When I think of hybrids, I think of the Hydra from Jason and the Argonauts In 1963 I saw my first motion picture at the Albermarle Theater in Brooklyn. When you say the words motion picture, you become aware of being “of a certain age.” When you say the words of a certain age, you start to feel old. I was six, the age my son is now. I remember the Harryhausen Hydra and those skeletons crumbling after him into the water when Jason jumped from the bluff. It didn’t seem quite a heroic denouement, but the jump contains a valuable lesson: That’s how you bluff death—by strategically retreating, sometimes.
I saw my first musical, Oliver, the same year. I also wrote an aborted, paranoid autobiography that was based on the conceit that I was always being blamed for everything. While I have no memory whatsoever of the Kennedy assassination or its aftermath, I do remember that Oliver’s song to his missing mother, “Where is Love,” made me so limbically upset, that my parents consoled me, and then made me sing it every time there were more than two people, including animals, in our living room. They meant well.
I started to write essays when I was working on a Ph.D in poetry, about twenty-five years ago, in a workshop taught by Phillip Lopate at the University of Houston. Many American essayists began by writing poems. I switched genres, which, at the time, felt like changing sports, rather than leagues. Some of my friends like to mention that I did the first Ph.D in nonfiction writing or creative nonfiction, as though I were some kind of generic freedom writer, as opposed to an early entry to Ripley’s AWP Believe It or Not.
I finished my degree, and spent years getting my own book of essays into print. Ten years after having been the AWP runner-up in nonfiction, it was picked up for the Sightline series at Iowa. Part of the problem, as I see it, was 1963. Although my self has been in high gear, occasionally high dudgeon, and not infrequently high anxiety, since it was forced inward by the outward forces of childhood and my early unlovely body, my essays were all different kinds of juggling acts, with different forms and excessive digressions, photographs, vaudeville versions of the self. My book, The Body of Brooklyn, didn’t add up to a conventional memoir or book of essays. It was some kind of Hydra,—but think of those heads were as more like obscure objects of my own desire to construct an essay persona. Something like Groucho Marx, speaking like Cary Grant having just spent the weekend reading Kafka.
In academic creative writing, we tend to think of the Big Three Genres, like they were automobile companies. Of the three, Nonfiction is more like General Motors, a kind of supergenre, a generic holding company: it’s a collection of old genres, emerging genres and subgenres, pieces of writing that blissfully have no accurate or legitimate genre to adhere to, and the periodical press. Nonfiction is in many ways a non-genre, the un-genre. Do we need to be liberated from generic pedagogy in the same way that some English Departments were liberated from periodicity, not avoiding periods (Oh let not time deceive you/You cannot conquer time) but not being so rigidly structured by them? They only pay me to ask the questions. Which is why I write essays, and why I continue to believe that the essay is the ultimate hybrid, or if you will, Hydra form. I think it might be great fun to have Departments of Creative Writing where the degree offered was creative writing, sans genre. We might come up with some wildly hybridic classes.
Literature has been using hybrid forms at least since Menippus (which sounds like Not Since Ninevah—from Kismet), in the third century B.C., prose and poetry in letters and prosimetrae, satires, and plays, a dialogical and indecorus impulse that, as Peter Dronke points out, in Verse with Prose From Petronius to Dante, “often takes the form of undermining the sureness of authorities, institutions, and points of view, just as, linguistically, of undermining an established decorum of genres and diction.” To an extent, almost all nonfiction offers some form of hybridity, biographies straying into history, essays digressing into informational riffs, autobiographies becoming necessarily biographical, etcetera. But nonfiction seems to be at a combinational focal point now, with the lyric essay, graphic nonfiction, “autofictional writing,” the video essay, and the relentlessly interesting ways nonfiction literature and film are generically conjugating. It’s a great time for Hydras.
