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.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s