Exploring the art of prose


In the Expanded Field: The Lyric Essay & Genre Queerness

alt text: image is a color photograph of tangled thread; title card for the craft essay "In the Expanded Field: The Lyric Essay & Genre Queerness" by Katy Scarlett


By Katy Scarlett •

In 1979, Rosalind Krauss published her now-famous essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” which explored how new forms of three-dimensional art-making borrowed from sculpture, monument, architecture, interior and landscape design. She writes, “as the 1960s began to lengthen into the 1970s and ‘sculpture’ began to be piles of thread waste on the floor…or tons of earth excavated from the desert, or stockades of logs surrounded by firepits, the word sculpture became harder to pronounce….” When I teach this essay and provide examples of Krauss’s concepts, students are often skeptical. Piles of thread on the floor look lazy and underwhelming in the skills department, especially to art students. Worse yet, highly abstract or conceptual art can sometimes make students feel like the artist is trying to pull off an inside joke at the student’s or viewer’s expense. I show photographs from a performance piece by artist Gordon Matta Clark called Splitting, 1974, in which Clark cuts an abandoned house in half with the help of friends and a small electric saw. The vertical split extends until it reaches the concrete foundation. Trained as an architect, Clark was interested in liminal or fragmented spaces, and voids, in creating instances of “anarchitecture.” My students are skeptical of this piece too, so I ask them to see the poetry in it. I ask them to think about the idea of breakage or a “broken home.” Is there a metaphor in this work of art?

When I read about the lyric essay and its place in creative nonfiction, I think about teaching the Krauss article. Although somewhat dated within the study of art history, Krauss’s article remains conceptually relevant and can extend to any field that is experiencing its own version of expansion. In her attempt to define different forms of art, to parse out whether they fit more with monument, indoor installation, or site-specific public art works, Krauss’s primary intention is to define. She is accessing a ratio. She is excavating language in order to provide concrete terms that we can use to discuss physical objects. She is also showing how sculpture as a medium has broken away from its traditional structures, borrowing (perhaps stealing) from the way, way past (the Nazca lines, or Stonehenge, for example) and moving into new territory, that of the expanded field.

If we look into the expanded field of essay, we’ll find the lyric essay. Just as Krauss’s expanded field identifies sculpture leaning toward monument, installation, architecture, the lyric essay reaches toward compression, tone, musicality: poetic technique. In 2007, the Seneca Review dedicated an entire issue to understanding and defining this increasingly recognized form. Deborah Tall and John D’Agata write that the lyric essay is distinctive in its forsaking of “narrative line, discursive logic, and the art of persuasion in favor of idiosyncratic meditation.” By this, Tall and D’Agata mean that lyric essays can build without a narrative structure, or can simply remain a plateau of meditation, or a mosaic of vignettes. The overall meaning of a lyric essay depends more on tone and emotional body than narrative logic. They write, “The lyric essay partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language. It partakes of the essay in its weight, in its overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative form.” The lyric essay maintains its connection to the creative nonfiction essay; it remains factual while using the techniques of poetry to gather meaning.

The ratio, however, of poetry and straightforward prose needed to qualify an essay as lyric is still up for debate. In her article “Mending Wall,” Judith Kitchen claims that the label of “lyric essay” (as originally defined by Tall and D’Agata) has since been applied too liberally, to describe prose essays that show “a wall of words,” rather than the poetic movement required to make an essay lyric. A meditative quality, she writes, is also not enough to push an essay into the realm of lyric: “Because, to be lyric, there must be a lyre.” The “lyre” points back in time to poetry’s original tie to music and song, as accompanied by the harp-like instrument in Ancient Greece. Here, Kitchen is referring to her desire to be moved by the emotional propulsion of a lyric essay, to be swept up in it, the way one might be in a song. This swept-up feeling requires compression and propulsion, two important elements of poetry. Kitchen advocates for a reclarification of the genre, one that actually focuses the musicality of poetry and the realness of creative nonfiction, the “workaday nature of reality.”

