Lyric Essay, Part One: Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is subtitled “An American Lyric” and categorized by the publisher as “lyric essay/poetry.” What does lyric suggest or mean? In what ways does this poetic element of her essay play a role in the rhetorical project? What is Rankine’s rhetorical project: what is she doing in here?

In simplest terms, I presume the publisher means it as something of a synonym for poetic. Here is the OED entry for the adjective “lyric.”  Another term, then, might be prose poem. And lyric, in poetry, has come to mean something personal or autobiographical, in contrast with the epic; poetry of the I. Think Whitman, “Song of Myself.”

Calling prose lyrical or poetic may also just be a cop out: an attempt to describe prose that doesn’t behave like it should–and thus seems ‘poetic,’ transgressive of the rules of the genre. There may be something to this. And that something has a history in American nonfiction. It is one way that we can continue to explore the rhetoric of the essay, and particularly the rhetoric of race, as we read and discuss Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. The lyrical quality is a poetic element of her writing; but I would also argue that it speaks to the rhetorical project as well.

When I look at Rankine’s text, I think back to the poet Walt Whitman–and not his poetry but to his prose. Specifically, the autobiographical prose he would write and collect under the title Specimen Days. As you can see from browsing it, the prose is composed of lots of paragraph or two long sections that not only feel fragmentary–but are presented as such. Consider how Whitman begins Specimen Days.

The fragmentation of the book is part of the story. It is not simply a case that an older Whitman has difficulty putting together all the ‘scraps’ and ‘memoranda’ from his life spent as a writer recording the poetry of America, it is that the very record is necessarily a pile of scraps. He makes the point particularly about the section of the text (its heart, really) that re-collects the notes and memoranda he recorded while in the Civil War hospitals. Where Whitman saw, and wrote about, wrote from, fragmentation at first hand.

Whitman named this “Convulsiveness“:

As I have look’d over the proof-sheets of the preceding pages, I have once or twice fear’d that my diary would prove, at best, but a batch of convulsively written reminiscences. Well, be it so. They are but parts of the actual distraction, heat, smoke and excitement of those times. The war itself, with the temper of society preceding it, can indeed be best described by that very word convulsiveness.

So lyric may well mean poetic. But it also seems to me, with Whitman’s example in mind, that lyrical for Rankine’s type of essaying can mean a resistance to poetry–if by poetry we mean some sort of meaning that comes together into wholeness, a place where things are worked out by the end of the poem. Whitman’s poetry wants to do that; the prose doesn’t seem able. In 1876, Whitman published a volume of poetry/prose titled Two Rivulets: where the prose and poetry exist on the same page. He begins this volume in a manner similar to Specimen Days, by emphasizing his declining health, and his effort to put all the various scraps of his writing together. It is interesting, then, to think about Rankine’s focus on mental health and the sense of illness we see in her book.

Whitman expresses an understanding that Emerson, in his very lyrical essay, “Experience,” puts this way: “I know better than to claim any completeness for my picture. I am a fragment and this is a fragment of me.” And of course, let’s not forget Frederick Douglass, who concludes his narrative by commanding the reader to undergo his fragmentary experience as a fugitive in order to understand him. Let you, reader, be as lonely as I was, he seems to say. Perhaps this is Rankine’s interest as well: don’t let me be lonely (without you being lonely). I think of the statement by the Irish poet Yeats: “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric; we make out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” Rankine, and perhaps the lyric essay form, seeks to combine the quarrel with others and herself.

John D’Agata, a contemporary nonfiction writer and scholar of the essay, expresses several of these qualities in his definition:

The lyric essay, as some have called the form, asks what happens when an essay begins to behave less like an essay and more like a poem. What happens when an essayist starts imagining things, making things up, filling in blank spaces, or–worse yet–leaving the blanks blank?What happens when statistics, reportage, and observation in an essay are abandoned for image, emotion, expressive transformation?… What’s a lyric essay? It’s an oxymoron: an essay that’s also a lyric; a kind of logic that wants to sing; an argument that has no chance of proving anything. [D’Agata, The Next American Essay, 436-7]

A final thought about the meaning of “lyrical.” It also strikes me as a way to get at the multimedia and documentary elements of this narrative.  For Rankine, the lyrical ‘I’ seems to exist, thoroughly if uneasily, in a world of eyes. We are all individuals, but watching the same commercials. Or so it seems. Some of the images, as we know, are racially focused, coded. In fact, the book began (she told the audience when she visited Washington College several years ago) in response to imagery from the Byrd lynching in Texas, and a comment President Bush made about it during a debate. In using a more recent, racially charged and coded image, namely from the Trayvon Martin shooting, I am updating the discussion.

