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Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction

Blog # 36. Tribute to Judith Kitchen and Excerpt from her Essay, "Mending Wall"

Note: After a long, courageous struggle with cancer, Judith Kitchen, essayist, poet, literary critic, and teacher died in early November at the age of 73. I’d like to dedicate this post to her.

I’ll begin with some short email excerpts I sent to her husband, Stan Sanvel Rubin. Stan, a first-rate poet and critic in his own right, along with Judith co-founded the Pacific Lutheran/RainierWriting Workshop, one of our finest low residency MFA programs, a program that Stan directed for 10 years.

In my note, I wrote the following “I've always admired Judith's remarkable, versatile writings as well as her vitality, passion, and dedication to teaching. In the mid-90's, when creative nonfiction was just beginning to emerge as a legitimate literary genre, Judith was one of the first people who wrote, taught, and could speak with authority on/about what we’ve come to describe as ‘creative nonfiction.

I've been recommending and using her anthologies, In Short, In Brief, and Brief Takes in my undergraduate and MFA workshops since the first one came out in 1996. And it goes without saying that today, some eighteen plus years later, I consider Judith to be a pioneer and a highly regarded writer/spokesperson for the genre.”

In his reply, Stan said ‘Yes, she was an early innovator in creative nonfiction/lyric essay-- and, as you suggest, was a unique forerunner in developing a critical language to discuss it as a genre with its own purposes and dignity. She stood staunchly for the creative exploration of truth as an important task and challenge.’

Like most of the writers, teachers, and students whose lives Judith touched, I'll miss her vitality, sense of humor, directness, and her fierce honesty. May her life and work serve as an inspiration for those of us who knew her, as well as for the current and future writer/teachers who'll be encountering her work, hopefully, for many years to come.”

As a lead-in to her piece, “Mending Wall,” on/about the lyric essay (see below) I’d like to quote from an artistic statement that appears on Judith’s website Judith Kitchen

“I don't know where to draw the lines between my thinking life and my art, between one aspect of my being and another. I have published a novel, books of poetry, essays, and criticism. I regularly review the work of others; I have edited three anthologies. I teach; I write. That feels as essential as saying I am right-handed, or that I wear glasses. That I take great joy in my grandsons, I walk on the beach, I secretly sing. My books are perhaps my best statement. They announce my propensity to experiment within a genre, to push at its boundaries as well as to honor its traditions. They testify to my interest in the work of others, my ongoing curiosity about and admiration for what other writers can achieve. They go out on the limb with opinion, and they dare to speak their minds.”

Many readers of this blog, I'm sure, are familiar with Judith's work; others will encounter her writing for the first time. Below, are selected excerpts from *"Mending Wall."

" …It took more than a quarter of a century for me to discover that, yes, you could simply put your feet on the desk and think on the page. You could let your thoughts float out—in their incomplete sentences, their sinuous meanderings—and maybe, sometimes, they would find a way to coalesce and become a larger thought, a meaning. So that’s what I’m doing here: thinking my way toward what I suspect a lyric essay is, or should be, can, or should do.

Thinking my way into the lyric part of the definition, because the essay part is easier, more down-to-earth….like a poem, the lyric essay must not only mean, but be. It is a way of seeing the world. A hybrid--a cross between poetry and nonfiction--it must, as Rene Char said of the poet, “leave traces of [its] passage, not proof,” letting mystery into the knowing. Or the knowing to incorporate its mystery. And part of that knowing is through sound—the whisper of soft consonants, the repetition of an elongated vowel that squeaks its way across the page, the chipping away of k-k-k-k, the assonance and consonance of thought attuned to language. The internal rhyme of the mind….So that is what I hunger for in the lyric essay—the author's way of inhabiting his or her own mind…{to} the world at large.

This past year, I attended a reading of “lyric essays,” and nothing I heard was, to my mind, lyric. My ears did not quicken. My heart did not skip. What I heard was philosophical meditation, truncated memoir, slipshod research, and just-plain-discursive opinion. A wall of words. But not a lyric essay among them. The term had been minted (brilliantly, it seems to me) by Deborah Tall, then almost immediately undermined. Not all essays are lyric. Repeat. Not all essays are lyric. Not even all short essays are lyric. Some are merely short. Or plainly truncated. Or purely meditative. Or simply speculative. Or. Or. Or. But not lyric. Because, to be lyric, there must be a lyre.