The musicality and movement Kitchen references can be seen, for example, in Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay.” Using Carson’s hybrid essay/poem as an example of lyric essay feels like a bit of a cheat, since the essay is shaped like a poem and mostly arranged in tercets. Nevertheless, it’s a strong example of how poetry and essay can work together in the tradition of the “lyre.” In her thirty-six-page essay, Carson explores themes of family, heartbreak, intimacy, longing, singlehood, and time travel through engagement with Emily Brontë’s life and work. “The Glass Essay” portrays profound longing, in which Carson (as the speaker) finds herself referencing interior versus exterior space—the moors and rooms of Brontë’s life and her own, the expansion of the soul out into the world. In a scene in which Carson reunites with her lover, Law, she writes:

We tried to fuck

but he remained limp, although happy. I came

again and again, each time accumulating lucidity,

until at last I was floating high up near the ceiling looking down

on the two souls clasped there on the bed

with their mortal boundaries

visible around them like lines on a map.

I saw the lines harden.

He left in the morning.

In other words, the speaker is seeking the expanded field, and so is Carson. Thematically and tonally, “The Glass Essay” could not function if written in prose; it would seem too melodramatic in a contemporary context without the scaffolding of stanza. The essay connects not only to the Ancient Greek lyre, but also to the musicality of the Old English epic poem, flirting with narrative function while engaging more deeply with association. In his essay “Verglas: Narrative Technique in Anne Carson’s ‘The Glass Essay,’” Ian Rae identifies the essay as lyric: “combining the paratactic qualities of the modernist lyric (in which the poem leaps from one topic to another without transitional matter) with the hypotactic logic of the essay (in which the essay develops an argument using classical techniques of rhetorical persuasion).” The lyricality of the essay comes from its shape and movement, while the argument is born from Carson’s desire to be witnessed while in the throes of loss.

To further explore and define the “expanded field” as applied to creative nonfiction, I suggest analyzing lyric essay not through the lens of a binary (a ratio of prose and poetry) but through the lens of genre-queer writing. Many lyric essays are genre queer by default, in their desire to eschew narrative and literally break from established categorizations. Ironically, Carson’s “The Glass Essay” breaks with the conventions expected of the essay by using the more restricted architecture of poetry. It’s actually kind of kinky!

In her contribution to the 2007 Seneca Review issue, Eula Biss writes: “I suspect that genre, like gender, with which it shares a root, is mostly a collection of lies we have agreed to believe.” In other words, perhaps the “wall of words” to which Kitchen refers is just a façade, needing to be broken. Lyric essay needs space to spill out, the way the insides of Matta’s cut house might spill out if he were able to pry it open, like two parts of a life-size dollhouse still joined at a hinge. Furthermore, just as Matta renders the house unusable through his performance, lyric and genre-queer essays are guided by the desire to push boundaries, to move something past set function and into the realm of experience.

Writers of lyric essays similarly engage with principles of failure through reaching for what’s outside of traditional structures of writing, and through engaging with genre-queer techniques. In this context, failure simply means the willingness to be undefined, because the language for definition is not yet available. David Lazar writes of the distinction between gender and genre:

          Early uses of genre cited in the OED refer to distinguishing types of people; the first cited, interestingly, by Lady Morgan, says, “But what is the genre of character…which, if in true keeping to life and manners, should not be found to resemble anybody.” How queer, that one of the first uses of genre suggests a person who is impossible to characterize. Genre is a category after all. So is gender. And the gender category difficult to characterize by normative standards is queer. The genre category difficult or impossible to characterize, the essay, is also queer. The essay is the queer genre.

This “impossibility” is not connected to shame, but instead seeks to break from structural pressure in order to create work that touches more closely on real and messy human experience. Jenny Hollowell’s “A History of Everything, Including You” is published in a fiction collection, even though the story itself reads like a confessional essay. What’s more, the essay reads like a poem. Hollowell builds compression through lists and run-on sentences, which read like lines of a poem, as lists often can: “First there was God, or gods, or nothing. Then synthesis, space, the expanse, explosions….” The scope of this essay is ambitious and somewhat impossible, as writing a prose history of the world in three to four pages is a setup to fail. Hollowell continues to build the scope of “everything” through lists, most notably in her attempt to portray civilization’s process of modernization and ensuing commercialism: “we invented lipstick, vaccines, pilates, solar panels, interventions, table manners, fire arms….” She then begins to develop an aperture, which focuses more closely on the history of her partner and then the history of her relationship with this partner. The essay is lyric in its propensity and gathering of speed through syntax and listing.

At first glance, Hollowell’s piece may not seem to be doing anything radical in terms of form or aesthetic; it’s written in prose blocks (paragraphs.) The story/essay unfolds chronologically, yet its narrative is shifty, and broken into different spheres of focus. It’s the relationship between those spheres that creates tension in the piece and gives it emotional body. Lazar writes: “the desire of the essay is to transgress genre.” Hollowell is certainly transgressing narrative here, as we don’t leave the essay with a specific timeline for the dissolution of the speaker’s relationship, but more with a feeling of being moved and gaining perspective.

