Archive: Lyric Prose, Winter-Spring 2019
Welcome to the archive on lyric prose. To read it, click on the name of the author or scroll down the page.
Authors: Annie Dillard, Edward Hirsch, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Annie Dillard, Virginia Woolf (1), Virginia Woolf (2), Virginia Woolf (3). Virginia Woolf (4), Henry David Thoreau, James Baldwin, Bill McKibben, Mimi Schwartz, Terry Tempest Williams, Jean-Dominique Bauby, James Agee. Thomas Larson on Lawrence.
January 4, 2019
What's New at THE?
Lyric Prose: Where Poetry and Prose Meet
Lyric prose is an oxymoron for the quicksilver beauty of the finest passages of nonfiction. It happens when lyric poetry insinuates itself into prose. It happens when prose invites poetry in. It is the defining quality of the crucial moments in any great personal essay or memoir, and it will be the focus of The Humble Essayist for the next year.
In a way this mission is nothing new for us at THE. For nearly five years we have been selecting and commenting weekly on prose that sees itself as art first and a source of information second, and we will continue with that mission, but we will make the focus on lyric prose explicit and pursue it in a more deliberate way.
The month of January will be devoted to definitions, impeccably written definitions taken from writers of poetry and philosophy. What do we mean by the terms “lyric,” “prose,” and “lyric prose.” What possibilities does lyrical prose open for the writer and the reader. Once we have defined the project we will turn our attention, beginning in February, to the best practitioners of the art, offering a brief prose Passage of the Week followed by commentary as usual, though the commentary will often require more than a single paragraph.
We do not intend to identify a genre or coin another confusing literary term. We are still reeling here from "creative nonfiction" and "lyric essay." Rather, we hope to isolate that thing of breathtaking beauty that we admire in the best nonfiction prose.
So, essayists, humble and audacious, check out the first installment, starting Friday, January 11—and bring a poet with you! To give us a taste or what’s ahead, we will include a familiar paragraph from poet and essayist Annie Dillard which we believe epitomizes lyric prose. We will come back to it at the end of the month with additional commentary.
Passage of the Week
One night a moth flew into the candle, was caught, burnt dry, and held. I must have been staring at the candle, or maybe I looked up when a shadow crossed my page; at any rate, I saw it all. A golden female moth, a biggish one with a two-inch wingspan, flapped into the fire, dropped her abdomen into the wet wax, stuck, flamed, frazzled and fried in a second. Her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing and creating out of the darkness the sudden blue sleeves of my sweater, the green leaves of jewelweed by my side, the ragged red trunk of a pine. At once the light contracted again and the moth’s wing vanished in a fine, foul smoke. At the same time her six legs clawed, curled, blackened, and ceased, disappearing utterly. And her head jerked in spasms, making a spattering noise; her antennae crisped and burned away and her heaving mouth parts crackled like pistol fire. When it was all over, her head was, so far as I could determine, gone, gone the way of her wings and legs. Had she been new, or old? Had she mated and laid her eggs, had she done her work? All that was left was the glowing horn shell of her abdomen and thorax—a fraying, partially collapsed gold tube jammed upright in the candle's round pool.
What is lyric prose? One answer is an example like this paragraph from Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard. Read it again aloud—fill your mouth with it—ponder its depth and resonance, register the unforgettable image of an incandescent death, trace the contours of the solitary mind at work, and you can begin to get your answer. This year THE will dedicate itself to understanding this subtle and elusive feature of the best literary prose.—THE
from How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry
by Edward Hirsch
“Meant to be ‘overheard,’ not ‘heard,’ lyric prose offers ‘the gift of intimacy and interiority, of privacy and participation.’ Once such subjectivity makes it to the page it delivers a jolt of insight accompanied by solace.”—THE
What qualities of the lyric characterize lyric prose? What sets lyric prose apart from narrative or journalistic prose? What is the source of its alliance with poetry? One way to pin down this elusive quality is to consider what the poets who gave us the lyric say, and so for our Prose Passage of the Week we will turn to a poet, the writer Edward Hirsch, who defined “lyric” in How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry.
His definition begins with a reminder that the lyric began in song, which means that many of the musical qualities—the sounds and rhythms we associate with poetry—were borrowed from singers and occupy “the region between speech and song.” I see no reason why prose writers can’t borrow from song as well. If the lyric holds a place on the continuum between speech and song, prose writers can poke through the poet’s grabbag of sound devices and stake a claim there too. But there is more to the lyric than sound, and Hirsch goes on to explain that a written lyric poem, despite its affinity with music, is not a song because writing changes its nature. When “words and music separated,” the lyric poem took on a life beyond the airy medium of speech, and could be “read, lingered over,” and “reread.” It is at this point that his definition becomes most helpful to the writer of lyric prose.
Prose Passage of the Week
[W]riting offers a different space for [lyric] poetry. It inscribes it in print and thus allows it to be read, lingered over, reread. Writing fixes the evanescence of sound and holds it against death…. With the advent of a text, the performer and the audience are physically separated from each other. Hence John Stuart Mill’s idea that “eloquence is heard; poetry is overheard,” and Northrop Frye's notion that the lyric is “a literary genre characterized by the assumed concealment of the audience from the poet." Thereafter, the lyric becomes a different kind of intimate communiqué, a highly concentrated and passionate form of communication between strangers. It delivers on our spiritual lives precisely because it gives us the gift of intimacy and interiority, of privacy and participation. Perhaps the asocial nature of the deepest feeling, the "too muchness" of human emotion is what creates the space for the lyric which is a way of beating time, of experiencing duration, of verging on infinity.—Edward Hirsch
This absence of a specific audience is the most important quality that lyric prose shares with lyric poetry, and sets it off from all other nonfiction prose. Workaday prose begins with the identification of niche readers or a target audience, an essential tactic for success most prose writing guides insist. If I click on eHow.com for advice on marketing nonfiction, a successful author of a dozen books will tell me that the first question an author needs to ask is “who is your audience? Who is your reader?” Writers might harbor a yearning to be “universal,” but “no book is for everyone” this successful prose author insists adding that “we have to know where it goes in the bookstore.” She offers examples of audiences: male sports fans, devotees of women’s studies, eighteen to twenty-five year olds, and old people. “Once you can describe this reader,” she explains, “you can talk to this reader when you begin to write.” Simply choose from her dreary list of stereotypes and—voilà—you are rich and famous.
But lyric prose, like lyric poetry, is “characterized by the assumed concealment of the audience” creating a breach between writers and their market when our books take a lyrical turn. It leads to consternation among agents and publishers, and probably many readers too, who don’t know what to do with us, not to mention confusion for book sellers who really have no idea where these books belong on their shelves. And yet—read in the right spirit—lyric prose, like lyric poetry, addresses our deepest personal longings. Meant to be “overheard,” not “heard,” it offers “the gift of intimacy and interiority, of privacy and participation.”
Once such subjectivity makes it to the page it delivers a jolt of insight accompanied by solace. You love, and all that you love you lose—each of us faces the emotional “too-muchness” of that hard truth alone, but overhearing poets or poets-in-prose struggle with the human predicament in solitude is the voice of a friend in the dark. We are part of something grand we sense with wonder, but also something puzzling and prone to evil. In the end that is the reality we are alone with. Ultimately, the subjects of lyric prose are the same as lyric poetry: love, loss, mortality, and the full array of attendant emotions from ecstasy to woe. Built to last, lyric prose transforms this emotional surfeit into memorable language, taking a shot at defying mortality, the long-standing adversary of poets, of “beating time, of experiencing duration, of verging on infinity,” as Edward Hirsch puts it. The target audience is the future dead—which covers everyone. I say, put these books at the front of the store.—THE
from The Prose of the World
by Maurice Merleau-Ponty
“The flame on the wick of lyric prose is poetry.”—THE
By definition, the word “prose” gets a bad rap in the dictionaries. In the OED it means “a dull or commonplace…piece of writing” and in Webster’s it is “dull and unimaginative.” Well-written prose is not dull, of course, but the word “prose” has trouble shedding its connotation as a tedious classroom exercise. This sad state of affairs explains why writers, editors, and publishers come up with flashy alternatives like “creative nonfiction,” “lyric essay,” and the literally flashy “flash nonfiction.” Rather than define the word or give it a new name, though, we prefer to describe the way lyric prose at its best works on us which is exactly what philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty does in the Prose Passage of the Week. Merleau-Ponty, the French existentialist who chose to put most of his philosophical writing in dense and rich prose essays, wrote about the form in The Prose of the World, a book about expressive language.
In Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy, language and thought are intimately related but not one in the same. Words come to us as clichés, bits of language that are used over and over. Creating fresh ideas or meaning from such materials is—as any writer surely knows—hard work. When we struggle to find the right combination of words for a concept, the ideas we hope to convey and the words we use to pin them down become mutually intertwined. Expressive language “does not translate ready-made thought,” which would suggest a simple one-on-one equivalence of word and idea; rather, it “accomplishes it” in the world. Merleau-Ponty’s description of this expressive process in the Prose Passage of the Week is an excellent way to get past the dull connotations of the word “prose” and to understand why a marriage of prose and poetry in lyric prose is a powerful combination.
Prose Passage of the Week
Once I have read the book, it acquires a unique and palpable existence quite apart from the words on the page… [I]t “catches” like a fire. I bring the match near, I light a flimsy piece of paper, and, behold, my gesture receives inspired help from the things around, as if the chimney and the dry wood had been waiting for me to set the light, or as though the match had been nothing but a magic incantation, a call of like to like answered beyond my imagination. In the same way, I start to read a book idly, giving it hardly any thought and suddenly, a few words move me, the fire catches, my thoughts are ablaze…and the fire feeds off everything I have ever read. I have given my knowledge of the language; I have brought along what I already know about the meaning of the words, the phrases, and the syntax. I have also contributed my whole experience of others and everyday events…But the book would not interest me so much if it told me about things I already know. It makes use of everything I have contributed in order to carry me beyond it. With the aid of signs agreed upon by the author and myself because we speak the same language, the book makes me believe that we had already shared a common stock of well-worn and readily available significations. The author has come to dwell in my world. Then imperceptibly, he varies the ordinary meaning of the signs, and like a whirlwind they sweep me up along toward the other meaning with which I am going to connect.—Maurice Merleau-Ponty
What Merleau-Ponty describes here is the way a prose writer creates meaning beyond what we already know using tools that we all share. To “catch fire” the author comes “to dwell in my world” by placing the book in my hands and through the alchemy of “expressive prose” magically recombines the “well worn and readily available significations” into fresh combinations that make “use of everything I have contributed in order to carry me beyond” myself to a different level of understanding, offering me new ideas and giving fresh life to old ones.
The metaphor of the fire helps. We already have the dry wood, the hearth, and the paper which the author combines in a unique way but only when we bring the flame of our attention to bear does the fire catch. All of us who have been stirred by a piece of prose—a novel, perhaps, which creates an entire world or an essay which brings an idea to life—know the experience of being swept up in the “whirlwind” of discovery that Merleau-Ponty describes. Meaning-making this way is participatory because it is only when thoughts and language, informed by our experiences, are intertwined in what the philosopher called a “chiasm” that new ideas emerge. Because meaning is participatory, what we understand is never exactly what the author intended and ambiguity, even misunderstanding, is built in, but in this demanding process a new idea can be born and shared.
What matters is this magical “expressive prose” that Merleau-Ponty calls “singing the world.” He does not, like structuralist thinkers, divide the language we inherit from the language we speak or write. Instead he argues that it is the interplay of the writer and the tools of language that—with struggle—allows fresh meanings to grow out of common ground. In the silence of composition writers take an experience that lies mute within them and use “words not according to their pre-established signification, but in order to state this prelogical bond.” In journalism this interplay usually takes the form of analysis and in fiction it is narrative. But in lyric prose—and here is the pay off from all this philosophy—it largely takes the form of poetic techniques: image, figurative language, sound devices, allusion, irony, tone, and symbolism. A metaphor, the combination of unlike things yielding fresh insight, is exactly the kind of verbal play that Merleau-Ponty describes.
When we fiddle with a rough draft discovering on the page what we are saying, when we cut away the commonplace isolating the phrases that ring with a new truth, when we stare at the blinking cursor awaiting le mot juste, we engage in the expressive process. Dull prose “catches fire.” And when we as readers struggle to sort out meanings in a work, getting caught up in the whirlwind of fresh insights from the author, we engage in the expressive process as well. The flame on the wick of lyric prose is poetry.—THE
from Holy the Firm
by Annie Dillard
“Under this intense illumination on an altar set just for her, the agon proceeds.”—THE
In lyric prose the magical element that combines thought and language and completes the meaning-making of the author's prose are the ingredients of lyric poetry: language that is songlike, suggestive, and solitary. A made thing, a passage of lyric prose defies death, beating back time. Writers of lyric prose may use more discursive ingredients such as information, logic, analysis, evidence, and narratives to create meaning as well but these prosaic elements do not predominate or occupy the crucial—climactic—places in the piece. In a work of lyric prose, they are the setting for the aria.
It is interesting that the words “verse” and “prose” can both be traced back the Indo-European prefix “wer-” meaning turn. Verse turns inward as the empty space at the end of each line turns the reader back into the poem. Prose goes to the margin turning the reader, in a straightforward manner, outward, off the page, toward the world. By combining these two impulses, lyric prose takes the natural tendency of prose to turn outward and turns it back on itself so that the “chiasm of meaning” that Merleau-Ponty writes about is enriched, complicated, and necessarily made more ambiguous than in conventional prose. It increases the demands on reader and writer to participate in the meaning-making process through concentrated emotional and intellectual intensity.
In that light, consider once again the beauty of the Prose Passage of the Week from Annie Dillard that we featured at the beginning of the year.
Prose Passage of the Week
One night a moth flew into the candle, was caught, burnt dry, and held. I must have been staring at the candle, or maybe I looked up when a shadow crossed my page; at any rate, I saw it all. A golden female moth, a biggish one with a two-inch wingspan, flapped into the fire, dropped her abdomen into the wet wax, stuck, flamed, frazzled and fried in a second. Her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing and creating out of the darkness the sudden blue sleeves of my sweater, the green leaves of jewelweed by my side, the ragged red trunk of a pine. At once the light contracted again and the moth’s wing vanished in a fine, foul smoke. At the same time her six legs clawed, curled, blackened, and ceased, disappearing utterly. And her head jerked in spasms, making a spattering noise; her antennae crisped and burned away and her heaving mouth parts crackled like pistol fire. When it was all over, her head was, so far as I could determine, gone, gone the long way of her wings and legs. Had she been new, or old? Had she mated and laid her eggs, had she done her work? All that was left was the glowing horn shell of her abdomen and thorax—a fraying, partially collapsed gold tube jammed upright in the candle's round pool.
Rich in sounds and in the suggestiveness of its imagery, this passage from Holy the Firm uses many of the techniques we expect of lyric prose. There is much music here, the staccato surprise of “caught, burnt dry, and held” and the fateful alliteration of “flapped into the fire” and “flamed, frazzled, and fried.” There are the internal rhymes of the scene illuminated by the flare: “blue sleeves,” “green leaves,” and “jewelweed.” As the ephemera of the moth’s wings disappear in a “fine, foul smoke” the scene darkens, drawing us to the incandescent body. Under this intense illumination on an altar set just for her, the agon proceeds in verbs of contortion and imagery of obliteration: wings “vanished,” legs “clawed, curled, blackened, and ceased, disappearing utterly,” head “jerked in spasms, making a spattering noise,” antennae “crisped and burned away,” and “heaving mouth parts crackled like pistol fire.”
Above all, it is the author’s isolation that primarily sets this passage apart as lyrical. “I must have been staring at the candle” Annie Dillard writes lending a hypnotic, self-absorbed element to the event. Her isolation is made more complete by an illuminated circle growing brighter and more intense as the flame from the immolated body of the moth increases—the glow marking off a dark margin closing in. The ordinary life of the moth is rendered irrelevant by the ordeal: “Had she been new, or old? Had she mated and laid her eggs, had she done her work?” None of that matters here as everyday concerns are left behind. And the body—"a fraying, partially collapsed gold tube jammed upright in the candle's round pool”—no longer matters as well. Later we learn that the moth as torch is a symbol for the writer consuming herself for her holy calling. This is Annie Dillard’s theme: Like a moth transformed by flame the artist spends herself—exhausts herself—acting as a conduit between base substance, which scholastic philosophers called “Holy the Firm,” and the divine.