Nevertheless, part of the current fascination with combined forms is, I think, born of ignorance, of how central and intrinsic these forms have always been to nonfiction. Think Augustine, Seneca, Addison and Steele, Keats’s or Millay’s Letters or, Kafka’s Diary. In the furthest corners of nonfiction we find an endless array of forms bridging disciplines, bending rules: Harry Stack Sullivan’s The Psychiatric Interview or George Groddeck’s Book of the It, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s Waste Books, or Elizabeth David’s recipe books, Joe Brainard’s deadpan “I Remember” memory aphorisms, or Anna Kavan’s autobiographical novel, Sleep Has His House. Kavan, for those of you who don’t know, was the name of Helen Ferguson, who changed her name to the name of her fictional character, Anna Kavan. Nonfiction sometimes seems like a Sea of Cognates, which sounds as though it’s just past the Hill of Difficulty or the House Beautiful. There are those works of nonfiction that engage in more than one kind of nonfiction writing, and those that cross genres, bring together prose poetry and poetry, like the books of poetry which proliferated after Hass’s early books, or the fiction and essays in Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, or in almost all of Jacques Roubaud’s work (the French, who are a funny race, and especially the Oulipolians, are much less fraught about genre issues, having been liberated by Rabelais and the nouvelle roman) or see genre as a playground or smorgasbord, as do Eduardo Galeano, Borges, Wayne Koestenbaum.
The personal essay or classical essay (even these terms are problematic—I prefer essay) is hybridic almost by definition: its middle or conversational or familiar style shuttles between colloquial and formal dictions like a cross-town train. It is a free and plastic form, “unmethodical” in Lane Kauffman’s now oft-quoted phrase. But last week, I heard an essay complaining that it had been inviting in guests, poets, fiction writers, writers of ill repute, all of whose company the essay enjoyed, but some of whom wanted the essay to change her name. “You other genres, I bend myself over backward for you,” the essay complained, “and what do I get? You still want to hyphenate me or change my name.” She was an essay from Gravesend, and she wasn’t taking any shit. The essay may tarry with other genres, but does it really need to marry them?
Try this. In his book, Objects and Empathy, Arthur Saltzman writes of the lyric essay, “It is ruminative, sly, self-effacing, intimate, sneaky fast, and (as long as we’re breaking in new expressions) ‘idiosyncretic.’ Instead of final findings, it provides an adventure for the voice and the self’s invention.” This sounds indistinguishable from the personal or classical essay. Or if we must subgenrate, might we say that lyrical and personal essays overlap in ways that haven’t been theoretically distinguished.
Is Montaigne a lyric essayist, in his sometimes elusive, elliptical or concentric style? Or is he too discursive, standing out in the rain of explication? Benjamin in “One Way Street,”—the essay as architecture of urban memory, essay as series of arcades? The Pensees: a set of lyric essays, as extended aphorism. And where do aphorisms and lyric essays meet or separate? Cioran, Nietzsche, etc? Weil? Lyric essay as hyperextended prayer, as theological maze. As series of aphorism? Burton? Lyric essay as cabinet of wonders. As medicine cabinet. I usually think “lyrical” should be adjectival, the lyrical essay, rather than subgeneric noun. These questions interest and annoy me, depending upon the day and hour. But I also wonder whether Lyric Essay is another equivalent of Creative Nonfiction, reflecting an unnecessary anxiety about the genre the way the dreadful “creative” does, and is hitching the essay to a ride with poetry so it can go creative-writing-legit (psst, it’s a fugitive genre), or because the market for nonfiction is perceived as growing.
Plus, every time I hear lyric essay, I think of Rogers and Hart. The Great American Essay Book. My funny Emerson. Sweet comic Emerson. You make me smile with your pompous transcendental insights. Although what Stanley Cavell calls his counter empirism is attractive in places, and close to the world view of some lyrical essays. But my associations with the word “lyric” are indelible. 1963. Brill Building Essays.
