The Lyric Essay as Time Machine–Julie S. Paegle

[The following is Julie Paegle’s AWP presentation for the panel Navigating Emptiness: The Perils and Drawbacks of Teaching the Lyric Essay.  Nicole Walker and Kathleen Rooney’s talks, as well as the handouts accompanying the panels, can be found here.]

I’d like to begin today with a quotation by the great Tibetan poet and yogi, Jestsun Milarepa, as translated by poet Gary Snyder:

The Notion of Emptiness Engenders Compassion. 

—Jetsun Milarepa, 1135; trans. Gary Snyder

You’ve all gathered here, day three of the convention at 9 in the morning, to investigate questions of Emptiness—you are clearly, a compassionate group.

Thank you so much for coming to this panel on teaching the lyric essay.

I will be focusing on a tension inherent in the lyric essay, which involves the convention of two genres—the lyric on the one hand, and the essay on the other—with very different relationships to time.  So in their convening, or coming together, they are attempting to bridge a gap, an emptiness, fundamentally opposite approaches to time dictated by their own conventions or traditions.

That is, the conventional lyrical urge is to astonish the reader, to transport the reader outside time, so that she might experience an epiphany, or an anti-epiphany, or a strong emotion, or a self-revelation or discovery, however complicated or incomplete it may be. These moments are dazzling, astonishing, ecstatic in nature;  they halt the inexorable flow of time.

On the other hand, the conventional essayistic mode is to move forward in time—it advances narrative, or change over time;  it relies upon exposition, which in turn relies upon development;  it wanders and wonders and makes arguments.

So the genre of the lyrical essay functions as a kind of time machine, in which the relationship between suspension and forward momentum is constantly negotiated, and renegotiated.

In my experience, successful attempts at teaching the lyric essay rely upon first recognizing, and then developing strategies for, this negotiation between logical development on the one hand and the lyrical, epiphanic developments on the other, moments of self-showing, ecstatic raw perception.

I try to lead my students to questions such as what links the lyric moments? How do a chain of figures add up to thoughts, to something that develops?  How are lyric essays are made essayistic by reflecting on their own figuration?


Today we’ll begin by investigating these questions in the section “Painting Hunger,” and then move on to two writing exercises; the first, under “Echoing Astonishment,” is for advanced students;  the second, under “Coining Argument,” works well for beginning students.


An ancient Buddha said “A painted rice cake does not satisfy hunger.”
Dōgen comments:

There are few who have even seen this ‘painting of a rice cake’ and none of them has thoroughly understood it. 

The paints for painting rice cakes are the same as those used for painting mountains and waters. 

If you say the painting is not real, then the material phenomenal world is not real, the Dharma is not real.

Unsurpassed enlightenment is a painting.  The entire phenomenal universe and the empty sky are nothing but a painting. 

Since this is so, there is no remedy for satisfying hunger other than a painted rice cake.  Without painted hunger you never become a true person.

—Dōgen, “Painting of a Rice Cake”≈1240; trans. Gary Snyder

Arguably, the genre of Buddha’s saying—“A painted rice cake does not satisfy hunger”—is two fold.  On the one hand, and as shown by Dogen’s analysis, it is a kind of koan, or puzzle intended to illuminate its reader. At the same time, in its fortuitous marriage of expository development and flashing realization, the saying of the ancient Buddha functions as a very short lyric essay. In a fundamentally illusory, unreal world, seemingly immediate experiences, like that of “painted hunger,” emphasize by contrast the illusory quality of everything else—ultimately, of hunger itself.  Human hunger, human desire, human longing are the patinas or artifices or figurations that enable us to become true human beings.  Coextensively, Dogen’s analysis is also an excellent example of the lyrical essay.  It proceeds via argumentation—a series of propositions—and ultimately turns on an epiphanic realization—hunger, which feels real, points out how painted the entire world is—including hunger itself.

This self-reflection, in which the artifice underneath the “real” is revealed as crucial to the revelation of the real, is part of the magic of the lyric essay.

So how does one help students achieve this?

Let’s move on, now, to the exercise for advanced students:

2.  Echoing Astonishment (for advanced students)

My own background is as a poet, so forgive me as we take a slight detour through two sonnets, the first by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the second by Craig Arnold.


