A Moment That You Couldn’t Tell: Riding the Gradient of the Lyric Essay – Michigan Quarterly Review
An image of rain crystallizing on glass.

A Moment That You Couldn’t Tell: Riding the Gradient of the Lyric Essay


In his poem “Because You Asked About the Line Between Prose and Poetry,” Howard Nemerov writes:

Sparrows were feeding in a freezing drizzle
That while you watched turned to pieces of snow
Riding a gradient invisible
From silver aslant to random, white, and slow.

There came a moment that you couldn’t tell.
And then they clearly flew instead of fell.

Nemerov’s short poem suggests a gradient where poetry could be described as snow, and prose as rain—a fair comparison, I think. In poetry, an individual word asks for more attention than a single word in prose, the way snow greets skin in discrete bursts of sensation, flake by flake. Snow, like poetry, is structured in a delicate lattice, rather than a cohesive body. Snow, like poetry, carries less momentum than rain or prose, offering, instead, a moment of stalled time and levitation. and not unlike the six stanzas of a villanelle (one of my favorite poetic forms), each of a snowflake’s six points orbit a center of gravity that travels less than its extremities. 

Rain, on the other hand, builds momentum and falls with satisfying weight, akin to the quick pace of prose. Raindrops combine and disappear into a larger body bound by a threshold of surface tension, like the words that form an essay. And although rain may not demand much attention drop by drop, it soaks you through, getting you wet beneath your clothes. 

This rain-to-snow metaphor suggests a gradient across the metric of cold, and the way dropping degrees can alter structure, motion, and reflectivity. Perhaps I should resist this, but I like the idea that a poem is colder than an essay—lonely, stark in its relief, a line dropping off and picking back up like a broken phone connection. A poem lets you sit in your loneliness, lets writer and reader share solitude over an impossible distance. An essay betrays you into thinking, for a while, that someone sits beside you. 


But I like lyric essays, poem-essay hybrids, pieces best categorized as sleet if essays are rain and poems snow. Nemerov hints at a kind of beauty in that liminal form, that moment between, “silver aslant” and “random, white and slow”; in my estimation, however, being in sleet is a miserable experience, encompassing the problems of both rain and snow (freezing and wet, heavy and sharp with crystals), and the delights of neither.

“Here, of course, we come to the point where my illustration […] breaks down.” —C. S. Lewis

Perhaps I’m taking this metaphor business too seriously. Likely, metaphors are best employed as flexible, atmospheric, irreducible, like an optical illusion you can only see when you don’t focus too hard. Treating metaphors to a stringent rule has the danger of taking out their charm, of limiting their boundless, contradictory span. After all, in the Bible, rain is both a reliever of drought and a destroyer by flood; snow, too, is a double entendre, evoking in one moment the purity of the Messiah’s garment, in another, the contamination of leprous skin.

So let me try again. When I said that I liked the idea of a gradient across temperatures as a metaphor for poetry and prose, I knew I was treading on thin ice, so to speak. A gradient or a sliding scale implies that the closer you get to essay, the farther you get from poetry, and vice versa. Not true, of course. Or at least, even if prose and poetry are on opposite ends of a spectrum, essay and poetry are not. On the contrary, essays invite poetic treatment, at times demand it, and vice versa. 

Poems, for example, tend to have essayistic motives, whether by suggesting the importance of a red wheelbarrow and thus finding the eternal in the transient, or by offering idiosyncratic, subversive life creeds. Many lyric essays have the potential for being labeled poetry or prose poems just as easily as being labeled essays. Gregory Pardlo describes the essays he writes as flexible in scope like poetry, affording “The same thrills of transgressing against the form—and I know there are people very close to me who are going to say, ‘That’s not an essay, that’s way too lyrical, and you’ve gone off the rails!’” As one of my creative writing students asked of “Unspoken Hunger” by Terry Tempest Williams, “Is this not a poem?”

I resonate with Lia Purpura’s suggestion that the term “lyric essay” is perhaps best employed as a conversation starter; it can act as a starting point or a gathering place, where writers and readers come for communion and conversation and challenge (Purpura, 338). 

Of course, I come to the lyric essay conversation with my own preferences and biases, so let me suggest my idea of what a lyric essay might involve. 

The lyric essay I want is like any other essay in that it thinks on the page and asserts a person (a living author, or at least an author who lived), and takes an interest (if a slanted and skeptical one) in truth and actuality. But the lyric essay I want also leans into the vast glossary of poetic terms like rhyme, alliteration, hyperbole, and repetition to create form, or what Seneca Review calls “density and shapeliness.” If the essay is the master chess player and poetry is the principal dancer, perhaps lyric essays are the dance of pieces on the board; call it chess or the essay, call it dance or poetry, because it is.  


