Permissive Sieves: Comparing the Lyric Essay and Ghazal–Heidi Czerwiec

“I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.”

—Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”

Like many writers, I come to the lyric essay from a background as a practicing poet. And the poetry I’m known for practicing often is written in received forms, like the sonnet or triolet, and as such, I’m often tapped to teach poetic forms to students. My experience with forms is why, while trying to stretch my teaching and my own writing by teaching a hybrid forms workshop last semester that included the lyric essay, two things struck me.

There’s an oft-repeated (at least by me, to my students, ad nauseum) saw that originates in a letter from Theodore Roethke: “‘Form’ is regarded not as a neat mould to be filled, but rather as a sieve to catch certain kinds of material.” [1] Sonnet-sieves catch short arguments or questions to be answered. Villanelles and triolets strain out all but the most obsessive turnings-over of topics.

Since this is the mindset with which I come to writing, as I was teaching my class, I found myself thinking of the lyric essay as its own poetic form – asking not how to define it as a “mould,” but trying to determine what kind of material is suited to its sieve.

To do so, it might help to review some of the qualities and structural features of the lyric essay, in order to think about what kinds of content they might facilitate. The lyric essay represents a collision of opposites: poetry with prose, music and meaning, the realistic with the speculative. It often presents its material content through parataxis, juxtaposition, fragmentation, and collage in a way that makes representation a dynamic process. Its disjunctive leaps, hesitations, ellipses, elisions, non sequiturs, and self-contradictions subvert the privileging of writing as the product of the Romantic unified “I.” It may suppress linear progression in favor of circularity, meditation, imagination.

Yet the lyric essay balances this instability by keeping the reader’s attention at the level of language with lexical and syntactical richness, repetitions of sounds, words, phrases, motifs, and braids. What’s important emerges through accretion of patterns, either by imposing a pattern on what otherwise seems to be chaos, or by revealing an underlying or hidden pattern. The deceptively simple packaging of prose uses brevity, the speed of its progression, and often colloquial language to persuade the reader to quickly accept any odd or surreal details and/or to move across juxtapositions assuming connections, yet can make surprising turns even more surprising.

As a result of these qualitative and structural features, the form of the lyric essay “sieve” seems to attract or catch the following kinds of material:

  • the surreal or absurd, either because the subject matter is surreal or absurd or in order to subvert logic or a prevailing paradigm. The speed of the prose moves the reader through its odd logic, while the lyric patterning reveals a larger truth or beauty.
  • embodied oppositions or tensions, within a form that does the same through shifts of point of view, style, tone, and/or collage.
  • meditations, especially where the author isn’t sure what s/he thinks. The form allows the author to approach the material from several angles simultaneously (often through lists, fragments, or braids), while the “lyric” poetics attempt to impose or reveal patterns. [2, 3, 4]

The second thing that struck me, after considering the lyric essay as a poetic form, was its similarity to another poetic form that emerged in American poetry around the same time. The lyric essay was first named by Deborah Tall, then-editor of Seneca Review, in 1994 in a note to John D’Agata, and the journal devoted at least part of its space to the form starting in 1997. In 1992 Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali introduced contemporary poets to the medieval Persian form, the ghazal, in an essay “Ghazal: The Charms of a Considered Disunity,” began publishing his own, and prodded his colleagues to write poems in the form, which he published in the 2000 anthology Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English. [5]

For those unfamiliar with the ghazal: it is a form written in couplet stanzas, of at least five couplets but with no maximum limit. In the opening couplet, both lines end with short refrain immediately preceded by a rhyme; in subsequent couplets, only the second line has the rhyme and refrain, and the final couplet often is signaled by incorporating the poet’s name. (For several examples, see the Poetry Foundation at Yet a hallmark of the form is its seeming disunity: as Ali explains, “The ghazal is made up of thematically independent couplets held (as well as not held) together in a stunning fashion…. Then what saves the ghazal from what might be considered arbitrariness? A technical context, a formal unity based on rhyme and refrain and prosody.” [6]

In both the ghazal and the lyric essay, what’s important is what’s emphasized by pattern, yet each form gives the writer as much or as little room as desired to approach the topic from any number of angles. The effect may be a cohesive progression building on the central theme or refrain idea, or disjunctive fragments linked only by the theme/refrain’s central hub. Both invite the reader to engage with the form, co-creating meaning in determining how the piece hangs, or doesn’t hang, together.

In some examples of the lyric essay, the fragments on the page visually resemble the ghazal’s brief couplets, as in Fanny Howe’s “Doubt” or this excerpt from Claudia Cortese’s “The Red Essay”:

1) Setting: The barn. Sometimes, I can’t remember if there were stars, fall air
clear or smoky, the shape of the moon’s face.

