The lyric stance
The lyric essay and how it may bring us home to who and where we are.
(First published in Island 126, 2011)
Teaching the stones to talk
In an author note at the start of her collection of luminous and quirky essays Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard writes “this is not a collection of occasional pieces, such as a writer brings out to supplement his real work; instead this is my real work, such as it is.” I have always loved that—the insistence that an essay is literary work, and that a collection of essays carries as much weight, at least, as a collection of stories or poems or a novel.
Though an essay is more like chamber music, or etude, than symphony—though it is not a major form but a minor one—I want to give it the kind of due Dillard does; and I want to suggest it can do some heavy cultural lifting, if we get it right, precisely because it’s smallness and liminality. And I want to champion the kind of essay Dillard writes in her collection: a kind of essay as indirect, shapely, elusive, and lyrical as the best poem and the occasional novel (the title essay in that set or as “Total Eclipse”, for example). I want to advocate the lyric essay, a thing we haven’t written much in Australia. Yet.
I want to speak of—and I want to write and read—the essay as literature. I have a dream of the Australian essay understood and written more often as a literary form, not as a looser kind of journalism or a ficto kind of criticism, or a holiday from writers’ and readers’ real work. Perhaps the essay is, like the short story, liminal by nature; it sits at the edges of genre and society. But, though it needs to stay outside the mainstream, it can be centrally important to a culture; and the more artistic risks we take with it, the more important it’s likely to be. I wrote once that essays are an indicator species of a lively literary culture and democracy. Where we write and read essays, and where they’re any good, we tell ourselves who we are in polyphony: culture and democracy may flourish; ideas will be contested intelligently.
I know I can’t force this. We will get the kind of literature readers and writers, publishers and software companies, Apple and Amazon, decide that we want. We will get the essays essayists want to write and journals want to publish and booksellers think they know how to sell. The market will decide; readers will make up their minds; they will like what they like.
But because I have been inspired by essays that took big artistic and personal risks, that took as much care with their music as with their logic; and because I know as a poet how important the techniques of poetics are to the powerful impacts poems can sometimes have; and because I believe that “the struggle to improve our sentences is the struggle to improve ourselves,” (as I put it in The Little Red Writing Book), this is a plea for more literary—lyric—essays. For the essay as art, not just discourse. For prosody, not just prose. For style as well as substance.
Letting the stones teach us how to talk
I also want to commend the lyric essay for a project to which I find myself impossibly drawn, and one of importance, I think, to all of us as we find our way down to a deeper and more inclusive understanding of ourselves in this place at this time: the musical-semantic enterprise of catching the lyrics of the country. Writing as if our writing were, an adaptation, in its syllables and cadences and syntax, to—and apt ecological acknowledgment of—where we find ourselves; as if we remembered where we were in every phrase we uttered: in this antipodean light, in this sclerophyll weather, in the midst of this slow geomorphological dharma, here on a continent that is a nursery and a parable of fire. I’d like to hear more writing in which it sounded not merely as if the language had colonised the continent, but as if the continent had colonised the language. In 1965 (in her introduction to Preoccupations in Australian Poetry), Judith Wright wrote: “before one’s country can become an accepted background against which the poet’s and novelist’s imagination can move unhindered, it must first be … as it were absorbed. The writer must be at peace with his landscape before he can turn confidently to its human figures.” In her view we writers weren’t at peace then—we were not, as it were, reconciled in either the lyric or narrative dimensions of our writing—with the country; and (although the story is different in poetry, painting and music), I don’t think we’re at peace yet. Our prose is out of key with our landscapes. I want more prose that puts its roots down deep here: that speaks the way the places speak.
So, to back up to Annie Dillard, I want to suggest that more essayists let the stones—not just the books and other cultural artifacts—teach us how to talk on paper.
What I’m doing, of course, is trying to define the kind of thing I like to read and want to read more of; what I’m doing is justifying how I write. So forgive me. But an essay must be a personal, partial and non-conforming thing—and I think it should be a musically memorable thing, shapely and strange—if it’s going to anyone any good. So here is my personal, partial, unconforming and probably unreliable, maybe sometimes lyrical, rant.
The musical arrangement of passionate facts
The essay is a literature of fact. It is, as Kim Stafford once defined it, “the musical arrangement of passionate facts.” Like all literature, an essay must be a spoken thing—an utterance; unlike some literature (fiction, and to a degree poetry), it must be true. We could be here for a long time arguing about the truth. But let’s just say that an essay, as oppose to a short story, trades in facts. It makes a claim for the veracity of what it tells. It points us back, and relates itself, to a real world it presumes to remain real even when the essay is done and our backs are turned. This really happened, it says. Go check the record. This is me talking, it says. This is my voice. No doubt I’ll get some of this wrong; no doubt you’ll see some of it differently; but this is how it seemed to me. This is what I make of things, and this is what they make of me.
