On Lyric Essays and Dancing in Sequined Pants

“We can dance if you want to. We can leave your friends behind. ‘Cause your friends don’t dance and if they don’t dance, well they’re no friends of mine. ”

-- Men Without Hats


When I give public readings of my nonfiction, occasionally afterward someone will approach me to say that he liked my “poems.”

            While I appreciate the kind words, I often feel compelled to inform him that I don’t write poems. I write essays. If I’m feeling particularly prickly, I will hold up the pages. “See? No line breaks.” And sometimes the person will argue with me and tell me that my essay, “just sounds like a poem,” to which I usually nod and smile and say thank you.

            But I die a little bit on the inside.  

Students in my graduate nonfiction workshop are forbidden from saying of an essay, “this sounds like poetry.” If a student utters this phrase, he’ll usually only say it once . . . not because he will incur some horrible draconian punishment (which is sort of redundant anyway in the gulag of a graduate writing workshop) but simply because I will ask, ever so politely, for him to explain precisely what he means by such a statement. I might ask him to read the section aloud and explain why it “sounds like poetry.”

It’s not that I don’t like poetry. It’s just that such comparisons, one, don’t seem to respect well-written prose and, two, feel entirely too reductive and simplistic to be helpful in understanding the difference (if there is a relevant one) between a poem and an essay.

The lyric essay, which posits itself as the cool compromise between the two, I’ve realized, is the skinny-jeans-wearing, ironically messy “hipster” of nonfiction writing, the leader of a movement dedicated to merging nonfiction and poetry, committed to promoting writing that lives between classifications and on the fringe of the status quo; and I like this new prose stylist with his chunky black-frame lenses, his odd juxtapositions of patterns and stripes, and his cool cardigan-sweater, singer/songwriter vibe.

I appreciate the lyric essay movement (and it IS a movement with all of the requisite prophets, acolytes, and haters) not because it seems ultra-cool and hip and fresh, but for the way it has opened up the discussion of nonfiction and pushed the emphasis away from confessional memoir, back toward a critical appreciation of the essay’s flexibility and reach; and I like it for the way it has tried to bridge the gap between genre provinces in MFA programs and in publishing; and the way it has even forced us to expand our understanding of narrative. What troubles me (though I’ve been guilty of it myself) is what I see as the attendant drive, the almost colonial push to plant a flag any prose or other territory that pays attention to or emphasizes language, and calling it “lyrical” or “poetic.”


A joke:

Q: How many hipsters does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: Eh, I could explain it, but you probably wouldn’t get it.


I was in graduate school when John D’Agata’s first book, Halls of Fame, and his ideas about the lyric essay, made the first splash in the nonfiction pond. At the time, the term seemed dangerous, revolutionary, and exciting, as if you really could be part of something new in literature—new but also old, as D’Agata was always reminding us. The lyric essay itself is not new. The movement to embrace lyric essays, to reclaim them from the grips of other genre classifications, did seem new—as if we were all explorers setting out across the frozen tundra or hacking through verdant jungles, planting flags in anything that seemed to fit under this maddeningly wide and colorful umbrella of the lyric essay. Armed with a new term and new permissions we claimed territory in poetry, fiction, art, film, philosophy and other disciplines. But perhaps like all colonial efforts, this one, too, was doomed to exhaust itself.

A couple of years ago, upon the release of his second book, About a Mountain, D’Agata visited the school where I teach. During a question and answer session, one student asked him if he could define the term, lyric essay; and what I remember most is the weariness with which D’Agata answered the question, as if the weight of this term, this idea, this movement in the essay, had become a burden after a decade. He looked like a man who’d opened a secret garden to the public and now couldn’t get the brats out of the fruit trees.

D’Agata readily admitted that he felt the term had become overused to the point of becoming essentially meaningless. Worse yet, the lyric essay has now become permission for a writer to “put on a pair of sequined pants and dance around because he has nothing to say.”

We all laughed at this.

But what’s interesting here is both the negative connotations of “sequined pants,” and the real challenge implied in this critique—namely that, as a writer of nonfiction, you must have something to say regardless of what kind of pants you’re wearing on the page. Though D’Agata was giving us tacit permission to wear them, sequined pants seem to be necessarily suspect; but what makes them REALLY bad is when there’s no serious thinking at work on the page.

D’Agata also said that he felt like the term, “lyric essay” is essentially just that: a term, and he believes it is most useful pedagogically, for teaching writers and readers how to embrace a kind of nonfiction writing that is artful, eccentric, elusive and perhaps impossible to define; and the lyric essay as a thing itself, distinct from other forms and styles of essaying or from other genres, may not exist at all.

A strange thing happened, though, after D’Agata’s visit. “Sequined pants” worked its way into the lexicon of our nonfiction workshop, morphing a little bit into “fancy pants” or “sparkly pants,” but retaining the basic critical analogy. It became a teaching tool, a kind of stand-in term for what we might call an overly poetic sensibility, one where the essayistic purpose of the piece is lost in the sequins.

If someone is showing off her linguistic pyrotechnics, maybe letting content serve the form (rather than the other way around), operating with an inaccessible internal logic, or just getting too gimmicky with form, one of the workshop members will likely raise her hand and say, “I think this is kind of a fancy pants moment,” and we will all understand what she is saying, nod gravely, and cluck our tongues in disapproval.

Though perhaps fading a bit in coolness, aging and growing out of its skinny jeans, the lyric essay still sounds like a poem and acts like an essay, still imagines like a short story, argues like a manifesto, performs like drama, and dances its dangerous dance.