Kathrina's Reviews > Halls of Fame: Essays

Halls of Fame by John D'Agata
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Apr 04, 11

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bookshelves: essays-interviews, poetry
Read from March 28 to 31, 2011

I've procrastinated in writing this review for almost a week, and I'm still not sure what I'm going to write here. D'Agata is the victim of my latest author stalking, and I want to gush, but I have to hold myself back a bit, as I didn't feel this title backed up his claim to master of the lyrical essay as well as About a Mountain. Of course about 8 years covers the distance between their publications, and I read them backwards, so I think the latest display of style is his best. I guess what it comes down to is one's definition of poetry and what a reader expects from a poem vs an essay.
Essays require a subject; they must be "about" something. It is the creative non-fiction author's job to make that essay "about" something be appealing to a broader range of readers than, say, an essay on contagious diseases published in a medical journal, or even a specialized trade pub. And I don't mean appeal as in a popularity contest; I mean appeal as in the ability to tell a story on a factual, intuitive, and emotional plane, simultaneously. Perhaps the essay tells another level of its story between the lines or in the margins. Perhaps what is unsaid is significant to what is said. Perhaps what is provided as fact is, in reality, emotional bias. The creative non-fiction writer must use the stylings of a poet -- metaphor, imagery, character -- to fill out the fact-driven, logical argument that defines essay. This approach creates something like a Poetry of Fact, as opposed to the more traditional approach, Poetry of Emotional Engagement. (I just made that up, but I think the caps make it seem rather revelatory, don't you?) Take a poem like Williams' The Red Wheelbarrow: It is essentially a "non-fiction" poem, but it is not "about" a wheelbarrow.
D'Agata achieves this Poetry of Fact to a stunning degree in his long-form essay, About a Mountain. But years earlier, it seemed he approached it from the other direction, writing essay-like "about" material inside a poetic form. The result is less smooth and accessible, and he really requires his readers to be on board with the experiment before launching. I really wanted to be on board, as well. He was writing "about" intriguing subjects -- Henry Darger, The Flat Earth Society, Martha Graham -- all things I want to explore, the subjects as well as D'Agata's unique take on them. But, too often, for me, there wasn't enough, not enough depth or emotional engagement, methods I value more in poetry than any other form. D'Agata wanted me to be satisfied with a factual, anecdotal description of what was observed, with plenty of blank space for between-the-lines readings, but I wanted more D'Agata in it, more author investment, more poetic interpretation. What I wanted, I guess, was About Martha Graham, About Flat Earth, About Henry Darger, in the style of About a Mountain

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