Lyric Essay: John D’Agata

With John D’Agata’s The Lifespan of a Fact, we explore the realm of the lyric essay. We have been working our way toward this very current and somewhat controversial turn in nonfiction writing: where the creativity of “creative nonfiction” emerges into the essay, formerly and formally thought of as dry, dead.

The lyric essay, then, is a good place to pursue further our inquiry into the poetics of the essay. We have been looking at the poetics of the essay in contemporary forms of new media: video, audio, hypertext. These are essays that use the poetic (and editing) tools of the medium to hack their way into, and through, the traditional essay. And so Rankine’s “Zidane” can be thought of as a lyric essay–as perhaps all the video essays might. As we saw, many of those essays are collaborations between writer and some other person–and certainly between writer and medium.

D’Agata’s essay returns us to the more familiar form of print. However, as presented in the form of this book, as a collaboration with the fact-checker Jim Fingal, and as represented on the page (with original text set with the  ongoing conversation between D’Agata and Fingal around it), we might think of this lyric essay as a continuation of the multimedia or hypertextual essay as hack. What is being hacked?

David Shields, whose book Reality Hunger can be thought of as another type of lyrical, creative essay into the philosophy of the current essay, refers frequently to the lyric essay. Not surprisingly, he cites–or perhaps we should say, hacks–D’Agata on several occasions. For example, 384; I assume Shields won’t mind me quoting him, or both of them, at length:

The lyric essay doesn’t expound, is suggestive rather than exhaustive, depends on gaps, may merely mention. It might move by association, leaping from one path of thought to another by way of imagery or connotation, advancing by juxtaposition or sidewinding poetic logic…The stories it tells may be no more than metaphors. Or, storyless, it may spiral in on itself, circling the core of a single image or idea, without climax, without a paraphrasable theme. It stalks its subject but isn’t content to merely explain or confess. Loyal to the orginal sense of ‘essay’ as a test or a quest, an attempt at making sense….

So far, so good. We are reminded that this newer, more experimental form (hence the adjective ‘lyric’ or poetic) does things as a an essay that are essayistic in the root senses. The lyric essay, like every good essay, is a theater of the brain. However, we know from other and earlier citations  in Shields that things are D’Agata pushes his definition provocatively farther:

The lyric essay 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 leaving the blanks blank? What happens when statistics, reportage, and observation in an essay are abandoned for image, emotion, expressive transformation? [72]

What happens? Let’s take D’Agata’s question into our reading of his essay and the collaboration that resulted from it. Here’s a way we might, like good essayists ourselves, test this out.

  1. As you read, identify some places in the original essay (the black text at the center) that strike you as particularly interesting or compelling–perhaps where you note some element of the essay’s philosophy, rhetoric, and/or poetics. Then, read those passages in relation to the commentary. What is happening there poetically–that is to say, what is D’Agata making, or even, making up? Does that enhance the passage? Was it necessary?
  2. Just focusing on the commentary, what’s an exchange between the writer and the fact-checker that strikes you as particularly interesting or remarkable or problematic. What can we learn from this about the lyric essay, about D’Agata’s argument for the essay, about essay writing?
  3. And what about D’Agata’s rhetoric, or the philosophy of the essay–what do you notice about the ways this essay works? What’s his project?
    1. a particular rhetorical element of this essay that sheds light I think on his poetics and his philosophy. He likes to repeat the beginnings of sentences (anaphora, in Greek; think Biblical syntax here), and also likes to repeat a rhetorical strategy known as paralipsis: to assert or emphasize the very thing that the writer seems to be denying. Take a look at page 70-71: “But he did not say….”

Further Reading:

A recent interview with D’Agata, conducted by Ander Monson. There is discussion toward the end of Lifespan of a Fact, along with his philosophy of the essay.

Here is D’Agata’s essay as originally published in The Believer Magazine, “What Happens There.” And the material from the essay would also make its way into the conclusion of his book focused on Las Vegas and Nevada, About a Mountain.

And for comparison and contrast regarding policies on facts and nonfiction, here is the journal Creative Nonfiction.


Recomposition: Emerson’s Original Quotation

English: Photo of American Transcendentalist, ...

English: Photo of American Transcendentalist, writer, and minister Ralph Waldo Emerson. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Emerson has long been known as a sort of patron saint of originality in American culture. The primary location for this message is his essay “Self-Reliance” (1841). The argument of that essay would seem to be, from the title onward, that the individual and his/her genius is of utmost importance. There are many famous lines and passages in the essay that suggest this, including, perhaps most famous: “imitation is suicide.”

Believe it or not, that line and some others from the essay were used in a Reebok commercial in the 1980s. Reebok was just starting and trying to knock Nike–the shoes that everyone else was wearing. The logic was, strangely: be yourself and buy our shoes; don’t imitate Nike (imitate us).

Given this tradition of Emersonian originality, what should we make of Emerson’s later essay, “Quotation and Originality,” in which he declares surprisingly, “all minds quote”? Is this view of writing and reading and, more broadly, thinking, as some form of quotation a contradiction of his earlier views of self-reliance and “creative reading?” Does this break from the earlier essays, or somehow extend the vision?

Emerson, mid-way through the essay, seems to admit his own contradiction when he begins to voice a challenge to what he has been saying of quotation. That voice sounds much like the Emerson from “Self-Reliance”: “Quotation confesses inferiority.” Is this just a case of Emerson contradicting himself, being willfully or whimsically inconsistent? (In “Self-Reliance he claims famously: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”)

Emerson, however, has always had a more complicated vision of originality–much as the notion of originality in writing and thinking is more complicated than conventionally presented in schools. Emerson’s vision of original quotation speaks to the essay tradition and its philosophy of relating the personal and ordinary in the world of the writer to the public world of the reader. A good essayist needs to work through quotation, and consider the relation between the quotation and originality of thinking. A better context for understanding the tension between originality and quotation, I suggest, is a rhetorical tradition Emerson was familiar with. The rhetorical context for this essay, for any essay Emerson might have in mind, opens up contradiction as a strong potential for an essay, when handled honestly. Contradiction becomes counterargument; the logic in the essay moves (is not fixed), is dialectical or dynamic. Think, as Emerson liked to think, of the natural analogy of polarity. And so thought, and thinking in writing, when it accurately reflects its contexts as a natural process, moves between positive and negative poles. All things, as Emerson says, are in flux.

Composition and decomposition are the natural poles. Recomposition is the form of writing that generates from this. Reading such writing, as we also see by the end of the essay, participates in the recomposition by being inventive. Invention is a concept of classical rhetoric that speaks to the paradoxical but necessary tension between the originality of our ideas and argument and the given, quoted, borrowed structures and contexts that those ideas must live in. There is no pure originality. Of course, this line from a late Emerson essay (1868) takes us back to Emerson’s “American Scholar” thirty years before: “One must be an inventor to read well.” Thus Emerson quotes himself originally.

How does Emerson’s vision of recomposition inform David Shields’ project in Reality Hunger? How does Emerson’s vision of original quotation compare to your emerging philosophy of the essay?

My annotated (inventive? quotational?) reading of “Quotation and Originality”