2) I read Perrault’s moral to my students: Attractive, well-bred young ladies should never talk to strangers, for if they should, they may well provide dinner for the wolf.

4) Afterward, Bill died, and I was glad. Afterward, he sang Meatloaf to me and I held him and laughed.

1.5) Other times, I can see the barn door wide open, grass below soaked in starlight. I could have

screamed or clawed. I dreamt saltwater
taffy, sister’s sticky kiss, how we kicked
pigeons with our skirts over our heads.

I worried about his feelings, that he’d feel rejected.

3) I said, Let’s go back to the house. I’m cold. Please. Stop. He said, It won’t take long. I won’t go in all the way. We negotiated. What do you name that? [7]

In this excerpt, Cortese holds in tension trauma memoir and fairytale, anecdote and critique, prose and poetic fragments, linked by the motifs of the wolf and vulnerable girl, and by the proper nouns she does name – Perrault, Bill, Meatloaf, etc. – even as she struggles to name her experience. Other lyric essays may not use fragments, but incorporate thematically or stylistically autonomous parts to achieve tension. Each section of Nicole Walker’s brief triptych “Fish” approaches its common subject from a different point of view and a nonfiction style – nature documentary, memoir, food writing – and but ties the three sections together through motifs and words that echo throughout the piece: the act of straining, “flesh,” “hold,” “circling.” [8] Likewise, Brian Doyle’s moving 9/11 essay “Leap” links a collage of eyewitness accounts, apocalyptic biblical quotes, and meditative speculation via the repetition of “hand in hand” to transform the horror of bodies leaping from the Twin Towers into a prayerful, elegiac image. [9]

The above examples lend themselves to what Wordsworth called “process of mind”: they demonstrate the experience of a mind exploring and discovering a complex topic, and they engage the reader in this process. The fact that both the lyric essay and the ghazal reached a critical mass in popularity at the same moment may signal a readiness for forms which, as Agha Shahid Ali puts it, “evade the Western penchant for unity,” whether unity of speaker, style, or source – forms which allow for a multifaceted exploration of its content. To return to Ali, as he phrases the question, “Do such freedoms frighten some of us?” [6]



[1] Kinzie, Mary. The Cure of Poetry in the Age of Prose (U Chicago P, 1993). Print.

[2] Lindner, April, “Eloquent Silences: Lyric Solutions to the Problem of the

Biographical Narrative,” The Contemporary Narrative Poem: Critical Crosscurrents, ed.Steven P. Schneider (U of Iowa P, 2012). Print.

[3] Lopate, Phillip, “The Lyric Essay,” To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary

Nonfiction (Free Press, 2013). Print.

[4] Sajé, Natasha, “A Sexy New Animal: The DNA of the Prose Poem,” The Writer’s

Chronicle, March/April 2012. 33-49. Print.

[5] Ali, Agha Shahid, “Ghazal: The Charms of a Considered Disunity,” The Practice of

Poetry, ed. Robin Behn and Chase Twichell (New York: HarperPerennial, 1992).


[6] —, “Ghazal: To Be Teased into DisUnity,” An Exaltation of Forms, ed. Annie Finch

and Kathrine Varnes (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2002). Print.

[7] Cortese, Claudia, “The Red Essay,” Mid-American Review (34:1, 2013). 25-6. Print.

[8] Walker, Nicole, “Fish,” Quench Your Thirst With Salt (Zone 3, 2013). Print.

[9] Doyle, Brian, “Leap.” Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction. Lex Williford. (Touchstone, 2007). Print.



Heidi Czerwiec is a poet, essayist, translator, and critic who teaches at the University of North Dakota and edits poetry for North Dakota Quarterly.  She is the author of three poetry collections including the forthcoming A Is For A-ke, The Chinese Monster (Dancing Girl Press), and the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. Recent or forthcoming work appears in Barrow Street, Waxwing, and Able Muse. Visit her at


2 thoughts on “Permissive Sieves: Comparing the Lyric Essay and Ghazal–Heidi Czerwiec

  1. I will be reading this several times and thanks for bringing a new understanding and richness to my life. … I had Robert Bly’s “Leaping Poetry” on my bookshelf a long long time and when I moved to Uruguay last April I took it… primarily because it has Spanish poems translated to English in it and I had some idea of studying … in it I found a new context for understanding thought, perception and art, the whole book but most especially to start the six pages he calls “The Three Brains” and which addresses your subject profoundly.

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