Essays are what some of us write who aren’t much good at making things up—for whom the actual world is more than enough. Compulsive truth-tellers write essays; bad liars write essays. If fiction, at its best, is the lie you tell to tell the truth, the essay is the truth. A more direct mode (though not as direct as a piece of journalism or a scholarly paper or a brochure). There’s plenty of scope in it—more than enough rope—for poetics. An essay tells the truth beautifully—strikingly, memorably, in any case. And to tell you what an essay is about is to tell you next to nothing about it.
I found my way into my writing life by reading and writing essays; some of my heroes are essayists. James Agee, Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen), Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, Jim Galvin, Natalia Ginzburg, Tom Griffiths, John McPhee, Walter Murdoch, Mary Oliver, George Orwell, Octavio Paz, Michael Pollan, George Seddon, Henry Thoreau, E B White. And, of course, Michel de Montaigne. When I discovered these writers and heard their voices I also found my own. And I found my subject: the human condition as I lived and contemplated it, close to home, about now.
The varieties of essay
There are many kinds of essay. And the Calibre, to its great credit, invites them all—the memoir (or personal essay), the prose poem, the rant, the lecture, the letter, the homily, the book review, the character study, the meditation, the familiar essay, the lyric essay, the natural history, the philosophical disquisition, and the rest. No doubt I write a kind informed by the styles and voices of the essayists I admire. But with any luck, what I end up with is my own kind of essay. One part chant, one part chat. If you called it both lyric and familiar, I wouldn’t deny it.
Between the news room and the academy
The essay occupies a wide and diverse literary geography. But there are borders. It is both possible and important to say what an essay is—and what it is not.
A piece of writing isn’t an essay, if it isn’t most of these things. 1. True—an essay is a kind of story about real things, real thoughts, real people, the palpable and actual world; you make up the essay, but you don’t make up its subject matter. 2. Voiced—an essay is a literary conversation; it’s someone in an armchair (or on a horse or behind the wheel, or maybe in bed beside you) talking with you, halfway toward singing to you, about something they’ve learned by heart; it is a careful but casual oration. 3. Personal—an essay is a personal and partial account; it may be about the speaker or it may not, but its ideas and its expression must have about them a particularity we recognise as the speaker’s—or at least some authentic person’s—own. 4. Wandering—like a good walk and a good talk and a good poem, an essay mustn’t go too straight and hard at its end; an essay is an artful meander through an idea or a place or a life or something. 5. Wondering—an essay is not an expert discourse; it is an open-minded attempt to come to some understanding of its topic; to essay is to try but not to prove; to essay is to wonder. 6. Humble—an essay’s tone is modest; writing one is a test of character; posers write bad essays, because one must never show off; and yet one must not be afraid.
That leaves a huge range of possibilities. It leaves open the whole bag of what are often thought of as novelists’ and poets’ tricks. And in my view we’ve not often used enough of them. I’m generalizing, of course, but we’ve written, on the whole, a fairly mainstream, conforming kind of essay.
In her introduction to Best American Essays 2003, Anne Fadiman speaks of the “journalistic-academic spectrum” along which the essay runs. Too much like journalism (where, as she puts it, content trumps style) or too much like academic discourse (where logic trumps voice) and the piece of nonfiction stops being an essay; it becomes an article, at one end; a paper, at the other.
We’ve written essays as though they were a less objective kind of journalism, or else a looser kind of scholarship. We have chattered away learnedly; we’ve discoursed objectively; we’ve outlined the salient facts. We’ve put the arguments. But we haven’t made a lot of fine (and intelligent) music. An essay can have a great story; it can make a compelling case; it can deal with wonderful country; it can have sex and death. But an essay has nothing if it doesn’t have a voice. If it doesn’t have a music suggestive of one particular mind and even one particular place on earth: one local genius. The reason we keep reading an essay is the same reason we keep reading a novel. It’s not mostly, as David Malouf has argued, that we need to know what happens next; it’s that we can’t bear to break the spell of the writer’s voice. This is as true in the literature of fact as it is of a novel by Michael Ondaatje, Raymond Chandler, or Helen Garner.