The truth about the writer’s life, expressed here in fresh and unforgettable language, is that the solitary author of lyric prose—like the doomed, bright moth—is consumed with the task of making meaning. She lets go of the timely, the made up, and the formulaic; she leaves behind lovers, friends, and family; she abandons her audience hungering to be entertained. None of them can help her in her lonely business. Armed with a language made out of little more than borrowed birdsong, fire, and spit inadequate to the task, she brings a bit of human consciousness to bear on an incomprehensible universe. Courting the ridiculous she stands on the “verge of infinity” extending the “duration of time” and “fixes the evanescence of sound” holding it “against death” in written words of lyric prose that remain like a glowing candle in immense darkness long after she is gone.
Lyric prose writers are not all as isolated with their truths as Annie Dillard, but in the lyric moments of their work they pull away from common social concerns in a similar way. This is what lyric prose does. If we are lucky, we get to overhear.
from “A Sketch of the Past”
in Moments of Being
by Virginia Woolf
“Most of these moments are connected to a single image, a single experience of the senses that caught the author’s attention and made a lasting impression that she can draw on for...a lifetime of writing.”—THE
If Virginia Woolf is right, lyric prose—the subject that preoccupies us this year at The Humble Essayist—begins with the most basic of poetic tools, the image, in particular images rich in meaning that she associated with intense “moments of being.” Her brief memoir, “A Sketch of the Past,” is perhaps the best explanation of the imagery at the core of prose when it turns lyrical, and we will give a month here at The Humble Essayist to crucial passages from it.
Woolf lived between 1882 and 1941 and was one of the major literary figures of the twentieth century. A prolific writer, she authored essays, letters, journals, and short stories in addition to her groundbreaking novels. She attributes the impulse to write to numinous childhood events, these "moments of being” that she first experienced at her family’s seaside vacation home in St. Ives, “the very toenail” of England, as her father called it. She gives us the town—and what it meant to her—in a paragraph with a remarkable single-sentence list of such moments that led to a lifetime of writing.
Prose Passage of the Week
Yet in retrospect nothing that we had as children made as much difference, was quite so important to us, as our summer in Cornwall. The country was intensified, after the months in London to go away to Cornwall; to have our own house; our own garden; to have the Bay; the sea; the moon; Clodgy; Halestown Bog; Carbis Bay; Lelant; Trevail; Zennor; the Gurnard's Head; to hear the waves breaking that first night behind the yellow blind; to dig in the sand; to go sailing in a fishing boat; to scrabble over the rocks and see the red and yellow anemones flourishing their antennae; or stuck like blobs of jelly to the rock; to find a small fish flapping in a pool; to pick up cowries; to look over the grammar in the dining room and see the lights changing on the bay; the leaves of the escallonia grey or bright green; to go down to the town and buy a penny box of tintacks or a pocket knife; to prowl about Lanhams—Mrs Lanham wore false curls shaking round her head; the servants said Mr Lanham had married her ‘through an advertisement’; to smell all the fishy smells in the steep little streets; and see the innumerable cats with their fishbones in their mouths; and the women on the raised steps outside their houses pouring pails of dirty water down the gutters; every day to have a great dish of Cornish cream skinned with a yellow skin; and plenty of brown sugar to eat with blackberries… I could fill pages remembering one thing after another. All together made the summer at St Ives the best beginning to life conceivable.
What I love most about Virginia Woolf’s long sentence is the list's desultory feel as if she is ticking things off at the top of her head, starting with the obvious: “to have our own house; our own garden; to have the Bay; the sea; the moon.” This is followed by the sludgy-sounding names of places: “Clodgy; Halestown Bog; Carbis Bay; Lelant; Trevail; Zennor; the Gurnard's Head.” Using infinitives, she drags in verbs with brief stories attached: “to find a small fish flapping in a pool; to pick up cowries; to look over the grammar in the dining room and see the lights changing on the bay; the leaves of the escallonia grey or bright green; to go down to the town and buy a penny box of tintacks or a pocket knife.”
The little moment of looking up from her book and watching the play of light on water under a gray-green canopy of leaves is a particularly lovely, contemplative pause in a catalog rattling with flapping fish, a box of tintacks, and a pocket knife. Mrs. Lanham is remembered for her “false curls shaking round her head” and rumors that she landed her husband “through an advertisement.” And, at the end, the “dirty water” poured into gutters by the town women is set against dishes of “Cornish cream skinned with a yellow skin” and blackberries sweetened with brown sugar. The sentence is high praise from a writer for a place she loved.
As her lovely, meandering list suggests, summertime by the sea at Talland House year after year during Virginia Woolf’s childhood was “perennial” and “invaluable,” and, for a writer, "the best beginning to life conceivable." The point I want to make about it is that most of these moments are connected to a single image, a single experience of the senses that caught the author’s attention and made a lasting impression that she can draw on for her writing. These memories are so vivid that they come to her with ease and carry an intensity that can generate volumes of expressive prose. How, exactly, do such images function as the well-spring for a lifetime of writing? We will look at what Virginia Woolf has to say about that next week.
from “A Sketch of the Past”
in Moments of Being
by Virginia Woolf
“It is only by putting [a painful shock] into words that I make it whole; this wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me.”—Virginia Woolf
We have dedicated this month of The Humble Essayist to “A Sketch of the Past,” which serves as a primer on how to write memoir that is true to the author. Too often memoirists "collect a number of events,” and “leave the person to whom it happened unknown,” Woolf complains. Her solution is to find those “moments of being” which reveal the subjective self and are the source for a lifetime of writing.
She admits that the inner self can be a challenge for the writer because we spend much of our days in the “cotton wool” of life, the hours that go by without insight, but there are “moments of being” when our world can be upended and the subjective self revealed. Her paragraph on these moments not only offers insights into the way certain shocks can lead to lyrical prose, but also the way that lyrical prose can meliorate the pain—and, in fact, bring great pleasure—by creating wholeness out of the “severed parts” of a shattering epiphany.—THE
Paragraph of the Week
As a child then, my days, just as they do now, contained a large proportion of this cotton wool, this non-being. Week after week passed at St Ives and nothing made any dint upon me. Then, for no reason that I know about, there was a sudden violent shock; something happened so violently that I have remembered it all my life. I will give a few instances. The first: I was fighting with Thoby on the lawn. We were pommeling each other with our fists. Just as I raised my fist to hit him, I felt: why hurt another person? I dropped my hand instantly, and stood there and let him beat me. I remember the feeling. It was a feeling of hopeless sadness. It was as if I became aware of something terrible; and of my own powerlessness. I slunk off alone, feeling horribly depressed. The second instance was also in the garden at St Ives. I was looking at the flower bed by the front door; "That is the whole", I said. I was looking at a plant with a spread of leaves; and it seemed suddenly plain that the flower itself was a part of the earth; that a ring enclosed what was the flower; and that was the real flower; part earth; part flower. It was a thought I put away as being likely to be very useful to me later. The third case was also at St Ives. Some people called Valpy had been staying at St Ives, and had left. We were waiting at dinner one night, when somehow I overheard my father or my mother say that Mr Valpy had killed himself. The next thing I remember is being in the garden at night and walking on the path by the apple tree. It seemed to me that the apple tree was connected with the horror of Mr Valpy's suicide. I could not pass it. I stood there looking at the grey green creases of the bark—it was a moonlit night—in a trance of horror. I seemed to be dragged down, hopelessly, into some pit of absolute despair from which I could not escape. My body seemed paralysed.
From these examples of “moments of being” and from Virginia Woolf’s thoughts about them we can see how the images they emerge from function for her as a writer. In each case she experiences a surfeit of emotion, a “too muchness” typical of the lyrical moment, embodied in a physical detail: pommeling fists, a flower in a ring of dirt, an apple tree in a moonlit garden. A “peculiar horror” unfolds in which the events associated with the detail seem dominant and she herself passive, but she also has a reassuring sense that, incomprehensible as they are when she feels them, she will one day come back to these suggestive images with a greater understanding. “I had put away in my mind something that I should go back to, to turn over and explore,” she explains.
