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

9/10/15, # 42 On the Lyric Impulse: Blizzards, Bricks, and the Glaciology of Purpura by Kathryn Winograd

9/10/15, # 42, On the Lyric Impulse: Blizzards, Bricks, and the Glaciology of Purpura by Kathryn Winograd

Note: This month’s guest writer is poet, essayist, and award winning writing teacher, Kathryn Winograd

A few years ago, Kathy and I had a mutually informative conversation about some of the what’s and how’s of the lyric essay. A few weeks ago, I saw her piece on the lyric essay on Ander Monson’s fine blog Essay Daily. It triggered some thoughts. So I asked Kathy for permission to reprint it.

Reading Kathy’s piece brought back some old history. In 1999, I founded Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. a journal of literary/creative nonfiction. At the time, the genre was just beginning to gain some legitimacy as a literary form. In those early years, the majority of essays and memoirs we saw were personal narratives. And back then, the handful of lyric pieces we read were crafted by writers who saw themselves primarily as poets. My impression then was that the best of those essays were passionate and moving works, marked by their writers’ facility with, and appreciation for, language and imagery. For the most part, their essays were more like hybrids than than the kinds of traditional (and non-traditional) narratives we were getting.

Today, the genre has evolved and expanded in ways I couldn’t have even dreamed of back then. So much so, that lyric work is now a highly-regarded sub genre on the larger spectrum of literary/creative nonfiction. Kathy’s piece then,---a lyric essay itself—is of particular value not only to writers but to veteran and inexperienced teachers both. In her piece, Kathy explores and ruminates about, among other things, the ways in which the lyric impulse becomes just the right vehicle for expressing the kinds of complex thoughts and feelings--sensations, that is, we’re unable to articulate in strictly narrative terms. In that way, "On the Lyric Impulse"shares a similar sensibility with the celebrated Emily Dickinson poem, “Tell All the Truth, But Tell It Slant.”


Kathryn Winograd

Warned of, craved, the blizzard finally barrels across the ice dark street. The known world whittles down to black elm, chiseled hoar frost, and my breath against the slim windowpane steams periodic circles of clarity against a gathering snow, a white space.

“I am not a poet,” my student informs me, not by text message or email, but by phone, landline phone. My enthusiasm over the metaphoric possibilities of this student’s obsession with bricks in her narrative on building a new house with her second husband has aroused a knee-jerk reaction⎯and it’s not a good one.

Already this blizzard means something: the white exterior world beyond the cold glass I press my palm hard against. The interior world my breath inhabits, warm with its fireplace flame even as the insistent voice of the anchorwoman ticks off degrees and inches as if the world beyond the window that I cannot yet feel, and the world beyond the self I do not yet know, could be made measurable.

When I wrote Michael Steinberg about an AWP panel I was proposing on what I saw as a gap between the student who enters creative nonfiction from the prose side of the spectrum versus the poetry side, he wrote back, “Strictly speaking, I’m not a lyric essayist. But one of the things I’ve been talking and writing about for years is the connection between memoir and lyric poetry. The essay (and/or memoir) is the story of one’s thinking, the revelation of consciousness. Except for those essayists who reflexively use poetic elements and language in their work, these are missing from most of the MFA work I’m seeing⎯even the very good ones.” The lyric impulse versus the storytelling impulse. The “revelation of consciousness.”

“Back stories,” my student tells me: the neighbors’ bricks she obsesses over, the migrating birds that roost in paragraphs throughout the chronology of her house-building, and those faintest hammer taps of her new husband who “remodeled” the house my student must for now live in, the house he built for his first wife, repaired in places with baling twine.

A leftover house.
“Extra stuff,” my student says.
The real subject matter of her narrative on building a house?
Building a house.

The philologist Max Mueller said that “man, as he develops his conceptions of immaterial things, must perforce express them in terms of material things because his language lags behind his needs.” Figurative language then becomes the vehicle for greater precision of expression; exactitude grows through metaphor, not necessarily through narrative.

“Bricks,” I tell my student.