For me, then, lyric essays―whether heavy like wet snow, or light like tiny drops of crystalizing rain―get cozy with the physicality of fine arts as well as the momentum and coverage of “the free mind at play” (Ozick). Lyric essays rely on the medium (its shape and sound and heft) as much as the message. A big part of the “lyric,” as I see it, comes down to sensory markers like musical language and the relationship between text and white space. Ira Sukrungruang says, “I loved how lyric essays looked on the page. […] A poem, before we even make sense of it, is a visual seduction.” Poems rely on white spice and stanzas and the measurement of a line, drawing the eye to a cliff here or a wall of text there. Poems also rely on sound, on lazy vowels or hard stop consonants, on the breathy hushes and plosive glottals embedded within words. Lyric essays bring the poetic body into the meandering walk of the essay.

I recognize, however, that it’s impossible to have an essay, or any text, without body and shape and structure. We read with our eyes, ears, or fingers; the text is necessarily physical. Just as a raindrop is as physical and structured as a snowflake, essays are as corporeal as poems. We write and speak with our body, dragging a pen, clacking keys with our hands, flexing our vocal chords or carving out space with the motion of our hands. Spoken or written words are abstractions and concepts, but they are also embodied; such is evident when our fingers are too stiff to travel across a keyboard, our vocal chords too inflamed to bear vibration.

I often lose my voice and feel fatigued, and my hands frequently hurt or prickle with irritation. In this state, the body of an essay or a poem can make the difference between whether or not I read or write at all. If an essay is written with lengthy paragraphs and little white space, my eyes struggle to focus and I may not be able to follow what I am reading on a given day. While writing, if I am in a revising mood and I want to read what I have written to my husband, I can get through a poem easily, whereas reading just a few paragraphs of an essay taxes my voice and can steer me out of a creative headspace altogether. 

Beyond issues of comfort, when I am feeling a little unwell, my senses are heightened. My brain may feel less sharp, but sound makes more sense than ever. Consonants become percussive strokes and closed vibrations, vowels become sighs and vibrato. A sentence becomes a meter, a paragraph a verse. When I don’t feel well, words, spoken and written, become more overwhelming, more exacting, and because of that I want fewer of them, or want to string them along in a rolling rhythm. Lyric essays let me give my mind a rest and, at the same time, let me tap into the chaos and movement of my overfiring neurons. 


Just as all essays and poems have some level of “body,” all essays and poems have some level of mind and thought and abstraction. But not all poems—or even all essays—have a committed interest in the narrative factuality that defines creative nonfiction, creating some tension about what counts as “true enough” for the lyric essay.

Roxane Gay suggests that lyric essays, in their presumptive “nonfiction” state, honor their contract with the reader by holding to real-life material even when stretching or hyperfocusing to fantastical heights. She explains, “The way we are being told these truths are masked in some sort of artifice [of] what words repeat themselves, the speed of the language varying, phrases meant to express the intangible in a tangible way.” By this measure, truth in the lyric essay sometimes becomes distorted by the fuzziness of hyperbole or hypotheticals, but ultimately extrapolates its dream-like form from real events or dynamics. 

If lyrical forms can push the boundaries of truth, however, they can also gain access to truths that might slip under the radar in a more straightforward form. For example, if hyperbole or hypotheticals can distort an image or story, other poetic elements like sensory focus and structural restraints can cut through situational distractions in a story, getting right into the heart of the matter.  

Gregory Pardlo says, 

“I’m always writing through sound, and if I’m writing through a received form it’s a kind of way of backing into an emotional danger zone, right? I always tell my students we have denial for a very good reason—to keep us sane, to keep us safe, so that we can move through our day with some measure of sanity. But my job when I sit down to write is to circumvent that wall.”

For Pardlo, structure and constraints eliminate the easiest expressions, taking away our most used coping mechanisms and requiring us to enter a territory without our well-used defenses.

Beyond modes of expression, for some, scruples about what counts and doesn’t count as “true” or “nonfiction” may not matter very much; after all, a poem carries little if any presumption of real world accuracy, and for some the gradient between poem and essay is more one of style than of content. For me, though, all essays—including lyric essays—gain meaning as real manifestations of a writer and actual stories. Like Scott Russell Sanders, “I take seriously the prefix ‘non-’ in nonfiction,” and I count myself in the company of those who “believe they are inscribing themselves in some fundamental way” (Lazar, “Introduction). 