As she got older, she realized that these events, though often painful led to insight that “blunts the sledge-hammer force of the blow,” offering solace. She grew to welcome these “moments of being” that broke through the “cotton-wool” of everyday life no matter how overwhelming they were, each coming to her as a “revelation of some order” and “a token of some real thing behind appearances,” a truth that she as a writer could make “real” for herself and her readers “by putting it into words.”
Notice the stages she goes through here. First there is the silent apprehension of the image—the mute but evocative detail offered up as a shock. This is followed by a kind of pulling away from the experience, a recoil that leaves her completely alone even when she is being pommeled by her brother which she describes as powerlessness and paralysis accompanied by feelings of “hopeless sadness.” But despite the gloom, she knows the moment is rich in potential meaning and “likely to be very useful” so she packs it away in her memory awaiting words.
Later, she unpacks the image. She finds the right words and combines them into sentences to create scenes and characters, “discovering what belongs to what,” and she uncovers a hidden order that dulls the power of the event to hurt her and brings joy: “perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me.” This solitary experience of an image, mulled over time and eventually combined in words with other details of everyday life, is the heart of lyric prose.
Following these threads led Woolf to a philosophy in which she sees a hidden pattern, behind the ordinary surface of life, which she considers to be the source of all art. This order is captured by great works, but no Shakespeare or Beethoven is in control and “emphatically there is no God.” We live it, passing through the substance of this complex, surreptitious pattern of meaning, daily catching a glimpse of it here and there, so “we are the words,” she insists, “we are the music, we are the thing itself.”
from “A Sketch of the Past”
in Moments of Being
by Virginia Woolf
“Writing allows Virginia Woolf to name the unnamable, make the private public, and give her feelings as a woman a lineage in the long line of sister sufferers.”—THE
We are looking at the ways that images taken from “moments of being” in the past can be a rich trove of lyrical prose for the writer, using the modernist Virginia Woolf as our guide. These “moments of being” offer images charged with deep, and at times, overwhelming emotions that are hard for a writer to express. Written about in lyric prose such moments offer avenues into the subjective life where the elusive interior self hides revealing the person we really are. Recollecting them in writing can also bring solace, as the writer considers these sometimes joyous but often traumatic experiences over time, gaining perspective and understanding what they mean.
Consider this passage from “A Sketch of the Past.” It describes the sexual abuse of Virginia Woolf as a child by her older half-brother, Gerald Duckworth. Though the incident is painful, and, sadly, always timely, it does bring with it a surprising insight that places the event in the context of human history.
Paragraph of the Week
There was a slab outside the dining room door for standing dishes upon. Once when I was very small Gerald Duckworth lifted me onto this, and as I sat there he began to explore my body. I can remember the feel of his hand going under my clothes; going firmly and steadily lower and lower. I remember how I hoped that he would stop; how I stiffened and wriggled as his hand approached my private parts. But it did not stop. His hand explored my private parts too. I remember resenting, disliking it—what is the word for so dumb and mixed a feeling? It must have been strong, since I still recall it. This seems to show that a feeling about certain parts of the body; how they must not be touched; how it is wrong to allow them to be touched; must be instinctive. It proves that Virginia Stephen was not born on the 25th January 1882, but was born many thousands of years ago; and had from the very first to encounter instincts already acquired by thousands of ancestresses in the past.—Virginia Woolf
This description of childhood abuse has the detailed imagery and sense of isolation characteristics of lyric prose. First the scene is rendered through tactile images that had haunted Virginia Woolf for years: the marble slab beneath her where dishes were normally sorted, the hand going under the clothes and moving down, her stiffness giving way to wriggling when the hand approached her “private parts.” But if the images create a sense of intimacy for the reader—a sense of being on the scene—they also convey passivity, the feeling that she has separated herself from the moment like an observer. She has retreated into solitude.
Frustrated that there is no name for what she feels, she falls back on these details to convey her revulsion, filing them away until she can deal with them, and literally come to terms with them in her writing. She realizes over time that she is not alone with this experience, this awful “moment of being.” She is part of a long line of abused girls and women, a shared subjective experience that colors the rest of their lives. Writing allows her to name the unnamable, make the private public, and give her feelings as a woman a lineage in a long line of sister sufferers. “Virginia Stephen was not born on the 25th January 1882, but was born many thousands of years ago,” she writes, and “had from the very first to encounter instincts already acquired by thousands of ancestresses in the past.” By recreating the moment in writing she understands it and recognizes the need to develop instincts that give her power over it. It is her inheritance as a woman which she shares as a legacy for girls and women to come. —THE
February 22, 2019
from “A Sketch of the Past”
in Moments of Being
by Virginia Woolf
“While I write this the light glows, an apple becomes a vivid green, I respond all through me; but how?”—Virginia Woolf
We have been thinking about “moments of being” when time seems to slow or stop and the author, attentive and focused on a single image or set of images, retreats into solitude and responds in lyrical prose which is sonorous, even musical. Virginia Woolf, one of the masters of modernism, has been our guide to these “moments of being,” extraordinary epiphanies that fueled her life as a writer. This week, in the final installment of our series on Woolf, we look at a “moment of being” that happened as she was writing, giving a sense of the how these interruptions can take over and fuel future work.
Nearly sixty when this moment happens, and living with her husband, Leonard, at Monks House in Rodmell, Sussex at the time, Virginia Woolf is remembering St. Ives in Cornwall where she and her family vacationed when she was a child, a place, she says, that gave her “the best beginning of a life conceivable.” The passage begins with a parenthetical “grievance” about her father whom she resented because of his long dependence on her and her sister, reminding us that all was not joy during her summers at the beach. After her mother’s early death, the family stopped going to St. Ives, and her father’s long period of dependency leads her to her complain—in a way that she willingly admits is a mean-spirited “venting”—that his good heath was inconvenient since it kept him, and his “severe love of truth,” going too long. And then, as she concludes her complaint, she looks out the window.
Paragraph of the Week
St Ives gave us all the same that “pure delight” which is before my eyes at this very moment. The lemon-coloured leaves on the elm tree, the apples in the orchard, the murmur and rustle of the leaves makes me pause here, and think how many other than human forces are always at work on us. While I write this the light glows, an apple becomes a vivid green, I respond all through me; but how? Then a little owl chatters under my window. Again, I respond. Figuratively I could snapshot what I mean by some image, I am a porous vessel afloat on sensation, a sensitive plate exposed to invisible rays, and so on. Or I fumble with some vague idea about a third voice; I speak to Leonard, Leonard speaks to me, we both hear a third voice. Instead of labouring all the morning to analyse what I mean, to discover whether I mean anything real, whether I make up or tell the truth when I see myself taking the breath of these voices in my sails and tacking this way and that through daily life as I yield to them, I note only the existence of this influence, suspect it to be of great importance, cannot find how to check its power on other people—does Louie feel it? Does Percy? Which of the people watching the incendiary bomb extinguished on the hill last night would understand what I mean if they read this?—I erect a finger post here, to mark a vein I will some time try to work out, and return to the surface; that is St Ives.—Virginia Woolf
When Virginia Woolf looks out her window she feels a “pure delight” reminiscent of her Cornwall days. She registers the “lemon-coloured leaves on the elm,” “apples in the orchard,” and “the murmur and rustle” in all the trees and ponders the way nature shapes us. “While I write this the light glows, an apple becomes a vivid green, I respond all through me; but how?” She admits that she is no philosopher who will labor all morning to analyze this experience, deciding whether it is real or imagined, but she does offer metaphors for it. She is “a porous vessel afloat on sensation” or “a sensitive plate exposed to invisible rays.”
The French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty would have called this saturation in sense experience the “flesh” of perception in which there is no separation between the viewing subject and the scene. When she and Leonard talk about it, they hear a “third voice” in the room amid their voices. I think that this moment is one of her “moments of being” when the perception of the world brings the shock of insight that provokes lyric prose. She wonders if others feel shaped by nature’s lush sensuality in the same way, and, since she is writing during World War II, she also wonders if such emotional niceties have a chance among her neighbors “watching the incendiary bomb extinguished on the hill last night.”