A Sonnet is a moment’s monument,
Memorial from the Soul’s eternity

To one dead deathless hour. Look that it be,

Whether for lustral rite or dire portent,

Of its own intricate fulness reverent:

Carve it in ivory or in ebony,
As Day or Night prevail; and let Time see

Its flowering crest impearled and orient.

A Sonnet is a coin: its face reveals

The soul,–its converse, to what Power ’tis due:
Whether for tribute to the august appeals

Of Life, or dower in Love’s high retinue
It serve;
or, ‘mid the dark wharf’s cavernous breath,

In Charon’s palm it pay the toll to Death.
—Dante Gabriel Rossetti,
The House of Life, 1881

Why I Skip My High School Reunions

Because the geeks and jocks were set in stone,
I, ground between. Because the girls I ate
lunch with are married now, most out of spite
—because the ones I spurned are still alone.
Because I took up smoking at nineteen, late,
and just now quit—because, since then, I’ve grown
into and out of something they’ve never known.
Because at the play, backstage, on opening night
she conjured out of the vast yards of her dress
an avocado and a razorblade,
slit the one open with the other, flayed
the pebbled skin, and offered me a slice
—because I thought that one day I’d say yes,
and I was wrong, and I am still afraid.
—Craig Arnold, Shells, 1998

Both sonnets express the lyric force of astonishment—of “turning to stone,” or stopping time.  Rossetti’s poem considers the sonnet as a “moment’s monument;”  that form that converts 14 lines to “one dead, deathless hour;”  just as Arnold’s poem conflates the present with the past:  “The geeks and jocks were set in stone, / I ground between.”  Both sonnets also marshal evidence to support their points;  expand on their opening claims of the sonnet as an ecstatic form;  and end with a closing argument or turn on the exposition.  In this sense, the sonnets perform argument as neatly—arguably, more neatly—than the five paragraph essay.  John D’Agata points out exactly these argumentative features of the Petrarchan sonnet in his discussion of James Wright’s prose sonnet, “May Morning:”

May Morning

Deep into spring, winter is hanging on.  Bitter and skillful in his hopelessness, he stays alive in every shady place, starving along the Mediterranean:  angry to see the glittering sea-pale boulder alive with lizards green as Judas leaves.  Winter is hanging on.  He still believes.  He tries to catch a lizard by the shoulder.  One olive tree below Grottaglie welcomes the winter into noontime shade, and talks as softly as Pythagoras.  Be still, be patient, I can hear him say, cradling in his arms the wounded head, letting the sunlight touch the savage face.

James Wright, found among his few new poems after his death in 1980, as anthologized in The Next American Essay, edited by John D’Agata, 2003

Here again, the sonnet opens with a claim about suspended time (“Deep into spring, winter is hanging on”);  and supports the claim with examples and evidence (“he stays alive in every shady place” and “One olive tree…welcomes the winter into noontime shade”).  The exposition expands its horizon as “(the olive tree) talks as softly as Pythagorus.”  Finally, the poem ends with a concluding claim that spins the original claim, as the olive urges winter to “be patient,”  waiting for its next natural season, and “letting sunlight touch the savage face.”

While Wright’s prose poem is a perfect Petrarchan sonnet, it is also, thus, a perfect lyric essay, moving between suspension and exposition;  image and example;  emotion and narrative.

One approach to helping advanced students achieve a similar balance in their own lyrical essays is to ask them to write them, first, as verse sonnets.  Then, they imitate James Wright’s move of  removing the enjambments. In some cases, the result is amazingly finished at this point.  At a minimum, the students have a tight kernel of a lyric essay that they can, if they wish, expand upon.

I have found a different approach well suits beginning students, who may not have the structure of Petrarchan sonnets at their imaginative fingertips.

III. COINING ARGUMENT (for beginning students)

This writing prompt is adapted from an exercise by Garrett Hongo in The Practice of Poetry, edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell.

I ask the students to write, anonymously, two sets of secrets:

In the first set, they confess or reveal two secrets using the first person point of view. One secret is true.  One secret is invented.  Examples range from the predictable (I spent all the money in my father’s wallet to take out and sleep with my best friend’s girlfriend) to the quixotic (I helped thirty illegal iguanas cross the border into the country in exchange for a rare edition of an old Crass album).  The writer is to hide the identity of the real secret, using literary and poetic strategies.  Put differently, I ask the writers to craft both secrets so that they seem equally real, or true.