When I’ve taught the essay, I’ve always encouraged hybridity, telling my students that the essence of the essay is, as Luckacs and Adorno have remarked, its formal openness, that we can write poetry in our essays (or prose in poetry, for that matter, as another way of considering an essay), like Fred Astaire turning a stroll into dance in The Band Wagon, or Judy Garland coming out with the “Trolley Song.” Let me be a little more hip: like Andre 3000 singing “Life is Like a Musical” in Idlewild.” That students can essay in blocks, in paragraphs, in lines, in any typographical form, wrapped around photographs, scribbled in margins of old comic books. The essence of the musical is the need to switch rhetorical gears, to intensify, to lyricize through song and dance. And perhaps my interest in hybrid forms stems from my early love of musicals, that Great American Hybrid Form. Think of Singin’ in the Rain: it’s a history of film, a parody, a love story, it’s got a long fantasy sequence with a film noir element, and the variety of dance and musical styles, etcetera. . The show within a show, as Rick Altman, the Godfather of theory on musicals points out, is a familiar musical motif, allowing for disjunction, friction. Gotta essay?
But the lyric essay is also literary history catching up with nonfiction, the postmodern era of the essay full of untrammeled and self-conscious experimentation. It’s a market correction to the excesses of slovenly, untheorized autobiographical writing, a tonic to soggy memory writing, to bad autobiographical essays that perhaps were never really essays at all. In that sense there’s a kind of irony in the notion of any tension between the lyric and the personal essay. Nevertheless, temporarily, sincerity seems out of favor because sentimentality crept in. Parataxis is in, and syntaxis is out. But the lyric essay at its best reminds us of how poetic a form the essay can be, and always has been. The work of John D’Agata, Thalia Field, Jenny Boully, Etel Adnan, Jalal Toufric, D.J. Waldie, Sir Thomas Browne, Colette, Virginia Woolf remind us of how the essay can move and think most lyrically.
On the other hand, essays that gesture with pale motions of ironic self-regard, or stay safely within the generic confines of circumscribed selves do little for the form, or its readers. You know who you are.
Essays inevitably need to change rhetorical gears and create new rules as they go. But at what point does an essay need to be nominally qualified or modified generically? Is the essay’s hybridity sufficiently intrinsic for us to think about questioning subgeneric overdrive? The lyric essay, the braided essay, the fractured essay, the meditative essay, the fragmented essay, the sad- clown essay, the skim-latte essay, the hey-look-me-over essay, and of course, last week’s special, the This-is-Not-an-Essay essay. The essay does so many things, invokes so many, that trying to name it every time it does something new, contains a long obituary, or, reflects Barthes/Sontag by using photographs or meditates with a different kind of proximate distant to the self, as in Colette Brooks’s wonderful In the City, we’re tempted to see a new genre, as opposed to an expansion of our sense of the genre. It’s a measure of the success of the essay recently, I think. Call it genrefication. Everyone wants a piece of the action. I’m from Brooklyn, we write Fucking-A Essays. Sometimes they change gears right here so they can talk about two hybrid works that I love.
Let’s make a lyrical jump to the Gawannis, where I once saw the car ahead of my parents’ hit a dog and the dog went spinning around on the road at night. I went back to sleep in the back of the car because it was so sad and scary and my father said, “Fuck.” My mother said, “Leo!”
My mother’s name was Rhoda and I wanted a transition to talk about a book by Dhoda, same spelling but the r dropped for a d, my first initial. It’s a hybrid work by a Carolignian woman of the ninth century, written to the son she’ll never see again. I didn’t realize for about a month after my fascination with A Handbook for William that, having written a book, more or less for Rhoda, I was obsessed with a book written for a son a thousand years ago, by Dhoda. For someone who has tried so hard so often to be the good little analysand, this was disquieting. Pretty slick, huh?
Gloria Anzaldua is the mother of contemporary heterogeneity in Menippean poetic/prose form.
Maxine Hong Kingston is the mother of contemporary nonfiction in imaginative narrative literature.
Gertrude Stein is the mother of some versions of the lyric essay.
As you can see, for me, other than Montaigne, mothers are where the action is.
Dhoda’s husband, William of Septimania, sent her off after she bore him a son. She didn’t see her husband for sixteen years, after which he visited her, conjugally, and the resulting son was taken away from her. Her first son, William, was sent by his father to be used as a hostage, proof of his loyalty to Charles the Bald. This is a heartbreaking story—not a Marx Brothers movie. To console and instruct her son, Dhoda wrote The Handbook for William.
Dhoda’s text begins:
Here begins text.