What matters is not what an essay is about; what matters is how. It’s not the tale that coutns, but the telling. Great essays can be about great subjects or about nothing at all. Like all art. Like all literature. For all art is about the mystery, the triumph and tragedy, of the human condition. It’s about death and how to survive it. And it is about the miracle of artistic creation, itself; about the wonder that art is possible at all; it’s a celebration of what a mind and heart can do in concert. Like a poem, a good essay is mostly an architecture of voice. Memorable speech (Auden’s definition of poetry).
We have an immature essay culture. We’ve not had many writers who’ve treated the essay as their real work, their day job, the way that Dillard did. Not many writers have thought especially seriously, let alone long and hard, about what an essay is and all the ways one might write one. We haven’t, for one thing, published essays as literature for long; more accurately, we used to write and read them more commonly than we now do—I think of Charmian Clift and Walter Murdoch. But even then, and by contrast to the US, we didn’t write, read or publish them as art. Our literary magazines until recently haven’t understood the essay as a literary form: until the past ten years, the only essays you read in the little magazines were critical essays. Only the poems and the fiction were seen as creative writing. We haven’t had many course in creative nonfiction until the past five or six years; not many bookshops have very rich or large essay sections. We’ve not had Best Australian Essays for long; we’ve only had the Calibre Essay prize for five or six years. So it’s no surprise that we’ve written most of our essays at one end or the other of Anne Fadiman’s spectrum. We have all the ground in between to explore and plenty of work to do there, and a fair bit of that work has to do with the musical aspects of the writing business: with the lyric side of talking on paper. From that exploration, I believe, will emerge a more distinctive, robust, vernacular Australian literature of fact.
The strings of the lyre
So what would a lyric essay be? To put it simply, a lyric essay would emphasise the lyric dimensions over the narrative dimensions of the looking and the telling involved in making an essay. It wouldn’t so much converse as quietly rap—it might sound like a poem being read well, a speaking half way toward song. Lyrical writing, in a sense, is writing that takes a lot more trouble over the shapeliness and aptness of its words and phrases, their texture and rhythm—out of an instinct that the voicing is at least as important as what’s voiced.
The lyric essay is the essay written as much with one’s ear as with one’s eyes and all the rest of it.
The lyric writer uses language as much to sound as to mean. She’s not merely making sense. Or the sense she makes includes the texture and rhythm, the life world, of the words and phrases she chooses and choreographs. Words for a lyric writer are physical things, not just symbols, or, as Ellen Voigt turns it, “semaphores”. They don’t just signify; they breathe. One’s (lyric) writing is in part play—or dance—with words; it’s a physical engagement—a weighing and rolling around in one’s mouth; and the writing is a structure made of (voluble) stones. The writer’s (And the reader’s) relationship with language, in the lyric mode, is haptic: you touch the words, they touch you back.
In the narrative mode, by contrast, one chooses words mostly for their sense, to advance a story, to make a case. In narrative mode the purpose of the words, as Orwell put it, is to get out of the way—of the story, of the point. In lyric mode, the point is somewhat less than the point. And the words aren’t there just to make it. They are not meant to disappear. As Beckett put it, the sentences are there in the lyric mode to draw a veil across one’s meaning.
The intention of all this musicality and indirection is to reverberate and continue, not merely to report, the writer’s encounters with the world beyond, but including, herself: the “figures” of lived experience. Significance, for the lyric writer, lies in the world as it gave itself to her. It is the lifeworld of that encounter she wants to resound for her reader in her poem—or lyric fiction or nonfiction. She is not telling you about her encounter—she is not telling you what it meant or what she thinks of it or what anyone should do about that. She is trying, in a sense, to give you that experience—that place, that moment, that love, that episode, That moment, that life, transfigured. The lyricist makes a work that gives you an impression of experience, of the witnessed and contemplated world—an impression, a transfiguring, that adequates it (to use Francis Ponge’s word for it) or represents it, in itself; she is trying to make a work that participates in and perpetuates that encounter and carries it to the reader. She is singing the moment your way. And her own self, her own presence in the moment—or the thought or the place—is only another of the vivid phenomena she experienced. The lyric is not a heroic discourse: the “I” is not what a lyric work is about. The “I” is the string of the lyre. How the piece sounds and much of what it says is how the writer is moved by (and moves in) the world of the moment the writing sings. The voice of the work belongs then not only to the writer, but also to the time and place that moved her.