As a simple example of the charms afforded by facts, aphorisms occupy a space between essays and poetry but often rely on a degree of basic truth telling. When Mary Capello writes, “Mood: cloud cover. / Mood: a room with no walls,” she pairs it with simple and accurate but artful observations, such as “You put on your coat in winter.  You pull on your coat in autumn. Each act of self-cloaking determined by the season’s mood.” If Capello had made such an observation without accurately reflecting linguistic patterns, at least for a given population, then the aphorism would lose its power as a social and artful revelation.


Mostly, I write in prose. I type sentences or paragraphs, rough hewn thoughts full of redundancies and repetitions, and not at all devoid of throat clearing (ahem). Some days, though, when my fingers ache, I try to write in short, spare verse instead, simply to avoid the pain. These are days when typing amplifies rather than relieves the soreness and aches I feel throughout my body, when everything hurts and my skin feels raw and itchy and trying to get a few paragraphs of an essay feels beyond my stamina.

These days, I rely on the traffic between poetry and essays in a physical capacity. So maybe I’m trying to pawn off a very practical tactic (i.e. writing fewer words) as a more artistically motivated one (i.e. writing for musicality of sound). Even more generally, though, I have almost always had a preference for shorter works. I have a strong aversion to reading long pieces at anything other than a leisurely pace, and even then, I willingly seek out only gentle, accessible texts. 

My point is, my literary ideal is so shaped by preferences and pain and limitations that I can’t think clearly about these genres. But then, the point is also that all of us are shaped by preferences, pains and predilections that are imposed on us by temperaments and conditions we didn’t choose. None of us live deep philosophical lives independent of our bodies. If anyone in this world is not a “pain” writer (or a nature writer or food writer), it is only because much of their personal experience is withheld (either carefully or subconsciously) from their writerly persona.

Put another way, I write what is physically and temperamentally easy for me to write, and am inclined to read the same. In that sense, lyric essays are, more than anything else, an accommodation—and for that alone, I am forever grateful to them.


Years ago, a departmental form asked me how I wanted to “contribute to the field of creative writing”—a question I like to think would make any writer queasy for its weight and expectation. The best answer I could think of was personal; reading and writing for a couple of hours (or minutes) a day gives me joy, and that joy helps me attend my family with more peace and eagerness and feel a little more sane in the world.  A sidestep of an answer, if you will, but it was all I felt comfortable writing down, and no one called me out on it. 

Mostly, my answer hasn’t changed. As valuable as essays are for influencing political persuasion and cultivating empathy in a divided world, my motivations for reading and writing tend to be much more impulsive and palliative than revolutionary. Often, I feel like Eduardo Galeano, who said, “I write only when I feel the need to write, not because my conscience dictates it. It doesn’t just come from my indignation at injustice; it is a celebration of life, which is so beautifully horrible and horribly beautiful.” I like lyric essays for their celebration of life, their wide range of communicative measures, their transformation of pleasure and pain—and by “lyric essays” I mean essays and poetry and everything in between.

Essays, and poems, are thrilling. After writing a section of this essay, I told my husband that I was so excited I might pee my pants (an admittedly unremarkable proposition for someone who wrote most of while pregnant or postpartum). There is a natural high that comes from moments of flow or hardwon revisions or sharing what I have written with another person. Or, on other days, when I am less prone to delight and more to gloom, reading and writing offers solace. As Mark Strand says, “Pain is filtered in a poem so that it becomes finally, in the end, pleasure.” I’m here for the pain-filtered-to-pleasure of writing, for the respite of lying on the couch with a blanket at my feet, the sound of tapping keys like rain against my window.

Works Cited

Capello, Mary. “Mood Modulations.” Life Breaks In (a mood almanac). The University of Chicago Press, 2016, 27-45.

Lazar, David. “Introduction.” Essaying the Essay, edited by David Lazar. Welcome Table Press, 2014, 1-12.

Lewis, C.S. “Making and Begetting.” Mere Christianity. 

Purpura, Lia. “What is a Lyric Essay? Some Provisional Responses.” Essaying the Essay, edited by David Lazar. Welcome Table Press, 2014, 336-340.

Sanders, Scott Russel. “Interview with Scott Russel Sanders.” Interview by Patrick Madden. River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative. Vol. 9 Iss. 1, 2007, 87-98.

Alizabeth Worley lives near Utah Lake with her husband, Michael, and their two kids. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Post Road Magazine, Guernica, Tar River Poetry, and elsewhere. You can find her writing and artwork at alizabeth.worley.com.

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