A Review of Randon Billings Noble’s A Harp in the Stars: An Anthology of Lyric Essays

March 21, 2022 § 3 Comments

By Celia Jeffries

When I first taught the essay, it was in the form of five paragraphs: a nice model for young writers used to counting on their fingers.

When I taught high school English, we pushed beyond five paragraphs to more formal essays: persuasive, descriptive, narrative, and expository, all of which may be as necessary as learning table manners, but each of which sometimes felt like writing with one hand folded in the lap.

In college I taught the requisite freshman composition essays: analytical, argumentative, compare and contrast, and, if the school was progressive enough, the personal essay.

For the past few years, I’ve been teaching writing workshops in a literary arts center, working with adults who had survived the five-paragraph essay and all the proscriptive forms handed out in English classes across the land, but each of whom sensed there was another—perhaps better—way to present their thoughts on paper.

I went back to some of my favorite essayists: Joan Didion, John McPhee, Calvin Trillin, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, James Baldwin, E.B. White, and M.F.K. Fisher. They weren’t arguing or persuading or comparing and contrasting. Or if they were, they were not following a rigid formula to do so. They were simply speaking their mind—on the page. Sometimes with humor, sometimes with rage, but always with their own engaging voice. I kept reading, moving through the “new journalism,” the “nonfiction novel,”  reveling in how writers were pushing the boundaries and playing with form. Along came “flash” pieces and “hermit crab” essays and prose that looks and feels like poetry, and essays that break out of academic labels to make the reader see and feel the world in new ways.

Finally, along came Randon Billings Noble and her anthology A Harp in the Stars, An Anthology of Lyric Essays. Acknowledging that there is no widespread agreement on what it is or what to call it, Noble has gathered the slippery term lyric essay and folded it into the warm arms of four different forms: flash, segmented, braided, and hermit crab. In her introduction she refers back to mythology, to Orpheus playing the lyre. “His music was so powerful it could almost—almost—raise the dead.”

Lyric essays, Noble says,

have the same power to soothe, to harrow, to persuade, to move, to raise, to rouse, to overcome. Like Orpheus and his songs, lyric essays try something daring. They rely more on intuition than exposition. They often use image more than narration. They question more than answer. But despite all this looseness, the lyric essay still has the responsibilities of any essay: to try to figure something out, to play with ideas, to show a shift in thinking.

Noble says she came to define a lyric essay as “a piece of writing with a visible/stand-out/unusual structure that explores/forecasts/gestures to an idea in an unexpected way.”

Thank you Randon Billings Noble. This anthology is a treasure chest of daring ways to take one’s voice to the page. It opens with two stunning flash essays (defined by Noble as one thousand words or fewer) by Diane Seuss and Jericho Parms, and then off the page flies Sarah Minor’s segmented essay “Vide” that literally must be seen to be believed. “Apocalypse Logic” by Elissa Washuta and “Woven” by Lidia Yuknavitch offer startling braided essays, while Sarah Einstein offers the laugh-out-loud (well, parts of it made me laugh out loud) segmented essay “Self-Portrait in Apologies.”

It’s hard to highlight just a few of the forty-four essays in this collection, each of which “stands out” and offers the reader an idea in an “unexpected way.” Noble has said she’s fond of the six craft essays included because they are “lyric essays about lyric essays; they do what they’re talking about as they talk about it.” As if forty-four outstanding essays and six craft essays were not enough, Noble closes out the anthology with a section titled “Meditations” where she gives the authors the last word: each contributor adds their own short meditation on the lyric essay.

My copy of A Harp in the Stars is already dog-eared and covered with post-it notes and will be at top of my syllabus.

____

Celia Jeffries is the author of Blue Desert, a finalist in both the 2021 IPNE literary fiction awards and the 2021 Sarton historical fiction awards. Her prose has appeared in Writer’s ChronicleSolsticelitmag.com, Mom Egg Review, Puerto del Sol, and other journals.

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