In the second set of secrets, students relate two secrets using the third person point of view  “a friend of mine” or “my brother” or an “acquaintance.” Again, one secret is true, and one  is invented.  The two sets of secrets may be similar, save the pronoun; to the first set of secrets;  but most differ quite radically, beginning with the amount of detail and figurative language the writers naturally use.   Again, the writer is to hide the identity of the real secret.

The students anonymously hand in their secrets and I redistribute them, keeping the sets together.  I invite the students to identify which of the secrets they have received is true, and which character they find most compelling, and why.

From here, the students used their received secrets to write two brief lyric essays, many which take an Apologia form (along the lines of William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just To Say”);  or a Confessional format; or a Justification (“Why I Skip My High School Reunions”).  Regardless, something about the pressure of the hidden, “real” secret results in coinages of new argumentations and expositions, while the attempt for verisimilitude employs a variety of figurative, poetic, and lyrical devices.


What Therefore Dinty Has Joined Together…–Sarah Einstein

Last year, at about this time, Dinty W. Moore became The Right Reverend Moore so that he could marry me to my then-fiancé, now husband, Dominik. In the living room of his house, surrounded by friends, family, fellow graduate students, and faculty, The Right Rev gave us some good advice.  Marriage is like writing: you need to show up at your writing desk and at your marriage desk. Marriage is not like writing: writing needs to be attacked, relentlessly, while people need to be handled tenderly, coddled a bit. Show up, be tender.” He then pronounced us husband and wife and everyone dug into the pot luck supper and cupcakes.

He wrote about it here, in Bending Genre, a few weeks later in the essay “Dearly Beloved.” And because everything—marriage, writing, life—moves in circles, here we are again.

Dominik and I are about a month away from our first anniversary, so when I tell you that now I’m going to reverse the thing— to talk about how writing is, and isn’t,  like marriage—you’re going to be tempted to roll your eyes and think to yourself Get back to me in seven, fifteen, thirty years. But one has to start somewhere.

A lot of being married is about cleaning the bathroom and paying the light bill. There are date nights occasionally, but there are dishes in the sink every day. Writing is like this. There are big-deal moments—a piece published, an agent acquired, a book contract—but mostly there are pages to fill, filled pages to revise, revised pages to revise again. There are submissions to manage, rejection letters to mourn and then move past, and a pile of literary journals by the bed to read. It’s all about the day to day.

Marriage demands that you don’t let yourself get sidetracked by appealing alternatives. Writing isn’t like this at all. The best work often comes from letting the process guide you to unexpected places.

Much of being married happens in pajamas. This is true of writing, too.

Being married means that there is someone else around to take bugs outside (Dominik), keep the car running (me), vacuum the floors (Dominik), remember family birthdays (me). Writing isn’t like that at all. Even if you’re working with an editor, ultimately all the bug wrangling, oil changing, vacuuming, and birthday remembering of it fall to you.

Don’t try to fix your spouse. Do fix your work. Keep fixing it until it’s exactly the way you want it to be, and then fix it one more time.

There are bookshelves and bookshelves filled with advice on how to have a happy marriage. There are almost as many filled with advice about how to be a successful writer. Very little of it, this essay included, is actually useful. You have to find your own way. There is no single path.

When you tell people you’re getting married, they will tell you how exciting that is while still harboring a fair amount of unspoken skepticism. The same is true when you tell people you’re writing a book, except they are a lot more likely to voice the skepticism.

Everybody else’s marriage looks better on Facebook. So does everybody else’s writing career. Remember that.


The Ultimate Warrior Believes in Nothing But Forever–Brian Oliu

A question to answer your question: when the plane goes down or the heart goes out, do you kick the doors down or do you let everything occur as it should—a smile on the face before it twists into a chipped toothed mess, a resignation that what is happening is happening without you: hearts work independently of bodies, hearts blink first, hearts jump off the train tracks early without seeing headlights coming the opposite way. We build only to tear things down: construct fortresses of pillows and couch cushions, our stuffed animals safe in their beds as we are—tucked in under pillowcases, their soft heads peeking out from under fabric. We crash into these structures like we are giants, like we are larger than any building that has ever been constructed: we are the unexpected reckoning, we have no time for anything delicate. And then, it is over: our lungs too tired to build again, our work in a heap on the floor. There is no time for any of this, though we believe it to be endless: our hearts in the right place for once—chest-centered and majestic, a spilling out of leaves from under the soup tureen, all things set out for us like a dinner we will never attend. Here, we live in a space between heartbeats, in a world where we try to determine what is rightfully right and wrongfully wrong with no luck: no four-leaf clover, no fingers crossed behind our backs. When we see you, you spin away from us: your back to the camera as you talk to nothing: colorful walls that you cannot see—eyes focused on the blankness of being.

