The Lyrical Tense in Creative Nonfiction
I pull Peter Matthiessen’s new book, End of the Earth, from the nightstand, remove the bookmark, and resume his account of his voyages to Antarctica. I read:
On this brilliant morning, as swirling snow mist shrouds Mount Paget, the pristine white snow petrel makes its first appearance of the voyage, and the beautiful Cape petrels, called pintado for their motley of white-spotted chocolate, and the South Georgia shag, which in various species and geographic races peers with azure eye from wave-washed rocks all around the Southern Ocean.
Three humpback whales that blow and surface off the bow do not move off as the Ioffe comes abreast but roll easily along in no great hurry. When at last they sound, their great gleaming flukes, lined white beneath, rise in slow curves like question marks against the white mountains all around, completing their age-old graceful arcs before sliding silently from view beneath the surface.
At noon, the vessel turns inshore past black rock reefs into Gold Harbor. Twin glaciers descend from snow horizons between peaks, in an air as clear as might be found on some frozen planet. Along the edges of the bay, at the foot of steep, bare slopes of scree and grasses, gleam the golden browns of elephants and fur seals, which are scattered the whole length of the mile-long beach and far back into the tussock on the bench behind, their yawp and rumble resonant in the vast amphitheater. In the shallows of the glacier stream where it crosses the gravel beach, 14 elephant bulls recline side by side, as snug as a fresh batch of warm loaves. Each little while, the din and cry of the marine mammals, the tidal whisper on the gravel beach, is shattered by the crack and thunder of the calving glacier, like dynamite in a rock quarry, causing frozen dust to rise where the ice has fallen. (35-36)
This is only my second night of reading the book and I am immediately thrilled to be in such observant company as this, back on the bow of the Ioffe, cruising chilly seas on my way to the Gerlache Strait off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. As I read on into this mid-January night, 2004, I learn from an off-hand comment by Matthiessen that his voyage took place in 1998, six years ago. Yet I feel that what I live vicariously on these pages is happening at the moment I read it. Yes, the description is vivid and detailed—Matthiessen is one of our greatest observers—but what captures me most is the sense of immediacy.
I review other Matthiessen books from memory. In The Birds of Heaven he visits landscapes on several continents, locating the habitats of various species of crane; in African Silences he examines the devastation that has been wrought to the environment in several African countries. In both books, his research, which is very much his lived experience, has taken place over a period of many years, yet his prose is always as fresh, as in-the-moment, as if he were observing whatever he describes at the instant that he writes it, the instant that you read it.
The immediacy in the Antarctica book is sustained by Matthiessen’s use of the present tense. What he describes is a past event, was in the past the morning he wrote about it on the ship (if he did), even if he was journalizing within minutes of what he saw, but the present tense captures the energy and excitement of the immediate instant. What he writes, what we read, is always happening now. On the page, at least, it will never be history, be what once happened. He could easily write, “Three humpback whales that blew and surfaced off the bow did not move off as the Ioffe came abreast but rolled easily along in no great hurry.” Past tense tells us what took place a while ago—a few minutes or a few centuries ago—but present tense tells us what is taking place as we speak, and pulls us into the instantaneous experience.
* * *
Thinking about present tense reminds me of Dagoberto Gilb’s essay, “Northeast Direct,” where he recounts being on a train from Boston to Penn Station in New York and noticing another passenger reading a copy of his novel. Gilb selects his own seat on the train because it has an electrical outlet where he can plug in his laptop and the essay has the flavor of being written as events occur. In this passage, he describes what happens after the passenger returns to his seat in the row ahead of him:
He sits down. He’s picked up the book! He’s gone to page one and he’s reading! Somehow I just can’t believe it, and I’m typing frantically about him and this phenomenon. He’s a big guy, six-two. Wire glasses, blue, unplayful eyes. Grayish hair, indication he’s most likely not an undergrad, and beneath a Brown University cap, which, because he’s wearing the cap, indicates he’s probably not a professor. Grad student in English? Or he’s into reading about the Southwest? Or maybe the cover has drawn him to the purchase. He’s turned to page two! He’s going! I have this huge smile as I’m typing. Bottom page two, and yes, his eyes shift to page three! (63)
This blow-by-blow, page-by-page account of what he sees, apparently in the random order that events occur and that he notices details, all written in the present tense, gives me the feeling that Gilb is indeed “typing frantically” about his reader and the experience the two of them are sharing (unbeknownst to the other passenger). It reads like stream-of-consciousness, the flow of words given momentum by the flow of events, and very likely a considerable portion of this essay was written that way. A great deal of the sense of immediacy in the prose arises from the immediacy in the composing—this is being written as it happens.
