Lyric Essay: Between Poetry and Prose

The Lyric Essay is the antithesis of a literary canon. But is it all that important to follow the canon? We are often told to conform to the boundaries of genre, conventions and tropes when dealing with literature. It seems to be the only surety of producing quality content. However we, at Daastan, discount the rigidity of genre and bring to you the lyric essay.

What is the Lyric Essay?

As indicated in its’ name, the lyric essay is a hybrid form. Some call it the product of modernism, others call it a mutated form of literature. It is safe to say, it is a source of contention within the literary world. The disagreements usually arise because of a lack of a clear definition.

While there is a loose understanding of what it could entail, there is no concrete canon. It is a genre-bending genre in itself, with fluid boundaries between the interplay of objectivity and subjectivity. Some state that the focus lies more on the language instead of a factual story, but that may be contested as well. For some, the language becomes a part of the story instead of just the medium of communicating it.

Who Is It For?

What is clear is that it’s definitely not for those who find comfort in the known. Its’ law lies in its lawlessness. Perhaps it is for you, if you are comfortable in confronting your personhood in the rawest of written form. A leading figure on the lyric essay, John D’Agata tries to explain the liminal space that the lyric essay enjoys, “I love the in-between, which is where I think the most truthful struggles with reality exist“.

To think this form is only for the modernist writers is a misconception. The discomfort in occupying spaces of creativity and non-fiction has plagued writers for as far as history goes. In addressing his anxieties, D’Agata recalls how his instructor directed him towards “texts from antiquity, the middle ages, and contemporary Europe that all toyed formally with lines between poetry and essays“.

To Explore or Not to Explore?

What is clear is that it’s not a form for everyone. However, everyone should try to delve into it before passing judgement on it. It could very well surprise you. The great thing about the lyric essay is that it is available for readers in various forms.


Don’t Let Me Be Lonely – Claudia Rankine


For those who prefer prose, there are book length lyric essays that have an intricate story at the middle of it. “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely” by Claudia Rankine is one of them. Moreover, She is an author known for her comfortability with the form. She is also a strong advocate for introducing lyricism to the real.

Set in contemporary America, it is an intersection of poetry, visuals and prose. Perhaps the clever and poignant confrontations it has with American culture and the consequent loneliness, might not have been allowed for in any other form.

“You explain to the ambulance attendant that you had a momentary lapse of happily. The noun, happiness, is a static state of some Platonic ideal you know better than to pursue. Your modifying process had happily or unhappily experienced a momentary pause”

Bluets by Maggie Nelson

Moving on, if it is a more fragmented piece that you want, Bluets by Maggie Nelson is the perfect starter. With a string of coherence, it resembles a fragmented anthology. Fixated on the colour blue, it transforms into a tale of personal suffering, love and philosophical explorations that stay with the reader long after they are done.

“I want you to know, if you ever read this, there was a time I would rather have had you by my side than any one of these words; I would rather have had you by my side than all the blue in the world.”

Quick Reads

Further, if you are looking for a quick read, there are many lyric essay articles available online as well. “What Happens There” by John D’Agata is one of them. It is a wonderful marriage of fact and poetic license as he explores the suicide epidemic is Las Vegas through an isolated incident.

“I sat that night with the manual on my lap for six hours, sometimes opened up to the chapter do’s and don’ts—“Don’t ever dare a caller to ‘go ahead and do it’”—and sometimes to the chapter on suicide facts and fables—“Suicide is believed to be contagious among teens”—and sometimes to the chapter on useful information—“If somebody’s calling you, they probably want your help”—but I could never figure out which information I should use, how much talking I should do, how much listening, be how friendly, exactly how much to feel.”

We hope this inspires you to take certain liberties with your writing- and to expand your reading list as well! It is always a good idea to rethink the genre-specific boundaries that have been set for us.

Keep a look out for more discussions of literary tropes and genres! There is so much out there for us to talk about.

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