The little book before you branches out in three directions. Read it through and, by the end, you will understand what I mean. I would like it to be called three things at once, as befits its contents—rule, model, and handbook. These terms all mirror each other.
Dhoda writes a mirror, a genre called a speculum; hers is a hybrid form full of prose advice, literary criticism, lyrical admonition, quoted psalms and poems. Book Ten is penultimate, blending poetry and prose, hope and despair—Chapter 1, “On the age you have attained”:
And if in twice as many years and half again
I were to see your image,
I would write to you of more difficult things, and in more words
But because the time of my parting hastens,
And the suffering of pains everywhere wears my body down,
I have in haste gathered this book for your benefit and your brother’s.
Dhoda follows this with a chapter “On the verses I have begun with the letters of your name,” an acrostic in which she writes, “And so my noble son, seek diligently./Take care to hasten to receive/Such great rewards, and turn away your eyes/From the fires of blackened wood.” The image burns more than the instruction instructs. Chapter three is a short postscript on public life, in prose, followed by an epitaph in verse. Book Eleven follows with more brief advice. The good mother, no doubt, doesn’t want to leave her speculum with her death.
Is the spirit of Menippus alive in Dhoda, a work everywhere preaching paternal forbearance, allegiance? Is there a hybrid imp in the author of this work, also known as a liber manualis? Well, no amount of modesty topoi can sweep away these lines, from Book One, chapter 2, “On Seeking God.”
It is absolutely necessary for me to do so in all things. For it often happens that an insistent little bitch, scrambling under the master’s table with the male puppies, is able to snatch up and eat such crumbs as fall. He who makes the mouth of a dumb beast to speak and opens my understanding, giving me insight according to his ancient mercy, is indeed a powerful Lord . . . .
These moments, these inconsistencies, of form, of self-presentation are precisely what create this specific Dhoda and her mirror, this anxious mater dolorosa. I think of the yearning in Nico’s song, “I’ll be your mirror,” when I read her. And I think of another hybrid form, another speculum, written a thousand years later, by Elizabeth Smart, also trying to essay a new way of articulating love, anxiety, desire, pain.
Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, which I blundered across when I was living in England twenty years ago—between giving up on my degree in poetry, and Phillip convincing me to return to Houston and finish my degree in prose–and happened to read her obituary, came into print finally a few years ago in the U.S. and just as quickly went out. Her book of extended prose poetry, fractured narrative, mythological invective, and urban descant is too hot, too purple, too masochistic for some still fifty years after it was first published in England and Canada. Here are the last few lines, written to a conflation of lover and unborn child; if they don’t make you long to read the rest, you shouldn’t:
Yes, it’s all over. No regrets. No postmortems. You must adjust yourself to conditions as they are, that’s all. You have to learn to be adaptable. I myself prefer Boulder Dam to Chartres Cathedral. I prefer dogs to children. I prefer corncobs to the genitals of the male. Everything’s hotsy-totysy, dandy, everything’s OK. It’s in the bag. It can’t miss. My dear, my darling, do you hear me where you sleep?
Smart is among the few writers I know who appears to risk everything, emotionally raw, formally wild and self-aware, yet lucid, lucid. It’s hard to imagine Jeannette Winterson without her in some way, even though they’re so tonally different, these breaks with form, these songs of the body.
In By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, Elizabeth Smart’s love affair with George Barker, a minor British poet with whom she fell in love, and eventually bore four children sans marriage, Barker’s guilt-ridden return to his wife and subsequent illness after the pair are arrested on morals charges in Arizona, and Smart’s tormented meanderings alone, carrying their first child, are the narrative features upon which the lyrical hyperbole of the book is based. Smart’s book is part roman a clef, part interior dialogue between reason and amour fou, part prose poem in language that stretches the limits of poeticized despair to the brink of, and sometimes beyond the breaking point. It’s somewhere between Hazlitt’s Libor Amoris and Duras’s The Lover: purgatorial, obsessive, extravagantly self-involved, lit up in language that threatens to self-destruct as its figurative formulae alternate between the biblical and mythological, folding metamorphosis into metamorphosis, with the occasional intrusion of modern urban diction and imagery, and flares of ironic despair. Eliot’s influence is everywhere, but there is no mythic method to lead one out of the blind alleys of Smart’s emotional labyrinth. In the literature of anguish, it belongs in the pantheon.
