David Shields quotes John D’Agata and Deborah Tall, “The Lyric Essay” (Seneca Review) in his wonderful book, Reality Hunger:
The lyric essay doesn’t expound, is suggestive rather than exhaustive, depends on gaps, may merely mention. It might move by association, leaping from one path of thought to another by way of imagery or connotation, advancing by juxtaposition or sidewinding poetic logic. It often accretes by fragments, taking shape mosaically, its import visible only when one stands back and sees it whole. It partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language, and partakes of the essay in its weight, its overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative form. It gives primacy to artfulness over the conveying of information, forsaking narrative line, discursiveness, and the art of persuasion in favor of idiosyncratic meditation. Generally it’s short, concise, and punchy, like a prose poem. It may, though, meander, making use of other genres when they serve its purpose, sampling the techniques of fiction, drama, journalism, song, and film. The stories it tells may be no more than metaphors. Or, storyless, it may spiral in on itself, circling the core of a single image or idea, without climax, without a paraphrasable theme. It stalks its subject but isn’t content to merely explain or confess. Loyal to that original sense of “essay” as a test or a quest, an attempt at making sense, the lyric essay sets off on an uncharted course through interlocking webs of idea, circumstance, and language—a pursuit with no foreknown conclusion, an arrival that might still leave the writer questioning. While it’s ruminative, it leaves pieces of experience undigested and tacit, inviting the reader’s participatory interpretation. Its voice, spoken from a privacy that we overhear and enter, has the intimacy we’ve come to expect in the personal essay, yet in the lyric essay the voice is often more reticent, almost coy, aware of the compliment it pays the reader by dint of understatement. Perhaps we’re drawn to the lyric now because it seems less possible and rewarding to approach the world through the front door, through the myth of objectivity. Similitude often seems more revealing than verisimilitude. We turn to the writer to reconcoct meaning from the bombardments of experience: to shock, thrill, still the racket, and tether our attention.