contemplate blue, not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it,’ wrote Goethe, and perhaps he is right. But I am not interested in longing to live in a world in which I already live. I don’t want to yearn for blue things, and God forbid for any ‘blueness.’ Above all, I want to stop missing you.” Just as Nelson leans on blue, she had placed her faith in her intimate partner.
As the essay progresses, loss widens and deepens like a sea. Nelson writes: “We mainly suppose the experiential quality to be an intrinsic quality of the physical object—this is the so-called systemic illusion of color. Perhaps it is also that of love. But I am not willing to go there—not just yet. I believed in you.”
Nelson provides scant details of her romantic partner. In sections 67–70, Nelson explores the mating habits of the satin bowerbird. The males, Nelson writes, “can attract thirty-three females to fuck per season if they put on a good enough show,” while the female “mates only once [and] incubates the eggs alone.” These sections hint at a loneliness caused by abandonment. Though the cause of the end of the relationship isn’t revealed, Nelson exposes its aftermath: “It is easier, of course, to find dignity in one’s solitude. Loneliness is solitude with a problem. Can blue solve the problem, or can it at least keep me company within it?—No, not exactly. It cannot love me that way; it has no arms.”
Bascom writes that “whorl of reflection” essays are driven not by plot, but by the intoxicating pleasure of new perspectives and insights. This is especially true for Bluets. A whorl of contemplation, it’s a lazy river that loops for countless miles. Within it, I sometimes drift along with the images of blue and themes of grief and loneliness. Sometimes, I stand up and push against them. This tension between push and pull keeps me engaged in Bluets, within its circling of blue.
In “A Taxonomy of Nonfiction; or the Pleasures of Precision,” Karen Babine meditates on the “lyric mode” of the essay, which is driven by language, not narrative. Heidi Czerwiec states that “there are essays that are circuitous, nonlinear, that spiral around a central concept, incident or image, accruing meaning as they move. No forks, no false moves, no misdirection, only perhaps a pleasant disorientation as the writing twists and turns.” Though lyric essays are nonlinear, they still have centers that “hold.” Though Bluets isn’t driven by narrative, it circles around image and theme. In addition, there is an undergirding question that holds the essay in a state of tension: how will the speaker survive her grief? The answer is delivered in the one of the last sections of the essay:
For to wish to forget how much you loved someone—and then, to actually forget—can feel, at times like the slaughter of a beautiful bird who chose, by nothing short of grace, to make a habitat of our heart. I have heard that this pain can be converted, as it were, by accepting “the fundamental impermanence of all things.” This acceptance bewilders me: sometimes it seems an act of will; at others, of surrender. Often I feel myself to be rocking between them (seasickness).
As Nelson releases herself from the relationship, I also experience freedom and resurface from Bluets transformed.
Like a moth drawn to candlelight, I’m drawn back to exploring the form of the lyric essay. Through the haze of light refracted through dust and smoke, I seek its outline, first through the essay’s musical language and then through its circling of themes. In my conversation with the poet and essayist Chet’la Sebree, we discussed the “machinery” of the lyric essay. Lyric essays hinge on “having a poetic quality.” They are constructed like a poem, creating “sense and meaning” through associative leaps.
My discussion with Sebree makes me return to the work of Sharon Olds. It was within the pages of Satan Says that I encountered “Monarchs,” the poem that entranced me with images of creatures “floating / south to their transformation, crossing over / borders in the night, the diffuse blood-red / cloud of them . . .” Olds’s elegant line breaks allow her images to fluidly flow from one line to the next. Through these breaks, Olds also guides me through associative leaps, helping me connect the speaker to her first lover and the butterflies:
The hinged print of my blood on your thighs—
a winged creature pinned there—
and then you left, as you were to leave
over and over, the butterflies moving
in masses past my window . . .
Here, the intimacy is visceral. The speaker, lover, and monarchs are placed closely on the page so that my eye and mind make the connection between them.
Through reflecting on Sebree and Olds’s work, I came to believe that there is a link between poetry and the lyric essay when it comes to leaps of logic. Within both practices, syntax and white space help to guide readers over the gaps between images, thoughts, and themes.
During our time together, Sebree and I discussed her work with the lyric essay. As she wrote Field Study, Sebree asked herself: “How can [I] make an individual thought beautiful?” To Sebree, each thought is an “isolated cube of language.” I believe that each “cube” is connected through the bridge of syntax. Syntax is “sonically driven” and allows the lyric essay to make “musical sense.”
In Field Study, Sebree shaped each of the lyric essay’s sections around sound and musicality. In one section, Sebree reflects on the Women’s March and its significance to white women and how she regards the march as a woman of color. Sebree’s discussion of the march extends over five paragraphs of varying length:
The Women’s March meant a lot to a lot of
women in my life.
By a lot of women in my life, I mean the 50% of
my friends that are white.
With them, I don’t have to differentiate
between “women” and “white women” because
When I say “women,” at least 53% of the
time people—and by “people,” I mean “white
people”—will assume I mean “white women.”
These percentages are fake as fake news
but this fact is not: white people see whiteness
There is no appropriate antonym for those of
us who are not.
The first two paragraphs consist of one sentence each. In the second paragraph, Sebree uses assonance to create a couplet of “life” and “white.” This paragraph is carefully arranged so that “life” and “white” are placed in close visual proximity. The syntax of the sentence facilitates this visual coupling by placing the shorter dependent clause before the longer independent clause.
Within Field Study, associative leaps follow couplets. In the case of the Women’s March section, I am primed by the couplets to expect a shift in focus from Sebree’s description of her friends to the exclusion of Black women from the definition of “women.” The couplet, “life” and “white,” provides the reader and speaker an opportunity to “come up for air” before a plunge into the difficult topic of erasure. Sebree writes: “white people see whiteness / as universal.”
In Field Study, Sebree also uses white space to facilitate associative leaps. After the section about the Women’s March, Sebree adds a quote from Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda:
To say this . . . is great because it transcends its
particularity to say something “human” . . . is
to reveal . . . the stance that people of color
are not human, only achieve the human in
Here, Sebree provides Rankine and Loffreda’s quote extra white space, their voices expanding within the essay’s visual and mental landscape. The white space helps the reader “meditate on the quote . . . [then] move back into [Sebree’s] language.”
In comparison, the Women’s March section that precedes Rankine and Loffreda’s quote is a larger block of text, leaving less space for the reader and meditation. As a reader, I can’t catch my breath and am immersed in Sebree’s thoughts about womanhood and racial exclusion. In this way, white space (or the lack of it) is a type of syntax. It acts as another way to group language and ideas.
Continuing the Journey
In the interview “John D’Agata Redefines the Essay,” D’Agata comments: “I like to think of the essay as an art form that tracks the evolution of consciousness as it rolls over the folds of a new idea, memory, or emotion. What I’ve always appreciated about the essay is the feeling that it gives me that it’s capturing the activity of human thought in real time.”
In this way, the lyric essay reflects the changing landscape of truth. Through this realization, the scientist in me has come to a place of acceptance—an acceptance of a truth not bound by rigid facts, but cradled in a cloud of shifting time and space. By capturing a moment of contemplation, the lyric essay captures the movement of the human spirit. This is the lyric essay’s gift to the world.
Like Heisenberg’s electron, the lyric essay roams a landscape of beauty and uncertainty. In the future, the lyric essay may transform into a beast that is unrecognizable to me in voice and motion. I will continue to revel in its wildness, a splendor that I cannot tame.