Except that the essay ends with Gilb and his reader arriving at Penn Station and getting off the train and briefly walking side by side in the same direction through the terminal, while Gilb still ponders whether to introduce himself and concludes that he shouldn’t.
You know what? He doesn’t want to talk. I am sure he has no desire to speak with me. Would definitely not want to have that conversation I’d planned. No time for me to fumble around and, maybe, eventually, tell him how I am the writer. This is New York City, no less. He’s in a hurry. He’d grimace and shake his head, brush me off. He already thinks I am one of those irritating people you encounter on a trip, the one always at the edge of your sight, the one you can never seem to shake. And so as I begin a ride up the escalator toward the taxi lines, I watch him go straight ahead, both of us covered with anonymity like New England snow. (65)
You know what? Gilb is speaking to me directly as if I were his traveling companion instead of another of his readers. Either that, or he is letting me overhear a conversation he’s having with himself. That conversational “You know what?” helps with the sense of immediacy the text gives us; the past tense demands something more formal, more decided—“As we walked briskly side by side in cold Penn Station, I realized that he didn’t want to talk. He had no desire to speak with me and definitely didn’t want to have that conversation I had planned.” In the past tense the ending is less spontaneous, more contrived and self-dramatizing: “I watched him go straight ahead, both of us covered with anonymity like New England snow.” As past tense narrative it has a staged quality, while present tense makes us feel that events as they occur are steering the narrative in the direction it goes.
But if Gilb is no longer writing on his Powerbook and is leaving Penn Station with it stowed away, when is he composing the account of the experience happening now? My answer is, it doesn’t matter how long the gap is between the experience the essay describes and the composition of the essay (though I’m absolutely certain some portion of the rough draft of the essay was composed on the laptop on the Amtrak) because the electric tension and suspenseful urgency of the essay is sustained—and needs to be sustained—by the immediacy of the present tense. The story “One day I saw someone reading my book on a train and although I wanted to speak to him I didn’t” probably doesn’t need to be told, but the experience “I’m watching a guy on a train read my book and can’t decide whether to speak to him or not” probably needs to be shared with somebody. In past tense it becomes that vaguely interesting but generally unexciting story, but in present tense it remains that surprising and exhilarating experience.
* * *
Manuals and handbooks of English usage refer to the use of the present tense to describe actions or events that clearly have taken place in the past as the “historical present.” While the historical present is, as The American Heritage Book of English Usage calls it, both a “legitimate tense shift” and “a literary device,” I think it’s the wrong term for what Matthiessen and Gilb and a host of other writers are doing with the present tense in their writing. “Historical present tense” is a form imbedded in past tense, used when narrative is told retrospectively, after events have occurred. But these nonfiction writers— and, as James Phelan reminds us, a good many fiction writers as well—are presenting their narratives simultaneously, “as events are happening” (223). Suzanne Fleischman, offering rules for the “narrative norm,” has declared: “Narratives refer to specific experiences that occurred in some past world (real or imagined) and are accordingly reported in a tense of the PAST” (263; quoted in Phelan, 225). If we think of narrative in these terms, then what Phelan calls the simultaneous present is problematic for us in both fiction and nonfiction, because we expect narrative to always have the advantage of hindsight. This is especially the problem if we think of creative nonfiction exclusively in terms of fiction—applying novelistic techniques to the recounting of factual events—or journalism—applying reportorial techniques to the recounting of factual events—instead of in terms inclusive of all the modal possibilities in literature. I think the simultaneous present tense in contemporary creative nonfiction can also be termed “the lyrical present.”
It is certainly a standard device in lyric poetry. Think of Frost: “Whose woods these are I think I know./ His house is in the village though,” from “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Think of Yeats: “I walk through the long/ schoolroom questioning,” from “Among School Children.” Think of Jane Kenyon’s “April Chores”: “When I take the chilly tools/from the shed’s darkness, I come/out to a world made new/by heat and light,” or “The Clearing”: “The dog and I push through the ring/of dripping junipers/to enter the open space high on the hill/where I let him off the leash” (26-27). None of these refer to current or habitual states or actions, as the present tense supposedly does, nor are they attempts to render a specific past in a “breathless” or “conversational” historical present. Instead, while they are immediate, conveying the sense of being composed at the moment of utterance, they are really outside of time, and that may be what they are meant to convey.