That said, I believe there must also be some allegiance to the nonfiction aspect of the essay. The run-of-the-mill, workaday nature of reality. Of fact. The job of the lyric essayist is to find the prosody of fact, finger the emotional instrument, and play the intuitive and the intrinsic, but all in service to the music of the real. Even if it’s an imagined actuality. The aim is to make of, not up. The lyre, not the liar.

First, let’s deal with the difference between a lyrical essay and a lyric essay. Any essay may be lyrical, as long as it pays attention to the sound of its language, or the sweep of its cadences. But a lyrical essay is often using its lyrics to serve a different end. A lyric essay, however, functions as a lyric. Can be held in the mind—must, in fact, be held in the mind—intact. It means as an entity. It swallows you, the way a poem swallows you, until you reside inside it. Try to take it apart and you spin out of control. It is held together by the glue of absence, the mortar of melody, the threnody of unspent inspiration. Like a Latin declension: inspire, inspirit, inspiration. Inspire: breathe in, (formerly) breathe life into. Something there is that animates the lyric essay. Something that doesn't love a wall.

The music of the lyric essay? Maybe it’s a music of language: “And so I reached out and there was the great, wet fruit of his nose, the velvet bone of his enormous face”—Stephen Kuusisto, Eavesdropping.

Maybe it’s a music of structure: “Brown made Americans mind¬ful of tunnels inside their bodies, about which they did not speak; about their ties to nature, about which they did not speak; about their ties to one another, about which they did not speak”—Richard Rodriguez, Brown.

Maybe it’s a music of silence, of what is not, or cannot be, said: “It can’t be found outside, this green—not exactly, though it wants to be, in a way that haunts the edges of almost knowing. It is not the green of pear-tree leaves nor the green of rhododendron; not even the green-gray of certain aromatic sages that can make you weep for a smell lost from childhood; not even the triple-dark green of a trout stream under cloud cover”—Marjorie Sandor, The Night Gardener.

Maybe it’s not melodious, but at least it knows its own temperament, its timbre: “When the kids had gone to school and her husband to work, she would sometimes sit in the living room holding tightly to the arms of the chair feeling afraid and think, Maybe it is the woodwork getting me down”—Abigail Thomas, Safekeeping.

Maybe it’s the grace note of white space—a gap, or a suspension

Maybe it’s the music of the spheres--the sense that even though we don’t know everything down to the last quark, there is some scientifically magical design in the way things keep spinning and work together to make up our explosive, expanding universe. The knowledge that light from some dead star will reach our eyes sometime ten years from now. As Albert Goldbarth says, “Go know.”

So, does any of this say anything about the lyric essay? Probably not, or not in any way that has a vehicle with which to say it. A rocketship. A cable car. A handcart. On the other hand, I want to read the words of those authors I’ve quoted. H.D. said she would like to dance with Ezra Pound just for what he might say—I’d read them not for what they might say, but for the way they would dance. The way their hand might rest confidently at my waist, and their words brush my ear, just a tickle of thought. The way they would hold me lightly and, with one sure touch, send me twirling out, then, just as lightly, draw me back in.

I’d read for that lyric moment when I could inhale their very way of occupying mind space, for that time when, somewhere before words, science and art speak the same language and I can catch them both with their feet on the desk and the coffee offering up its distinct aroma of anticipation."

*For those who’d like to read the full version of “Mending Wall,” the essay first appeared in The Seneca Review 37:2 (Fall 2007) 45-49. It was reprinted in The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, Robert Root and Michael Steinberg, Pearson, 5th and 6th editions

Bio note:
Judith Kitchen is the author of six books: Perennials (poetry, Anhinga Press); Writing the World: Understanding William Stafford (criticism, Oregon State Univ. Press); Only the Dance (essays, Univ. of S. Carolina); Distance and Direction (essays, Coffee House Press), Half in Shade, a book of nonfiction which was published by Coffee House Press in Spring 2012, and The Circus Train, published by Ovenbird Books in 2014. In addition, she has edited or co-edited four collections of nonfiction: In Short, In Brief, and Short Takes, all (W. W. Norton) and, with Ted Kooser, an anthology, The Poets Guide to the Birds (Anhinga Press). Her work has appeared in numerous literary journals, including recent essays in Prairie Schooner, Colorado Review, Great River Review, and The Georgia Review.

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