I assign to the class Lia Purpura’s Glaciology, her “deposition” on glacier and thaw, on X-ray and artifact, on the fallible body and the mind-in-waiting.

“A little shard, small bit taken out of my body and sent off for further study,” Purpura carves so lightly amidst her glacier surge and ice sheets, her “striated stone from Mauritania.” A 650 million year old backdrop to this uncertain moment, to this white space, external and internal: “Bones stacked and bent in the attitude of prayer, the edges honed and precarious.”

“Too much poetry,” my nonfiction students tell me, Purpura’s own hieroglyphics⎯ that “cache of loose details” she resolutely attends to while she awaits the medical world’s verdict⎯ abandoned, they claim, to Orpheus, strummer of the poet’s lyre, though I tell them that even the king of the dead has wept.

“Metaphor,” as the New Critics said, is “not a rhetorical device . . .but a means of perceiving and expressing moral truths radically different from that of prose or scientific statement.”

My table light burns in the night window, sky lantern lit to flame now, reflected, refracted, my own face the blizzard’s whiteness.

How do blizzards form? I wonder.

I think of André Breton, surrealist poet who described the “vertiginous descent within ourselves . . . the systematic illumination of hidden places and the progressive darkening of all other places.” My student writes, We’ve gone around and around. Too dark, too light, too orange, too red. I never realized there were so many variations on the color of brick. And then, later, bricks, typically rectangular and used for centuries to build lasting structures.

“Extra stuff,” my student says, my life-long leaser drawing houses of bricks since she was a child that no wolf could blow down. Her very first house.

“My last house,” her new husband reminds her.
“Bricks,” I say.
“I am not a poet,” my student reminds me.

Warm air rises over cold and the white wishbone of the world cracks just below. Here is Purpura, still in waiting⎯ “the inside-out arms of clothes pulled right, made whole and unwrinkled” taking “lovely hours.” She writes, “The work of glaciers changes a landscape: old stream valleys are gouged and deepened, filled with till and outwash. Filled, of course, over millions of years. In sand-grain, fist-sized increments.”

Ellen Bryant Voigt in her essay, Images, says in the expressive theories of art “the poet’s vision supplants the objective or empirical world, and the classical virtues of clarity and precision take second place to passion and sweep.” And so we remember glacier, and sand-grain, and the fist we cannot but imagine now clenched beneath the “riotous stillness of the week,” “the intimacies akin to falling back to a pillow,” “the gratitude unspoken.”

The house stills. The blizzard outside my window shape-shifts the world. Snow solidifies within the barrel staves of streetlight, cold shuttling in between the window’s half-shutter, my hand gone white with cold.

“Words as images,” Breton said, “[have] an autonomous life of their own.”

Say blizzard and the snow burns thigh-high again, my body once more in the endless white space: daughter, other I could not yet feel, neither breath nor sound.

Say glacier and the world turns into “morning glory” and “roadside aster” after Purpura’s unnamed test returns negative, clarity found in the tangible-- petal, I’ll write, sepal, anther poised against the glacial white space, against this poet’s “confession”: “I resisted the easy convergence—spring, warmth, I’m fine—not a bit, and I knew that to be an indulgence, a failure, partial sight.”

Say bricks, and my student will tell me, “I am not a poet.”

But, then, a small blizzard, warned of, craved:

Architecture starts when you carefully put two bricks together.
There it begins. Ludwig Mies va der Rohe, 1886-1969

Until recently, I took bricks for granted. . . [T]hey were background scenery, something that was just there. That changed when my husband and I decided to build a house. . . bricks became my obsession.

Kathryn Winograd is the author of Phantom Canyon: Essays of Reclamation A finalist in the ForeWord Reviews 2014 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Awards, Air Into Breath, winner of the Colorado Book Award in Poetry. Her essays have been noted in Best American Essays, and published in journals including Fourth Genre, Hotel Amerika, River Teeth, The Florida Review and The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, 6th editon. She’s recently been chosen by AWP as its October Member in the Spotlight

She is faculty for Regis University’s Mile High MFA program.

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