As we will see in the last section of the course, Rankine also composes essays in video form, for example this one titled Zidane. Several others are listed under “Situations” on her website. We will be visiting these again in a couple weeks when we explore the video essay.

Could you imagine your own essay  expressed through video or photographic forms? Rankine will be on campus in September; the first-year read this coming summer will be her latest book, Citizen.

One of the rhetorical elements of this essay we need to consider: its appeal to logos, to evidence. Consider all the footnotes at the back (you might not have known they were there). What’s going on with all the evidence?

Momaday: environmental autobiography

Jemez, New Mexico

Wish I were here.  We know the phrase from post cards, usually (of course) directed to another: wish you were here. Or perhaps, if sent to provoke some measure of envy: can you believe I am here and you are stuck at home?

I feel this way, somewhat, in the final pages of Momaday’s memoir. I marvel at the way he locates his childhood and his very life in the place of New Mexico and the beauty and wonder of that world. I leave the book with a sense that Momaday knows where he is; that the place and places of his childhood and his ancestry have strongly and wonderfully shaped him. He writes of his relation to the landscape,

The events of one’s life take place, take place. How often have I used this expression, and how often have I stopped to think what it means? Events do indeed take place; they have meaning in relation to the things around them. And a part of my life happened to take place at Jemez. I existed in that landscape, and then my existence was indivisible with it. [142]

In the final chapter Momaday meditates upon this essential relation between the meaning of his life and the place and landscape in which he lived. The places where life took place, as he puts it. Life has context; and writing or representing life (in a word, autobiography) also needs context. This isn’t new to our study. We have certainly seen the importance of context in This Boy’s Life: it matters where the living takes place.

Momaday’s narrative can be defined as “environmental autobiography” to the extent that he focuses so intently on the interrelationship between his life and its place. As with his name, Tsoai, which locates his identity in a place. And in doing so, we see some interesting confirmations of the autobiographical tradition in America, but also some challenges and tensions. The I is placed and rooted: I celebrate myself (Whitman famously begins “Song of Myself”), I was born, I lived here. And potentially, the I is dispersed into the environment: if you want to find me, Whitman closes that same poem, look for me under your boot soles. So, Momaday’s “I” is centered in its sense of place–his family, its locations; but it is also de-centered into place, defined by place to an extent that is not traditional to an I-centered narrative. If the Cartesian ego traditionally keeps the subject clearly distinct from the objects of its world, an ecological ego tends to blur distinctions between identity and environment. The environmental literary critic Lawrence Buell argues that a text such as Momaday’s can be considered environmentally oriented if it meets 4 conditions.

  1. The nonhuman environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history.
  2. The human interest is not understood to be the only legitimate interest.
  3. Human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical orientation.
  4. Some sense of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a given is at least implicit in the text. [Buell, The Environmental Imagination]

I think these conditions are at work in The Names and have something to do with Momaday’s interest in what he names “enchantment.”  Momaday’s “here” is thus local and universal. The here of his life and parents and immediate family–all the people in the photographs. But it is also a “here” that we traditionally don’t call here: the here of the distant past, of memory or ancestry; the here of other regions and races, of time that is not bound to what we know or where we are. For me this is what links Momaday’s environmental perspective to his spiritual perspective: “here” is also a window onto beauty and wonder and spirit. “The wonder: I want to tell you of it; I want to speak and to write it all out for you.” [155] I hear Wolff  and Douglass and Rankine and Flynn also wishing they could find that wonder–or, if finding it, speak and write it all out. It may be that Momaday–because he was given the name for it from his family–has had a life where that wonder can be realized.

As a reader of this narrative, that leaves me wishing I could join him there, or here. But I also understand that as a writer of autobiography, I have work to do. I didn’t grow up with the sense of place Momaday has. But my life, as every life, took place somewhere. This is something we all should consider for autobiographical writing. An environmental perspective need not mean that your life took place among the red rock and canyons of the Southwest.  It may mean, in fact, that you lived in very different places from how others might describe ideas such as landscape and beauty and wonder. But as Momaday tells us, these lives still take place.