What makes this particular “moment of being” stand out is that it is happening while she is writing, recorded on the spot with the attention to language and detail that she brings to all of her writing but with us looking over her shoulder so to speak. As with all of these moments there is too much to absorb at once, so she erects a mental signpost in her memory in order to return to the spot later when we’re not watching.
It is the image then—direct sensory experience—that is the basis for moments of being that lead, through writing and rewriting, to lyric prose. Woolf wonders if it happens to others such as the workers at Monk’s House or strangers she encounters on the street. Life after all has many distractions that might stifle this impulse, and we do not require an incendiary bomb to lose the thread. Sometimes a tweet will throw us off. We can say with certainty, though, that writers have experiences like the ones Woolf describes. The evidence? It is in their lyric prose, the finest passages by our best prose writers when the intensity of the moment leads them to words that sing the world.—THE
from "Civil Disobedience"
by Henry David Thoreau
“To me this lyrical moment of inwardness in the presence of a social wrong is the essential move in a personal political essay: its moment of truth.”—THE
Despite its shy and solitary nature, lyrical prose is not solipsistic—not at all. Supported by narrative, exposition, and commentary it is a way, perhaps the most authentic way, for the individual to confront society and is often turned to political purposes by our best writers. In American culture it has been used in personal essays and memoirs to tackle thorny political issues—including slavery, racism, war, feminism, gender issues, and ecology—and, due to its disarming intimacy, it has a better chance of changing minds than rants or propaganda. It is, in fact, the opposite of propaganda because at the moment of lyric intensity, the prose is no longer intended to spread the message or propagate anything. It is written to an audience of one—and overheard by the world.
Consider this passage from one of our seminal political texts—“Civil Disobedience”—conceived by Henry David Thoreau during solitary confinement in jail for one night in 1846. It has probably done more to change the world for the better than any other personal essay. In it we learn that Thoreau refused to pay taxes to support the Mexican War because he believed the war was an indirect way to support slavery, so he was carted off to jail. After a long introduction, he writes this:
Paragraph of the Week
I have paid no poll-tax for six years. I was put into a jail once on this account, for one night; and, as I stood considering the walls of solid stone, two or three feet thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick, and the iron grating which strained the light, I could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution which treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up. I wondered that it should have concluded at length that this was the best use it could put me to, and had never thought to avail itself of my services in some way. I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through before they could get to be as free as I was. I did not for a moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar. I felt as if I alone of all my townsmen had paid my tax. They plainly did not know how to treat me, but behaved like persons who are underbred. In every threat and in every compliment there was a blunder; for they thought that my chief desire was to stand the other side of that stone wall. I could not but smile to see how industriously they locked the door on my meditations, which followed them out again without let or hindrance, and they were really all that was dangerous.
—Henry David Thoreau
Until we reach this paragraph a little more than halfway through the text, “Civil Disobedience” is not a personal essay at all, but a rant full of memorable phrases. Here are a few:
“That government is best which governs not at all.”
“…government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way.”
“I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also.”
Of course we enjoy the wit that comes in a torrent of language, but in this paragraph about his night alone in jail Thoreau stops to take a breath and look at his surroundings—“the walls of solid stone, two or three feet thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick, and the iron grating which strained the light”—and the essay takes an introspective turn as he no longer shouts at others but whispers to himself while discovering the essay’s essential truth. “I could not help being struck,” “I wondered,” “I saw,” and “I could not help but smile” he writes as a new understanding slowly dawns on him. The walls he was staring at liberate him—and pay his taxes to boot. Cut off from the people in his town by the prison gate he realizes that he is free because he is following his conscience while they are enslaved to the injustice they support with their money. They may have locked the door on his “flesh and blood and bones,” but his solitary meditations “followed them out again without let or hindrance” and would one day would haunt them and others who abet social wrongs this way. What they could not touch was his solitary mind—the source of all political personal essays—which his lyrical prose allows us and the world to overhear.
To me this lyrical moment of inwardness in the presence of a social wrong is the essential move in a personal political essay: its moment of truth. Like the lyric poet, Thoreau withdraws from the world—in this case the world of his rant and the audience it addresses—to confront the issue alone in his own terms, smiling to himself with new awareness as we watch, before returning with fresh insight to that world. Without this move, rendered for us as a small scene, the essay, no matter how personal in its events, is a public performance and not personal at all where it matters: in its discoveries as they happen, in the shaping of the truth for the writer. For the reader, the intimacy of watching—and participating in—the thought process is a privilege, and once we live through the conditions under which the thinking happened, generously reproduced by the essayist, we are more apt to modify our ideas and even change our minds or, if we agreed with the ideas from the start, feel less lonely in the world. This is the great gift that the personal essay offers our mean-spirited politics.
Notes of a Native Son
“Once again we see the writer at the crux of the essay withdraw from the world to brood over events on the way to making a crucial discovery.”—THE
What I am calling for in the political personal essay is that it remain honest in the most essential way, honest to the person who writes it as she or he enters the public arena. We expect essayists to be honest about events, especially in an essay on a political issue, but more than that we ask that they are honest with themselves, revealing who they are, not just in what they do but by letting us in on the shifts of their wayward and solitary minds as events unfold, admitting confusions and false starts on the way toward the tentative truth of the essay.
In “Notes of a Native Son,” James Baldwin generously lets us in on his mental, political, and spiritual anguish on the occasion of his father’s funeral and the birth of his sister when he was nineteen. He describes his father as a cruel man given to bigotry and largely destroyed by the burden of his hatred of white people and remembers in the essay that same hatred welling up in himself and culminating in an awful night when he threw a mug at a white waitress who told him “We don’t serve Negroes here,” flirting with a disaster he barely escaped. Now his father is dead. He has looked into the casket and seen the powdered face of an old man who could no longer hurt anyone, and, as he sits with his family in the car on the way to the grave, anger smoldering within him, he lets us in on his thinking.
Paragraph of the Week
“But as for me and my house,” my father had said, “we will serve the Lord.” I wondered, as we drove him to his resting place, what this line had meant for him. I had heard him preach it many times. I had preached it once myself, proudly giving it an interpretation different from my father's. Now the whole thing came back to me, as though my father and I were on our way to Sunday school and I were memorizing the golden text: And if it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom you will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. I suspected in these familiar lines a meaning which had never been there for me before. All of my father's texts and songs, which I had decided were meaningless, were arranged before me at his death like empty bottles, waiting to hold the meaning which life would give them for me. This was his legacy: nothing is ever escaped. That bleakly memorable morning I hated the unbelievable streets and the Negroes and whites who had, equally, made them that way. But I knew that it was folly, as my father would have said, this bitterness was folly. It was necessary to hold on to the things that mattered. The dead man mattered, the new life mattered; blackness and whiteness did not matter; to believe that they did was to acquiesce in one's own destruction. Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated and this was an immutable law.
Once again we see the writer at the crux of the essay withdraw from the world to brood over events on the way to making a crucial discovery. As often happens in an essay, a text focuses Baldwin’s mind as he reflects on a Biblical passage from the Book of Joshua that both he and his father had used in sermons, one that glows golden in his memory and takes on new meaning now that his father has died. The passage is about making a choice between whether his spirit should be placed in the service of hatred or acceptance. This choice is the paternal legacy that he cannot escape, empty vessels waiting to be filled by him, and as he contemplates the choice he changes his mind realizing his hatred was a dangerous folly, and in that discovery he begins to sort out what he could stake his life on and what he must reject: “The dead man mattered, the new life mattered; blackness and whiteness did not matter; to believe that they did was to acquiesce in one's own destruction.” Life and death are at stake, and hatred leads inevitably, immutably, to destruction.
We know the scene unfolding before Baldwin as he makes these discoveries because it was described on the opening page of the essay. A race riot had broken out in Harlem before the funeral of Baldwin’s father and the family drove his father to the graveyard “through a wilderness of smashed plate glass.” What Baldwin faces here is not an easy choice, but his moment of lyrical introspection in the car leads to a stunning paradox that concludes the essay, his necessary but impossible proposition that he must choose to live according to contrary principles: accepting life with its myriad evils “totally without rancor” while never becoming complacent in the face of those evils and resisting them “with all one’s strength.”
