Enjoy playing with this wild card, the lyric essay.

Perhaps D’Agata can be forgiven for conflating the creative writing academy with some kind of marginal space: it hardly holds the cachet of other, longer-standing, more traditionally prestigious academic departments. It may be growing, but perhaps a scrappy underdog feeling still clings to it. Many public debates have been held, for example, about whether MFA programs are inherently anti-intellectual. Even so, if the traditional academy is what the lyric essay seeks to transgress—well, I’m not sure this is a transgression that interests me.

D’Agata, John, and Deborah Tall. “The Lyric Essay.” Seneca Review. Web. 5 May 2012.

The flagship practitioner of the lyric essay, who seems early on to have inspired D’Agata’s editorial imagination, is the Canadian poet Anne Carson. Under the banner of poetry, Carson has produced some of the most rigorously intelligent and beautiful writing of the last ten years: essays, stories, arguments, poems, most provocatively in her early collection, Plainwater. Her piece, “Short Talks,” which she describes as one-minute lectures, and which moves through the history of philosophy like a flip-book of civilization, offering stern commandments and graceful fall-aways, simultaneously qualifies as fiction, poetry, and essay, and is championed protectively by ambassadors from each genre.


lyric essay presentation for class

--Deborah Tall, Editor and John D'Agata, Associate Editor for Lyric Essays

For me, the lyric essay was like opening the door to the Secret Garden. It was a place that provided permission and space for me to play and explore so I could discover my authentic narrative voice. All great, but here was the problem: when I would share my lyric essays in workshops and writing circles, I noticed that people were often reluctant to critique, like they didn’t know whether to eat what I had served with a fork or with a spoon.


While the narrative essay functions as does a piece of prose fiction, the lyric essay works off many of the principles that drive a poem. The lyric essay favors juxtaposition and imagery over a logically linear sequence. Sometimes a lyric essay will state its purpose outright. Sometimes a lyric essay will ask questions in order to get the reader thinking about what's at stake, the message being the unanswerability of a question rather than a statement of fact or truth. And when it's working most like a poem, a lyric essay will present the reader with its material and leave that material to speak for itself. John D'Agata, lyric essay editor for the Seneca Review, has helped to define this weird hybrid form of essay by describing it:In this sense, the lyric essay doesn't necessarily give up its answers easily. Often, it doesn't have the answers that a more traditional essay has. This doesn't mean that the writer doesn't know what it's about—on the contrary, the writer will have made a series of conscious decisions so that the piece will work efficiently to do what it is that the writer wants it to do.