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 makes 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.

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Abani: The Rhetoric of Memoir

In reading Chris Abani’s The Face: Cartography of the Void, we will begin our turn to very contemporary poetics of the essay known as lyric essay. We will take this up more directly in the final text of the course, reading the work and thought of lyric essayist John D’Agata in Lifespan of a Fact. We will also be reading (and visiting with) my colleague Dr. James Hall, another poet and lyric essayist. In addition to the essay from his forthcoming book (distributed to you), you could read his poem “A Home in the Country.” Some questions we could ask Dr. Hall, as we take up the lyrical quality of essay writing: is his poetry nonfiction? is his essay writing poetic? And what would that mean?

Like Dr. Hall, Abani moves us in the direction of the lyric essay since he is writing an essay (as a memoir) in The Face, and doing so as a novelist and a poet. [Here is an example of his poetry; and another poem titled “Blue.”] He is writing nonfiction, but using the imaginative and even fictive tools of the poet to do so.  We will have an opportunity to see and hear Abani at the Literary House on April 6 at 4.30 pm. As we read and discuss The Face, think about questions we might ask the author.

One series of  questions would be to ask him to define his terms. In the opening section, “Threshold,” in a moment of metadiscourse, he refers to the book he is writing as an essay.  Would he further define it as ‘lyric essay,’ and if so, what does that mean? What are the uses and limits of that definition for the genre? What does the lyrical character of an essay allow, invite, necessitate?

In the next section, “Caveat,” we are warned that “Everything in this book is true,” as we would expect from nonfiction, but also, or rather, “none of it may be true at all,” since everything in the book involves memory and remembrance, and thereby, misrepresentation. Here, I think, we begin to note the complications that interest lyric essayists: nonfiction that does not see truth as synonymous with fact, nor the opposite of imagination. This rhetoric of remembrance warns the reader of a potential problem, a disclaimer–think of how Abani here operates differently than Shields, perhaps more in line with Kaysen. And, it seems to me, this problem of memory, but also potential to generate writing from its very misrepresentation, is part of the larger rhetorical project.

I would suggest that the poetic quality of this work is also part of the project. I have in mind several elements of this essay that we can further explore. Certainly, it’s interest in language, and the ways Abani, like Kaysen, develops his critical reflection and deeper resonance for the essay through the focus on words and concepts that are part of his lineage. Within this reflection, Abani presents us with some concepts we can think about as rhetorical tools for our own writing: beauty, balance, symmetry, and patience are a few that I am particularly interested in.