Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Lyric Essay: Joni Tevis

One type of essay is the Lyric essay, which has a lot in common with a poem.

To understand a lyric essay, it might be helpful to take a detour into what "creative nonfiction" is. On one end of the writing spectrum is a user manual for a VCR. Style matters in that it needs to be concise and clear, but there is no purpose to the VCR manual apart from delivering information. In fact some user manuals are boiled down to pure picture without any words at all.

On the other end of the spectrum is a linguistically beautiful poem in a language you don't understand. The meaning really doesn't matter.

Most writing is somewhere in the middle, but creative nonfiction is left of center; content matters, but style matters just as much.

A lyric essay skews towards the style end. It's usually in paragraph form, and usually short, and the emphasis is usually on image and language. It dovetails with a "prose poem," but like all essays is nonfiction.

Joni Tevis is one of my favorite writers. She was a fellow at the University of Minnesota when I was there for my MFA, and she's at her best on the image-rich lyric essay, like this one about seal bones on a beach. It starts:

Over time, the dead seal turns to beach, and nobody notices. Girls jog over the bones: mosaic of glass, gray stone, windfall knocked clean of twig, root, splinter.


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