This Happy Fellow: my year at Goldsmiths
Twenty Top Tips for Academic Writing

Plain and perfect, rich and rare: what is "lyrical" writing?

A writer friend says that her MA tutor described her writing as "lyrical", and she asked what he meant. He said "something about lyrical writing remaking the world & making the world appear anew", but what does that mean in practice? At the basic level, "lyrical" means that it shares something with poetry: a certain intensity, perhaps, though it might be interior, emotional intensity, or an outward-looking evocation of time and place. It needn't necessarily be about beautiful things: as Sebastian Salgado's photographs of miners show, it's possible to make beautiful art out of ugly things, or out of frightening things as Elizabeth Bowen does here.

It needn't be about strange things or people or settings either, though of course it might be. What the MA tutor's definition suggests to me is that lyrical writing is all about evoking in the reader the power of receiving/perceiving something for the first time; and that can come equally from the evocation of banal, quotidian stuff, and from something which is actually new to you. It can come from an intense experience of the here-and-now, or the there-and-then, or the transcendant, or immanent, or just plain weird.

It's not a coincidence that my most lyrical voice to date has been that of Anthony Woodville in A Secret Alchemy, who is a man of war but also profoundly religious, and knows that he's riding to his death; and the possibilities of historical voice are part of the pleasure. Slightly differently, Anna, in the The Mathematics of Love, is an under-educated teenager in the modern world, so it's not her historical life, nor her sophisticated literary skill, but her openness to the new place and people she encounters which re-makes the world for her and so for the reader.

So I associate lyrical writing closely with my own sense of being skinned - hyper-alive - and, yes, with the way reading good poetry makes me feel. But what lyrical writing isn't, is flowery, fancy, elaborate or - horrors! - purple; it's about the words you do choose not just telling the story, but evoking that kind of hyper-aliveness in the reader. It's about about knowing where to put the one red spot to make all the white whiter, and the red redder too. It's about why Mantel's "the air was like rinsed linen" is such a fantastic piece of writing, because the denotation might bother the most ploddingly literal-minded reader, but for the rest of us the connotations of those two words, rubbed together, strike sparks. It's about playing slightly faster and looser with the conventions of grammar and syntax and literal meaning, to work on the reader as the conventional stuff wouldn't.

But to do that, it's likely that lyrical writing wears its poetic techniques a little more on its sleeve than your prose does the rest of the time. That's not just rhythm/sound/repetition/rhyme/pattern/echo, but also figurative language: metaphor, simile and images. And it's not just about using the right metaphors to evoke ideas and sensations accurately, it's might also be about using them as patterning, argument, idea: metaphors embodying meaning beyond the edges of the story. "Metaforos" means "carrying with" in Greek, and it's not a coincidence that poets so often talk about "unpacking" a poem when they read it: there's more inside than seems possible from its appearance on the page. And, yes, you read poems more slowly than you read prose: one way this kind of writing works on the reader of prose is to slow us down, so that the sentences have time to unpack themselves.

But that doesn't mean switching off the story so we can have a set-piece of fine writing, any more than a good opera or musical will stop the story for a fetching song: the evolution of character-in-action continues in every line, just in a heightened form. And you still need to ask yourself where you're trying to get to, in story terms, by the end of this section. Indeed, it can actually help you to find this more lyrical vein if you root your mind down into the character and the voice of the novel: the more you know about the story you're trying to tell and why you're trying to tell it, the more your writing-mind will dredge up the right words for how you want to tell it. That's what I'll be looking at in the workshop I'm giving at the York Festival in September, which I've called Plain & Perfect, Rich & Rare (although I was tempted to call it "It's Not About Purple").

Taking a poetry course is something I'd recommend to just about any prose writer: it stretches our capacities both for words, and for ways to bring them up; it teaches us ways to jump the tracks of narrative literalism and off-the-peg language; its goal is that density and intensity of experience that we're after at times in our fiction. But being able to ease off the story gas-pedal a little doesn't mean lyrical writing is easy: I can write screeds of decent, story-forwarding dialogue and action in the time it takes me to get one such paragraph just right. But those are the sections that many readers remember, and those are the sections I often use for readings. And to put my money where my mouth is, I'm going to finish one of those, from Anthony's strand in A Secret Alchemy. It's not, if you like, beautiful; it's certainly not about a beautiful subject. But it is, I would argue, lyrical writing, as well as storytelling. See what you think.


Fauconberg’s rebels shipped across the river from Kent: we watched them from the walls as they landed on the wharf by St Katharine’s and marched up the Minories: well-armed, well-made Calais men, seasoned but not wearied by the last two days’ fighting. It needed no panting messenger to cry that the gates on the Essex side of the city were under attack but held yet, for we could see it from the White Tower roof. We armed and mustered, and when all was ready, with Louis at my shoulder, I led the advance. Out by the Lions Gate we marched, over Tower Hill and across East Smithfield, and struck deep into Fauconberg’s left flank, even as the Mayor and sheriffs charged out of Aldgate and met them head on.

Tales are told of those days. Prentices in the alehouse compare scars and shake their heads over lost friends. Goodwives tell quarrel­ling children to hush or the Falcon Bird will get them. Aldermen sit at their wine after a day in the counting-house, and recall how hard they fought – sword to sword, hand to hand – to hold the city, and how their knighthoods were earned not by trade but by valour, in the old, grand fashion. It was true, I saw it: Mayor and sheriffs all, fighting to hold off the looters from their shops and homes, and to keep the King of their choice on the throne, as did we all who held Edward’s claim in blood to be the right one. Though for the City men, even that choice was about gold as much as blood: a deposed king cannot repay vast loans or even the interest on them, and Henry of Lancaster would have had no use for their wives, or granted any favours in return.

So they tell their tales over and over: an arming sword that once took Harfleur next did duty in a mercer’s hand; a goldsmith’s life saved by the saint’s kerchief tucked in his brigandine; this arm wounded by a poll-axe and that sallet split in two; sooty handgunners; pipes and drums a-shrieking; valiant baggage-boys; rebels crushed when the Aldgate portcullis was dropped; rebels trapped in the gateway like fish in a barrel; rebels hunted down though it took to Mile End to do it.

No doubt the hippocras tastes sweeter for being drunk to such tales, and the women’s eyes grow rounder. But I have come to think that all fighting is the same fighting, and all that the tales contrive is to hide its sameness in a semblance of difference. The names and places change, but what do we know of names and places when the alarum is sounded? On our memories it is orders and cries that are branded; the clangour of steel and braying of trumpets; the stench of sweat and shit and blood; the hot, crazed terror that masquerades as courage; the screams of a man struck in the belly; the clouding gaze of a dying boy. These are not new matters, or even great matters. They are what mortals know and, like all mortal things, they are so tiny before God that I must think Him indifferent to who dies ... who lives ... who reigns.