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?

Creative Nonfiction: imaginative truth

I have noticed that many students in my classes, whenever we read a book of nonfiction (examples: The Gutenberg Elegies; Thoreau’s Walden–with students often referring to the character of ‘Walden’), refer to the book as a novel. As if “novel” is a synonym for book. I suspect that this is because mostly, whenever you have read prose in a book form, it was most often a novel. So perhaps the place for us to start, before diving in to Wolff’s nonfiction book (call it memoir or autobiography), is to define some of our terms.

Traditionally viewed, there are four categories of literary genres (types or classes of literature): poetry, drama, fiction, nonfiction.

Poetry: Homer to Beowulf to Wordsworth to Ke$ha. Think verse (which means ‘turning’ of lines) and meter and rhythm and rhyme. We also think of poetic as writing where language is the primary focus, rather than narrative. Thus at times we might describe certain texts in other genres (including nonfiction) as poetic.

Drama: Shakespeare to Law and Order. Think poetry or prose, turned into dialogue and scene and then staged. Think tragedy and comedy.

Fiction: much more recent (since the 18th century), beginning around Robinson Crusoe to Jane Austen, Dickens, Melville to Harry Potter. Think story and novel, whether fantastic or realistic, generally focused on a social context. Imagining a world in narrative.

Nonfiction: autobiography, memoir, essay (personal, academic), travel writing, science writing. Traditionally, nonfiction was defined as factual, the opposite of the imagined that we associate with poetry or fiction; it has also been called the ‘fourth genre.’ A related term would be prose (straightforward, the opposite of poetry’s turning lines; basically, anything that isn’t poetry). But more recently, there has emerged a label for the kinds of nonfiction writing we are focusing on–by writers who are interested in writing about the real world and its truths, but also interested in the creative ways of doing so. The label is “creative nonfiction.” Writers who use the creative tools of the poet and novelist–but toward the end of telling the truth.

Tobias Wolff alerts us of his interest in this hybrid of nonfiction and storytelling (call it imagining or inventing the truth) in his opening acknowledgement. To my mind, this is where his book, his memoir, really begins: on the subject of what memory means to him as a writer, and what he is trying to do with it. He says: “this is a books of memory, and memory has its own story to tell. But I have done my best to make it a truthful story.”

Another way to say this is that in the world of creative and autobiographical nonfiction that we are exploring, nonfiction stories about the complex truths of memory and identity and childhood, truth is not merely factual. The truth of his memory, as he remembers it, needs to be told and recovered imaginatively as a story is told. Consider this conundrum we see early on: how best to tell the truth about telling a lie? Or, as you might well need to explore in your own autobiographical writing this term: even if you set out to be completely factual, what do you do, as a writer, with gaps in your memory? what do you do with the truth of a scene that you weren’t part of? As Wolff also notes in the last line of his acknowledgment: what you don’t know could fill a book.

So, it makes good sense to think about Wolff’s book (memoir or autobiography, either works) as novelistic, having qualities of fiction and the novel (also, in places, of poetry and drama). But in terms of genre, the book is nonfiction.

A less familiar rhetorical figure we will be exploring further (in addition to metaphor), one that is particularly relevant to autobiographical nonfiction: metonymy and metonymic detail. This type of language use (images and figures of speech that describe/refer to something by way of something connected to it, part of it: the ‘pen’ or a letter as a figure for writing or the writer) is often associated with realistic description and real-world context. As such, though it can show up in a novel (something like a realist novel), it is particularly prominent in nonfiction. Metaphor (images and figures of speech that describe/refer to something by way of something unconnected to it though similar in other ways: eagle as figure for freedom) can also show up in autobiography and other nonfiction-though it is more often associated with poetry. However–and this is my point–metonymy and metonymic details are no less figurative or ‘symbolic’ or meaningful than metaphor and metaphorical images. They are just not metaphorical. But the autobiographers task is to find significance in such metonymic details and put them to work.

Wolff does this throughout his narrative. Starting with the road (and the car) going west where he places us in the opening words. Other examples of highly significant, metonymic details that he uses and re-uses: the rifle (guns); letter writing; the confession. Think of the ‘theme’ or idea–might even call it the thesis–of the book that Wolff asserts in the opening: the ‘dream of transformation’ that he and his mother have. Transformation is a key subject in an autobiography. A metaphorical presentation of that subject might appeal to images of metamorphosis–think butterfly: representative of change, but not directly connected to Toby’s life.  A metonymic representation is more connected to the subject (Toby’s life): the road they take to drive west, the car in which they drive, the bus they take to Seattle.

We will get back to this in an upcoming workshop.