Lyricism is not just beautiful writing, which one either responds to or does not according to its strength and your sensibility; it’s more than merely a way of expressing one’s self. It’s a way of being in the world and registering the world—first in one’s self, and then in one’s work. Not of construing or constructing it, but of plumbing, and seeing and hearing it, of wondering and wandering the world—of essaying it. The lyric is not so much a mode as a stance. An ambulatory stance.
Consider the artistic possibilities offered by the lyric stance in the essay. The essay that not only means, but sings. The essay as dance, not disquisition. The essay as poem. It could be I’m built this way, but I think the lyric lasts longer the story or the case; the telling long outlives the tale. What I’m left with, and I don’t think I’m alone, is not the plot, which unravels, or the argument, which fades. What we’re left with is the weather of the writing; the country of the telling; how the writer took the bends.
Attending to the lyric dimensions of perception and expression—the artistic not merely the intellectual dimensions of nonfiction—can only enrich our essay culture. We don’t all need to write them, of course. But there are readers out there waiting, even if they don’t know it yet. They will be touched; they’ll be swayed; they’ll be relieved.
The lyrical Australian
I also have a feeling that it’s going to be through working at the lyric elements of essay writing that any Australianness worth finding will speak itself into and out of our essays. All of us who write here are, in our many, our almost infinitely various, ways—but chiefly by living here (or by having once lived here) in these ecosystems, in this light, in these latitudes, in these many antipodean countries—Australian, And if more of us were to work harder here, under the influence of the locales in which our living and our losing, our aspiring and our forgetting were taking place, at the music of the arrangement of our passionate (Australian) facts, imagine how much more like Australian places our nonfiction might begin to sound. If more of us, like poets and musicians and painters, worked lyrically away at evoking the body and the inner life, the organic and mysterious, material reality, of our thoughts and moments and memories and places—by writing them from the inside, as it were, not merely from the outside; by listening to the country of our lives and thoughts, not just cogitating learnedly about them, in diction and rhythms that belong on one’s bookshelves better than in one’s actual world—think what a distinctive literature of fact we might begin to fashion and how much truer in might ring to the ground of our being here.
Absorbing one’s geographies may happen, I guess, as a side-effect of evoking the full and musical reality of our actual lives; or it may result from the kind of practice of attention, the sort of mindfulness of one’s landscape (the locus of every thought and experience one ever has) that Judith Wright had in mind. Until one’s writing belongs here, Wright felt, and I feel with her, the way the light belongs, and the fire, your work won’t do justice to the place, or to you within it, and it won’t feel fully realised.
The lyric stance is the way to let the country in. Reconciling, lyrically, our experiences and ideas with the weather and social ecology in which they occur, thinking our thoughts as though we were thinking them somewhere in particular, namely here, we’re likely to find before too long a language for our tellings—in particular our tellings of passionate fact—that prospers and belongs here the way eucalypts and sheoaks do, a language just as elegantly adapted to, and expressive of, fire and scarcity, as those trees,
On missing the point
“Lyric essay” is a new coinage for an old kind of nonfiction. The American poet and essayist, John D’Agata first used it in 1997. It names, in his view, a style of essay that runs all the way back to the Greeks and Romans. It describes an essay that does very little telling; that pulls its punches; that makes its points through small and large-scale musical gestures and fragments, much more than though anything like argumentation or even very much exposition. James Galvin’s book The Meadow is an instance; indeed, it was the book for which D’Agata invented the phrase. It is a book, as I say in The Land’s Wild Music, that “puts a reader on a horse and lets her ride through thoughts as shapely and lean as conifers, past stories like beaver dams in which a hundred conclusions lie unstated. But it makes no pitch. It does not even attempt to be complete or neatly made” (p 251). It is an accumulation of lyric (and narrative) fragments. Rather like life. Rather like a landscape, as I argue there.
An essay, as Montaigne famously sets it up in French, is an attempt. It tries. It tries on some arguments and ideas for size. A lyric essay is an essay that doesn’t try. Doesn’t try, specifically, to be an essay, or to say anything in so many words.
But of course a lyric essay tries; it tries to be a work of art, all that a piece of writing can be. It tries to be real and honest. It tries to do justice to the world it participates in. But it tries the way a eucalypt tries. Beyond that, what a lyric essay works hardest at is trying not to persuade anyone of its point. It lets imagery and shapely voicing and powerful showing do most of the telling. I wanders, like weather, all around the point.
According to John D’Agata and Deborah Tall, editors of Seneca Literary Review, “the lyric essay does not expound”. “It elucidates through the dance of its own delving…” It “forsakes narrative line and discursive logic.” And there’s usually plenty of white space; like the lyric poem, “it depends on gaps…it is suggestive, rather than exhaustive…The lyric essay often accretes by fragments, taking shape mosaically.”