The choice is to accept and resist. Without acceptance there is no hope for love, and without resistance there is no hope for justice, an intriguing insight, but stated baldly that way the paradox is empty, even bland. What we need is the agon, Baldwin’s struggle as he reckons with the death of his father, his own guilty past, and the birth of his sister. What we need is the whole essay which allows us to watch the idea in all of its complexity unfold in the writer as he responds to events. It is not pure mind at work—this is not analytic philosophy—but the mind in context, in flux amid apparently irreconcilable conflicts where the self is forged. It is that self in the process of forming that we as readers insist the personal essayist be true to, especially when writing on a political subject like racism.
from The End of Nature
by Bill McKibben
“...in a world where there is nothing except us there is no escape from us. There is no soil that we have not trod, no air that escapes our breath, no rocks beyond the ones we own. ”—THE
In the late 1980’s Bill McKibben declared “The End of Nature” in an essay by that name supplying convincing evidence for his case from experts and writers in the popular press, but in the end, the essay is personal as well as political, and the moment of insight—his realization that what we once thought of as nature no longer exists—happened during a day-long hike that he took by himself along Mill Creek that runs near his property in the Adirondacks. It was not wilderness—he came upon some creekside kitchen chairs that his neighbors used to fish and later bought a liverwurst sandwich at a store—but it was rough going. The stream meandered and he had come without a machete to clear away the nameless briars that blocked his path. Here and there as he walked he emerged into woods scratched and sore and often thought of turning back, but pressed on discovering gifts along the way: “a vein of quartz,” “a ridge where the maples still held their leaves,” and a pine that beavers had gnawed into “a forty-foot sculpture.”
He stopped at a waterfall remembering when Mill Creek had flooded several years earlier and his awe as he stood near its banks realizing “what nature is capable of” as the ground below him shook. But now the falls, tamed by drought, flowed quietly, one of those “diaphanous-veil affairs” he calls it, and as he stopped to change his socks from a “soaking” pair to one “merely clammy,” he saw “nothing awe inspiring or instructive, or even lulling, in the fall of the water.” At that moment he had his epiphany and all that he had studied and experienced about nature came together in a moment of insight.
Paragraph of the Week
It suddenly seemed less like a waterfall than like a spillway to accommodate the overflow of a reservoir. That didn't decrease its beauty; but it changed its meaning. It has begun or will soon begin to rain and snow when the particular mix of chemicals we've injected into the atmosphere adds up to rain or snow—when they make it hot enough over some tropical sea to form a cloud and send it this way. I had no more control, in one sense, over this process than I ever did. But it felt different, and lonelier. Instead of a world where rain had an independent and mysterious existence, the rain had become a subset of human activity: a phenomenon like smog or commerce or the noise from the skidder towing logs on Cleveland Road—all things over which I had no control, either. The rain bore a brand; it was a steer, not a deer. And that was where the loneliness came from. There's nothing there except us. There's no such thing as nature anymore—that other world that isn't business and art and breakfast is now not another world, and there is nothing except us alone.
What McKibben sees looking into that water, and what we overhear as we listen in on his discovery, is the end of nature. The moment has the essential characteristic we find at the lyric heart of our best essays as the writer pulls away from society and confronts a truth alone, but it is an insight that has grave social implications. He realizes that the rain which produces the waterfall at his wet feet does not have some “mysterious” existence apart from humankind; rather it is a “subset of human activity” influenced by all that humans emit into the atmosphere. The waterfall may be beautiful and inviting and seemingly remote—and we still do not control it—but its meaning has changed for us because it no longer has an existence independent from us.
As he mulls over his discovery, the images of the stream and waterfall give way to synecdoches for the insinuation of human activity into the natural world, the smog-corrupted air standing in for the effects of commerce in general and the “the noise from the skidder towing logs on Cleveland Road” evoking the clatter of all human activity around the world. Unlike the “deer” that lives in the wild, nature has become a “steer” corralled for human purposes. Often used by essayists to universalize their experience, synecdoche is a fitting technique for moving from a personal epiphany to the larger social implications. So in that list of what nature has become—“business and art and breakfast”—the word “breakfast,” which transforms nourishment into a human social event, carries the load for everything that we have domesticated.
His emotional response to this discovery, an indulgence which the personal essay affords, is mixed. First he feels a particular kind of loneliness, “one that corresponds to the cry ‘What will I do without him?’ when someone vital dies.” In this sense his journey to a place where he is alone, contemplating a veil of water, is an appropriate setting for his grief at the loss of nature as a source of wonder. At the same time, despite being alone in the woods, he feels “crowded, without privacy” because in a world where there is nothing except us there is no escape from us. There is no soil that we have not trod, no air that escapes our breath, no rocks beyond the ones we own. When he looks at the sick trees in the woods around him he cannot avoid hearing the excuses spoken by businessmen and politicians who profit from the damage or the voices of his friends and neighbors who like cars, air-conditioning, and shopping. Above all he cannot escape himself: “I live on about four hundred times what Thoreau conclusively proved was enough,” he confesses, “so I’ve done my share to take this independent, eternal world and turn it into a science project.”
Contemplating the consequences of what we have all done, he reconsiders the phrase “greenhouse effect” used to describe heat trapped by rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. “We have built a greenhouse,” he laments, weighing the implications, “where once there bloomed a sweet and wild garden.”
from “In the Land of Double Narrative:
in When History Is Personal
by Mimi Schwartz
“As an essayist, her impulse is to turn to the solitary voice for the truth, but her theme demands that she be true to the ‘double narrative’ of her title and hear these twin voices clearly before she forges them into a single work of art.”—THE
“In the Land of the Double Narrative” from the collection When History Is Personal by Mimi Schwartz is an attempt to understand and do justice to the opposing sides of the age-old conflict between Israel and Palestine. She visits representatives in the middle-east on a tour with other Americans attempting to record, honor, and understand the various positions. On the plane ride back, she feels the need to make notes in solitude about the contending voices, “all interesting, all persuasive,” but is interrupted by a Palestinian American next to her who wants to talk. “I’d like to keep writing, use this time to sort out the many voices we heard,” Schwartz explains, “but this man continues.” Much of the talk is congenial, talk of spouses and children providing common ground, but eventually the conversation gets heated.
Passage of the Week
“What about Hamas and Hezbollah?” I ask. “Israel can't pretend they are not there.”
Abdul says the same thing that Prime Minister Fayyad of the Palestinian Authority told us: “These groups will lose power if there is peace.” We are on the same track, nodding, pleasant, sensible. And then out of the blue: “You know what created Hamas?” his voice rising now. “The Americans! You know what created Hezbollah? The Israelis!” I hear the words bounce off the ceiling. Whoa! I can't let that go by, another version of the blame game, that everything is everyone else's fault.
“I don't believe this to be true,” I say, telling him, lecturelike, that Palestinians must also take responsibility. “Everyone must give a little to build trust on small issues before the big problems can be tackled” His eyes glaze over. “It’s like in marriage,” I say. “My husband hates when I leave my shoes in the bathroom. If he complains nicely, I'm more likely to say, “Sure, I can fix that.” Abdul's eyes light up. “You are right. It's the same with my wife, only I am the messy one!”
Mimi Schwartz makes the lyric move toward a solitary meditation on the voices of others in this essay, but one of those voices calls her out of her reverie—or seems to—engaging her in a public debate on a plane filled with travelers. She closes her notebook reluctantly, but in the end the conversation reproduces the voices she had hoped to capture with greater intensity, drama, and emotional honesty than her initial notes. She and Abdul are able to “venture below the ‘We all want peace!’ mantra” to the harder truths perhaps because they have gotten to know each other personally. “I know his daughter,” Schwartz writes, “and he knows about my marriage.”
And yet, colored by her original desire to be alone and placed here at the crucial penultimate moment of the essay, the passage has the effect of an intimate, even interior debate. “Everyone must give a little to build trust on small issues,” she tells him, “before the big issues can be tackled,” the insight causing his eyes to glaze over, but when she stops arguing and offers an intimate example of handling a fight with her husband over shoes which she leaves on the bathroom floor, the insight becomes less a talking point than an understanding they realize together. “It’s the same with my wife,” he exclaims, forging the bond of trust with the confession, “only I am the messy one.”
