Monday, March 25, 2013

Joni Tevis on the long lyric essay

A Paperback Cabinet of Wonder: Unlocking the Long Lyric Essay

I’m thinking today about the challenges of the long lyric essay, which I’m defining as anything from about forty pages to book-length. For me, a lyric essay works like a poem can, with pressurized language and associative leaps, and although it may contain narrative, story is not the main engine pulling the reader through the material. And like a poem, the lyric essay can take a turn at the end—sometimes a sharp, surprising turn.

Let’s face it: no matter its length, the lyric essay presents challenges to the reader as well as to the writer. Narrative is a powerful tool to discard. And the language in a lyric essay can be dense, concerned with sound as well as with meaning. The pleasures of the lyric essay—the unhurried delight it takes in surprise and thought—can turn too easily into its downfall. Syntax can tangle; lines of thought turn self-indulgent. This is prose of the kind that Robert Coover called “disruptive, eccentric, even inaccessible,” but I believe that despite its challenges, the long lyric essay can provide a space for the reader and the writer to delight in each other.

In thinking about this question, I’ve been reading critic Tom Le Clair’s book, The Art of Excess, in which he discusses prose that makes a “quantitative deformation of conventions,” something I believe the lyric essayist sets out to do, consciously or not. Even more important for the terms of my argument, Le Clair cites key points from Roland Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text. Barthes defines the “text of pleasure” as “the text that contents, fills, grants euphoria; the text that comes from culture and does not break with it, is linked to a comfortable practice of reading.” But the text of pleasure differs from the “text of bliss,” which “imposes a state of loss… discomforts (perhaps to the state of a certain boredom), unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, (and) brings to a crisis his relation with language.” How can “bliss” coexist with “a state of loss,” “discomfort,” and “boredom”? How can “bliss” “bring to a crisis (one’s) relation to language”? Barthes says we want to be shaken, challenged, when we read. If that’s right, then the long lyric essay must strive to be a “text of bliss.”

In order for this “text of bliss” to succeed, I believe that the long lyric essay demands a strong narratorial presence to draw the reader’s attention to, and make meaning from, what would seem like bare facts. More: the lyric essay’s images must startle, its juxtapositions surprise—while feeling inevitable.

Briefly, three models for the kind of long-lyric exploration I want to do in my own work. Two are nonfiction and one is poetry. Each example, longer than the last, depends on something other than narrative to bind it together, and each one reaches some kind of resolution.

My first example—Joan Didion’s essay, “The White Album”—clocks in at about 12,500 words. It depends on shape, but even more, on an intensely hermetic sense of time—the late 1960s. The air is close, the entrances sealed shut. In fifteen sections, the narrator leads us through the Manson murders, campus riots, and music culture. When the end comes, there’s no easy conclusion, but there is a sense of resolution, with callbacks to previous images.

What holds the piece together? The narrative arc of the Manson case is part of it; the narrator’s grip on herself is part of it. The persona of the narrator herself is part of it, but that’s too easy. The narrator resists the notion that any simple answer could come of all this: as the last line says, “writing has not yet helped me to see what it means.” The essay might resist easy meaning, but it still satisfies. Why? Of course, Didion’s sentences are lovely, and I find her steely narrator very sympathetic. But there is something more at work here. Could it be the physicality of her details—a lit match and Jim Morrison’s black vinyl pants; the smell of jasmine and a crumbling tennis court—juxtaposed with the unanswerable questions of her time, a time that more and more, with its violence and dread, reminds me of ours? When the narrator first hears of the Manson killings, she says, “I also remember this, and wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised.”

Didion’s essay demonstrates one of what I believe to be the lyric essay’s natural strengths: while clearly art, it feels more realistic than a strictly-plotted narrative would. And with that strength, a question follows: Is this a peculiarly postmodern form, fixated on fragments? Not for me. I appreciate its affinity for fragments, because oftentimes, that’s what we find—shards of pottery or a few words of chalked graffiti. But I want the reader to have an intellectual and emotional payoff at the end. If not a conclusion, then a resolution, and Didion’s essay provides that.

My second example is Anne Carson’s “Very Narrow—Just for the Thrill,” which clocks in at about 15,000 words. Here, two shapes corset the material. The first shape, told via travel diary, is that of a cross-country drive and camping trip the narrator takes with her soon-to-be former lover, a scholar of Chinese wisdom. The second shape is a list of places, with names such as Cross-Fire Zone, Ten-Heart Hermitage, and Flesh and Blood Bridge, mentioned on an historical map made by a royal courtesan in 1553. There are 67 items on the map list; there are 67 sections in the travel diary. Matching each item from the map with its corresponding entry in the travel diary provides sparks of meaning. Like a terrific last line in a poetry collection, the map slingshots you back into the beginning, so that you reread the piece with that new revelation in mind.

As an example, I’d like to read section 58 in the travel diary. By this point, the relationship is deteriorating between the narrator and her lover; they are also passing through Las Vegas, which surely isn’t helping.

Las Vegas, Nevada
On the radio someone is interviewing Ray Charles. When I do a song I like to make it stink in my own way, Ray Charles is saying. With eyes closed I can smell the fickle Tao of Las Vegas heating up in layers. We seem to be driving through the center of town, to judge from the frequency of stops. Traffic intersections smell like underfur of dogs. Raw liver as the humans wash past hot, cold, hot. Neon smells like shock treatment and makes that same ice-pick nick on your mind. I remember on the eve of my thirteenth birthday, I overheard my aunts talking to Father about young girls and the dangerous age. “But she isn’t going to be one of them,” I heard Father say firmly. I was filled with pride, which smells like rubies. I got seven nights to rock, Ray Charles is singing, got seven nights to roll. His voice smells like wooden rain. Who will I be instead? is a question I never got around to asking Father. Every night goin show my face with a different chick in a different place. Well I suppose I can be anyone I like or rather, with eyes closed, nobody at all. A dream dreamt in a dreaming world is not really a dream, says classical Chinese wisdom, but a dream not dreamt is.

