Three Bowls

When we think of the word drama, we have in mind an illusion of reality invented for an effect. It is not real life, but a close proximation. I find a correlation to the work of essayists whose chosen genre is that of the lyric essay. When we think of the word lyric we have in mind a sound, a musical pattern, invented for an effect.

Ring-around-the Rosie-Pockets-Full-of-Poises-Husha-Husha-We-All-Fall-Down. A little music. It could be an admonition of Soupers dancing or the more dire Black Plague. Still, the line reverberates with motion, and lyric is the string.

In drama one of the more interesting illustrations of illusion-making to enact something real can be found in Peter Brook’s 1993 theater memoir called The Open Door. In the book Brook writes of an exercise in acting involving carrying an imaginery bowl.

First, ask any volunteer to walk across the room. No problem.

Second, ask the volunteer to imagine that he or she is holding a precious bowl filled with water in his or her hands and to then walk, carefully, across the same room. The idea is not to spill a drop. Anyone, Brook writes, could do it moving in a more or less convincing manner.

Now, moving on to the third leg of this illustration. Next, ask the volunteer to carry the same precious bowl, the one with water in it, and not to spill a drop, but also as they cross the room this time they are to fumbled with and drop the bowl spilling its contents on the floor. And here’s where the illusion is shattered. Brook writes, “The worst kind of artifical, amateur acting will take over his (or her) body, making the expression on his (or her) face ‘acted,’ — in other words, woefully unreal.”

So the key here is to not appear to act, to appear for all intents and purposes to be real as real can get — “so that an invented life is also a parallel life,” writes Brook.

The invented life is also a parallel life.

For in the arts, nothing quite creates a buzz-kill as exposed scaffolding; seeing the man behind the curtain, in other words, ruins Oz and performance. This is true for actors as it is for lyric essayists. As soon as the performance breaks through that thin veil between illusion and the real, all is lost. Maintaining the guise is all important. To be clear, for lyric essayists as soon as a reader is aware of verse, the gig is up. Lyric essayists use poetic conventions to compose their work, but it is not poetry — it’s prose. Readers of lyric essays should notice language, figures of speech and juxtaposition. However, readers shouldn’t suddenly find themselves reading a poem embedded in the essay, but rather be lulled by its latent music or its reoccurring images (unless in a postmodern impulse you want your reader to notice the scaffolding, then by all means, let the reader know, but that’s a whole different kettle of trout). Hide the man behind the curtain well. Carry the bowl and drop it without transforming your visage into a billboard.
One quick way to tune the lyric essay — aside from not writing in verse — is to examine your verbs. There are two kinds of verbs — intransitive (to be, state of being) and transitive (action). Often, a lyric essay or any piece of writing for that matter will slow to a shudder and display an utterly flaccid and uninteresting musicality because the writer has chosen to compose with too many “to be” intransitive, state of being, verbs. There is little music to be found in linking, for the abstraction does not sing. But transitive verbs do. Every verb is an opportunity to paint a picture, to compose an image, to create poetry. Poetry is music, music is composed of vowels, vowels are the result of moving air. Movement is action. Action is poetry. The density of concrete, precise action is necessary to make words come alive, and sing and dance.

“Betty” by Gerhard Richter. It’s a painting of his daughter many confuse for being a photograph. @ St. Louis Art Museum.

Every word should be a blow — William Hazlitt