You promise us that you live this: that every footstep you take, every trip to the grocery store to buy bananas for your family, every moment that you turn on a car engine, you are him: ready to destroy everything in your path, ready for warfare, your code existing on a plane that we cannot possibly comprehend, us soft of skin, us who choose to spend our days in bed counting the spirals on the ceiling. Us, destroyer of buildings. Us, who do not sing loud enough to give you the power to shake ropes, to press men larger than we can imagine above our heads, to paint our face the color of something not found in nature—to become larger than life, to become larger than our mothers, our fathers.

These arms are tired. These arms are pressed for time. Dispose of them. Assume the controls of a body that does not have the need for carrying. I will forget all wounds until it is time to drag you home by your teeth. A question to answer your question: to die like you did, not behind the wheel of a car, but in a house that was built by someone who could still lift sheetrock above their heads like I did as a child—before sycamores and straight spines—to die after ceremonies, to die after you were pronounced dead—gone with no semblance of spark, no glorious send off, but a chance to do it over: to be alive when the world is shocked you are still breathing is no easy task and so when the plane goes down and the doors are kicked out do you believe that you are the one chosen, plucked from on high, the neon paint a sharp contrast to the grays of cockpits.

My blood is not yours: it does not run thick, it runs silently while I sleep. I do not act on instinct. I do not throw myself face first into the void, I do not ask for forgiveness before I ask for permission. I am quiet, yet my body is failing. I cannot obliterate because I cannot love: I was never taught these things—you never spoke of love, of wishing to die for a cause until it was too late. Some nights, I drink too much. Some nights, the sky is clearer than coffee, some nights, I do not miss any of this. I show up on my own accord: the truth is inexhaustible. Don’t worry about any of these things: they are minute in their crafting, they will be wiped away with the simplicity of a head-first charge from parts unknown into the only thing I know—to be strong enough to leave everything behind except everything I stood for, to keep my name in my heart and on my sleeve like shreds of fabric. This blood does not bleed deep: no one will think I am alive when I am not. I will tell my stories. I will sing them at any cost. I will keep the spirit close. None of this will become legend.

Start Anywhere–Sara Greenslit

Start anywhere: the once a year mammogram, the anniversary of the mastectomy, the anniversary of first palpating the lump yourself.


It does not matter where you start, just that you do.  The flowers in the yard have bloomed, died, and bloomed again.  It has rained.  It has snowed.  The lake thawed.




This is similar to my scar:

greenslit image




But it’s purple.  It’s simple.  It’s simply there.




What my veterinary medical training has done to shape my point of view: that flat, pink, round lesion on my dog’s arm—self trauma or a mast cell tumor?  A limping, 12 year old lab: Lyme disease, bone cancer or arthritis?  The mole on my arm—freckle or melanoma-rollercoaster-toward-death?


But then, contradictory as ever, I am lacking terrific worry over a recent monitoring breast MRI.  I think, If it’s really bad, surely they’ll call.




A cold creeps in, into my head and chest.  I rattle, I wheeze, I sneeze and hack.  Everything refers to then: the last time I had a cold, I was having chemo.  It was mild, abated by acupuncture.  I had gotten two rounds of flu shots.  I slept all day, regardless.  Tick tock on a loop.  Back where we started, here we go—




I am the breaker of things—the clanger, the banger, the splinter, the chipper, the gouger, the smasher, the cracked, the smacked.  I pound my feet, slam doors, drop plates, books.  Entropy sped up.  Forgivenesses lasped.




Most of my new friends have had a cancer diagnosis.  We introduce ourselves as our malignancies: testicular, kidney, rectal, brain, breast, salivary gland, leukemia.  How many times have I said in the past, Just because we’re both gay doesn’t mean we have anything in common?  Well, being under 40 and having a tumor, it’s a mighty glue.  The ones I most identify with?  Both cancered and gay.




Who are we, if not our illnesses?


I am my body, I am not my body.  I am my mind, I am not my mind.


Take genetic code, take personality, upbringing, nutrition, environmental contaminants.  Take me, take you.  Stir.  Wait.  And yes, no one gets out of here.