As an essayist, her impulse is to turn to the solitary voice for the truth, but her theme demands that she be true to the “double narrative” of her title and hear these twin voices clearly before she forges them into a single work of art. What appears to be problematic is as usual thematic. It is a theme we found in the essay “Close to Home” from her earlier collection, Good Neighbors, Bad Times about the complacency of “the quiet people” whose silence allowed Hitler to seize power. In order to honor the contrary voices in her interior debate she holds it in public. It is her way to unpack those dangerous silences.
April 12, 2019
from “The Clan of One-Breasted Women”
by Terry Tempest Williams
“It may seem surprising that a political personal essay would turn lyrical—even poetic—this way given the urgency of its message to a world marked by corruption, violence, and woe, a kind of indulgence in a grubby and evil world, but that is precisely what we need during times of crisis.”—THE
In “The Clan of One-Breasted Women” writer Terry Tempest Williams and nine other women “slipped under a barbed-wire fence and entered” the town of Mercury, Nevada, a closed town so contaminated by atomic waste from the nearby Nevada Test Site that pregnant women and children were not allowed to enter. Williams and her clan were trespassing, protesting atomic testing in northern Utah by the United States government since the 1950’s that had led to increased cancer rates in the region largely inhabited by Mormons and Native Americans. They moved deliberately through a grove of Joshua trees at the edge of town and waited. At dawn they wrapped themselves in mylar with their faces exposed and moved through the still town like winged creatures. Eventually they were arrested and she describes the scene.
Prose Passage of the Week
I crossed the line at the Nevada Test Site and was arrested with nine other Utahns for trespassing on military lands. They are still conducting nuclear tests in the desert. Ours was an act of civil disobedience. But as I walked toward the town of Mercury it was more than a gesture of peace. It was a gesture on behalf of the Clan of One-Breasted Women.
As one officer cinched the handcuffs around my wrists; another frisked my body. She found a pen and a pad of paper tucked inside my left boot.
"And these?" she asked sternly.
"Weapons," I replied.
Our eyes met. I smiled. She pulled the leg of my trousers back over my boot." Step forward, please," she said as she took my arm.
We were booked under an afternoon sun and bused to Tonopah, Nevada. It was a two-hour ride. This was familiar country. The Joshua trees standing their ground had been named by my ancestors, who believed they looked like prophets pointing west to the Promised Land. These were the same trees that bloomed each spring, flowers appearing like white flames in the Mojave. And I recalled a full moon in May, when Mother and I had walked among them, flushing out mourning doves and owls.
—Terry Tempest Williams
Earlier in the essay Terry Tempest Williams sets up this moment of public and personal protest by supplying evidence for what has happened to her region: her memory of watching an atomic test light up the sky from the family car in the 50’s, testimony by plaintiffs in a damage case, information about downwind fall out and increased cancer rates, the death of her mother and other women in her family to breast cancer, and her own cancer. In short, she explains herself and makes her case, and she dramatizes it by telling the story of the protest, ending with the officer finding her weapons, her pen and pad.
But after describing her arrest, her voice changes, turns mellow, as she looks out of the window at the Joshua Trees, named by her ancestors who were there long before the Nevada Test Site. These trees that bloom in the desert claim the land by “standing their ground” and point hopefully toward a world elsewhere. At the same time they give her a personal glimpse of a lost past when she and her mother “walked among them” under a full moon while flushing out birds known for their mournful call. The sentences about the trees are carefully crafted, the desert “flowers” compared to white “flames,” the words alliterating. “Mojave,” “May,” and “Mother” alliterate too, calling attention to themselves with capital letters. And then there is the “moon” that coos with the word “bloom” like a dove or owl. It is here, in a passage of lyrical prose, that the loss, defiance, and hope for a better world at the heart of this essay are embodied, suggesting the ineffable substance of these themes without burdening them with explanation.
It may seem surprising that a political personal essay would turn lyrical—even poetic—this way given the urgency of its message to a world marked by corruption, violence, and woe, a kind of indulgence in a grubby and evil world, but that is precisely what we need during times of crisis, the solitary voice of the singer getting us through the night. Its music brings solace to her and, as we listen in, to us as well.—THE
from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
by Jean-Dominique Bauby
“He cannot hug his son or ruffle his hair, but it is the language of carefree physicality in verbs such as ‘ruffle’, ‘clasp’, and ‘hug’ that express how much he misses the ability to touch and hold his loved ones.”—THE
Readers of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly know the solitude Jean-Dominique Bauby recreates on the page. Barely tethered to the world of others, he seems to speak to us from an echoey place far away. I’m not talking about his physical isolation which was nearly unbearable. At the age of forty-three, Bauby—an editor for Elle magazine—suffered a stroke that rendered all but the lid of one eye completely useless. Suddenly the witty and gregarious Parisian journalist was locked into his body with his mind intact. Once his condition was stabilized and understood, he learned to communicate through a system called partner-assisted scanning and wrote his book by composing it in his head and dictating it one letter at a time. In an agonizingly slow process, his partner read the alphabet to him over and over and he chose each letter of his story by blinking his one good eye. It is this suffocating isolation that makes his book so harrowing—and compelling—for his readers.
The feeling of isolation I’m interested in, though, is the one he creates on the page, the one that we experience with him as we read the book. It colors the entire memoir, but at certain moments the distance between himself and the world thickens in a lyrical prose offering insights into the way writers of nonfiction communicate solitude by exploiting a paradox inherent in any writer’s task. In one of these moments Bauby is playing a game with his son, Théophile.
The Paragraph of the Week
…we can certainly play hangman, the national preteen sport. I guess a letter, then another, then stumble on the third. My heart is not in the game. Grief surges over me. His face not two feet from mine, my son Theophile sits patiently waiting—and I, his father, have lost the simple right to ruffle his bristly hair, clasp his downy neck, hug his small, lithe, warm body tight against me. There are no words to express it. My condition is monstrous, iniquitous, revolting, horrible. Suddenly I can take no more. Tears well and my throat emits a hoarse rattle that startles Théophile. Don't be scared, little man. I love you. Still engrossed in the game, he moves in for the kill. Two more letters: he has won and I have lost. On a corner of the page he completes his drawing of the gallows, the rope, and the condemned man.
In many ways Bauby is not alone here in the room of this page about a hangman drawn in a guessing game. His daughter Celeste is with him in addition to his son, and he can communicate well enough to play the game which only requires single letter responses. In fact a social component is built into all of his days at the hospital. The staff attends to him daily, he dictates regularly to his assistant Claude Mendibil, sees other patients, and is often visited by friends and other members of his family. But these social encounters are burdened by the weight of his immobility, the “diving bell” as he calls his body. He may be able to play the game of hangman, but simple acts of affection are denied him. He tries to find abstractions for his agony in words such as “monstrous, iniquitous, revolting” and “horrible,” but they don’t help. All he can do to communicate his emotion at the moment is cry, which his son notices—cry and lose the game.
What intensifies the solitude for the reader though is Bauby’s lyrical power to express what he cannot in the moment say. He cannot hug his son or ruffle his hair, but it is the language of carefree physicality in verbs such as “ruffle,” “clasp,” and “hug” that express how much he misses the ability to touch and hold his loved ones. It is the heartbreaking irony of thinking “Don’t be scared, little man” and “I love you,” but not being able to say the words when he needs them. And it is, of course, in the irony of his losing the game and becoming—in the stick drawing done by his son—the man condemned to be hanged from the gallows of his wheelchair.
This expressive language is the butterfly of the book’s title, capturing a mind that is free to go all of the places his body cannot. “You can visit the woman you love,” he writes, “slide down beside her and stroke her still sleeping face.” Or “build castles in Spain, steal the Golden Fleece, discover Atlantis, realize your childhood dreams and adult ambitions.” Being wheeled to the patio with a view of a lighthouse or propped up in front of other patients during a social hour or smelling food being cooked—these events trigger imaginative flights that are often humorous and touching—but the language of these flights of imagination, like the language describing his affection for his son, provide relief at the same time that they accentuate his torment. Hanging onto the page of life by a string of letters he is both pathetic in abject isolation and heroic in his ability to transcend that isolation and deliver himself as a fully aware, sentient, and in the end wise bearer of his burden. He may reach out to his son—and to us—but only one letter at a time, so his solitude, where he dangles enclosed in oceanic stillness like the diving bell, is intensified by the paradox of putting his isolation with great difficulty in the shared medium of words.
