Lyric essay is a term that some writers of creative nonfiction use to describe a type of creative essay that blends a lyrical, poetic sensibility with intellectual engagement. Although it may include personal elements, it is not a memoir or personal essay, where the primary subject is the writer's own experience. Not all creative essayists have embraced the term, however, which makes it a problematic classification in this community.
Blackburn, Kathleen. “Interview with Lia Purpura.” The Journal 36.4 (Autumn 2012). Web. 2 November 2012.
Butler, Judith. "Grounding the Lyric Essay." Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 13.2 (Fall 2011).
D’Agata, John, and Deborah Tall. “The Lyric Essay.” Seneca Review. Web. 5 May 2012.
Dillon, Brian. “Energy and Rue.” Frieze 151 (November-December 2012). Web. 19 October 2012.
Lazar, David. “Queering the Essay.” Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction. Ed. Margot Singer and Nicole Walker. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. Print.
Lopate, Phillip. “Curiouser and Curiouser: The Practice of Nonfiction Today.” The Iowa Review 36.1 (Spring 2006). Web. 29 October 2012.
Lopate, Phillip. “A Skeptical Take.” The Seneca Review 357.2 (Fall 2007). Geneva, NY: Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Print.
Klaus, Carl H. and Stuckey-French, Ned. Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2012. Print.
Nelson, Emma. "Review of Small Fires, a Book of Lyric Essays." Brevity's Nonfiction Blog. 13 April 2012. Web. 10 December 2013.
Emma Nelson describes Julie Marie Wade's book Small Fires, a book of lyric essays, using the following language, which is a good example of how lyric essays are usually categorized: "Julie Marie Wade’s Small Fires tells a similar story of her own time capsules that, much like the essays themselves, preserve self and childhood memories. Small Fires, a book of lyric essays, seamlessly incorporates Kantian philosophy, 1980s popular culture, and poetic explorations of words and meanings. Wade’s word choices and descriptions are impeccable, leading her reader on a rhythmic walk through the landscape of life as she explores what we give up to become who we are. Her exquisite language is not limited to word choice, however, but expands to the ways she plays with ordinary words and ideas such as waffle: a breakfast food or a verb “to switch back and forth between possibilities,” she writes, and camouflage as a metaphor for hiding who we are. Wade plays with the ideas, sounds, and feelings of words in a way that only a true poet can, sounding like a woman who not only loves language, but one who knows language well."
In the years since the term “lyric essay” was coined, some creative nonfiction writers have embraced it as a term for the kind of writing they do, while others have rejected it. In 2007, the Seneca Review published a special issue on the lyric essay, in which writers were still at odds about it ten years after the coining of the term, and arguments have continued since then. Some argue that what Tall and D’Agata describe is just essay writing and does not need the descriptor “lyric”; for instance, essayist Lia Purpura states, “I don’t really use the term ‘lyrical essay.’ I really prefer just ‘essay’ to describe what it is I’m up to. The tradition is long and honorable and I don’t feel the need to nichify” (Blackburn). In the Seneca Review special issue, Phillip Lopate praises the idea of the lyric essay for its “replacement of the monaural, imperially ego-confident self” of the traditional personal essay, but questions the lyric essay's lack of argumentative force, or its “refusal to let thought accrue to some purpose” (31). Lopate writes that some lyric essays may be “trying to get a license for their vagueness, which will allow them to dither on prettily, or 'lyrically,' to the frustration of most readers” (32). In short, Lopate is concerned that the lyricism of these essays will not drive intellectual engagement (which he considers to be central to the essay) but will instead become an excuse not to engage fully with issues or arguments.
Others have reacted negatively against the idea of perceiving creative nonfiction as closely related to poetry because poems have been held traditionally to looser standards for factual accuracy than creative nonfiction. In a lyric essay, the “I” persona is cast more as the speaker of a poem, and in poetry, it is understood that this speaker is not always the writer him- or herself and that the speaker may communicate poetic truth instead of factual truth. Brian Dillon, in “Energy and Rue,” criticizes the lyric essay: “If D’Agata’s lyric essay were the best or only hope for the genre today, you’d have to conclude it would be better off defunct” because nonfiction should not depend on a loose, poetic relationship with truth; instead, essayists should be more confident in the tradition of their form as a communication of information through art, not a privileging of art over information.
The term “lyric essay” emerged as a new name for a type of creative essay in 1997 when the Seneca Review began publishing work under this categorization. Associate editors at the time, Deborah Tall and John D’Agata, describe these essays as "‘poetic essays’ or ‘essayistic poems’ [that] 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."
Tall and D’Agata describe the lyric essay as reclaiming the original sense of essay as essai, attempt, or specifically “attempt at making sense.” Instead of statement, the lyric essay partakes of questions, pursuing an idea but not reaching any conclusion; the reader is meant not to be persuaded or convinced, but to follow the meanderings of the writer’s mind. The rationale behind the lyric essay stems from the claim that “perhaps we're drawn to the lyric now because it seems less possible (and rewarding) to approach the world through the front door, through the myth of objectivity” (Tall and D’Agata). In these essays, there is no objectivity because facts are filtered through the subjective consciousness of the writer, where they may become distorted. Although it does feature subjective consciousness, the lyric essay is not the same as a personal or memoir essay, in that its main purpose is not to narrate the personal experience of the writer. Instead of experience, the lyric essay engages primarily with ideas or inquiries, lending it an aspect of intellectual engagement that is not usually foregrounded in the personal essay. The tension comes when such engagement is blended with a poetic, subjective sensibility.