Bring in song.  Bird and human, howler monkey and vireo, humpback whale and Stellar seal.


And what about the shifting, calculable, predicted, to the internal flash and back away, or the years of grinding through—


Am I more than a list of symptoms, a rattling-off of diagnoses?




Lying down on the cold, smooth comforter, blinds drawn against the heat, I fall into sleep again, even though the night before, I spend half a day slumbering.


Seeds from the feeder into the dirt have produced a small congregation of sunflower plants, about to bloom, where finch, sparrow and chickadee hide and feed.


And why are the newly opened sunflowers facing away from the sun?




That duck across the street is lame.  The sparrows drinking out of my dogs’ water dish outside—do they have songbird fever?  The mouse feces in the shed—white-footed mouse, and therefore Hanta virus?  Did I bring the dreaded MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) home from work on my clothes?  It’s a paranoid’s picnic of possibilities.




A contemplation of dinosaurs, of schist, algae blooms and ant migrations, wave forms, of saints, Vocalise, spinning and falling maple seed wings, sparrows on the feeder (one red-chested house finch on the end), slow-mo black & white footage of fruit bats feeding at flowers





Andreas Gurksy’s “Ocean” series of the 8×11’ pictures of the earth via satellite

(us, a dust mote, above)


Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs, black & white seascapes, the split second of static electricity

(hover here, in these canvasses)




To pause, to watch, fall into one self, to maintain, to persist, resist assist, desist


Re-vision, dis-ease, dis-articulation


Not knowing if it was enough, or too much


Cell cycle (X), and which genes—off/on (p53), monitor, quell and (god) speed


Meta misspelled = meat




Mary Ruefle’s whiting out the words of a Victorian novel to leave behind found poems


Jenny Holzer’s blocked out texts of




Becoming the other


the difficulty being present for one’s own suffering




the CAD not taken…                                                 (complete axillary dissection)


(hush, it’s always there, the mantra: 6×4.4×3 cm tumor)




“I am irredeemable” (Mary Cappello)




Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports”: his stark, repeated (elevator?) tone translates to the alarm of a blocked IV fluid line, or the first over-com tone for a hospital code, or the heart monitor, beeping.


Contrast this with the guitar-plucking finches, instruments amplified to pick up their landing, their pecking, one even fidgeting over a stick in the strings—an exhibit in London, seen online




The new German shepherd adoptee has to have emergency surgery for a gastric dilation and volvulus.  While the surgeon is in there, the spleen is removed due to an infarct in the organ’s tail, or lack of blood flow from the flip and twist.  What I think out loud is, Great, one less organ to worry about getting cancer in.




Who hasn’t, by mid-life, suffered some sort of amputation or other?




Re-      cover               Re-      mission




Not gained—not the surety of spirit or religion or manifest destiny.  Just the solid reiteration of Randomness.




Trace backwards, to the source, the first cell(s—has to be more than one, due to lack of a concrete, single mass, but more of a rouge, flamed-shaped contrast-enhancing abnormality = “suspicious”): lymph node biopsy, mastectomy, and surgical biopsy← oncology and plastic surgeon appointments ← stereotactic core biopsy ← breast MRI ←surgical appointment ← mammogram ← left breast ultrasound←gyno appointment ← waiting two months to see if the mass shrinks; it doesn’t← finding the mass on self-exam ← time: months, no, years? for the constellations of clustered calcifications to form.


(Word of the Day

Monday, August 16, 2010


1.The earliest stages or first traces of anything.)




Robert Ryman paints white canvasses white.  He paints because it’s his source of joy.  I identify with the works’ lack, their quiet, their ability to gather all the light in the room.


Kate MacDowell’s hybrid ceramics: a single white arm morphs into petals and leaf, where vein and muscle and bone should be attaching to the torso.




What would it be like to take a series of pictures directly at the sun, but not looking at it, so not to be blinded?  Would all the frames be off, and you’d end up with cloud fragments, an edge of solar flare?  (The soundtrack would be my neighborhood: leaf blower, chirping sparrows, sirens, bass-boom of car stereos)





The metaphors inherent in apoptosis






And what happens to your worldview, when your new group of friends ends up talking about cancer recurrence, these fears, death?







Is it better to be alone with my seething brain, my rage?








No?  (exhale)  Gather yourself up, and begin again:


Start here: a scar.  It’s purple.  It’s simple.  It’s simply there.