He is, in short, a writer.
April 26-May 9
from Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey
“This stillness, which grows immense, stops time, rendering the numbers on his watch meaningless and alters his sense of space, accentuating his feeling of ‘overwhelming peace.’”
After driving 750 miles from Albequerque, Abbey arrived at the Arches Monument Park in the middle of the night. His job was to live alone on this wilderness site in a tiny house trailer and write a report once a month. The report became Desert Solitaire, a memoir subtitled A Season in the Wilderness. The next morning opening the door of his trailer he sees “Abbey country”: The Arches, large canyonland rock formations chastened by wind, rain, snow, and ice over eons of time that come in a variety of shapes. “Some resemble jug handles or flying buttresses, others bridges.” Here, time seems to stop.
The Paragraph of the Week
[T]he air is untroubled, and I become aware for the first time today of the immense silence in which I am lost. Not a silence so much as a great stillness—for there are a few sounds: the creak of some bird in a juniper tree, an eddy of wind which passes and fades like a sigh, the ticking of the watch on my wrist—slight noises which break the sensation of absolute silence but at the same time exaggerate my sense of the surrounding, overwhelming peace. A suspension of time, a continuous present. If I look at the small device strapped to my wrist the numbers, even the sweeping second hand, seem meaningless, almost ridiculous.
The qualifiers here are important. He is not in silence as he first speculates. He hears the bird, the wind, and his watch. These small sounds break the silence, but set in higher relief the stillness that surrounds him. This stillness, which grows immense, stops time, rendering the numbers on his watch meaningless and alters his sense of space, accentuating his feeling of “overwhelming peace.” The suspension of time in boundless space is made clearer I think later when dusk falls and he walks to the end of his road without using his flashlight. He knows that if he turned it on his eyes would adjust to the circle of light before him and limit his experience to the world of the gadget in his hand, but if he leaves it off the boundary between him and the world of starlight fades and he is once again a part of that stillness where time does not matter. This experience is repeated when he turns on a generator to write a letter and the world shrinks to the busy, well-lit place of the clattering machine, but when he turns it off—and his trailer goes dark—“the night flows back” and embraces and includes him in its continuous present, and even though he is twenty miles away from anyone else he does not feel alone: “instead of loneliness, I feel loveliness,” he writes. “Loveliness and a quiet exultation.”
May 10-24 2019
from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
by James Agee
“Poetic sounds accompanied by Biblical cadences of the King James Bible reinforce the desolate beauty of this rural landscape.”
The essential element that the writer of lyric prose can borrow from the lyric poet is the solitary voice alone with an emotional experience. The “asocial nature of the deepest feeling,” the poet Edward Hirsch writes, “creates a space for the lyric.” But there is more to lyric prose than solitude because the form was born in song—the name comes from the Greek lyre which was used to accompany the voice in ancient Greece—and much of what makes the lyric moment in prose or poetry memorable is its music.
Consider the music in the Paragraph of the Week from James Agee, author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men a monumental chronicle of poverty in America during the great depression. In it he describes the darkness of the impoverished rural landscape of Alabama at night using sounds to evoke the desolation.
The Paragraph of the Week
All over Alabama, the lamps are out. Every leaf drenches the touch; the spider’s net is heavy. The roads lie there, with nothing to use them. The fields lie there, with nothing at work in them, neither man nor beast. The plow handles are wet, and the rails and the frogplates and the weeds between the ties: and not even the hurryings and hoarse sorrows of a distant train, on other roads, is heard. The little towns, the county seats, house by house white-painted and elaborately sawn among their heavy and dark-lighted leaves, in the spaced protections of their mineral light they stand so prim, so voided, so undefended upon starlight, that it is inconceivable to despise or to scorn a white man, an owner of land; even in Birmingham, mile on mile, save for the sudden frightful streaming, almost instantly diminished and silent, of a closed black car, and save stone lonesome sinister heelbeats, that show never a face and enter, soon, a frame door flush with the pavement, and ascend the immediate lightless staircase, mile on mile, stone, stone, smooth charted streams of stone, the streets under their lifted lamps lie void before eternity.
The sounds in this haunting paragraph derive in part from poetry. There is the assonance of the opening line—those short “a” sounds borrowed from the name “Alabama” begin to draw down the lamps. We also have repetitions and parallel structure: “the roads lie there” and “the fields lie there.” The alliteration of “hurryings,” “hoarse sorrows,” and “house by house” set up the sinister “heelbeats” that follow us deeper into the paragraph where all is faceless and closed off by a “frame door flush” with the pavement. It is as if Agee wishes to accentuate the darkness by filling it with sounds that come upon us invisibly, making the dark darker in our minds. Then there is the “sudden, frightful streaming” of the beams of an oncoming car—“closed” and “black”—that screams into the paragraph briefly bringing light that suddenly diminishes, making the dark blindingly darker by contrast. Poetic sounds accompanied by Biblical cadences of the King James Bible reinforce the desolate beauty of this rural landscape. And yet, the passage is not poetry, making way for subtle sound combinations rarely claimed by poets. Notice for instance the way the adjectives slowly grow in the list in the phrase describing the painted houses in darkness, “so prim, so voided, so undefended” or the prosaic “almost instantly diminished” silence after the car passes. These are the unnameable effects of prose, intended to be read silently and registering by the inner ear.
from “The Spinner and the Monks”
by D. H. Lawrence
in Spirituality and the Writer: A Personal Inquiry
by Thomas Larson
Thomas Larson’s new book, Spirituality and the Writer, is out. It’s subject is spiritual writing as it manifests itself in the major forms of personal prose—essay, autobiography, and memoir—and it ends with a “rough guide” to writing spiritually. Tom, who is a friend, has graciously agreed to allow me to turn The Humble Essayist over to him for two features excerpted from his book, one on Joe Mackall which will appear next week and one on D. H. Lawrence which is this week’s feature. You can learn more about Larson’s work and his new book here.
Today’s selection is from the essay “The Monk and the Spinners” in Lawrence’s collection Twilight in Italy. In the essay Lawrence walks to the terrace of the Church of San Tommaso that overlooks the Italian village where he is staying. Along the way he sees a woman spinning wool who blended into the “greyey, bluey, browny” background while he in a black coat felt like an outsider. Later, on the terrace, he sees two monks below him and again feels separate. It is there that Lawrence has his epiphany, one that comes with a lesson attached.
Paragraph of the Week
Where is the supreme ecstasy in mankind, which makes day a delight and night a delight, purpose and ecstasy and a concourse in ecstasy, and single abandon of the single body and soul also an ecstasy under the moon? Where is the transcendent knowledge in our hearts, uniting sun and darkness, day and night, spirit and senses? Why do we not know that the two in consummation are one; that each is only part; partial and alone for ever; but that the two in consummation are perfect, beyond the range of loneliness or solitude?
—D. H. Lawrence
The spinner and the monks in their Italianate bowers trigger in Lawrence one of life's knottiest queries: Why can't we see that the supposed opposition of body and soul is nothing of the kind, that they are not severed but whole? We can't see this because, as Lawrence shows us, we are the agents of that severing—the me and the not me. In his climb, he passes a clothmaker and robed walkers, and he is empowered by them to categorize and name and psychologize and represent and even praise their otherness. He lingers on them long enough so he will, eventually, see their difference or, better, his inability to merge with them. Beautifully, he essays: feels the season, observes its flowers, dawdles with its companions. And yet, ultimately, his ending is full of passionate irony. I mark his words: Why do we not know? Indeed, nothing stops him or us from coming and going, "backwards and forwards," our bobbins spinning us into yarn and wool. In short, this is the spiritualized tension Lawrence is famous for, a man who lingers with the "bony vines and olive trees," who conjures the ashen "not knowing," who rises with the "cloudy knowing." All that to-and-fro—a delight for this reader—to be reminded of Lawrence's what is not me.
As with nearly all of Lawrence, there's a lesson to heed: if you wish to lay bare the spiritual questions, disinterred from their religious answers, let the writing indulge the body and its felt abstractions, and the spirit will speak.