The lyric essay does every lyric thing it can to try not to tell you what it wants to tell you.
That might sound maddening to some people. It might sound like a novel or a poem—a very postmodern literature—to others. D’Agata thinks it’s been going on since Cicero. I think of Mary Oliver’s prose, of Annie Dillard’s, of Joan Didion’s. And I guess I’ve written some lyric essays myself. One of them is a book: The Blue Plateau.
I like writing like this because I can’t seem to help it. Well-made and rhythmical sentences (most of them written by other people) are an addiction of mine. Lyricism is an article of faith. But I also want to champion the lyric essay because art makes deeper points than argument; and music lasts much longer, says more, moves us more profoundly, than any other art. And I like the lyric because it seems to suit our fractured, postmodern times. The lyric brings the essay down out of the head and out of the armchair and out of the library. It puts it back in the world and the world, in its self, back in the essay. It makes the essay art—and allows the essay to do the work that only art can do. In part by asking the reader to step toward it and piece together a narrative, which becomes the reader’s narrative, not merely the writer’s.
If you want examples of lyric essays, read The Meadow or Teaching a Stone to Talk. Read Joan Didion’s “The White Album”. Read John Berger’s Photocopies. Read Eliot Weinberger’s An Elemental Thing. Read Andre Aciman, Brian Doyle, Joseph Epstein, Susan Sontag, Judith Spufford, Elaine Scarry and Francine De Plessix Gray. Consider the essayists D’Agata includes in his anthology: Anne Carson, Susan Griffin, Jamaica Kincaid, Barry Lopez, James Wright, John McPhee, Alexander Theroux, Mary Ruefle, David Foster Wallace.
It’s hard for me to think of Australian lyric essayists—John Hughes would be one; Robert Dessaix another; sometimes Helen Garner. Kevin Brophy. This gap in our literature either makes my case or proves the carelessness or exasperation of my reading. I may have to face the possibility that lyric prose is just something Australians don’t and won’t write. But why on earth would that be? Certainly many of the writers who come to mind—though far from all of them—are American. And D’Agata makes a case that the lyric essay may be the “new American essay”. But no culture can possibly have a monopoly on lyricism; and no one gets an exemption. Whether one is prone to the lyric is certainly in part a personal thing, but I can’t believe it’s national trait. If, by chance, it is, then immigration and the rise of Indigenous art give me hope, in Australia’s case. We’ll get there.
So I choose to think that the lyric essay is something we haven’t written yet. But we’ll get there. The mystification among most mainstream reviewers of my book, The Blue Plateau, tells me that we—by which I mean, in particular, critics and other literary opinion makers, as opposed to readers—have not done as much reading in and thinking about lyric prose as they might. But they’ll get there, too. We all will. Music’s not a thing you can stop.
Signs of hope
And there are some good signs. The Calibre Prize is one. And the fact that its recipients so far include two poets (at least) and some fine personal essayists. And we now have a festival of literary nonfiction: Reality Bites. Yes, of literary nonfiction. That would not have happened when I first started teaching and writing creative nonfiction fifteen years back. Increasingly now, too, literary journals are publishing essays as literature—not just as commentary on the literature. As real literary work, in other words, equivalent to poems and stories. The more the magazines and festival organisers and literati understand the essay as a literary form, the more literary I believe it will become. And the better it will be for all of us.
Letting the places do the talking
Lyric essays are good for just about anything. But they are especially good for country. For places don’t run along narrative lines. “Places,” as I say in The Land’s Wild Music, “are concatenated, entangled storylines, intersecting causalities, a thousand plots on the edge of denouement, always falling short of resolution.” Places never tell their stories straight. Places are made of pieces. They accrete—like lyric essays, without even trying—in fragments: of geology and weather and culture and fire and cataclysm and birdsong and forbearance. They are a hectic mosaic. What we call the spirit of the place is the music through time that all the pieces and the intervals between them amount to.
A place is jazz: an endless improvisation on a theme. And you’re going to need a lyric sensibility—you’re going to want a lyric stance—to catch and return a landscape’s music. A lyric essay is what you’ll need if you want to catch the lyric of country.
And so it seems to me that it is by adopting a more lyric approach to the essay and to its Australian ground, we might let the antipodean stones teach us how to talk. We might deepen further into a literature of fact in which the vernacular of Australian places and their people speak.