In the beginning of Part Four, re-imagining her arrest with Barker on a Hayes Act charge, Smart counterpoints the intrusive and absurd questions of Arizona State Police with lines from the Song of Solomon:
What relation is this man to you? (My beloved is mine and I am his. He feedeth among the lilies).
Did intercourse take place? (I sat down under his shadow with great delight and his fruit was sweet to my taste).
A few pages later, she implores, “My love, my dove, undefiled, go into the telephone box with Diogenes and dial a number that someone will understand.” We might call this imaginatively transfigured narrative.
At times Smart’s world turns Gothic, a demonized landscape with wildly personified emotions haunting the houses of Nature and Bad Faith, her inherited tabernacle and bordello, neither of which offers a comfort sufficient to relieve or release her from guilt and obsession. Smart wanders between the two, just barely skirting the Slough of Despond, variations of which abound: “the sand of catastrophe,” “the cliff of vigil,” love’s pilgrim in a world whose helpers are all sorry evangelists of easy moralism. We’re back to Bunyan, to whom Smart is clearly in thrall.
If this sounds busy and exaggerated, it is. By Grand Central Station approaches, at times, a kind of mad and maddening miasma, where Smart, the “continually vibrating I” in her terms (a Montaignian phrase if there ever was one), glimpses what she is in the grips of. But this ferocious voice of mid-century can toss a gauntlet, a grenade of unexpected prose at the conventions of autobiography and essay, while still locked in the grips of amour fou to the end. By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is the Wuthering Heights of non-fiction, neither perfectly essay, autobiography, nor memoir. The imp of perverse Menippean genre-breaking peering through the window of our conventions, Smart challenges our existing categories of genre. Poetic Memoir? Occasionally Epistolary Book-length Autobiographical Prose Poem? Perhaps, though unwieldy. Extended Allegorical Essay. Allegorical Essay? Oh, no. . . Perhaps Essay-novel, to accompany Sebald and Kundera. In any case it’s a hybrid form, lyrical to its core, on a cellular level, and deeply personal.
I once wrote an essay on North by Northwest, a film in which Cary Grant is the same age as his mother, played by the essential Jesse Royce Landis. Hitchcock’s wish-fulfillment? The essay was a critical-personal-lyrical-braided essay with some poetry. And a cherry on top. It was an essay.
A hybrid word is etymologically divided, and united, its constituents coming from different languages. I hate the fact that 9/11 sentimentalized Auden’s “All I have is a voice / To undo the folded lie,” from “Sept. 1, 1939,” because I used to use it to talk about the essay. I can’t anymore. But In Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love, A.E. Housman says, “Homosexuality? What barbarity! It’s half Greek and half Latin.” Homos latched on to sexus. Leave it to Stoppard, who’s always breaking rules. Let’s think of ourselves as transgenred. Who wouldn’t want to write that?
David Lazar received the first Ph.D. in the United States in nonfiction writing, in 1989, from the University of Houston. His books include Occasional Desire (Nebraska), Essaying the Essay (Welcome Table), Powder Town (Pecan Grove), After Montaigne (nominated for the National Book Awards Critics Circle Award), Who’s Afraid of Helen of Troy (Etruscan Press), The Body of Brooklyn and Truth in Nonfiction (both Iowa); and Michael Powell: Interviews and Conversations with M.F.K. Fisher (both Mississippi). In 2014-15 he is curating a digital chapbook on nonfiction editing for The Conversant.org/Essay Press. Six of his essays have been “Notable Essays of the Year” according to Best American Essays, the latest in 2014. He created the undergraduate and Ph.D. programs in nonfiction writing at Ohio University and directed the creation of the undergraduate and MFA programs in nonfiction writing at Columbia College, Chicago, where he is professor of creative writing. He is the founding editor of the literary magazine Hotel Amerika, now in its 13th year.