Since its inception in 1970, the Seneca Review has published mostly poetry. As essayists, our interest in SR began roughly thirteen years ago, in Fall 1997, when the “lyric essay” made its first appearance. John D’Agata’s term as Associate Editor of SR began at about the same time, SR’s website would lead me to believe.
Most recent posts have included some sort of disclaimer/full-disclosure clause, and mine is no exception. In fact, my disclosures are many: I love poetry. I know very little about poetry. I know even less about the lyric essay. What excites me most about SR is the fact that gifted essayist and fellow MFA candidate at the University of Arizona – Noam Dorr – will have a piece published in the next issue.
According to the SR website, here are a few things (I translated into bullet form) that the lyric essay does:
· The lyric essay partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language.
· The lyric essay partakes of the essay in its weight, in its overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative form.
· The lyric essay does not expound. It may merely mention.
· The lyric essay, generally, is short, concise and punchy like a prose poem. But it may meander, making use of other genres when they serve its purpose: recombinant, it samples the techniques of fiction, drama, journalism, song, and film.
· The lyric essay often accretes by fragments, taking shape mosaically - its import visible only when one stands back and sees it whole.
· The lyric essay stalks its subject like quarry but is never content to merely explain or confess. It elucidates through the dance of its own delving.
· The lyric essay sets off on an uncharted course through interlocking webs of idea, circumstance, and language - a pursuit with no foreknown conclusion, an arrival that might still leave the writer questioning.
· The lyric essay is ruminative; it leaves pieces of experience undigested and tacit, inviting the reader's participatory interpretation.
· The lyric essay’s voice is often more reticent, almost coy, aware of the compliment it pays the reader by dint of understatement.
The SR editors seem to envision the lyric essay as a kind of… minx? She desires. She merely mentions. She melds. She feigns coyness. She meanders. She’s punchy! She pursues. No, she stalks.
She leaves the writer questioning.
But what about the reader?
After all, for each thing that the lyric essay does, the lyric essay asks for the reader to do something in return – to follow the “uncharted course,” to synthesize the “webs of idea, circumstance, and language,” to assemble the fragments, to interpret the mosaic, and ultimately, to gain something.
In an interview that accompanies the Spring 2009 issue, Geoffrey Hilsabeck asks Dan Beachy-Quick, whose piece “The Laurel Crown” appears in the same issue, about this idea of the “lyric reader.” (A small, edited portion of the interview appears below.)
GH: If there can be lyric poets and lyric essayists, can there be lyric readers, or is that absurd?
DBQ: The lyric reader understands that the worth of reading isn’t some sum-knowledge. Rather, the lyric reader sings back out the world the reading gave her, and in doing so, in expressing and making exterior that world reading gave her, a world now also deeply her own, she offers that world back up to doubt and question. Singing is this offering not of doubt, but to doubt. This is why, in the reading I love the most, the same reading I write about, I do not feel I’ve learned anything, or gained anything, but feel more profoundly my ignorance, and if I learn anything, I learn how better to take advantage of that ignorance.
So again, the lyric essay is a … siren? I have to admit, I’m pretty intrigued by SR’s recurrent depiction of the lyric essay as a kind of elusive woman, although I’m not sure if this concept is unique to SR or not. I’d guess not. But worth a little discussion, in any case, I think.
Notably, the most recent “special double issue” of SR for Fall 2009/Spring 2010 is titled “The Lyric Body,” and features pieces that address our corporeal lives. Pieces in this issue – most of which I found fascinating – tended to focus on the body as it changes - as it ages, travels, plays, dies, heals, etc. Not surprisingly, a significant number of the pieces in this issue also focus on the body in a state of peril or decline, as it faces death.
In the introductory essay, Stephen Kuusisto and Ralph James Savarese explain the reason for this thematic choice: “The body presents a form for engagement, the only one an organism has. That engagement is always political, whether we recognize it or not, and always lyrical, whether we see it that way or not.”
Clearly, SR seeks to engage readers who are interested in the more lyrical, experimental versions of the essay. And although I often find these forms inscrutable, I found most of the pieces I read in SR to be at once challenging and very accessible. I wanted to do the work that the essays were asking me to do - to be a “lyric reader.”