All of these examples are written in the simple or “pure” present (“I walk”) rather than the more common progressive present (“I am walking”). Susanne Langer has pointed out that the pure present “is the tense of timelessness” (267). She writes, “In literature, the pure present can create the impression of an act, yet suspend the sense of time in regard to it” (267). Langer is chiefly referring to the use of the simple present in lyric poetry. “The whole creation in a lyric is an awareness of a subjective experience, and the tense of subjectivity is the ‘timeless’ present. . . . Lyric writing is a specialized technique that constructs an impression or an idea as something experienced, in a sort of eternal present” (268). George T. Wright, expanding on Langer’s ideas, claims that, by using it, the writer locates the action “in a realm outside our normal conscious time world, where every event must be assigned a more precise temporality” (565). He concludes that this creates “a new aspect or tense, neither past nor present but timeless—in its feeling a lyric tense” (565-566). Drawing on Wright, Susan Hunt Nelson goes a little further, declaring that “the simple present, without qualifiers or modifiers, isn’t a tense at all. It’s an annihilation of time. It signals a journey outside of time, beyond history, beyond consciousness” (53). She writes, “it’s the simple present tense I choose when I want to go journeying in place” (58). Langer, Wright, and Nelson are talking specifically about lyric poetry but it seems to me that the use of the simple present in creative nonfiction arises from the same impulses—and perhaps the same practices—as in poetry. The lyrical present in nonfiction creates a sense of timeless immediacy, generates for both writer and reader the feeling that the prose is being composed on the spot.
I like the lyrical present tense and I use it from time to time when I think I need the sensation of immediacy or when the past tense gives a distance to events that’s detrimental to the emotion or drama or psychic confusion I’m trying to convey. Occasionally an editor tells me to change present tense to past and I do and I regret it, because a certain urgency, a certain intimacy, a certain immediacy vanishes on the page, and the prose seems more remote somehow, though every thing but the tense is the same. Occasionally an editor tells me to make that change and after I try it I can’t see what difference it makes, which means that the lyrical present tense was contributing nothing meaningful to the prose. Sometimes too much immediacy in a piece works against it, makes the reader desperate for distance, for some perspective on events. There’s no sure rule. The elements in a piece of writing need to be in sympathetic tuning with themselves, and the use of the lyrical present tense, like so many other things in writing, is another element for which you have to develop your ear.
George Wright, in an extensive analysis of the lyric tense in poetry, claims, “lyric tense helps to elevate, to make not merely permanent but monumental and mythical that virtual experience we find at the center of the poem” (52). In nonfiction, as in poetry, the vital question may be not “When did this happen and how can I anchor it in that moment in time?” but rather “Would this moment be better served by removing it from a specific time and giving it to the reader as something permanently timeless, permanently immediate?” If we happen to want timelessness and immediacy, then we will want to use the lyrical tense.
Fleischman, Suzanne. Tense and Narrativity: From Medieval Performance to Modern Fiction. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990.
Gilb, Dagoberto. “Northeast Direct,” The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction. ed. Robert L. Root Jr. and Michael Steinberg. 2nd Ed. New York: Longman, 2002: 62-65.
Kenyon, Jane. Let Evening Come. Saint Paul: Graywolf, 1990.
Langer, Susanne K. Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art. New York: Scribner’s, 1953.
Matthiessen, Peter. End of the Earth: Voyages to Antarctica. New York: National Geographic, 2003.
Nelson, Susan Hunt. “The Simple Present Tense of Poetry: Journeying in Place,” Xanadu 17 (1994): 53-58.
Phelan, James. “Present Tense Narration, Mimesis, the Narrative Norm, and the Positioning of the Reader in Waiting for the Barbarians,” Understanding Narrative. ed. James Phelan and Peter J. Rabinowitz. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1994.
Wright, George T. “The Lyric Present: Simple Present Verbs in English Poems,” PMLA 89:3 (May 1974): 563-579.
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