Like Hollowell, Maggie Nelson uses a type of listing format in order to gather poetic weight and speed in her 2009 book Bluets, an exploration of the color blue. Influenced by the Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Color, Nelson arranges her blue meditations in short blocks of prose, numbered one to two hundred forty, and arranged in seemingly random order, giving the reader no foundation upon which to follow her logic. Each proposition appears to be separate; however, the book itself builds to explore Nelson’s breakup, issues of love, loss, and mortality, and her experience caring for a beloved friend adjusting to quadriplegia.

The form of this book breaks from traditional essay and poetry, and reaches for a more philosophical structure, yet the combination of this choice, coupled with the book’s content is what makes it lyric and genre queer. Furthermore, and what excites me the most, Nelson is transparent about her own failures as a writer. In number thirteen Nelson writes: “on my cv it says that I am currently working on a book about the color blue. I have been saying this for years without writing a word. It is, perhaps, my way of making my life feel ‘in progress’ rather than a sleeve of ash falling off a lit cigarette….” This admission seems important to the idea of the genre-queer aesthetic as extended outside of author identity. In an essay called “The Craft of Writing Queer,” Barrie Jean Borich asserts that the queer aesthetic does not have to be written by or about queer people, as long as the work “breaks rather than maintains codes, doesn’t keep secrets to retain power, is eager to pay debts and reveal the means and archives of its own production.” This type of admission on Nelson’s part, though obviously adding humor to the work, engages with a type of transparency that fits Borich’s definition. It’s also a wonderful disclosure of personal and creative failure.

Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric similarly breaks from a binary understanding of lyric essay, borrowing techniques from art, media, and journalism to explore issues of loneliness, race, identity, and media consumption in the United States. The oblong book, which includes both news media photos and images of old-school televisions throughout, feels more like an art object than one long, lyric essay. Like Nelson in Bluets, Rankine explores her chosen themes through nonnarrative, fragmented blocks of text, which are often referred to as prose poems. I agree that some of these blocks read like prose poems, but it’s also clear that the book is so much more, that any known category we could assign to this book would not be able to accommodate its depth. Or, as Kazim Ali writes in an essay entitled “Genre-Queer,” “what if genre, like gender, is fluid, constructed: by the publisher, critic, reader, even writer.”

Rankine’s book is set in New York City in the aftermath of 9/11, and yet, its setting shares many similarities with today: the country at-large reconciling with traumatic events and their aftermaths, a destruction of any illusion of security (a broken home). The space of Rankine’s book is resolutely liminal, and adheres to the principles of failure in Rankine’s unwillingness to draw conclusions. As a Black woman in the United States, Rankine highlights the ways in which she keeps distance from others, the ways in which our culture encourages isolation, rather than intimacy and community: “I don’t usually talk to strangers. But it is four o’clock  and I can’t get a cab…. At the bus stop I say, It’s hard to get a cab now…. She says, as if to anyone, It’s hard to live now.”

When reading these lyric and genre-queer essays, flexibility is essential. As a teacher, I understand a viewer’s or reader’s inclination to want to grasp a specific meaning from whatever they’re reading or looking at, the specific meaning that the creator meant for them to get. But there are no rules against understanding the context in which a work of art was created while simultaneously having one’s own experience with that art. In this new space, that of the expanded field, we can glean more from what we read by paying attention to where breakage is happening, rather than looking for a clean conclusion or a finished thought product. Like Matta’s performance, the art is in the action, rather than the final scene. In lyric and genre-queer essays, movement is not dependent upon an authoritative structure, but instead moves the way a queer body might: outside the expected realms of heteronormative and capitalistic society. This generous engagement with failure and ultimate indefinability may be our only way of moving forward, failing forward in order to make something new. An essay will not solve the world’s suffering, but it can be a way of empathizing and receiving validation, a psychic strategy for processing what’s broken and will continue to break down.


KATY SCARLETT is an educator, nonfiction writer, and poet from South Jersey. She is currently in her third year as an MFA candidate in creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University. She previously earned her in MA in art history at Hunter College, CUNY and has worked as a curator, museum educator, and adjunct professor. Follow Katy on Instagram @scarlettmooon.