The corresponding map item from courtesan Lady Cheng’s list reads “Bridge of Just Tears,” which is preceded by number 57, “Straight Road,” and followed by 59, “Stations of Refreshment for Travelers on the Straight Road.” I’m struck by the ways in which the polyvocality within the essay—as here, with the Ray Charles quotes, lines from blues singers are spread through the piece—is underscored by the map list at the essay’s end, a kind of phantom doubling or recasting of the events that take place within the essay’s 67 sections.

Carson’s essay demonstrates a second natural strength of the lyric essay: it allows the writer a space in which to make meaning out of events and sensations and thoughts it would be easy to overlook. This, too, matters, says non-narrative nonfiction, which creates meaning through accretion. I think of the marine worms who live in the shallow waters off the Gulf Coast, collecting bits of broken shell and seaweed and cast off crab claws and barnacle flakes; with these, they knit long socks in which they encase their soft bodies. Every piece is a necessary part of the disguise and the armor; the chips are no good on their own, but only as assembled.

My last example is A.R. Ammons’s book-length poem, Garbage. Part of what ties this book together is the act of writing itself, as in lines where the narrator calls our attention to the process:
…how to write this
poem, should it be short, a small popping of

duplexes, or long, hunting wide, coming home
late, losing the trail and recovering it.
The narrative voice is pleasingly unsure of itself, and this self-questioning feels right for the non-narrative, non-mastering modus operandi of this piece. But more than that, the narrator himself ties the poem together. He’s clearly present from the beginning, with his musings on soybeans, departmental meetings, and trips to the farmer’s market.

And here I see a third natural strength of the long lyric: the particular pleasure it takes in rigorous language. Each word and its placement count. It comes to its conclusion in its own good time, and its realizations bubble along, almost subterranean, until they break upon the reader, who seems to get it at the same time the narrator does.

An odd thing happens when I read the poem’s last lines, with their gesture toward the superlative:
the gentlest, the most
refined language, so little engaged it is hardly

engaging, deserves to tell the deepest wishes,
roundabout fears: loud boys, the declaimers,

the deaf listen to them: to the whisperers,
even the silent, their moody abundance: the

poem that goes dumb holds tears. (121)

The gentlest, the most refined—I’m struck, here, by our longing to define the outer limits of something, an urge that comes on us early in life and sticks with us.

As evidence of this, let me present the book fair of my memory, Concrete Elementary School, in Anderson County, South Carolina. We lined up with dollar bills our mothers had paper-clipped to the order forms, to buy the Guinness Book of World Records. Even though it was chunky as a dictionary, you could read the Guinness Book straight through. At lunchtime, we read it aloud, savoring the things people thought up to do, and the fame their odd success brought them.

Even now, staring at the Guinness home page, I’m hooked. Here’s a man towing an airplane; here’s the world’s largest collection of sick bags. Here’s the statistic for the fastest mile covered on spring loaded stilts. Says Ammons: “…anything,/ anything, anything is poetry”; okay, here’s the most toilet seats broken by the head in one minute—46, he was from Indianapolis.

We want to push the limits. Here’s proof, a long list poem doubling as the book most stolen from bookstores (unless that’s the Bible.) It’s a book of wonders, a paperback cabinet of curiosity. Writes Ammons,
we’re trash, plenty wondrous: should I want
to say in what wonder consists: it is a tiny

wriggle of light in the mind that says, ‘go on’:
that’s what it says: that’s all it says.
Reading Guinness, alongside Ammons, I’m attracted again to the prose Coover calls “disruptive, eccentric, even inaccessible.” Disruptive, yes. Eccentric, yes. But these two qualities need not lead to inaccessibility. Isn’t that life; isn’t it the text of bliss? What challenges the reader, upends her expectations, forces her to recast her assumptions in a new frame.

Walk with me through the art of excess. Past the house in the desert made of old green bottles, chinked with mud and glowing in the sun. Past the fabulous show costumes Liberace wore, glittering and glistering with several oceans’ worth of factory-made shine. Right on up to the big sphere that lives in its own glassed-in house, audacious and disruptive and strange: The Biggest Ball of Twine Made By One Man, of Darwin, Minnesota.

The Biggest Ball, they say, weighs nine tons, is forty feet around, and took twenty-nine years to make. I have seen it, and I can tell you this: it’s tall as corn in August of a good year. It pulls dust to itself, smells like mice, and started with a yard or so of leftover baling twine. He twisted it around two fingers and tied it into a knot to save. By and by, the saving of it became more important than anything else.

This, too, is a text, a memorial. I think of Barthes again: to examine it brings “discomfort,” “(perhaps to the state of a certain boredom).” It “unsettles….the consistency of (the reader’s) tastes, values, (and) memories.” It “brings to a crisis (one’s) relation with language.” I stood before it, and knew not what to say. Says Ammons, “we mean to go on and go on till we unwind/ the winding of our longest road.” No matter how closely you look, you can’t find the place where he stopped. The end is like the beginning, and there’s a long, long line between.


Joni Tevis is the author of a book of lyric essays, The Wet Collection, just out in paperback from Milkweed Editions.  She is finishing a new book of nonfiction about ghost towns and atomic dread, and she teaches creative writing at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina.


  1. Such a beautiful and thought-provoking text, thank you!

  2. Tevis reads this essay and a follow-up on the SHORT lyric essay (and takes questions) here: