Friday, July 4, 2014

Is the lyric essay undergoing a cyberspace Renaissance?

In a long-form piece in The New Inquiry, Sarah Menkedick stacks up fragments of varying length to argue that it is.
The lyric essay is all-telling, all the time. A snippet of image here, a stray bit of dialog there, nested in the telling: the logic of the traditional story reversed. It purposefully avoids a steady progression towards meaning, a predictable arc of exposition, climax, revelation, and denouement, preferring instead allusive, anecdotal, and abstract swipes at an opaque theme. In their introduction to the Fall 1997 issue of The Seneca Review, Deborah Tall and John D’Agata christened and defined the lyric essay. It “forsake[s] narrative line, discursive logic, and the art of persuasion in favor of idiosyncratic meditation…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. Generally it 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.” It is, in other words, a mash-up: borrowing from all, beholden to none.
And another:
The lyric essay, Judith Kitchen writes, “generates its meaning by asking its readers to make leaps, to make a kind of narrative sense of the random and the chance encounter. It eschews content for method, and then lets method become its content.” It is composed of bits, fragments, collagistically compiled and accumulated. Its form is as easy to consume as a Flickr slideshow, as successive sound bites on CNN, although in its language and content as a whole it intends to be difficult and tries for Barthesian jouissance, breaking established literary codes and forcing the reader out of a familiar subject position. It reproduces dozens of famous and wildly disproportionate political apologies out of context, as in Eula Biss’ “All Apologies”; it zigzags from cancer to suicide to TV as in Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely; it aligns the walking of Atlantic City’s streets with the playing of a game of monopoly as in John McPhee’s “The Search for Marvin Gardens.”
Are you getting the idea? Try this:
The problem is finding those with the discernment and experience to wade through and make sense of the random, finding the revelatory angles and the right kind of light amidst so much pixelated information.
Which we all know. And somehow the writer of superb lyrical essays is to pull it altogether. Or at least put it on the page / screen so we can do the pulling as we will. But how will the rest of us find this miraculous creature?

More fragments:
David Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto is a lyric essay flexing aggressive socio-political muscle, challenging given definitions of authenticity, authorship, genre, and of course, “reality.” The book is composed of more than 600 numbered fragments: some quotations from famous authors, some taken from Shields’ work, many lifted from sources unknown to the reader. None are cited. Shields expresses a wariness of the “whole,” of the linear narrative or storified story with its beginning and middle and revelation and end: a position that seems innate to the lyric essay and that can be traced back to Barthes….To attempt a traditional narrative in this climate of dancing YouTube cats and viral GIFs and “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” is to seal one’s message in a bottle and sink it to the bottom of a murky lake of anachronisms. What counts is not the singular perspective, the reality that pretends to be a whole and complete generator of meaningful lives, but “the ways in which these common copies of a creative work can be linked, manipulated, tagged, highlighted, bookmarked, translated, enlivened by other media, and sewn together in the universal media.”
And so it goes.


  1. A great deal of what's going on here is precisely what the HipBone Games -- my variant on Hesse's Glass Bead Game -- are all about, Wm.

    Specifically, "making use of other genres when they serve its purpose: recombinant, it samples the techniques of fiction, drama, journalism, song, and film" as Deborah Tall and John D’Agata put it in one of your quotes, corresponds to Sven Birkets's observation:

    QUOTE: We are probably on the brink of the birth of whole new genres of art which will work through electronic systems. These genres will likely be multi-media in ways we can’t imagine. Digitalization, the idea that the same string of digits can bring image, music, or text, is a huge revolution in and of itself. When artists begin to grasp the creative possibilities of works that are neither literary, visual, or musical, but exist using all three forms in a synthetic collage fashion, an enormous artistic boom will occur. :UNQUOTE

    Here's a sample game, essentially a "lyric essay" meditating on nuclear warfare and the sacred, to give you an idea...

    You can read the "moves" in any order, but the ways they echo, reflect, oppose and augment one another is the juice of the thing -- think of the game as a series of pebbles thrown into a lake, the idea being to observe their ripples as they move out and intersect on the calm surface of mind.

    When time permits, I'll try to post a fauller response on Sembl or Zenpundit. Once again, I see we're parallel-tracking.

    1. "...I see we're parallel-tracking."


      I've been playing around a bit with photo essays. They're utterly conventional in that they combine photos and prose. But the prose isn't necessarily mere commentary on the images nor the images mere illustrations of the prose. Something else is going on.